What’s the last word I thought I’d ever use to describe a show directed by Harold Prince? Bland.
And yet, sadly, that’s the overall effect of “Prince of Broadway,” a polished but disappointingly rote roll-call of many of the highlights of Prince’s nearly seven decades in the theater.
Certainly the more than 30 songs performed by a superb cast of nine include some of the most beloved, or accomplished, ever written for musicals. A short list of the shows directed or produced (or both) by Prince ranges from the bouncy “Damn Yankees” to the storied collaborations with Stephen Sondheim – “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd” among them – as well as two Andrew Lloyd Webber megahits, “Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Plus “Cabaret” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But Prince’s protean ability to infuse an electric vitality into shows of such disparate styles and tones almost confounds the revue format – or rather is confounded by it. Prince’s work was often celebrated for its seamlessness, the fluid interplay between dialogue, song and dance, between story and character and theme. But even the most skilled seam-sealer cannot make a revue of such diverse material into a conceptually cohesive and theatrically compelling evening.
Put simply, here Prince isn’t playing to his considerable strengths. Co-directed and choreographed by another veteran, Susan Stroman, the show feels as if it could have been created by any reasonably talented director with a working knowledge of Prince’s career. The gifts of the man who was instrumental in ushering the Broadway musical to its full maturity as an art form (without Prince, no “Hamilton”!) are constricted by the format.
Well, enough gloom. For musical theater lovers, the show will remain an indispensable ticket, a pilgrimage to a theatrical shrine, even if the visit doesn’t burnish your Broadway-love as you had hoped. And for less knowledgeable theatergoers, the chance to hear so many celebrated songs performed in a single evening will delight.
David Thompson has supplied a book, interstitial material describing passages in Prince’s career that paper over transitions between segments. The narration is delivered in the first person – in the voice of Prince, that is to say – by all of the cast. Useful as a primer, with the occasional funny anecdote or nugget of philosophy (“Never confuse hits and flops with success and failure”), the material is nonetheless prosaic, adding to the generally staid atmosphere.
Tony Yazbeck, a terrific performer who has not yet found the star-making role he deserves, here at least gets to shine. His rich voice soars as Tony in the “West Side Story” segment, alongside an appealing Kaley Ann Voorhees as Maria. This early scene is better than many at distilling the tone of a musical from just a couple of songs. (The tragic ending doesn’t get a look-in, but never mind.) Yazbeck also rips into “The Right Girl,” from “Follies,” with an emotional fervor that brings a surge of energy to the stage, as he performs a tap sequence that grows increasingly ferocious. (It’s the only extended dancing in the show – unsurprising since Prince shows rarely relied heavily on dance.)
The “Follies” segment is one of the few that gives even a hint of the visual invention that was so central to Prince’s conceptual musicals. He has said that crucial to his approach is the need to visualize the look of a show – which points to another problem with “Prince of Broadway.” Shorn of their sometimes minimalist but always distinctive designs, performed on modest sets or before flats, the musical numbers naturally lose some impact.
Boris Aronson’s doily-encrusted fan that bloomed on the stage, for the culminating sequence in “Follies,” is briefly seen in all its florid plumage. But despite this incidental pleasure, and Yazbeck’s fiery energy, this passage disappoints. “Beautiful Girls” and “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” are also included, but we get just one lithe showgirl descending a few stairs, and the more celebrated songs are absent, deflatingly if inevitably, due to casting constraints. (Nobody in the show could get away with either “Broadway Baby” or “I’m Still Here.”)
Another performer with rewarding solo spots is Emily Skinner, who looks smashing and sings with silvery beauty. She delivers “Send in the Clowns” with affecting sensitivity, just a light crust of brittleness frosting a warm sense of life-accepting rue. She later gives a peppery performance of “Now You Know,” about adversity and its lessons, from “Merrily We Roll Along.” This is one of the few instances when the introductory material – Brandon Uranowitz, as Prince, notes that despite his many successes, he also had plenty of flops – makes for an unforced, even witty fit for what follows. (“Merrily” was a famous fizzle.)
At other times, Prince seems to give up on the idea of creating any kind of arc: We take an express train straight from the Swedish countryside to a Russian shtetl, a rather jarring juxtaposition. (Unless it’s to show that Prince has helped bring alive such disparate cultures onstage?) In Anatevka, Chuck Cooper plays an unconventional Tevye, his robust voice and buoyant humor making the most of the mock-exultant “If I Were a Rich Man.”
And then we’re off to Berlin, for “Cabaret.” Uranowitz plays the Emcee with the requisite smiling sleaziness, but Bryonha Marie Parham, who has a powerhouse voice, oversells the title song. She pleasingly eases up on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” from “Show Boat,” the rare musical revival Price directed.
Forgive me if this review has become something of a checklist, but it reflects the by-the-numbers scroll of the format. The fine Karen Ziemba doesn’t have much rich material: the “Sweeney Todd” segment, in which she plays Mrs. Lovett, cannot hope to capture even a sliver of that masterwork’s dark majesty or savage comedy. Michael Xavier makes for a serviceable Bobby, throbbing his way through “Being Alive,” and an equally serviceable Phantom. Janet Dacal’s moment in the spotlight comes as Eva Peron, although she’s actually more fun in the rare number from a lesser-known Prince show, “You’ve Got Possibilities,” from “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman.”
At one point, speaking of “West Side Story,” Uranowitz-as-Prince says, “Nobody had ever seen anything like it. And do you know what I learned? You can take your audience wherever you want to take them.”
Prince’s career indelibly proved that. Weimar Germany, grimy 19th-century London, New York of the 1970s, a prison cell or two: Prince and his collaborators have brought us there, wedding the warmth-kindling excitement of dazzling Broadway entertainment with challenging, often dark themes. But what Prince cannot do – what nobody could – is transport us to so many places, aesthetic and emotional, in a single evening. Trying valiantly to chart that impossible journey, “Prince of Broadway” ends up taking us, well, nowhere special.
“Prince of Broadway” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017.
Creative: Book by David Thompson; New Songs by Jason Robert Brown; Music arranged by Jason Robert Brown; Music orchestrated by Jason Robert Brown; Associate Orchestrators: Charlie Rosen, Larry Blank and Sam Davis; Additional Orchestrations: Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, Michael B. Nelson and James Sampliner; Musical Direction by Fred Lassen; Directed by Harold Prince; Co-Directed by Susan Stroman; Choreographed by Susan Stroman; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design by Jon Weston; Projection Design by Beowulf Boritt; Hair and Wig Design by Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design by Angelina Avallone.
Producer: Manhattan Theatre Club; by special arrangement with Gorgeous Entertainment.
Cast: Chuck Cooper, Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz, Kaley Ann Vorhees, Michael Xavier, Tony Yazbeck, Karen Ziemba.