Review: New Musical Cornelia Street Doesn't Feed the Soul the Way It Wants To
Early on during a performance of Cornelia Street, the new musical at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage II, the audience gave up on applauding. As someone who sees a lot of theater, I can attest that it is rare to see an audience so collectively disinterested in what they were watching.
Cornelia Street features a book by Simon Stephens (the playwright behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), music and lyrics by Mark Eitzel (singer-songwriter of the indie rock band American Music Club), and is directed by Neil Pepe, Atlantic's artistic director. The complete opposite of Atlantic's recent runaway hit, Kimberly Akimbo, here nearly everything is wrong, a theatrical perfect storm of disasters and disappointments.
The plot is contrived and predictable: The musical is about Jacob's (Norbert Leo Butz) desperate attempt to keep his West Village restaurant open. Although the entire musical is based on an anxiety that the restaurant will close soon, it isn't totally clear why that's the case or what the stakes are. Likewise, the characters are deeply underdeveloped and stereotypical (rebellious daughter, gay waiter, a chef who wears a Ramones T-shirt, devilish drug dealer, and a socially awkward tech bro, among them).
Among the deficiencies of Stephens's book are poor pacing — some scenes last almost half an hour, others randomly and suddenly end — and a lack of explanation for why they're all gathered there. Even the structure is off-kilter; the act break happens at a moment so odd, many in the crowd were confused when the house lights came back on. The more we learn in Act 2, the more confusing things become.
Eitzel does not have musical-theater experience, and it shows. He has crafted a decent score with interesting orchestrations by John Clancy that heavily feature acoustic guitar and – quite surprisingly – harp. As a lyricist though, he completely flatlines. The lyrics to Cornelia Street are a failure on all levels. Entire songs are structured as lists of cliches and similes, some as rough as "dance like a sad old dog / dance like an angel with a razor."
The most egregious element is Pepe's direction, or the complete lack of it. He takes no point of view, finds no meaning, nuance, or interest in the piece, and most tragically, fails to get good performances out of several theatrical veterans, including Mary Beth Peil, here aimless and absurd, and Butz, who was adrift and angsty. The entire cast was in desperate want of some clearer guidance. George Abud and Lena Pepe (who yes, is the director's daughter, in her professional debut) commit to some ridiculous solos; both do a good job, but it is hard to get past the material they are forced to work with. As with his recent American Buffalo, Pepe's main piece of direction seems to be instructing actors to throw chairs around the stage.
Hope Boykin's choreography, awkwardly executed by the cast, entirely consisted of bizarre and unnatural hand gestures which pantomimed phrases from the lyrics. The unit set of the restaurant, by Scott Pask, is serviceable and conjures up the exact small West Village joint the musical is about (the old Cornelia Street Café). The lighting (by Stacey Derosier), however, was notably rough; the cues were sparse, but when they did exist, they made the production feel amateurish.
Cornelia Street is trying (I think) to make some grand statements about New York City, but doesn't have much to say at all. Nor does it say anything that feels original, fresh, or even accurate. Its takeaway seems to be "it's not like it used to be" and "New York is dead," with some random rants about Uber, cell phones, and Google headquarters (just down the block from the theater) sprinkled in for good measure. If not for these references, the show feels more like it takes place in the early 1990s, and perhaps it would make more sense if it did. It feels deeply out of touch, bitter, and unaware of the current cultural landscape of New York City – a massive issue for a musical that is supposed to be about that very thing.