'Cornelia Street' review: A musical with local ambitions

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'Cornelia Street' review: A musical with local ambitions
Lena Pepe and Norbert Leo Butz in “Cornelia Street” at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 in New York, January 2023. An affectionate elegy to a Greenwich Village restaurant, Neil Pepe’s production at Atlantic Theater orders everything on the menu. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- Midcentury novelist Dawn Powell, Greenwich Village’s great chronicler, wrote that there are three stages a person goes through when negotiating its twisty streets — first enthusiasm (“Bohemia — oh thrills!”), then cynicism (“Bah! Village theatricals!”), then resigned acceptance (“After all the Village is the Village when all’s said and done”).

“Cornelia Street,” a fidgety, aimless new musical, is set on one of the Village’s quainter lanes. It goes through every stage, all at once. Written by Simon Stephens with music and lyrics by Mark Eitzel and directed by Neil Pepe for the Atlantic Theater’s subterranean space, the show is simultaneously celebration, deflation and a neighborhood elegy in a minor key. It plays out amid and atop the rickety tables and sturdier bar of Marty’s Café, a struggling Village restaurant. The show has deep affection for this (mostly) invented place and for the majority of its habitues. But like a lot of tourists who have walked these winding streets, it loses its way.

At the play’s diffuse center is Jacob (Norbert Leo Butz), a onetime punk who has spent 28 years as the cafe’s chef. Jacob lives above the storefront with his teenage daughter, Patti (Lena Pepe, the director’s daughter), and has recently developed higher culinary ambitions, trying to sneak orders for Iberico ham and venison under the crotchety nose of the cafe’s owner, Marty (Kevyn Morrow). How the empty restaurant has remained solvent long enough for Jacob to turn gourmet is one of the play’s many mysteries. Scott Pask’s set and Stacey Derosier’s lighting suggest a snug, homey, stay-all-day space of tin ceilings and mismatched wood. But no one frequents it, save for Mary Beth Peil’s former opera singer, Ben Rosenfield’s puppyish tech bro and George Abud’s preening cabdriver.

The first act finds Marty’s suddenly threatened: The landlord wants to sell. Meanwhile, Patti has trouble at school. Philip (Esteban Andres Cruz), the sole server, has an audition. Misty (Gizel Jiménez), a woman from Jacob’s past, fleeing her own demons, turns up, too. Jacob embroils himself in a drug-dealing scheme that also demands embezzlement. If landlord disputes, lost souls and white-collar crime seem like too much story to stir into a chamber musical, well, yes. This is before the complications of the second act: a death, a disappearance, a musical number devoted to the glory days of Studio 54. (For some of us, this will conjure unhappy memories of the Atlantic’s last musical flop, “This Ain’t No Disco.”)

Stephens doesn’t seem to believe in all this action, often stopping it cold so that characters can offer some blue-plate philosophizing.

Here is Jacob’s: “You ever get one of those days when you really thought you knew where you were and what you were doing with your life and then you realize you had no (expletive) idea?”

And here is Misty’s: “Life, huh?”

This is the third collaboration between Stephens and singer-songwriter Eitzel, the founder of the mordant alternative rock band American Music Club, following 2010’s “Marine Parade” and 2015’s “Song From Far Away.” Neither show has played New York, but reviews suggest that these previous partnerships have been successful ones. Which makes sense. Stephens’ enduring concern, in plays from “Punk Rock” to last year’s “Morning Sun,” is with people who don’t feel at home in the world or who must learn that any home they thought they had was made of straw and sticks. And the characters in Eitzel’s songs are very rarely anything like satisfied or secure.

But here, under Pepe’s makeshift direction, the songs and the book scenes feel at odds. (Pepe is another frequent collaborator of Stephens, although only his straight plays.) Whatever its contrivances, “Cornelia Street” is ultimately a work of naturalism, whereas the dreamy, gloomy musical interludes suggest something more abstract and symbolic. Instead of swelling during the musical numbers, the show seems to shrink, embarrassed. The arrangements and orchestrations are expansive and surprising, but the staging feels apologetic. Butz, with his rocker voice and dad vibes, and Jiménez, an ingenue with edge, are supple performers, singing as casually as they might speak. They manage these tonal shifts with ease. The rest of the cast, moving to Hope Boykin’s swishing, slashing choreography, seem to struggle. That their characters feel less like people and more like types can’t help.

The Atlantic has a productive history of investing in small, off-center musicals — “The Bedwetter,” “Kimberly Akimbo,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and most significantly “The Band’s Visit” and “Spring Awakening.” This wants to be one more. (In its more creditable moments, it also gestures toward another intimate, single-set musical, “Once.”) Here, the approach feels tentative. Sometimes offstage voices are used, sometimes not. Lighting transforms the space during a song or remains constant. Pepe seems like a man who is not enjoying what he has ordered but can’t bring himself to send it back.

“Cornelia Street” owes an obvious debt to the Cornelia Street Cafe, a Village institution that shuttered in 2019 because of rent hikes. (This homage had apparently upset Robin Hirsch, one of the cafe’s founders. But Hirsch, invited to lead a storytelling event alongside Stephens and Eitzel on one of the show’s dark nights, has since been brought into the fold.) Friendly and unpretentious, the place made you feel like a local, even if you could never afford an apartment nearby. If only “Cornelia Street” could offer some of that same welcome and sense of purpose. If ever a musical needed to stop and ask for directions, it is this one.

‘Cornelia Street’

Through March 5 at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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