The Broadway Theatre Review: Lincoln Center Theater’s Camelot and Broadway’s New York, New York
When discussing the recent revival of LCT’s Camelot, my friend compared it (unkindly) to Bad Cinderella, saying that it might be worse than that much-maligned show (that I hear is “hemorrhaging money” waiting to see if the Tony Awards will give it a much needed financial boost – I don’t think it will be so lucky). But I had to disagree. Camelot is a different kind of misstep, one that is filled with some beautiful melodies and lyrics (unlike that Webber show, pulled down by the mistaken idea that the show needed an injection of realism, rather than embracing the magic. That component, in my opinion, is inherent to the beauty of the show and without it, scientifically, the show doesn’t work. Or make sense.
We are supposed to be wonderstruck, especially when Arthur, played dutifully by a good enough Andrew Burnap (Broadway’s The Inheritance), sings of its magical beauty to the runaway princess, Guenevere, played far too sternly by the beautifully voiced Phillipa Soo (Broadway’s Into The Woods). The same could be said of the opening Morning moments of the new, old-school musical, New York, New York, which just recently unveiled itself at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. They both sing and shout about loving the place where they live, love, and lord over, but sadly, both fail to find the sparkle in their lights and their sunset landscapes for us to be swept away into their glory.
Three black-clad knights take over the Lincoln Center Theatre stage, altering the light, white snowy universe that the space, designed sparingly and heavy handedly by Michael Yeargan (LCT’s Intimate Apparel), first enchanted us as we took our seats at the Vivian Beaumont. These serious knights of Camelot; played by Anthony Michael Lopez (NYTW’s Othello) as Sir Dinadan, Fergie Philippe (MUNY’s Legally Blond) as Sir Sagramore, and Danny Wolohan (Public’s The Low Road) as Sir Lionel, alter the shape of the encounter, giving off an air of strength and serious solidness. And we realize quite quickly that this is not going to be a light and whimsical romp through the legend of Camelot, something I didn’t even know I wanted. Yet, when the once-upon-a-time magical Merlyn, portrayed here by Dakin Matthews (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh), makes his fatherly entrance as more of a mentor than magician, it becomes crystal clear that the direction of the wind has changed to something more solid, much like those metal walls that keep dropping in from the skies. They send these characters running through a maze of miscalculation, mainly because of the misguided book by Aaron Sorkin (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird), that has somehow demolished the original book by Lerner (On A Clear Day…) with its tone and tension.
This is a musical fairytale legend, with its emotional heart based within a world filled with magic and wonder. Or so I believed. Initially based on a collection of fantasy novels by T. H. White, “The Once and Future King” chronicles the legend of a young boy who magically became King Arthur, not the historical royal lineage of England. But in this revival, as directed stiffly by Bartlett Sher (LCT’s Oslo), the energy has shifted into something as dark as the opening costumes by Jennifer Moeller (Broadway’s Pictures From Home). Gone is the colorful princess running from a prearranged marriage right into the loving arms of the man she is supposed to marry. Well, that’s still there, but the shift feels more sharp and clumsy, putting Soo in black pants and making her more of a defiant rebel than a runaway princess. The shifts, like that one, are subtle and seemingly innocent, but they do start to add up, making the land of Camelot far more angry and warlike, rather than feisty or romantic.
The show carves away the wandering, whimsical magic for the more solid scientific stance at every chance it can find. Even inside the gloriously beautiful melodies, crafted by Frederick Loewe (music) and Alan Jay Lerner (Lyrics) the duo that also gave us Brigadoon and Gigi, where there once was romance and longing. Now, even with the luscious music direction by Kimberly Grigsby (LCT’s Flying Over Sunset), we are given in this rendition a vocally powerful Jordan Donica (LCT’s My Fair Lady) as the tightly wound Lancelot du Lac angrily singing “If Ever I Would Leave You” which sounds more like a battle cry than a longing love song about desire and passion. I just wanted to hug him and tell him his anger is more scary than endearing.
