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Prince of Broadway

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - August 24, 2017

Prince of Broadway by George Abbott, Lee Adams, Richard Adler, Mike Batt, Robert Benton, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Pike Bissell, Jerry Bock, Jason Robert Brown, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, Fred Ebb, George Furth, James Goldman, Adolph Green, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Charles Hart, John Kander, Jerome Kern, Arthur Laurents, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joe Masteroff, Terrence McNally, David Newman, Tim Rice, Jerry Ross, Robert Russell, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Richard Stilgoe, Charles Strouse, Alfred Uhry, Douglass Wallop, Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Harold Prince. Co-direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman. New Songs, Arrangements, Orchestrations, and Music Supervision by Jason Robert Brown. Book by David Thompson. Scenic and Production Design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume Design by William Ivey Long. Lighting Design by Howell Binkley. Sound Design by Jon Weston.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Tony Yazbeck
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When it was first announced that there would be a show celebrating the Broadway career of Harold Prince, some people expressed the opinion that this did not sound like a good idea. Their feeling was that, while previous entertainments devoted to the work of choreographers (e.g., Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse) or composers and/or lyricists (Stephen Sondheim, Kander & Ebb) had made perfect sense, the fact that so many great musicals were directed or produced by Prince didn't provide enough of a common denominator to justify presenting numbers from some of the best of those shows under the title Prince of Broadway.

Although I understand the argument, I have a different perspective: Any show that offers moments from so many beloved musicals on the basis that all of them were helmed by one person in the major role(s) of director or producer is fine by me, regardless of the lack of any other shared through-line. On a personal note, Prince of Broadway contains sequences from two of the three musicals that I always name when asked what are my absolute favorites of all time: West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. (The third one, The King and I, premiered when Prince was just starting out on Broadway as an assistant stage manager. Not to mention that he was in the armed services during the gestation and production of that show, so it would have been quite a neat trick for him to have been involved in any way.)

With direction by the man himself, co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, and a book by David Thompson, Prince of Broadway presents snippets of shows ranging from The Pajama Game (1954) to Parade (1998), but largely in non-chronological order of their openings, presumably with a view toward placing the numbers effectively while achieving a logistically workable deployment of the nine-member cast. Narration is provided by the performers speaking as Prince in his own words, introducing himself at the start and offering commentary throughout the rest of the program.

The entertainment level here is generally very high—no surprise, given the quality of the material and the talent of the cast and creative team, which also includes Jason Robert Brown as music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger. One can chart the degree to which each number is connecting with the audience by the amount and intensity of the applause and, in some cases, the cheers that follow. On the night I attended, Act I was a slam dunk in this regard, Act II not so much.

Each member of the company has moments in which to shine especially brightly. Tony Yazbeck nearly stops the show with his powerful performance of "The Right Girl" from Follies, complete with a riveting "anger tap" section. Karen Ziemba displays her versatility in such assignments as Fraulein Schneider's "So What?" from Cabaret and Mrs. Lovett's "The Worst Pies in London" from Sweeney Todd. Chuck Cooper's "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof is one of the evening's highlights, his joy in Tevye's fantasy utterly delightful and infectious. Michael Xavier makes the risky choice of delivering the first section of "Being Alive" from Company in a very clipped, choppy manner, but he scores when singing the extended repeat section full out with deep emotion. He also sounds wonderful in "The Music of the Night" from The Phantom of the Opera, though it should be noted that heavy sound enhancement has been applied for this song—as it is in the full production of the show on Broadway, which is still running nearly 30 years after its premiere.

Brandon Uranowitz is charmingly flustered in "Tonight at Eight" from She Loves Me and appropriately smarmy as the Emcee in two numbers from Cabaret. Though Emily Skinner seems to imitate a few of Elaine Stritch's inflections at the beginning of "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company, she then goes her own way with this brilliantly incisive song, to great effect. Kelly Ann Voorhees displays a gorgeous soprano as Yazbeck's partner in "Tonight" from West Side Story, Janet Dacal has a lot of fun with "You've Got Possibilities" from It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman. And as Sally Bowles in the title song from Cabaret, Bryonha Marie Parham achieves a perfect balance between a traditional, good-time-girl rendition of the number and the far more desperate, self-aware interpretation that has become the norm since the advent of Sam Mendes' revisal of this masterpiece.

Most of the material in Prince of Broadway is well matched to the performers. That said, a few odd decisions have been made that mar the second half of the show. Chuck Cooper doesn't have the right kind of voice for Sweeney Todd, and he looks pretty silly in the fright wig he's been handed for that sequence. Also, while Cooper's rendition of "Ol' Man River" from Show Boat (Prince directed the 1994 revival) is superb in terms of his performance, some of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics for this all-time-classic song have been jarringly rewritten by who knows who; we hear "show a little grit" instead of "get a little drunk," and the "tired of livin' and scared of dyin'" section is futzed with as well. Then, immediately following the Show Boat sequence, Emily Skinner sings a rearrangement of "Now You Know" from Merrily We Roll Along that starts out fine but weirdly switches to a sort of half time at the bridge, rendering sluggish and boring the bulk of a number that's urgent and exciting as written. (None of the arrangements for any of the other songs in the show take such major liberties.)

Stroman's choreography/musical staging is generally praiseworthy, especially given the tricky challenge of acknowledging but not recreating the work of past masters. Beowulf Boritt's scenic and projection designs, William Ivey Long's costumes, and Howell Binkley's lighting work together to create effective environments for each musical sequence. Three of Prince of Broadway's most laudable elements are the work of Jason Robert Brown: skillful orchestrations for 15 pieces; a stirring overture made up largely of snatches of tunes from Prince shows that aren't otherwise heard during the proceedings; and a high-quality original song, "Do the Work," for the finale. Fred Lassen is the expert music director/conductor.

Several years ago, a minor figure in the New York theater world copyrighted the title "Mr. Broadway" for himself—something he was able to do simply by filling out the paperwork and paying a fee. Appalled by this action, I announced to everyone who would listen: "If anybody deserves a title like that, it's Hal Prince!" Of course, he would never have the nerve to claim it. But Prince of Broadway provides more than ample proof that this extraordinary artist and 21-time Tony Award winner deserves whatever deeply respectful honorific anyone might choose to bestow on him.

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