Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen in the New York City Center Encores! production of The New Yorkers.
Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen in the New York City Center Encores! production of The New Yorkers.
(© Joan Marcus)

There's no better work for City Center's yearly Encores! series celebrating rarely heard and seen American musicals than The New Yorkers. This 1930 piece by Cole Porter and Herbert Fields has long been forgotten, but it launched the tunes "Love for Sale" and "I Happen to Like New York" into the great American songbook. And yet, this rediscovered, reconstructed, and, in certain spots, completely renovated Encores! mounting, directed by John Rando and adapted by artistic director Jack Viertel, happens to be the series' weakest offering in several seasons. It falls flat as a pancake when it really needs to bubble like champagne.

The history of The New Yorkers is almost more interesting than the show itself. As source material, Porter and Fields used a "story" by E. Ray Goetz, a producer and songwriter, and Peter Arno, one of the now-legendary bygone-era cartoonists from the 5-year-old New Yorker magazine. Dazzled by the bright lights of Broadway, they hired the pair to craft a show around the subjects of Arno's drawings: bootleggers, molls, alcoholics, gangsters, dowagers, chorines, and the lusty old men who chased after them. It was a piece that was intended to give audiences a brief respite from the ongoing Great Depression.

Created just before Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! broke new ground with its complete integration of book and score, The New Yorkers was essentially vaudeville — light on plot and high on digressions, complete with sight gags, guest appearances by specialty bands, choruses, and singers, and Jimmy Durante, who wrote all of his own material for what is ostensibly the scene-stealing role.

The central love story is between Al Spanish (Tam Mutu), a bootlegger and nightclub owner who falls for society dame Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Strallen). When Al is arrested (for parking his car too close to a fire hydrant), Alice hatches a plan to get herself behind bars too, in order to be close to him. Secondary and tertiary romantic subplots follow the unhappy love affairs between Alice's parents (Byron Jennings and Ruth Williamson) and their much younger arm candy (Robyn Hurder and Tyler Lansing Weaks). Comic interludes abound as the gangster, performer, and drink inventor Jimmie Deegan (Kevin Chamberlin) goes toe-to-toe with Feet McGeegan (Arnie Burton), a caviar smuggler who always seems to get shot but never dies.

Kevin Chamberlin and Arnie Burton go toe-to-toe in The New Yorkers.
Kevin Chamberlin and Arnie Burton go toe-to-toe in The New Yorkers.
(© Joan Marcus)

According to Viertel's production notes, "All that remains of the original [production], after 87 years of neglect, is a couple of barely decipherable carbon copy scripts." In creating this new script, Viertel and Encores! "reinvented what we had to," excising certain bits of specialty material and adding several other Porter or Durante tunes to fill in the holes. Still, the plot of The New Yorkers is only barely decipherable at best, and Fields' original book, with hoary old New Yorker-style bons mots and sexual innuendo up the wazoo, hasn't aged well even a little bit.

Meanwhile, Viertel's additions attempt to give this version the last word ("This is how the first act really ended," Chamberlin says with a smile as he walks off stage following a thoroughly bizarre production number that has the entire company stacking chairs and other wooden materials on top of each other during a song called "Wood"), but those winks don't land either. Similarly, his inclusion of a far-more-beloved tune like "Night and Day" as a solo piece for Strallen (which she sings beautifully), and novelty songs like "Let's Not Talk About Love" and "The Physician" sends The New Yorkers into jukebox musical territory in ways that it shouldn't travel.

The lethargy was a bigger surprise, though. Rando's production is unusually slow-moving and far too reliant on oversize props, while Chris Bailey's choreography is fairly rudimentary when it needs to explode off the stage. Mutu and Strallen, both British and doing pretty impressive American dialects, deliver vocally flawless but rather uninvolving performances as the leading lovers (though admittedly, they're not given much to work with).

Only supporting players Burton (whose tongue-twisting "Let's Not Talk About Love" stopped the show) and Chamberlin (who had the immeasurably difficult task of taking on the Durante role, and doing it quite deliciously) really managed to fire on all cylinders, with Williamson coming in a close third. However, the evening really belongs to the French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée, who makes a far too fleeting appearance as a "Lady of the Night," singing Porter's iconic ballad about prostitution, "Love for Sale." It is the true highlight of this production.

The same can be said of Rob Berman's massive orchestra, which is perched upstage on a set by Allen Moyer that is reminiscent of the gauzy dream-ballet scenes from classic Fred and Ginger movie-musicals. Berman conducts with a glorious finesse, and those Porter tunes still hold up eight decades later. If only the same could be said about the show they're in.

Cyrille Aimee sings "Love for Sale" in Cole Porter's The New Yorkers.
Cyrille Aimee sings "Love for Sale" in Cole Porter's The New Yorkers.
(© Joan Marcus)