The satirical musical revue, which has been on theater’s endangered species list for some time, gets a new injection of life with “Newyorkers,” a surefire crowd-pleaser that may soon become the latest sellout attraction at Manhattan Theater Club’s second stage.
The targets of composer Stephen Weiner and lyricist Glenn Slater’s humor in this sendup of Gotham life have certainly been amply covered elsewhere. Regular readers of New York magazine or the Sunday Times may be inclined to yawn at the idea of comic ditties poking fun at incomprehensible cab drivers, lazy Starbucks workers, overachievement among preschoolers and Chelsea clones.
But talent can spin gold out of dross, and more often than not, something close to that happens here. Aided by a cast of bright, brash and vocally assured performers, Messrs. Weiner and Slater announce themselves as significant new musical-theater talents.
In the perky title tune, the half-dozen cast members introduce themselves as members of a support group for people addicted to the city. “There I was, at an IHOP in Tucson, reading a three-day-old copy of the Post for the 17th time … that’s when I knew I needed help.” The show goes on to affectionately mock the addictions within the addiction with ear-pleasing pop music and lyrical finesse.
The accomplishment of Slater’s deft and funny lyrics first becomes clear in the next number, a torch song — in this case, quite literally — sung by Liz Larsen, impersonating the Statue of Liberty. Bawdily bemoaning her geographically unrequitable attraction to the Empire State Building, she dismisses the allure of the city’s other eligible bachelors: “The Chrysler’s not my type/The Trump is merely hype/And the Met/Sure can get/Overbearing./The Woolworth’s out of date!/The Guggenheim isn’t straight!/And call me a prig,/But the twins are too big/And they’ve got this thing for sharing.”
Similarly cute samples could be culled from virtually any of the show’s 20-odd tunes. While Slater’s humor is unabashedly middlebrow, he knows how to plant his straightforward jokes inside a bar of musical for maximum effect. His lyrics remain consistent in their comic punch and polish as Weiner’s music ranges across a wide variety of genres.
A faux-Piaf song celebrating “la vie en Flatbush,” sung by Priscilla Lopez with an aptly nasal French sound, is musically on the mark. A Latin rhythm is used for “Celebrity Samba,” in which two denizens of fashionable nightspots drop names at each other. Beat cops stepdance merrily — “Doin’ a jig on your civil rights” — in the inevitable “Riverdance” sendup. The rap number, one of the show’s funniest, gleefully mocks the fad of rich white folks cozying up to rap stars, enunciating each line of homey-speak to death. The skit has one of the few sharp edges as it ends with Larsen, an upper-crust hostess, staring with visible unease at her last remaining guests — the black rap stars — and announcing, “You can leave now.”
A woozy blues fuels the evening’s biggest show-stopper, “I’m in No Hurry at All,” performed by the explosively talented — and sadly underused — Pamela Isaacs. Playing your daily nightmare behind the Starbucks counter, she sings, in her gorgeous honey-and-brass voice, a song celebrating the art of taking your time: “For minimum wages, this may take ages,” she concludes acidly. Male cast members Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Stephen DeRosa and Jerry Dixon are as invaluable as their distaff co-stars, although they don’t have equally strong material.
Hilarious as it is, the Starbucks song nearly crosses the line into racism, and it’s not the only time “Newyorkers” reveals its somewhat limited perspective. “The Last Straight Man in Chelsea,” one of a few songs that settle for the glib and obvious, trots out virtually all the hoariest gags about gay life (jokes about the name Bruce are long past their sell-by date now). Another cheap line: “Why is he living/Amongst the men/Who act like Barbie/And look like Ken.” Also on the edge of tasteless, and somewhat tired to boot, is “Talkin’ Cab,” which mocks the potpourri of foreign tongues used by cabbies.
Although it pokes its share of fun at the breed, “Newyorkers” is definitely written from the perspective of a white, well-educated, espresso-sipping, IPO-obsessed middle- to upper-middle class Manhattanite — perhaps not coincidentally the demographic of the MTC audience. That’s also the primary theatergoing audience, of course. Transferred to the right venue — a small theater or cabaret space — with its adorable cast intact and with regular injections of topical new songs, “Newyorkers” could run for a long time.