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The Connector

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - February 6, 2024

Max Crumm and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Creator-director Daisy Prince and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown have been collaborating on The Connector for more than a decade–well before "alternative facts" and "fake news" crept into the contemporary media vernacular. Their prescient project about journalistic integrity clearly captures an enduring conflict. With a sharp book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, this enthralling new musical challenges MCC Theater audiences to reflect on ways people conceive and consume "truth." And "facts." In this world, the two are rarely interchangeable.

The show chronicles the late 1990s collapse of a legendary New York-based human interest magazine called The Connector. Set during the emerging era of mobile phones, laptop computers, specialized databases, and the 24-hour news cycle, pressures to get the scoop mount through rapid information exchange. Ultimately, it is unethical journalism, not technology, that compromises the established periodical's reputation. While The Connector's specific scenario is fictional, it draws inspiration from infamously discredited real-life reporters like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass while resonating in current sociopolitical contexts.

Velvet-voiced duo Hannah Cruz and Ben Levi Ross play fledgling feature writers Robin Martinez and Ethan Dobson. While their talents suggest equal potential, each character's career takes a different trajectory. Privileged Princeton graduate Ethan slides into a staff writer position at the invitation of Editor-in-Chief Conrad O'Brien (a cis white male ivy-league archetype believably portrayed by Scott Bakula) while humble, hardworking Robin stays stuck unpublished behind The Connector's copy editing desk. When Robin confronts Ethan about his unfair advantage, he mansplains that Conrad "sees me as a younger version of himself." Robin realizes it would be "a lot harder for him to see me that way" and fails to connect among the "usual guys" that populate Conrad's good ol' boy network. The musical defies formulaic plot conventions; it is refreshing that no girl-meet-boy romance or sex is scripted between Robin and Ethan. Instead, the writing explores ethics and integrity while exposing gender and cultural bias through a critical comparison of these two colleagues as counterparts.

Robin isn't the only minority voice to be marginalized beyond the magazine's pages. The virtuous work of fact-checker Muriel (Jessica Molaskey, in a profound performance) is frequently dismissed by fellow staff. Corrections from scrupulous reader Mona Bland (Mylinda Hull, who brings much humor) are ignored. Conrad also diminishes correspondent Bob Henshaw, brought to life by dynamo performer Fergie Philippe who doubles as the fabricated source named "Willis." A stereotype hatched from Ethan's myopic mindset, Willis is cleverly imitated by Bob after a brilliant dramatization of the most controversial feature "Willis & The Mayor: A Jersey City Story." An unexpected intersection of all of these underrepresented identities helps to reveal the ultimate "truth" that builds to a gripping climax with a breathtaking final moment.

Beowulf Boritt's ingenious set features a radiant tile floor bordered by a vertical grid of magazine galley proofs along the upstage wall. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's projections transform the grid into a Scrabble board backdrop for Ethan's first published feature story, "Waldo & Scrabble: A Greenwich Village Story," a spellbinding number performed by a captivating Max Crumm in a fabulously eccentric getup (costumes by Márion Talán de la Rosa). Later, the barrier becomes the Western Wall in the enactment of Ethan's final feature, "Anna & The Western Wall: A Jerusalem Story." Gaps in the grid suggest cracks into which prayers are slipped, with gorgeous projected text translated into multiple languages. Throughout the show, the grid's gutters reveal glimpses of Jason Robert Brown and his orchestra–especially when violinist Todd Reynolds repositions to deliver an ethereal, Perlmanesque solo in the transcendent "Western Wall" as the magnificent chorus chants below. Brown's dynamic score offers an eclectic mix of complex rhythms through fun fusions of jazz, rock, tropical, Klezmer, hiphop, and honkytonk inspired melodies. Each song stands as a powerful revelation of its own story while swiftly advancing the plot toward a narrative whole.

Although this musical's messaging promotes inclusivity, certain situations and characters could be written with greater depth. Robin's story and lines lag under the weight of feminist clichés like "backwards, in high heels" and "the glass ceiling" metaphor. New York Press editor Nestor Fineman (the marvelous Eliseo Román, who also dazzles in the chorus) warrants more development through additional dialogue and song. In a triumphant scene that is much too short to savor, Nestor hires and publishes Robin: "Bienvenido a bordo. ¿Necesitamos más voces latinas, si?" YES! Nestor and his Press are a quick yet commanding contrast to Conrad's Connector empire.

In its intense and unrelenting, intermissionless journey through the microcosmic world of The Connector, this musical presents a whirlwind of perspectives with thought-provoking lines and lyrics that leave us questioning the very essence of truth. Is truth synonymous with facts, or is it shaped by the individuals and stories we choose to believe? As each and every one of us is a "connector," our careful consideration of this question may liberate us from destructive "truths" spun by tricksters–those who manipulate language, style, and power to deceive an entire business, community, or nation.

The Connector
Through March 17, 2024
MCC Theater
Newman Mills Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: