Producer Jack Viertel and his merry band of music makers at Encores! have unearthed another great example of the beginnings of American dominance in the field of musical theatre. Our heritage is so rich that a show like The New Yorkers, from the Broadway season of 1931-32 has been almost totally forgotten even though it featured a cast of favorites – Jimmy Durante, Hope Williams and Ann Pennington – and enjoyed a run of 168 performances in the large Broadway Theatre during its initial outing. I bring you news of its recent production at the priceless Encores! in New York’s City Center, for it serves as a fine reminder of the bright beginnings of young America’s answer to the European form of operetta.
The new practitioners were all young. Their older predecessors were steeped in the musical traditions of the past, and the 1920s began the invasion of the ragtime and jazz-age babies whose works reflected the post-WWI loosening of the corset strings. At the helm of the new wave were Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, book writer Herbert Fields, and the blossoming Cole Porter (the only wealthy mid-western born international member of cafe society among them). Fields, one of three writer-children of impressario Lew Fields, was constantly in demand, and he wrote books to musicals with the all of the above and several others.
Mind you, it’s one of the loosest “book musicals” ever – sewn together by Mr. Fields from a story by Peter Arno (later a top cartoonist for the magazine which borrowed the show’s title) and E. Ray Goetz, two unlikely sources for a musical’s book. Some called the show a “revue” as a result. The Fields book, dealing with some fourteen principal characters plus the orchestra itself (in the original the entire Fred Waring band; at Encores! it is Rob Berman and his magnificent 31 piece orchestra) is somewhat hard to follow. But it’s full of comical surprises and serves perfectly well in supporting Cole Porter’s 18 songs, which include “Night And Day”, “Love For Sale”, “I Happen To Like New York”, and “Take Me Back To Manhattan.” Most of them were in the original, but nobody cares if they weren’t because as choreographed by Chris Bailey, directed by John Rando, designed by Allen Moyer, and with costumes that look very expensive by Alejo Vietti, the show looks like it would have cost “a million bucks” back in 1931, which spells $15,000,000 today.
The acting company numbers over 30 and one can only guess how 80 or more fit into the dressing rooms at the Broadway! Onstage at the City Center, they gave us a glimpse of Broadway’s gift to the public from the early days of the great depression. In today’s unnerving atmosphere it was once again a delight to have back in town.
Of course, with such flimsy structure, it required a top notch cast to keep it afloat and once again casting directors Jay Binder and Justin Bohon have rounded up a superb group of gifted artists. I can’t mention everyone – and everyone deserves mention, but strong performances were certainly turned in by Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen on “Where Have You Been?”, by Cyrille Aimée on the most moving rendition of “Love For Sale” I’ve ever heard, by Ruth Williamson on “The Physician”, by Kevin Chamberlin for an older, plumper Jimmy Durante filtered through his own very original comic persona, by Robin Hurder for knowing just how to sell Mr. Porter’s sly lyrics and slinky tune to “Please Don’t Make Me Feel Good.”
Last, but absolutely not least, by Arnie Burton for every gesture, attitude, line reading, and rendition of his one song, “Let’s Not Talk About Love.” He is the kind of supporting player who pops out of a show much as Danny Kaye in Lady In The Dark, Gwen Verdon in Can Can, Judy Holliday in Kiss Them For Me. We’ve been aware of Arnie Burton ever since his amazing work in The 39 Steps, but in this his performance as Feet McGeegan, (who is murdered four times!), is priceless.
If this kind of musical comedy excellence is your meat, I would consider planning a visit to NY 3 times next season to see what Encores! is offering in its subscription package. Perhaps they should change their name to Alchemists! because they certainly know how to turn rusty material from the forgotten past into gold.