There’s a big new Broadway musical called “New York, New York,” based on the Martin Scorsese movie of the same name.
Both the movie and the show have main characters named Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, both are set right after World War II, and both feature a prominent anthem by John Kander and Fred Ebb. You know, the one whose first five notes, plucked on a piano, are enough to automatically prompt the brain to fill in the rest.
And it’s only that title track, not the movie, that is the real inspiration for the sprawling, unwieldy, surprisingly dull show that opened Wednesday night at the St. James Theater.
Extrapolating from the text, “New York, New York,” directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is about the people who wear those “vagabond shoes,” the ones who want to “wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep.” Jimmy (Colton Ryan) and Francine (Anna Uzele) are now rubbing elbows with characters created by book writer David Thompson with Sharon Washington. They are musicians and singers, strivers and dreamers. And sadly, no one impresses much, mired as they are in a viscous quagmire of good feelings and raspy bourgeois cheerleading.
As the various storylines approach their inevitable intersection, every sign of wrinkle or kink has been ironed out. The most prominent victims are the reimagined Jimmy and Francine, who have been squashed into cardboard figures. The film’s Jimmy, played by Robert De Niro, was an obnoxious, abusive, narcissistic jerk saxophonist who fell for Liza Minnelli’s Francine, a passionate singer who worked her way up from big band canary to solo star; their volatile relationship would fail the 2023 public smell test.
The new Jimmy is just a minor annoyance who has graduated from good saxophonist to brilliant multi-instrumentalist who equally easily plays jazz with African-American trumpeter Jesse (John Clay III) and Latin grooves with Cuban percussionist Mateo (Angel Sigala), whose own stories are broadly outlined. That Jimmy ends up as a human bridge between Harlem and Spanish Harlem musical styles is quite an achievement for a white bread Irish kid. (A Jewish violinist played by Oliver Prose usually exists on the sidelines.)
Meanwhile, Francine comes across as a feisty, powerful free spirit plugged into a 21st century outlet. As a black woman, she overcomes the treacherous waters of the music scene with relative ease, and adversities seem to slide right off her.
Ryan (“Girl From the North Country,” Connor in the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie) and Uzele (“Once on This Island,” Catherine Parr in “Six”) are technically fine, but they don’t fill the drawn characters . as sketches. They never find the pain that drives both Francine and Jimmy, nor the sexual attraction between them.
This creates a central void that further constrains the overly polished book – friction feeds fiction.
And if anyone knows, it’s John Kander. An effective mix of seedy syncopation, unabashed romanticism and caustic sarcasm long set Kander and Ebb apart on Broadway, from “Cabaret” to “Chicago” to their brilliant previous collaboration with Stroman, “The Scottsboro Boys.”
The score for “New York, New York” juxtaposes new songs Kander co-wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda, such as the driving “Music, Money, Love,” against older songs with lyrics by Ebb. Of those, the most famous (You Know What and “But the World Goes’ Round”) were taken from the Scorsese film, while others were repurposed, such as “A Quiet Thing” from the 1965 show “Flora the Red Menace.” .,” and “Marry Me” from “The Rink” (1984).
But no matter when or with whom they were written, too many of the tracks lack Kander and Ebb’s signature jagged edge. In part, this has to do with Sam Davis’s arrangements and music direction, which lack zest and thus further reinforce the sexlessness of the show – there’s no pulse if there’s no swing. (Kander and Ebb were more capable of that than most Broadway creators: just listen to, say, the fantastically driving “Gimme Love” from “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.)
The new show’s rah-rah tone eventually becomes numbing. This is all the more frustrating because the ambivalence is ingrained in the title song, which alludes to the city’s lively temperament. “If I can make it/I’d make it anywhere” — we’re in a tough city — is followed by “It’s up to you/New York, New York,” which strips the singer of his freedom of choice. But the show follows Frank Sinatra’s triumphant template rather than the more ambiguous one given by Minnelli. In this pink vision, trials are temporary, everyone gets along, and no one encounters the bad side of New York.
Stroman has a rare affinity for classic Broadway showmanship, as evidenced by her work on “Crazy for You” and “The Producers,” but she can also veer into radical stylization, as in “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Here the flashes of inspiration are rare. A highlight is a tap number on large beams, with a pair inscribed with “JK 3181927” and “FE 481928” – the birth dates of Kander and Ebb, and two of the Easter eggs lurking in Beowulf Boritt’s vibrant set, dominated by towering fire escapes . The magical moment known as Manhattanhenge is conjured with an amazing help from lighting designer Ken Billington. And there’s, as always, the visceral thrill of watching a big band take the stage, when Jimmy’s combo kicks off the title track at the end.
It’s not much to remember from a show that was almost three hours long and had such formidable potential. “You can be anyone here,” Jesse says at one point, “do anything here.”
If only ‘New York, New York’ had not taken that sentence as a reassurance, but as a challenge to dare.
New York, New York
At the St. James Theatre, Manhattan; newyorknewyorkbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.