It’s as if the evil Mordred, played strongly by Taylor Trensch (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!), and his scientist mother, Morgan Le Fey, played stern and stoically by Marilee Talkington (EST’s The Last Day), have vanquished the dreamy landscape and plunged it into warring anger and darkness. But even that sounds too Narnia-like magical for this psuedo-fact based departure. Trensch and Company’s “Fie on Goodness” do give us a showstopping moment, reminding us that, like most LCT productions of classically beautiful musicals; like their South Pacific and The King and I, they generally craft together a revival most majestically. Even with the fine work here of choreographer Byron Easley (Broadway’s Slave Play), with detailed lighting by Lap Chi Chu (MTC’s Morning Sun), a solid sound design by Marc Salzberg (LCT’s The Hard Problem) and Beth Lake (LCT’s The Wolves), projections by 59 Productions (Broadway’s Hedwig…), and some determined fight direction by B.H. Barry (Broadway’s Kiss Me Kate), this LCT production fails in its mandate to deliver a classic rendering that usually tends to honor the original without pulling it all apart. This Camelot loses its way in its very own fantasy landscape, leaving us surprisingly unmoved, and overall, a bit disappointed.
This is a surprise, in a way, as I have no allegiance to the original production, which starred Julie Andrews (who must have been luminous in the part), Richard Burton, and Roddy McDowall, as well as Robert Goulet in his first Broadway role, nor the 1967 film version starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero as Lancelot looking as handsome as handsome can be. Just like Donica. I tend to find these LCT revivals pretty, but almost pointless – except for their My Fair Lady which I adored – basking in a history that feels a bit ‘dusty’ to be brutally honest. But they all tend to carry with them “Some Enchanted Evening” quality that, if it’s your thing, you happily embrace. This go-round, Sorkin, with his misguided book, erased the one ingredient that makes these events, and in particular, this show, something to sing about. This land of Camelot, unfortunately, lacks everything that the title song sings so beautifully about. It’s a scientific experiment that implodes, leaving us without magic or hope in a place stripped of the one thing we longed for from this place. Magic. And romance.
The same can be said of the new Broadway musical, New York, New York, which also feels like an experiment, of some sort, imploding inside itself. It is as if someone asked an unemotionally engineered Artificial Intelligence program to create an old-fashioned big-time Broadway musical, based around a few classic songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago; Cabaret) about a magical city and some hopeful artists trying to make their way. And what the program spits out is as straightforward and unimaginative as one might guess from a computer program.
Written out in bright billboard lights, thanks to some strong work by scenic and co-projection designer Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s Come From Away) with lighting by Ken Billington (Broadway’s Waitress), to the opening notes of that classic song, thanks to the music supervision, arrangement, and orchestrations of Sam Davis (Broadway’s Company), orchestrations by Daryl Waters (Broadway’s The Cher Show), and music direction by Alvin Hough, Jr. (Broadway’s Tina), the show feels like it should be a love letter to a complicated but vibrant city, one that I love in all its messy glory. But somehow, along the way, it feels like a standardized form letter manufactured without care, and as those numerous dreamers arrive at the piers and the train station, tract 19, what they have pinned their optimistic hope on is as bland as a computer program. And as artificial as the intelligence that might have made it.
The love that should have been is yelled out most passionately by the man who illuminates the titled backdrop with pizzazz as the curtain rises revealing a landscape that should have been as magical as the fantasy that is Camelot. But sadly for us all, New York, New York, the musical, directed with a troubling undercurrent by Susan Stroman (Broadway’s POTUS…), stays clear of any enlivening magic. It moves forward with a tremendous drive, fueled by the choreography of Stroman and a talented ensemble giving it their all at every turn. There are compellingly good physical numbers up high above the streets with “Wine and Peaches“, as well as on the dancefloor of the San Juan Supper Club. With additional music, surprising in its lackluster structure, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton; In The Heights), the show plows forward clumsily, parading pedestrians constantly across the stage, costumed haphazardly by Donna Zakowska (Broadway’s Relatively Speaking). They rush around as if each has a story to tell, but in too much of a hurry to stop and tell it. Thank goodness. As we have enough stories to unpack already.
