Wednesday, August 30, 2017

PRINCE OF BROADWAY: Channel Surfing for Musical Theater Buffs

There is a deep engulfing sinkhole at the heart of Prince of Broadway, an evening of excerpts from 16 musicals that have been produced or directed by Hal Prince - recipient of 21 Tony Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a National Medal of the Arts - in the course of a stellar career that is now in its seventh decade. 

Unfortunately, and rather significantly, the chasm at the core of the proceedings bears the name of the great Mr. Prince himself, who, despite the fact that he has co-directed this production, appears to be missing in action.  

For all its good intentions, the lumpish Prince of Broadway that opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the equivalent of channel surfing for Broadway musical theater buffs. It is all randomness and disconnect as it caroms from one brief encounter to the next, touching down lightly on far too many of the shows in which Mr. Prince had a hand between 1954 (The Pajama Game) and 1998 (Parade).  

Let's begin where most musicals start, with the overture. Composer Jason Robert Brown, whose own show, Parade, has its brief moment in the spotlight, serves as the production's arranger, orchestrator, and music supervisor. Talk about channel surfing, this overture spews forth bits and pieces of 17 different songs within a couple of minutes. That's fine if you're up to the challenge of a rapid-fire round of Name That Tune; otherwise, not so much. Conveniently, in the program, there is a cheat sheet identifying all of the numbers that are spat out in the overture, which even references a couple from shows that are never again referred to in the production itself (Flora the Red Menace, On the Twentieth Century, and Zorba).  

OK.  So that's just the overture.  But the same approach pretty much defines the overall production, in which a game but decidedly overwhelmed cast is hauled out to perform number after number after number -  37 of them from shows that Mr. Prince was involved with, plus another that Mr. Brown wrote for this production. Mind you, these are not grouped chronologically nor thematically, and there is only the barest of attempts to provide any sort of context. 

As Tevye sings in "If I Were A Rich Man" from the Prince-produced Fiddler on the Roof - performed here by Chuck Cooper - this poses problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes. You might just as well put your iPod on "shuffle" mode and let 'er rip. 


So, what works?

  • Tony Yazbeck does an exceptionally fine dance routine as part of his rock-solid performance of "The Right Girl" from Follies. This is truly the highlight of the show, a breathtaking feat (literally; how on earth can he manage to sing and tear up the stage with that amazing dancing, without an oxygen tank at hand?). Choreography credit to Susan Stroman, who serves as the production's co-director.   

  • Janet Dacal and Michael Xavier exude charm by the bucketful in what is the best overall self-contained set piece, "You've Got Possibilities"  from It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman.  Here is one place where the singing, choreography (Ms. Stroman again), costumes by William Ivey Long, and the brightly colored comic book of a scenic design by Beowolf Boritt come together with just the right mix to give a sense of what the actual show itself would look like. 

  •  I also liked the segment from Company, which is suggestive of he look of the original production and includes an explosive performance of "Ladies Who Lunch" by Emily Skinner.

  • Also successful is the relatively lengthy segment from Cabaret, which includes four separate numbers. Brandon Uranowitz as the Emcee and, especially, Karen Ziemba as Freulein Schneider, do particularly well with their songs by effectively inhabiting their respective characters.



The bottom line:  

a. Prince of Broadway is ambitiously filled with an avalanche of ideas that rarely come to life. There's too much material. Pick and choose, people; pick and choose. And use your production dollars on the best costumes, scenic design, and whatever else it would take to give us a real sense of what it must have been like to be in the audience when these shows made their debuts - preferably highlighting more of those that haven't been revived over the years. It's been done successfully before with other compilation shows, most notably Jerome Robbins' Broadway from 1989. I can still recall brilliant performances from West Side Story and On The Town that brought these shows fully to life through carefully designed excerpts. That production, by the way, was directed by the man whose work was being featured.   

b.  Add some serious narration that will give us a sense of Hal Prince as a producer and/or director: "Here's what I was trying to do with Cabaret." "Here's how I collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Follies." "Here's what a producer does." I'm not looking for a series of lengthy lectures, just some context for each of the shows that are being highlighted. Here is one case where the theatrical truism of "show, don't tell" has been overplayed.  


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