Review: ‘Prince of Broadway’ Arrives on Broadway Slightly Less Than Princely
By Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, August 24, 2017
It’s difficult to argue that Harold Prince is not the Prince of Broadway. For seven decades this legend has been associated with the most important, the most impactful and the most significant musical theater to come to the Great White Way.
And much of this ground-breaking work is based on surprising topics: Romeo and Juliet the musical; a look at the societal rifts in pre-war Nazi Germany; examining love and loss in the shadow of an unrelenting Scandinavian sun; a visit to a destruction-bound theater as memories turn from nostalgic to dark; an operatic examination of cannibalism that is as humorous as it is gruesome. (An older friend of mine in Boston commented on Sweeney Todd several decades ago “…well, it isn’t My Fair Lady.”)
And no, it certainly isn’t My Fair Lady. And you don’t see Harold Prince associated with Hello Dolly or 42nd Street either. Thank God. And Thank God for Hal Prince.
We also have his sympathetic look at both the wife of a South American dictator and a deformed murderer seeking love in the basement of an opera house.
Prince’s contribution to American musical theater is voluminous, authentic and courageous. It’s bliss. And courage is exactly the theme of his latest piece, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective of the work of this iconic producer and director that, engaging as it is, is held barely intact by the thread of its theme.
Now, it is probably easier to produce a retrospective of this type by other theater artists. A director is a step removed from his colleagues. A composer or a choreographer comes with a distinct language that can act as a natural glue in this type of evening. A great director, like Prince, takes the, happily, distinct language of his projects, and makes it work. Work on the stage. Work in the theater. And, again, I say thank God for Hal Prince!
But I’m afraid that being authentic and courageous as a theater director is not necessarily the story of, well, great theater.
There are moments when the ‘courage’ theme of Prince of Broadway soars, not the least of which in tonight’s Cabaret montage. This, perhaps the most successful sequence of the night, delivers a solid representation of both the essence of the brilliant Kander and Ebb 1966 hit, while also, gently, demonstrating Prince’s courage in his own role. In “If You Could See Her,” a female love interest, dressed as a gorilla, is revealed as actually Jewish at the end of the number. This was outrageously controversial when the piece premiered, and the sequence tonight, paired with a touching “So What” by Broadway veteran and asset Karen Ziemba, is bookended by a compelling performance of “Willkommen” and a “chew-the-scenery-and-any-props-you’ve-got-in-your-hands” performance of “Cabaret” by Bryonha Marie Parham, a woman who makes an impressive showing across a variety of styles this evening.
Listening to Ms. Parham, I was nearly convinced that I should go like Elsie myself.
Other moments in Prince of Broadway shine. A Little Night Music, a work that is one of the most perfect musicals ever written, is beautifully represented by Michael Xavier (“You Must Meet My Wife”) and the captivating Emily Skinner (“Send In the Clowns”) in a segment that is as representative of Prince’s work as it is of the work itself.
Speaking of Emily Skinner, she shines as Phyllis in the Follies segment, as do her colleagues. Follies, like other Sondheim works, grapples with a soaring scope. So while Follies fits the Prince of Broadway requirement of audacious daring (which it does very well), it is so difficult to capture this large musical out of context. Tonight’s segment begins nicely with “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs,” capturing beautifully the show’s tender and tortured movement through time. But how to grab what follows. This production decides on “The Right Girl.” And while the performance of Tony Yazbeck (with choreography created by Susan Stroman) is as spectacular as it is well-received, it misses the mark in capturing the essence of the work. Who in tonight’s audience misidentifies Karen Ziemba as Margie?
But speaking of Karen Ziemba, and after hearing her fraught “So What” as Fräuline Schneider, I would travel anywhere, absolutely anywhere, to see this woman as Mrs. Lovett. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in 2012, has so far provided the only rare opportunity. But there have to be more to come. The Sweeney Todd segment opened intelligently with “The Worst Pies in London,” in rock-solid performances by Ziemba and the talented Chuck Cooper. Unfortunately, they move to “My Friends,” when “A Little Priest” might have captured the grisly humor of this fabulously operatic, monumental work a tad better—a work that both Sondheim and Prince (with some help from Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou) brought inexplicably and audaciously to Broadway.
If the arc of Prince of Broadway might disappoint, performances rarely do. Yazbeck and the beautiful soprano Kaley Ann Voorhees soar in West Side Story material that, no matter what the setting, can’t possibly disappoint. Hearing “Something’s Coming” and “Tonight” live on a Broadway stage and on the cords of beautiful singers is well worth any trip to any theater.
Janet Dacal brings down the house in two of her features — the first is as physically sensual as it is vocally nimble as Eva Peron in “Buenos Aires” from Evita. This is a big number that, in the original, relied on tens of other performers, but that tonight, Dacal handled confidently and lithely. With equal confidence, Dacal soared in the haunting title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman, another work that Mr. Prince can be proud of for its unusual, unique and impactful topic.
Some years ago, I heard Harold Prince on television talk about the inspiration for the set design of The Phantom of the Opera. The team, lead by the late Maria Björnson, hadn’t found the path. Prince says that he watched a television show about those with physical abnormalities, and he came away with his design — the one thing that this population missed most was physical pleasure. This fascinating insight became the driving force of The Phantom of the Opera and its design. And thus, The Phantom of the Opera was born.
A fascinating story. A really fascinating story about the birth of an important piece of musical theater. And while I’m happy to hear strong performances from a strong cast in strong music from some of Harold Prince’s most important musicals, storytelling, something that Hal Prince does like no one can, is just a tad absent.
Prince of Broadway presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through October 22, 2017. Directed by Harold Prince; co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman; new songs, arrangements, orchestrations and musical 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, hair and wig design by Paul Huntley, make-up design by Angelina Avallona, casting direction by Tara Rubin Casting, music direction by Fred Lassen. With Chuck Cooper, Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Paham, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Michael Xavier, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba.
Cover: Janet Dacal in ‘Prince of Broadway;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.