‘Cornelia Street’ Off Broadway Review: Norbert Leo Butz Slices and Dices Like a Pro

Mark Eitzel’s score is also Michelin-worthy, but Simon Stephens’s book keeps this musical about a famous Village cafe off the front burner

cornelia street
Ahron R. Foster

It looks like some people think the Broadway musical needs to be cut down to size.

Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel’s new musical, “Cornelia Street,” can be seen as an antidote for much of what ails the Broadway musical in 2023, even though their show had its world premiere Off Broadway on Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2.

Lots of Broadway musicals get their start downtown, and this one has more than its share of actors and other creatives who have already been blessed by Tony Awards and nominations, chief among them leading man Norbert Leo Butz, director Neil Pepe, designers Scott Pask (set) and Linda Cho (costumes), and book writer Stephens, who successfully adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” to the stage.

What’s wrong with the current Broadway musical? In addition to rampant over-amplication, there’s now the “American Idol” approach to delivering every song, most of which are either overwrought anthems or old standards sandwiched into a ridiculous new book that sends-up the traditional musical form. None of this transpires in “Cornelia Street.”

Here, Stephens has attempted that increasingly rare theatrical feat of writing a completely original book for a stage musical. From the moment Butz walks onstage to play Jacob, the chef of a West Village restaurant, the goal appears to be to keep things small, intimate and heartfelt. The first act even ends without a song. And neither does “Cornelia Street” begin with a bang. Instead, Jacob engages in easy banter with the waiter Philip (Esteban Andres Cruz), who is already cleaning up the cafe from the night before. It takes some time before anyone breaks into song, and it’s nice to report that Butz, a Tony winner for his turns in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me if You Can,” has lost none of his vocal chops or his ability both to win our sympathy and ground a show.

Slowly, other denizens of the restaurant begin to appear. There’s the owner of the place (Kevyn Morrow), who constantly objects to Jacob’s ambitions to improve the menu by ordering expensive meats and cheeses. After all, the restaurant’s most loyal customer is a young tech wizard (Ben Rosenfeld) who wants his daily meal kept plain and simple. An erstwhile opera singer (Mary Beth Peil, another Tony nominee) never eats anything but drinks a lot. William (George Abud) also only orders Merlot, which he, too, never pays for despite wearing antique shirts that no taxi driver should be able to afford. And then there is Jacob’s teenager daughter, Patti (Lena Pepe), who lives upstairs over the restaurant with her father and may be on the verge of flunking out of high school.

It’s a crowd that’s only slightly more prosperous than the characters in “Hot L Baltimore,” although for anyone who ever ate at the real Cornelia Street Café in the Village, the downgrade here may inspire some eyeball rolling. Only when Misty (Gizel Jimenez) enters the establishment, dragging her battered luggage and wearing enough red lipstick for a street corner full of hookers, does “Cornelia Street” take on shades of “The Iceman Cometh.”

Don’t worry. After a spectacular entrance and dropping a suitcase full of family secrets, Misty doesn’t take us on a four-hour Eugene O’Neill journey into despair. Her problems with Jacobs are resolved off-stage, and when we see her again in the next scene, she is content if not happy in her new job as a café worker that in no way has infringed on Philip’s employ at this struggling restaurant. A blow-up between Jacob and his daughter is also resolved off-stage when the old alcoholic opera singer, who is also clairvoyant, runs upstairs to comfort Patti. In act two, even bigger problems are taken care of when Stephens sends his characters out into the real world of the backstage.

Eitzel’s score disguises some of the weaknesses in the book; at other times, it exposes them. At its best, the music has the soaring, plaintive quality of vintage country-western while never betraying the urban-eastern roots of the characters singing those songs here. Eitzel is also a master lyricist, even when the occasional word-play may be out of character or more than a little convoluted. Because so many Broadway lyricists today don’t even bother to rhyme, Eitzel sizable talent in this department may be a mere quibble if not for that fact that his very poetic lyrics highlight how ordinary Stephens’s dialogue sounds when the characters stop singing.

A chef struggling to keep a restaurant afloat is also the subject of such recent plays as Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” and Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared.” Whatever the flaws of those two comedies, the playwrights there deliver sparkling dialogue. “Cornelia Street,” when the characters aren’t singing, sounds as if it is a mere transcription of what might have been spoken at the real Cornelia Street Café.

Pepe’s direction compensates by bringing a naturalism to the performances that’s unusual in the musical theater. That restraint, however, doesn’t overcome Hope Boykin’s awkward choreography when Peil’s character remembers the good old days of Studio 54, and everyone on stage is called upon to deliver what is a show-stopper for all the wrong reasons. “Dance” is a number that should have been cut early in rehearsals.

Otherwise, Pask’s sets and Cho’s costumes help to keep the show stylish and simple.

Rosenfeld is especially subdued and touching in his character’s first awkward steps toward falling in love. His song “Too Much for Anyone” provides this musical with its biggest emotional payoff. It is also the most old-fashioned moment in “Cornelia Street.”