With an acclaimed award-winning cast and team, expectations were high for Atlantic Theater Company’s Cornelia Street, a world-premiere musical with a book by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel (in their third collaboration), direction by Neil Pepe (American Buffalo), choreography by Hope Boykin (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), and starring such Broadway luminaries as Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), George Abud (The Band’s Visit), Kevyn Morrow (The Color Purple), and Mary Beth Peil (The King and I).
Unfortunately, the cliché-ridden characters, insulting view of Greenwich Village and its largely unlikable denizens (lifelong underachievers, pathological liars, angry daughters, a parsimonious owner, aged prognosticating hippie, vicious drug-dealer, and techie nerd), trivial lyrics (like “You became a ghost/while making toast”) that don’t advance the minimal unresolved plot (Marty’s Café on the titular street, where they gather, work, live, eat and/or drink, is up for sale), unharmonious singing and asynchronous dance (for the most part performed downstage and oddly directed frontally at the audience, not towards each other or integrated into the story), all beg the question, how did this misfit of a musical (which might have been more effective, or at least a lot shorter, as a play) ever make it to the New York stage?
Costumes by Linda Cho are suited to the stereotypes and Scott Pask’s set captures the look and feel of a vintage West Village restaurant/bar with a side curtain to an unseen kitchen and a stairway up to the second-floor apartment on the opposite side. But reflections of the actors and parts of the room and wall art on the upstage window and door to the street can be distracting, and the intimate performance area is extremely cramped for the nine actors (rounding out the cast are Esteban Andres Cruz, Gizel Jiménez, Jordan Lage, Lena Pepe, and Ben Rosenfield), their songs and moves, often performed right up against the front row of the audience they’re inexplicably addressing directly. As lighting by Stacey Derosier unnaturally dims with the musical numbers, it further disconnects them from reality or any continuity within the storyline, under Pepe’s disjointed direction. To quote the show’s synopsis, “It is out of place and out of time and running out of luck.”
That’s not to say that the actors aren’t committed to the material they’ve been given (though the unquestionably skilled Missouri-born-and-raised Butz – whose central character of the café’s financially challenged chef and single father Jacob is from Jersey City – occasionally lets his midwestern accent slip through). While they do what they can with their underdeveloped roles, perplexing direction, uninspired lyrics, and forgettable music, accompanied at both sides of the stage by a band of talented musicians (Alec Berlin on guitar, Kirsten Agresta-Copley on harp, Gina Benalcazar on trombone, Michael Ramsey on drums, Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Emma Reinhart on reeds, conducted by Simone Allen, with music direction by Chris Fenwick, orchestrations by John Clancy, and clear sound by Kai Harada), we never find out where they will go or what will they do once the café is sold. And this frustrating production didn’t really make me care.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Cornelia Street plays through Sunday, March 5, 2023, at the Atlantic Theater Company, performing at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $110, plus fees), call (646) 989-7996, or go online. Masks are required in the theater.