New York, New York is distracting in its busy business, especially when we are given so many stories to connect to, thanks to an incomprehensible, and almost traumatically triggering book by David Thompson (Prince of Broadway) and Sharon Washington (Feeding the Dragon). There are so many characters we are told to emotionally care for, each packed with enough traumatic baggage that each could have their own musical. But the cast is energetic and game for the adventure, with John Clay III (Broadway’s Choir Boy) as the trumpet-playing Jesse Webb, fresh off the boat from war. He is still wearing his uniform, as he tries to make it happen for him against all the racism of the world pushing hard to keep him down peeling potatoes in the back kitchen. This could also be said about the flamboyant Angel Sigala (11th Hour Theatre’s Bonnie & Clyde) as the hip-swinging Cuban musician, Mateo Diaz, if you add homophobia and parental abuse to the trauma picture. As well as all that hampers the Jewish violin-playing Alex Mann, played compassionately by Oliver Prose (Arizona Theater’s Master Harold…) as he tries to get into Julliard with the help of the grieving mother teacher, Madam Veltri, played heroically by Emily Skinner (Broadway’s Side Show). So many stories. So little time to care.
Every single one is chasing their dreams of music, money, and love. And New York, New York, the musical, asks us to “be a part of it“, with earnest sincerity, but to be frank, I could not get behind the two leads and their dysfunctional relationship that borders on abusive and uncomfortably controlling. Colton Ryan (Broadway’s Girl From the North Country), mugging it up to a thousand drunken degrees as the alcoholic piano-playing musician with anger-management issues, Jimmy Doyle. He mugs like no tomorrow as he pulls and pushes for and against the wanna-be singer, Francine Evans, played to extremes by Anna Uzele (Broadway’s Six). The anxiety these two illicit from their on-and-off-again problematic romance, especially when the rageful and violent “Kid Wonder“, Jimmy proposes and marries the young talented singer, on what feels like a jealous whim, is alarming. It made me wish there was someone to call on stage to deliver an intervention. Maybe led by their friend, Tommy Caggiano, played by the talented Clyde Alves (Broadway’s The Music Man), who actually would make a more engaging leading man than Ryan’s Jimmy. One you could actually root for, ya know, to get the girl in the end. Like every classic movie musical before it, which, I might add, is something this show incessantly tries to emulate each moment by each ‘singing in the rain‘ moment.
Making a thousand faces too many, Colton makes Jimmy into a dangerous clown, which in turn makes their relationship downright disturbing to watch or get behind. Why someone wouldn’t run fast, far away from this damaged and problematic man is beyond me. Their interactions felt consistently emotionally abusive and manipulative almost from the get-go, making it very hard to root for the two leads and their push for their Major Chord success. Uzele is a fine singer and an engaging actor, but I also never found myself fully amazed by her rendition of the two famous songs that this show has at its disposal; “But The World Goes Round” and the title track, “New York, New York.” It’s a huge task, I will give her that, as both have been made uber-famous by the illustrious and astounding vocals of Liza Minelli and her “take 18” cinematic moment. And it’s sad to say that I couldn’t help but contrast and compare, with Uzele, unfortunately, coming out at the short end of that stick. Maybe if I was more behind her character and the choices she was making, I would have been as amazed by her singing as I was of the elevating of the band for the final number. Probably the most enlivening moment of the whole show.
With a running time of just under three hours, New York, New York fails in its attempt to harness the magic of this amazing city and the theatrical moment it is being given on that beautifully designed Broadway stage. Beyond the problematic abusive core relationship, the musical never rises beyond the obvious and the generic, playing itself as silly and meaningless as all those transitional bits designed weakly by Stroman to elicit charm and sunset wonder. Like those vignettes, there is no reason for this show to exist, I’m sorry to say, as it will not be the advertisement I think they thought it would be for tourism in New York. It has no magic nor sparkle, just like that lackluster revival of Camelot. Which is a sad story to tell. I’m sorry to say.
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