Fifth Avenue: A Jazz Musical Comedy

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Fifth Avenue: A Jazz Musical Comedy

Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, January 22, 2024

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

The classic cabaret room at Don’t Tell Mama has been playing host to a series of Monday-night performances of a new musical, Fifth Avenue: A Jazz Musical Comedy. These presentations are not concert versions; they are fully staged productions (within the confines of the limited stage space) and performed without scripts. There were also costumes and some rudimentary choreography (by Andrea Andresakis), who also directed. The authorship of the evening was divided between Daniel Seidman (music and lyrics) and Susan Crawford (book and lyrics). A cast of seven theater professionals (a mix of veterans and new faces) did all they could with the thin but over-complicated script, and they will most likely shine more in a different setting.

The story is a mix of every Warner Brothers gangster film made in the 1930s, Damon Runyon stories, and a bit of Newsies. An amiable hood named Maxwell (Christopher Sutton filling in for Edward G. Robinson with Jimmy Cagney’s tap shoes) and his right-hand man Willy (Joseph Peterson inhabiting Frank McHugh with a bit of Art Carney’s Ed Norton) have failed at every illegal venture available to nonviolent miscreants in the 1920s. Now they are signing a lease with the agent for Mr. Big (or is he) Tommy Grace (Beau Allen playing Humphrey Bogart in his early non-star parts but resembling Lee Marvin) to open a nightclub that will not serve alcohol (a highly unlikely idea in prohibition-era New York). Max’s daughter, Rachel (probably one of the Lane sisters), returns home from Europe where she has been living the high life and is under the impression that her daddy is a successful and respectable businessman; Adriana Vicinanzo was saddled with this unpleasant role of a haughty, snobbish, and not-very-bright ingênue. Rachel is immediately reunited with childhood friend Neal (James Lynch, filling in for Jeffrey Lynn), the city’s oldest newsboy, who, of course, carries a torch for her. She also meets the charming social climber Donald (Kevin Arnold in for George Brent) who has rather obvious “secrets” of his own. For reasons known only to herself, she lies about her name and her profession, passing herself off as a saloon singer. Of course, there is a real diva (and conveniently Maxwell’s ex) Davania (without doubt, Glady George) who changes partners as easily as the breeze changes directions. Everyone has conflicting goals and no one seems to care much about anyone else. This doesn’t make for very good drama.

Of course, this being a musical, a tasty period score might have lifted up some of the undramatic doldrums. Unfortunately, the score is even more pedestrian than the book. There are indeed some highlights, such as the romantic “Out of the Fog” and a sweetly melancholy folk song, “Shana Madela” (by Murray Seidman). There were also some attempts at pastiche numbers for the nightclub scenes that lacked the specificity that captures a distinct period. As for the rest of the score, much of it is in a minor key which doesn’t fuel the musical comedy feel of the piece; it also tends toward the conversational with little build and very flat endings. Music director/pianist Clare Cooper offered bland accompaniment that soon blended all the numbers together. Then, surprisingly, as the show got to its final sequence, it suddenly came alive with a charming script of rhymed couplets (very Larry Hart) and a light touch sadly missing elsewhere. It suggests that the authors might be capable of solving some of the problems of the evening. Hopefully, they’ll do the work this show needs.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."