Theater Review: Encores! Tries to Reanimate a Jazz Age Cartoon

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From The New Yorkers, at Encores! Photo: Joan Marcus

Don’t let the lovely silvery MGM draperies fool you, nor the silky gorgeousness of the orchestrations: The New Yorkers, the latest Encores! reclamation project, is a clumsy, instructive, disorganized, high-tone, low-tone, witty, ridiculous mess. Any show that includes both Cole Porter rhyming “Winchell” with “provincial” and a totally bonkers spoken-word number about wood by Jimmy Durante (who was a star of the 1930 original) is a candidate for the musical-theater asylum. But the Encores! mission includes rescuing even such irredeemable works in hopes of showing us something about the history of the form and about history plain. On that score, at least, The New Yorkers is a success.

Not so much the plot, or rather the sequence of words and songs that goes by that name. For the record, a society gal named Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Strallen) falls in love with a bootlegger and would-be caviar-runner named Al Spanish (Tam Mutu). Their preexisting romantic partners, a twit named Phillip Booster (Todd Buonopane) and a chanteuse named Mona Low (Mylinda Hull), helpfully find solace in one another’s arms, while Alice’s mother and father (Ruth Williamson and Byron Jennings) similarly engage in “inappropriate” (younger, cross-class) flirtations with a floozy and a fop. The theme, if one can be discerned, is the alcohol-enabled breakdown of social strictures that keep people who should be together apart. But even that is saying too much for a show that was based on cartoons (Peter Arno’s for The New Yorker) and seems to have been put together as a Dada experiment in randomness. Not only is there the Porter material and the Durante material — sold as well as possible by Kevin Chamberlin — but also a brace of collegiate glees by Fred Waring, bandleader of the Pennsylvanians, whom dead people may remember. What The New Yorkers is really about is seeing what, if anything, will stick.

Not much really does. There are some double-entendre Porter lyrics that feel vestigially naughty, like “You can make me, sweetheart, but please don’t make me be good,” and some dizzy one-liners that still pack a satirical punch. (The matron indulgently observes of her husband and his floozy that “there comes a time in every man’s life when a woman needs $50.”) In any case, it’s impossible in this Encores! presentation to tell what came from where, as several songs were imported from other Porter shows, and the concert text, adapted by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, strays further than usual from the series’ usual preserve-the-opening-night aesthetic. The actual original songs are a highly mixed bag, sampling Porter in modes ranging from winky operetta to sinuous minor-key ballads. Only three are standards: “I Happen to Like New York,” “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” and “Love for Sale,” and only the last of these is truly great. But that one, which was immediately banned upon performance in 1930 because it is about a streetwalker, has even less to do with the story than the others. It seems to have shown up in the show via a specially commissioned rip in the space-time continuum, bringing the lovely jazz singer Cyrille Aimée, doing a bit of Billie Holiday, with it.

This gallimaufry of ingredients does give you a sense of what some musical theater may have been like during the desperate early years of the Depression. If a pretension to dramatic unity or even common sense was not part of the menu, a celebration of sex and experimentation was. Perhaps audiences were better served by a mess than by the neater concoctions we are used to now. But, if so, any attempt to re-create that mess faces a difficult staging problem, one that is simply not solved in the current production, which, as always, is under-rehearsed. The pacing and stage pictures by director John Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey are as leaden and clumsy as the vocal arrangements by Rob Berman are featherweight. (A second-act opening reprise of “Love for Sale,” as a women’s trio, is sublime.) Though each performer has solid moments — an eccentric line reading here, a perfectly timed throwaway there — no two moments ever hang together. (Arnie Burton and Eddie Korbich, each playing a series of variations on a character, actually get closest to the mercurial tone.) The result is surely the opposite of the original collaborators’ intentions: It’s wooden.

Which isn’t totally a pan. As the Durante character says in his loony paean to timber, it is “stronger pound for pound than any other material and can be carved like a turkey.” Same goes, with all its absurdities, for musical theater.

The New Yorkers is at City Center through March 26.

Theater: Encores! Tries to Reanimate a Jazz Age Cartoon