Monday, August 28, 2017

Prince of Broadway: Overstuffed and Undernourished

 Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper and Tony Yazbeck in Prince of Broadway. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new revue Prince of Broadway, built around the career of Harold Prince, is like an all-you-can-eat buffet at a mediocre restaurant. It runs just over two and a half hours and contains thirty-five songs from sixteen musicals (plus a finale, “Do the Work,” written especially for the show by Jason Robert Brown, who also contributed arrangements and orchestrations), presented in mostly tepid reproductions intended to conjure up the feel of their sources, one after another. (Susan Stroman, who co-directed with Prince and choreographed, has barely left her mark on them.) The entire project is misconceived. It makes sense to plan an evening around the work of a theatrical artist whose work is distinctive and unified; that’s what the joyous 1999 Fosse! did, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ and several Stephen Sondheim revues. But you can’t get a sense of the shows Prince has directed by restaging numbers from them: a pair of singers in working-class Victorian costumes standing in front of a flat don’t suggest the spectacle of Sweeney Todd (1979) and eight actors in shtetl garb dancing briefly across the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre are more like a parody of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) than an evocation of it. You’d need the original set designs and, more importantly, the original performers to provide any indication of what these musicals meant. Prince of Broadway doesn’t even distinguish between the shows Prince directed and the ones he only produced, like Damn Yankees (1955), West Side Story (1957) and Fiddler – as if there were no difference between what directors and producers do. In a lengthy program note, Prince credits dozens of collaborators, yet the revue implicitly tells us that he was the creative force behind every one of these shows, even when other people devised their staging and helmed their rehearsals. This is a vanity production that verges on the delusional.

Your heart goes out to Beowulf Boritt, who designed the sets and projections. How the hell can anyone render the style and mood of sixteen elaborate musical plays in the course of a single evening? He does a pretty good job with a few of them: It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman (1966), Company (1970) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993). Others are ill-judged – the backdrop for the Follies (1971) section is a pastiche of doilies and the façade of the department store from She Loves Me (1963), set in Budapest in the 1930s, looks more like a gingerbread house – and most don’t even come close. That wizard of theatrical couture, William Ivey Long, has had more success, though he didn’t have to negotiate the same kind of obstacle course as Boritt. It would been much smarter if Prince and Stroman had staged Prince of Broadway simply, on a flexible unit set, in elegant non-specific costumes; that way the numbers could have played off the styles of the individual source musicals in more abstract, metaphorical ways, and the staging might have developed its own ideas. The necessary compromises in some of the selections from musicals whose original form can’t possibly be called up in a couple of numbers make nonsense out of them. That’s particularly true in the case of the “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” number from Show Boat, the landmark 1927 musical Prince staged a revival of in 1994, and in the back-to-back performances of “If You Could See Her” and “So What?” from Cabaret (1966), set in Berlin during Hitler’s rise. In the second of these, Karen Ziemba, as the landlady Fräulein Schneider, steps out of the gorilla costume she’s been wearing to dance with Brandon Uranowitz as the Master of Ceremonies right after he intones the potent punch line that equates gorillas with Jews. If you don’t know the musical, you’d have to assume that Schneider is a Jew. She’s not; her suitor, Herr Schultz, is. The juxtaposition would almost make sense if the song Ziemba offered at this point were “What Would You Do?,” which Schneider sings late in the show to explain why she has just broken her engagement to Schultz, rather than “So What?,” which is about her easygoing philosophy of life.

Emily Skinner in Prince of Broadway. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
The five women and four men who have been set the task of performing these songs are overmatched, too, since none of them could possibly be right for all the roles he or she is asked to take on. When Ziemba sings “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd, every one of the jokes in the lyrics lands, but she’s too spunky for Fräulein Schneider, a part that was written for Lotte Lenya. Chuck Cooper brings a fatigued gravity to “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat and employs both his rich bass voice and his immense stage presence to excellent effect when he plays Sweeney Todd, but he’s embarrassingly miscast as Tevye. I giggled when Tony Yazbeck showed up in a goatee and revolutionist’s beret as Che in a song from Evita (1979) but he’s ideal as Tony in excerpts from West Side Story, especially when he and Kaley Ann Voorhees duet on “Tonight.” Uranowitz is acceptable as George in She Loves Me (though he clowns a bit too much for my taste on “Tonight at Eight”) but dim as the M.C. in Cabaret. One of the most ambitious numbers in the show is “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from Follies, which requires the participation of eight of the nine cast members, four as the principals in middle age, four as their younger selves. The weight of the song falls on the four older characters, and two of them – Ziemba as Sally and Emily Skinner, looking really glamorous, as Phyllis – are perfect. But you’d never cast  Cooper as Ben, the cynical author and diplomat (putting spectacles on him just makes him look silly), and Yazbeck is way too young for Buddy. “The Girls Upstairs” is followed by Buddy’s solo, “The Right Girl,” one of the few numbers with a legitimate dance break, and Yazbeck, a brilliant show dancer, executes it impressively and with tremendous feeling; it’s also the one time when Stroman gets a chance to show off what she’s so gifted at. The problem, aside from his age, is that bitter regret just isn’t in Yazbeck’s emotional wheelhouse.

In some cases, you feel the musical performances would be better if the singers had approached them differently – if Skinner cut that unconvincing English accent on “Send in the Clowns” (she sounds almost Icelandic, and decidedly affected) and if she understated “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company rather than overplaying it. That song is so goddamn arch and in love with its own cleverness that I always want to hide under my seat when I hear it. But I do think there’s a way to pull it off – by turning the verse that begins “And here’s to the girls who just watch” into a sad reflection on the singer (the character of Joanne) instead of ramping it up – that is, taking the song down rather than up as it winds to the end. Skinner also goes over the top on “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along (1984). Similarly, Michael Xavier would have been well advised to take a less-is-more attitude toward Company’s finale, “Being Alive.” By contrast, Janet Dacal’s version of “You’ve Got Possibilities” from Superman is delightful and disarming. I think I enjoyed it more than anything else in the show.

The “book” by David Thompson consists of memories and observations spoken by each of the actors in the voice of Harold Prince; I assume Prince supplied them and Thompson rephrased them. Unfortunately, they’re trite and banal (so is “Do the Work”) and half the time their insertion in the show feels completely random. Introducing the Show Boat section, for example, “Prince” tells us that he was excited to revive the show because it’s about two of his favorite things, the theatre and family – two themes that are represented, however, neither in “Ol’ Man River” nor in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Prince of Broadway is a pointless exercise.`

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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