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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.
Written by David Cale; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through May 13, 2018
Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke (photo: Carol Rosegg)
When I first saw David Cale’s solo play Harry Clarke last fall, I found it clever and disturbing, energized by Billy Crudup’s tour de force performance in the title role and several others. Seeing it again, it seems more like a flimsy conceit enlivened by dark humor and enough variety to give a good actor like Crudup the chance to plow through several accents and personalities.
There’s also a feeling that Crudup has begun hamming it up a bit; of course, there’s an element of hamminess to begin with, since Harry’s the alter ego of one Philip Brugglestein from Indiana, who at age 18 moves to New York after his parents’ deaths and assumes the voice and mannerisms of this posh Britisher whom Philip invented as a lonely child. This disguise frees him to become another person entirely, and he soon finds himself improbably fooling an entire family—an equally posh bunch of WASPs from Connecticut, who have a yacht called Jewish American Princess—turning all of their lives upside down, with ultimately fatal consequences.
Crudup is alternately charming and repulsive as the increasingly obnoxious Harry and the Schmidt family: son Mark, daughter Stephanie and Sade-loving Mom. Director Leigh Silverman brings a welcome pace to the increasingly contrived and ultimately paper-thin proceedings. But at least Crudup—even when overacting—makes us want to find out what this bastard is going to do next.
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
Women in Love
This 1969 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s controversial novel is actually one of Ken Russell’s milder efforts; unlike his later dramas like The Devils, The Music Lovers, Mahler, Tommy and Lisztomania, Women in Love benefits from Russell’s relative restraint, along with powerhouse acting from Glenda Jackson (who won a Best Actress Oscar), Oliver Reed and Alan Bates.
Criterion’s usual thorough release includes a top-notch hi-def transfer; commentaries by Russell and screenwriter Larry Kramer; on-set interviews with Kramer, Bates and actress Jennie Linden; 1976 Jackson interview; 2007 Russell interview; Bates’ 1972 short Second Best, based on a Lawrence story; and Russell’s own tongue-in-cheek autobiographical 1989 doc, A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible.
Acts of Violence
This viciously nasty drama pits human traffickers who kidnap young women against a trio of brothers tracking one’s missing fiancée, alongside a couple of decent cops who butt heads with their own superiors’ corruption.
Often risibly violent and incoherent, this also features another sleepwalking Bruce Willis performance, which ends up making the other one-note performances look better in comparison. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise interviews, a making-of featurette and director Brett Donowho’s commentary.
The Black Scorpion
Primitive special effects have their charms, but one would have to look awfully hard to find positive things to say about this hackneyed 1957 sci-fi thriller in which giant-sized scorpions are awakened from their underground lairs to wreak merciless havoc.
The cheesy B&W images notwithstanding, there’s a lot of blame to go around among the bad writing, inept directing and wooden acting. Although this is for B-movie completists only, the film looks quite good on Blu-ray; extras include a couple of short featurettes on effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez acquits himself admirably in the title role of Jules Massenet’s lyrical opera based on the classic Goethe novel about a young, tragic hero and his fatal flaw: his beloved Charlotte is married to another man.
Tatjana Gurbaca’s well-paced 2017 Zurich, Switzerland staging features sensitive orchestral playing under Cornelius Meister and, in addition to Florez’s supple singing, a glorious Charlotte in the form of English mezzo Anna Stephany. Both hi-def video and audio are peerless.
DVD of the Week
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—It’s a Beautiful Day Collection
Fred Rogers may have been the most beloved person to ever appear on television—although one might think his squeaky-clean image was cloying, it was never manufactured—and his PBS series (which debuted in 1968 and ran until August 2001) made kids of all ages feel safe and wanted for more than three decades.
This 4-DVD set, which compiles 30 episodes from the years 1979-2001, include a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and chats with Broadway showman Tommy Tune and children’s author Eric Carle. The set’s lone extra is the series’ very first episode in black and white.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has stated, “Jesus Christ Superstar has always been at its best when it’s presented live and close to a rock concert.”
He got his wish Easter Sunday night with NBC’s colossal and moving production of his and Tim Rice’s rock opera. It was a defining project for TV, magnificently directed by five-time Tony nominee David Leveaux [the Nine revival, among the five].
Producers Marc Platt and Craig Zadan-Neil Meron Productions provided a huge canvas on which to mount the passion of Christ: a mammoth, block-long/wide Brooklyn armory amazingly converted into an arena with sets hung from floor-to-ceiling scaffolding, and seating for a wildly enthusiastic audience of hundreds.
It’s impossible to beat live theater, but this production came close. Every great story is helped by excellent casting. Ten-time Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globe winner John Legend delivered a haunting portrayal of Jesus; Brandon Victor Dixon as apostle Judas stunned not only with his crackling vocals but also bigger-than-life stage presence; and Sara Bareilles, known to audiences of Waitress, the musical she composed and has starred in, surely became a household name last night with her mesmerizing portrayal of the smitten Mary Magdalene.
Lloyd Webber’s score ranged from power ballads to rousing, bombastic rock. Often the orchestrations and amplification affected the vocals in the huge production numbers. The composers’ classic ballads “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please” were well-served by Bareilles. Dixon has so many memorable moments it was hard to keep count, but “Heaven on Their Minds,” which opens the piece, and his sensational “Superstar” at the end, were showstoppers. Legend’s rendition of “Gethsemane/I Only Want to Say” was so harrowing and explosive that is surely will be long-remembered [in the arena, unseen on TV, the audience rose en masse in an extended standing ovation].
Ben Daniel’s portrayal of Pontius Pilate’s and his dilemma of what to do with Jesus as he tries to avoid crucifixion was bold and brilliant. Rock legend Alice Cooper, always playing to the audience, tamped down the camp of “King Herod’s Song” – a bit – but still managed a showstopper that received thunderous audience response.
An almost-unrecognizable Norm Lewis, displaying what must be the world’s deepest bass, was featured as the high priest Caiaphas; Jason Tam (If/Then, Lysistrata Jones) appeared as the apostle Peter; and Jin Ha (M. Butterfly revival) was the high priest Annas
Musicians, under the baton of Nigel Wright, were scattered on the stage floor and various levels of the scaffolding. The off-stage chorus provided several poignant moments.
Production designer Jason Ardizzone-West, lighting designer Al Gurdon, and telecast director Alex Rudzinksi deserve kudos for their excellent contributions. Rice, Webber, and Legend were among the executive producers.
There were hand-held cameras, often with the cameraman enveloped in the action, overhead cameras, and a camera mounted on a gigantic crane which showed the vastness of the set and also provided knockout close-ups. The crew deserves a round of applause for their fast work during four and five-minute commercial breaks – they certainly had a challenge sweeping up those buckets of glitter.
A costly production as this must be paid for, so there was no way around commercials. How grand it would have been to have one quite generous sponsor, but in the absence of that some special thought should have gone into the placement of commercials as has often been done with prestige TV programming. Platt and Lloyd Webber helped pay for the production with commercials for Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, and School of Rock.
Let’s hope this production of Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert doesn’t go away. Maybe NBC will make it an Easter perennial. There is a just-released cast album. Surely, there’ll be a DVD. The production is so staggering that it should be showcased in HD in theatres worldwide.
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