The list of Broadway shows that Harold Prince has directed and/or produced is so long and impressive that one might logically assume a retrospective of his biggest hits would be a knockout. Sadly, even though Prince directed it himself, with Susan Stroman serving as co-director and choreographer, Prince of Broadway is just pretty good, but seldom sensational.
This “musical celebration” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre certainly offers a fine overview of Prince’s remarkable six-decade career. The show’s nine performers are all talented. Each has to juggle a number of roles, some of which are associated with the Broadway stars who originated them.
The main problem is that so many shows are included there isn’t time to explore characters and plot, which are key elements in Prince’s best productions. Sixteen shows make the cut. Some are represented by one song and others by a few songs. Between songs, the actors take turns telling Prince’s story. (They sport glasses atop their foreheads, a nod to Prince’s signature look.)
Just a taste
The show zips along from one show to the next. It isn’t boring, but it isn’t as nearly as satisfying as a unified Prince production. Because the songs are performed without much context, they have less impact and meaning than when they’re performed as part of a fully realized musical.
The numbers chosen from West Side Story, for example, are “Something’s Coming” and “Tonight.” They’re two of the best-known songs, but they offer just a taste of the landmark musical. There isn’t much choreography, and the cast isn’t big enough to do the ensemble numbers. So we get just a short excerpt from one of the first great musicals Prince produced.
The actors aren’t always natural fits for their parts, but they do their best while showing their versatility. You definitely wouldn’t expect to hear Chuck Cooper sing “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof, but somehow he pulls it off. In the second act, he delivers a powerful rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat. He wasn’t as compelling as the titular barber in Sweeney Todd. Karen Ziemba sank her teeth into the juicy role of Mrs. Lovett, however. She also showed her range with deft turns as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret and Sally in Follies.
A Stritch in time
Brandon Uranowitz made his strongest impression as the Emcee in Cabaret. His version was quite close to Joel Grey’s stage and film performances, but it didn’t feel like an imitation. Bryonha Marie Parham, looking and sounding nothing like Liza Minnelli, closed the first act with a terrific rendition of “Cabaret.” She also belted”Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” from Showboat (Parham and Kaley Ann Voorhees pictured top).
The three songs from Company, which opened the second act, were among the strongest in the show. The cast sounded great together on “Company,” and Michael Xavier’s “Being Alive” was lovely and heartfelt. Best of all was Emily Skinner’s fiery “The Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s hard not to borrow from Elaine Stritch’s legendary rendition, but Skinner forcefully made it her own.
Janet Dacal followed in two Broadway divas’ footsteps in the second act. She played Eva in Evita and Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. While she didn’t erase memories of Patti LuPone or Chita Rivera, she made the most of her big voice and sexy looks.
Low on dancing
Voorhees made a fine Maria in West Side Story. Her usual costar, Tony Yazbeck, was out sick the night I attended. Understudy Eric Santagata rose to the challenge of filling in. He sang well in several roles and did a difficult tap number during “The Right Girl” from Follies.
Most of the cast members are “actors who move,” not dancers. Still, I would have expected more dancing in a musical choreographed by Susan Stroman. Too bad Ziemba didn’t get a chance to strut her stuff more.
The recipient of an amazing 21 Tony Awards, Prince has assembled a top-flight team for this ambitious production. David Thompson wrote the book (the narration), Beowulf Boritt designed the many sets, William Ivey Long designed the pretty costumes, Paul Huntley did the hair and wigs, and Jason Robert Brown wrote new songs, arrangements, and orchestrations.
Too much to cover
So many talented people are involved in Prince of Broadway, on stage and off, that it’s surprising it isn’t as smashing as Prince’s best productions. There are too many shows, too many songs, too much to cover, so a lot of Prince’s hit shows were left on the cutting-room floor.
The over-amplifed songs from The Phantom of the Opera made me wonder why that show has been running for so many years. On the other hand, now that this long-gestating revue has finally made it to Broadway, maybe Prince will direct a revival of Company. The excerpts included here made me want to see and hear the brilliant Stephen Sondheim show again.
Tickets for Prince of Broadway are available at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre or at Telecharge.