An expensive extravaganza that opened as the Depression got under way and ran for a respectable if not spectacular 168 performances, the show was co-conceived and featured scenery by the quintessential New Yorker, magazine artist, Peter Arno. The book by Herbert Fields was a loopy satire of period types, concerning decadent debutante Alice Wentworth and her philandering-by-mutual-consent parents. Also lampooned was the prevalent gangster stereotype, in this case represented by Al Spanish, the heroine’s new paramour, and his nemeses, who keep popping back to life despite being gunned down at regular intervals.
As with many shows of the period, “The New Yorkers” functioned primarily as a revue showcasing the talents of a raft of stars (Jimmy Durante played the resilient hood), as well as the young Porter’s budding genius. The plot is little more than dressing to hang on Fields’ caricatures and Porter’s musical and lyrical finesse. The show introduced “Love for Sale”– which caused a sensation at the time for its lyrical daring — as well as “Where Have You Been?””I Happen to Like New York” and “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” all of which went on to more stellar careers than the tuner itself. (This version features some interpolations –“Let’s Do It,””Just One of Those Things,””I’ve Got You Under My Skin”– and has dropped some worthy if lesser-known songs from the original production, “Let’s Fly Away” and “I’m Getting Myself Ready for You,” for instance.)
If a show boasting those numbers can be expected to retain its musical charm decades later, the pleasant surprise in this revival is the durable wit in Fields’ book, the ribaldry of which is surprisingly fresh (“He’s the first guy I met who didn’t buy me a gin and then try to squeeze it out of me,” is one of Alice’s tamer cracks). The first act sails along on a fair diet of double entendres and the period charm of these types, but the second act as constructed here is a disaster. (Director Luke Yankee withdrew days before the opening; one doesn’t know whether to commend him or condemn him.) The book has apparently been assembled from three versions of the show — two tryouts and the Broadway edition — and the seams fray quickly.
In any case, what this material cries out for is stylish performers, and what it gets in La Mirada is something less. Indeed, the only professional contribution that merits praise is that of set designer Wally Huntoon, whose delightful Dr. Seussian backdrops fit the show’s mood perfectly.
Is the show still viable as a musical for these times? Possibly, but auds have become used to shows whose dramatic structure is more intimately linked with their music; when these New Yorkers break into song, it’s not because they’re dying to express emotion, it’s because it’s time for a tune — any tune.
So even when the songs are Porter’s, they require expert styling — star quality — to maintain the show’s momentum. And the theater — in La Mirada to be sure, but probably even in Gotham itself — doesn’t produce, or rather support, the kinds of star casts that peopled shows like “The New Yorkers.” More’s the pity.