Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
Based on the classic Academy Award winning 1973 Best Picture of the same name, Bob Martin's book is extraordinary in its fidelity to David S. Ward's original screenplay. It is mostly set in Depression Era Chicago in 1936. In Joliet, three small-time griftersthe smooth, elderly Hooker, the brash, callow Johnny Hooker, and the comically inept Erie Kidpull off a complicated street hustle. Unbeknownst to them, their mark is a bagman for, and the swag is the property of, ruthless big-time numbers racketeer Doyle Lonnegan. Lonnegan sends his hitmen out to murder the trio. Luther is killed, and Hooker and Erie flee to Chicago. Hooker, hellbent for revenge, seeks out legendary super con artist Henry Gondorff to devise a "long con" in which to take down Lonnegan big time. End of prologue.
What follows is a complex series of at least a half dozen interrelated cons performed by the largest and most talented team of bunco artists ever gathered on the musical stage. And, unless you have a razor-sharp memory of the movie, expect to be pleasurably surprised to discover that sometimes the people being conned are on both sides of the footlights.
The evening does get off to a slow start. Seemingly in order to start things off on a musical comedy high, there is a big, lively musical song and dance scene before the show picks up the movie's opening dramatic prologue that precedes the ebullient long con. However, the upbeat opening melody is pedestrian and its lyric is too prosy ("Ladies and gentlemen! / Tonight you'll hear a story / It's a down and dirty chronicle / of deception, betrayal, and more"). Perhaps, the authors might take another whack at this song. More egregiously, for no discernible reason, Harry Connick, Jr, does not perform in the opening musical number. Kevyn Morrow's consummate song and dance performance leading the ensemble in this number is a good one. However, by adding this number and the scenes from the film's prologue together, there is just too great a passage of time when the audience is left waiting for Connick's appearance.
Bob Martin's book is extraordinary, but not rigid, in its fidelity to David S. Ward's original screenplay. Much of the screen dialogue has been transferred to the stage verbatim. Some scenes have been eliminated, others tweaked. Some roles are virtually recreated, others subtly adjusted, a few transformed. The humor has been enhanced. The role of Gondorff (played by Paul Newman on screen) has been tailored to accommodate the considerable talents of Connick. No-brainer. The stage Gondorff had been a local club jazz pianist before finding success as a con man. At the moment, following a major setback, he's playing piano in girlfriend Billie's bordello. Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford on screen) is played here by J. Harrison Ghee and is specifically African American, adding extra dimension to his relationships with Gondorff, Luther, and the Depressionas well giving a nod to the prominent inclusion of the Scott Joplin rags which set a delightful stylistic tone on stage as they did in the film. Peter Benson is a truly funny ringer for the movie's inept Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe on film). A laugh-filled revision of a telegraph office con makes hilarious use of Benson's on target take on the Kid.
Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis' music and lyrics are at their best when humorously musicalizing plot scenes. Note "The Card Game," a crucial first act scene in which Gondorff deliberately raises Lonnegan's hackles by behaving in a vulgar offensive manner. The efforts of Connick, the authors, and director John Rado combine to delight us with this all at once high stakes, high wire, and low comedy highlight. Try not to be late for the big, second act opener, a Harry Connick, Jr. and ensemble rouser, "This Ain't No Song and Dance".
Hollmann and Kotis have given us a complex varied score which attempts to encompass music compatible with turn of the (20th) century rags, 1930s bluesy ballads, and integral traditional musical theatre which carries the narrative forward. Overall, the score is certainly serviceable. It may be more, but on the limited basis of one hearing, I cannot yet say. Harry Connick, Jr. has contributed three or four songs to the scorenot limited to his own numbers.
Enhancing his charismatic star turn, Connick displays an effortless, warm, fatherly affection toward Hooker. J. Harrison Ghee conveys the brash testiness of Hooker with a charm and style that beguiles the viewer. McGhee gracefully positions himself as a young, maturing partner/foil for Connick's Gondorff. Kate Shindle is delightful as Gondorff's madam-girlfriend, whose role in the con has been cleverly expanded.
The role of Loretta, the diner waitress for whom Hooker falls hard, has also been considerably expanded on stage. Given two showcase ballads (one solo, one duet), Janet Dacal strongly sings the role with passion. However, Loretta and Hooker's relationship lacks development and chemistry. Their second act hook-up had me wondering why I was spending so much time with their relationship rather than getting on to the sting. This response is particularly likely for audiences unfamiliar with the movie.
Tom Hewitt (Doyle Lonnegan) and Robert Wuhl (Lt. Snyder) make solid contributions in key supporting roles. In fact, each cast member makes a commendable contribution.
Beowulf Boritt has designed light, flexible and mobile sets which capture the look and feel of 1936 Chicago as depicted in the film. Paul Tazewell has designed a warehouseful of colorful, spiffy period costumes. Warren Carlyle's trademark bright and breezy, high-stepping choreography delights.
Director John Rando keeps everything moving at a brisk pace. Although The Sting is shaping up very well, Rando and his creative team have some work ahead of them. However, with Harry Connick, Jr. so delightfully on board amid a solid array of pleasures, the musical stage The Sting is already a certain crowd pleaser.
The Sting, through April 29, 2018, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.