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Is Broadway ready for a high stakes street con? No, not the three-card monte of days gone by, but a rousing singing and dancing one in the erawhere smoke-filled gin and jazz joints and sleazy bawdy houses reigned, the house always won, and the crap game dice were loaded. Paper Mill Playhouse’s world premiere engagement through April 29 of John Rando’s production of Greg Kotis, Mark Hollmann, Harry Connick Jr., and Bob Martin’s new musical The Sting, based on the Oscar-winning 1973 Best Film, makes it all-but-certain this show is Broadway-bound. The Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, recipient of a 2016 Tony Award for Regional Theatre Excellence, has a pretty good launch record: Newsies, Honeymoon in Vegas, Bandstand, and the current cult hit A Bronx Tale.
The musical is a virtual music store of genres: ragtime, Harlem blues, big band swing, stride jazz, and Broadway romantic ballads. The 12-strong orchestra, music directed by Fred Lassen (Prince of Broadway, Bandstand, Once), features members of Connick’s band. In addition to the eclectic lyrics and music by Kotis, Hollmann, and Connick, the score contains 10 compositions by “King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin, including “The Entertainer” and “Rose Leaf Rag.” His music was rediscovered and reaped acclaim upon being featured in the film.
For its sendoff across the Hudson, a quintuple of Tony winners, director John Rando (Urinetown), choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight; current Hello, Dolly!), the composers (Urinetown), book writer Martin – along with
Tony nominee and Grammy- and Emmy-winning Connick – have created an often dazzling, hilarious, and very musical entertainment. This isn’t to say there aren’t some spots that could be trimmed and/or tightened, and a couple of characters that would benefit from further development. Needless to say everyone’s wild about Harry. The musical was hand-crafted for him. In the book by Martin (Drowsy Chaperone, co-writer upcoming Half Time at Paper Mill), before Gondorff segued to con capers, he was a “piano monkey in a whorehouse.” Maybe, in addition to grinding out ragtime, he was also a tap dancer – on his feet while an accomplice was lifting wallets! Connick, with a possible return to Broadway in his future, went so far as to undergo intense lessons with choreographer Carlyle. “What he’s doing now is just the beginning,” he says. “This man can FLY. Harry’s a director and choreographer’s dream come true. There’s not another on the planet who’s more talented or works harder. It’s not an accident he’s a superstar. His extraordinary musical abilities make him a natural, highly rhythmical tapper.”
Speaking of dance, Rando and Carlyle created one of the most cohesive staging collaborations of recent years. The show has a slew of clever one-liners, a twinge of romance, the crafty –pronged set-up for the revenge sting, and dance, dance, dance: Harlem shuffle to Broadway tap and stylized movement. “I had a lot of Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls in my head,” says Carlyle. And, it appears, some Agnes DeMille [think her dream ballet for Oklahoma!, only much more scintillating].
Recently, Carlyle said, “The Sting is an elaborate con game and my job was to find a parallel to theater, which, actually is a con. The director and choreographer’s goal is to con audiences into believing what we’re doing is real.”
Audiences familiar with the film may be surprised at the non-traditional casting for the role of Johnny Hooker. However, this is not 1973. And there’s a fascinating aspect: Martin says, “Doing the adaptation allowed me to explore [screenplay writer] David S. Ward’s original intention to have Hooker be African American. But Robert Redford wanted to do it and it had to be hard to turn down a Paul Newman/Robert Redford pairing on what was his first Hollywood project. David worked with us, encouraging us to expand some characters and eliminate others. With this change, Hooker’s journey becomes more challenging, his efforts more heroic.” Don’t forget that beginning in the '30s, Chicago was the go-to city for blacks in the South facing Jim Crow laws and low-pay employment.
Sharing top billing and the story line with Connick is J. Harrison Ghee. Though Broadway’s Kinky Boots discovered the 6’4” drag artist with a linebacker’s build as a post-opening mesmerizing Lola, his portrayal of Hooker puts him on the road to stardom. He not only owns the stage when singing and dancing, but, like his Lola, can do a show-stopping split.
