By Sarah Downs

Each of us has a favorite spot – a place that feels like a second home, in which to seek refuge from the anonymous noise of a big city.  Hole-in-the wall, diner, dive bar or sidewalk cafe, our chosen emotional safe haven is essential to our sanity.  The Cornelia St. Cafe was one such place.  Tucked into a quiet street just off 6th Ave and its attendant hurly burly, Cornelia combined quirkiness with classic French (great wine list, real French fries!) – until, of course, the pace of real estate development overtook the city.

Cornelia Street, the new musical at the Atlantic Theater, celebrates this beloved local haunt.  Jacob (Norbert Leo Butz) the earnest cafe chef with haute cuisine dreams has lived and worked there forever with daughter Patti (Lena Pepe).  Sweet hearted Philip (Esteban Andres Cruz) waits table.  Free spirited Sarah (Mary Beth Peil) with her breezy 1970’s style, gentle computer scientist John (Ben Rosenfield) and edgy  William (George Abud) are regulars.  Into this mix of personalities walks Misty (Gizel Jiménez), Jacob’s estranged daughter by another partner. She parachutes in during a tumultuous moment, as Cornelia’s owner Marty (Kevyn Morrow) is fighting to keep the cafe open.  She join’s the ‘family’ as it were, at the café.  The narrative continues, reflecting each character’s experience as together they face the café’s looming fate.

I wanted to like Cornelia Street more than I did, especially because I loved the actual café.  Alas, the musical left me a little cold.  It feels clumsy, as if it is trying to be too many things to too many people.  I sense that they want it to be somewhat immersive, so the scripted bumps in the road would be intentionally reflected in the choppiness of some of the scene changes.  Unfortunately, it just comes off more as if no-one is driving the car.

The ensemble cast give committed performances, sometimes breaking through the material to leave an emotional impression.  Abud in particular takes the ball and runs with it with his borderline sleazy, sinister machismo.  Jiménez has an arresting presence and a gorgeous voice.  She and Rosenfeld have a particularly sweet duet that opens a small window of hope in Act II.  Butz as the central character gives it his all, with electricity to spare, but often with nowhere to go.  He keeps trying to inject energy into a script that just won’t budge.

The show starts with a somewhat unintelligible yet predictable opening group number, with no context, and almost immediately abandons that energy.  There are dead spaces, Act I ends abruptly.  Act II is better than Act I, but throughout you feel as if the energy will drop at any second.  The writing is often lackluster and the songs pedantic.  Some memorable moments, in particular Patti’s song “Nothing” hit home, but that was due to her performance and hope boykin’s choreographed gestures that accompanied lyrics, like a physical leitmotif.  Several pieces benefited from this added creativity.  Scott Pask has done an excellent job of evoking the Cornelia spirit, while Stacey Derosier’s lighting layers depths of melancholy and something slightly sinister beneath the daylight.

The last song, sung with lovely, honest tenderness by Butz, was arguably the best in the musical.  Sadly, that moment felt like a jumping off point, not an end.  No, give us more of this please!  It’s as if the musical is backwards, and should have started here and finished at the beginning (ironic, considering Butz starred in The Last Five Years, which was structured on this exact premise).

We cannot avoid the inevitable, however, and as Cornelia’s fate is sealed, you feel the sorrow.  Another outpost of human scaled New York will disappear forever.  The manner in which the show peters out, while annoying, is a perfect metaphor for the disintegration of a neighborhood.  However, not having a period at the end of the existential sentence left the audience kind of at a loss.  We need a map, even as our beloved haunts disappear from the map of New York City.

Cornelia Street, by Simon Stephens (book) and Mark Eitzel (music & lyrics), directed by Neil Pepe and choreographed by hope boykin.

With George Abud, Norbert Leo Butz, Esteban Andres Cruz, Gizel Jiménez, Jordan Lage, Kevyn Morrow, Mary Beth Peil, Lena Pepe, Ben Rosenfield.  Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Kai Harada, music direction by Chris Fenwick.

Limited Engagement February 14th through Sunday, March 5th, 2023 at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th St.)

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