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Theatre in Review: Prince of Broadway (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Emily Skinner. Photo: Matthew Murphy

There's a lot to like in this fond and often vivid scrapbook of numbers from one of the American theatre's most astonishing careers -- which, not incidentally, provides a showcase for some of today's most gifted musical theatre performers. As a producer, director, cultivator of young talents, and all-around theatrical innovator, there has never been anyone like Harold Prince -- and the chance of another is about as likely as Halley's Comet tearing through the sky tomorrow night at eight. Prince's eye for talent has always been impeccable and, once again, along with Susan Stroman, his co-director, he finds himself in very good company.

For example, there's Tony Yazbeck, who turns everything he touches into stardust: He channels the electricity in "Something's Coming," from West Side Story, then partners with the equally vocally gifted Kaley Ann Voorhees on "Tonight," distilling every bit of moonstruck romance out of that fire-escape duet. He seems to age twenty years as Buddy, the beaten, emotionally bankrupt salesman, singing and furiously tapping his way through "The Right Girl," from Follies. Buddy is torn between the wife who despises him and the mistress he doesn't love enough; as staged by Stroman, a kind of danced cadenza is inserted into the number, with Yazbeck catching the beat of the character's frustrations in every step. The performer also makes a strong impression as Leo Frank, the unjustly convicted protagonist of Parade, celebrating a turn in his fortunes in "This is Not Over Yet," a number that, in classic Jason Robert Brown manner, weds caustic lyrics to a soaring melody. Whatever the assignment, Yazbeck is this production's man for all seasons.

Emily Skinner, whom we don't see enough of, is very much present here, her technique honed to the point that she can seize our attention with a sardonic turn of the head or an asymmetrical smile that signals a lifetime of romantic regret. She offers a supremely melancholy take on "Send in the Clowns," from A Little Night Music, and, channeling her inner Elaine Stritch, finds a surprising touch of vulnerability in the scathing, vodka-fueled sociological commentary of "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company. She also puts an original spin on "Now You Know," that musical exercise in tough love from Merrily We Roll Along, corralling its driving rhythms for her own dramatic purposes. Skinner impressed mightily last season as Rosemary, the schoolteacher, in an Off Broadway revival of Picnic; Prince of Broadway reminds us what a potent singing actress she is.

But nearly everybody in the company has his or her moment to shine. Janet Dacal demonstrates her take-no-prisoners seduction technique, reducing Clark Kent to putty in her hands in "You've Got Possibilities," from It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, and shaking her skirt and laying siege to an entire city in "Buenos Aires," from Evita. Bryonha Marie Parham's soprano lightly caresses the melody of "Will He Like Me?" from She Loves Me; even better is her Sally Bowles, emotionally unraveling as she trumpets each defiant note of Cabaret's title tune. That Kander-and-Ebb classic may be the best-served show of the program: Brandon Uranowitz, his hair slicked back like the coat of a wet baby seal, his cheeks rouged like a lady of the evening, his face frozen into a permanent leer, is most effective as Cabaret's devil-doll Emcee, inviting the audience to perdition in three languages in "Wilkommen." Equally fine is Karen Ziemba as a landlady who counts every last pfennig but cuts her price on a whim, delivering that tinny, fatalistic waltz, "So What?", with blazing eyes and a what-the-hell shrug that suggests she can outlast Armageddon if necessary.

For all the showstoppers on display, there's an irony here, one that may matter more to hard-core musical theatre fans than general audiences, but which is, nevertheless, worth noting. Arriving on Broadway in time for the rosy sunset of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, Prince and his collaborators pioneered the concept musical, in which every single element was an expression of the show's theme. If a song, a scene, or a character didn't contribute to the overall idea, out it went. This meant creating a totally new style, a fresh approach, for each musical -- sleek and contemporary for Company, showbiz gothic for Follies, and savagely Brechtian for Sweeney Todd. By definition, an entertainment like Prince of Broadway can't escape being a bit of a hodgepodge and your high points might very well differ from mine. David Thompson's book -- which has each cast member take on the Prince persona from time to time, those iconic glasses perched on their heads -- is little more than a series of lead-ins and crossovers, never aspiring to the level of biography.

Thus, among the hits, there are several notable misses. Even though it remains his greatest commercial success by several leagues, I couldn't help wishing that Phantom of the Opera hadn't been given the eleven o'clock slot. I don't dislike Phantom -- believe me, the world is filled with worse musicals -- but somehow the sequence lands with a sense of anticlimax. (I would also have enjoyed more numbers from some of Prince's also-rans, like Flora, the Red Menace, Zorba, maybe even A Doll's Life, which has at least one or two very interesting things in it.) Another danger with a greatest-hits collection like this is that the sheer preponderance of showstoppers many have an enervating effect, especially when Stroman -- the most hard-sell of musical stagers -- is in the house. Just because the cast is loaded with powerful belters doesn't mean they -- and we -- can't have a little rest now and then.

And sometimes Prince and Stroman have difficulty matching material to the skills of their cast. Chuck Cooper charms as Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye, regaling himself with fantasies of privilege in "If I Were a Rich Man," but his "Old Man River," from Show Boat, is underpowered, and he and Ziemba -- the latter armed with a grating cartoon voice -- make surprisingly little out of a couple of stunners from Sweeney Todd. Michael Xavier, late of Broadway's Sunset Boulevard, seems out of his depth here, except in the Phantom sequence; oddly, he talks his way through much of "Being Alive" from Company, to undermining effect. Uranowitz pushes a little too hard in "Tonight at Eight" from She Loves Me and "Dressing Them Up" from Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Still, Brown's overture is delightful; the musical equivalent of a crossword puzzle, it grafts the "Dies Irae" section of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" onto the title tune of Phantom, and weaves bits of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" into "Maria," from West Side Story. Beowulf Boritt's scenery is a loving tribute to William and Jean Eckert, Boris Aronson, and Maria Bjornson, and many other greats, the original designers' names tucked away in each set like the Ninas in a Hirschfeld caricature. I especially liked the comic book drop for Superman and the "Loveland" set for Follies: a giant pink Victorian valentine, with cherubs and lovers peeking from behind a surface of lace, which makes a stunning impression before collapsing in a heap upstage. Howell Binkley's protean lighting finds a new style for each sequence, all of them linked by their innate theatricality. William Ivey Long's costumes leap across the years, providing cloche hats for She Loves Me, a befeathered showgirl outfit for Follies, flared slacks and turtlenecks for Company, and, for Sally Bowles, a red-and-black deco-themed flapper dress that drips beaded fringe. Jon Weston's sound design is a model of clarity and transparency.

Whether Prince of Broadway is hitting the heights or merely marking time, it's hard to escape a sense of sheer astonishment at the breadth of its subject's achievement: For three decades, virtually every Broadway musical milestone bore his fingerprints. (This is true even of shows that he seemingly had nothing to do with: Would A Chorus Line or Dreamgirls have existed without his influence and his mentoring of Michael Bennett?) You can see his influence all over today's Broadway, in hit shows -- like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Come From Away -- that succeed by breaking all the rules. Such shows pay their own tribute to the man who is being so ardently celebrated at the Friedman. -- David Barbour

(25 August 2017)

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