For those not familiar with the classic film, which won seven Oscars, a small time grafter, Johnny Hooker, is on the run after a con gone wrong against racketeer Doyle Lonnegan, who’s out for big-time revenge. After the death of his partner, Hooker, chased by a “hot-headed crooked flatfoot (cop)” flees to Chicago and joins forces with big time confidence-game hustler Henry Gondorff, possessor of “the fastest hands and feet” in town for a six-pronged attack: The Switch, The Set-Up, The Hook, The Race, The Wire, The Sting -- all introduced in vaudeville fashion by a Follies-type showgirl with title cards. All’s fair in love and war, and it becomes anybody’s game. You’re never sure who’s conning who until the uproaring climax.
The show opens with snazzy-dressed veteran grafter Luther, the incomparable Kevyn Morrow (The Color Purple revival, Bandstand), accompanied by a lone trombone player (Dion Tucker) who adds punctuation to several scenes, introducing us to his world, “You Can’t Trust Nobody”: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you’ll hear a story. It’s a down and dirty chronicle of deception, betrayal, and more … We’re in the Great Depression, which, frankly, ain’t all that great. There’s fear and corruption – the evils depressions create … (and) there’s somethin’ we should get straight: Oh, you can’t trust nobody!”
Hooker follows with the show-stopping “The Thrill of the Con,” “…where we size ‘em up … make our moves … talk our talk, and end up the richest kids on the block.”
Connick is still the smooth king of the crooners. Close your eyes and you’re sure Ol' Blue Eyes has been resurrected. He has two showstopping piano “improvisations,” with hands hitting the ivories faster than Superman flies – one, at the top of Act Two and his big tap blow-out, “This Ain’t No Song and Dance,” standing at a piano moving around the stage. There are a fare share of scene stealers: take Christopher Gurr (Gus in the Cats revival), as J.S. Singleton, who, much to the audience’s delight, calls the races better than any fast-talking announcer; and Peter Benson, the pint-sized mascot of the scams, a.k.a known as The Erie Kid, who wants to be a tough-talking thug.
Also featured in the cast of 25 are Tom Hewitt (Tony nominee, 2002 Rocky Horror Show, Frank ‘n Furter; 2004 Dracula, a Lion King Scar, a 2012 Pontius Pilate) as Lonnegan, an impeccable impersonation of the film’s memorable Robert Shaw; golden-voiced Janet Dacal (Prince of Broadway, Alice in Wonderland) as mysterious Loretta; 1998 Miss America Kate Shindle [president, Actors Equity] is Billie, Gondorff’s love interest; famed character actor Robert Wuhl as the flatfoot; and Richard Kline as conman Kid Twist.
Tony winner Beowulf Boritt has designed abstract set pieces that are pushed on and off stage (some that open as leafs in a book) and an authentic bookie joint. Costumes are by Paul Tazewell (Hamilton; NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert). Orchestrations are by Doug Besterman, with dance arrangements by David Chase.
Scott Joplin, “King of Ragtime” – was born in 1868 into a musical family of railroad workers in Texarkana, TX, where he later formed a vocal quartet and taught music. He traveled the South as a musician and absorbed traditional African-American music. At 16, he relocated to Sedalia, MO, where he taught ragtime. He began publishing his music in 1895. His “Maple Leaf Rag” brought him immense popularity beginning in 1899. In 1901, he settled in St. Louis and six years later to New York. He wrote 44 ragtime compositions, a ragtime ballet, and two operas, A Guest of Honor and Treemonisha, partially staged in 1915 [produced to wide acclaim in 1972]. He died of dementia in 1917, age 48. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Tickets for The Sting are $34 – $137, and available at the Paper Mill box office, online at www.PaperMill.org, or by calling (973-376-4343. Groups of 10 or more receive up to a 40% discount (973) 315-1680). Students: $23 rush tickets at box office or by phone day of performance.
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