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Review: A Reanimated Harry Connick, Jr. in The Sting at Paper Mill Playhouse

The Sting

By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 12, 2018

Lately, new Broadway musicals have been all about jukebox musicals and film adaptations. Both the current season and the next are chockablock with same. Now, I generally like to take each show as it comes. There have been perfectly serviceable jukebox musicals (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and perfectly dreadful ones (Escape to Margaritaville). There have likewise been terrific film adaptations (The Band’s Visit) and thoroughly mediocre ones (Frozen).

So, when I heard about a new musical version of the classic Hollywood movie The Sting, I kept an open mind, especially in light of the creative staff. The book would be by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf the Musical), the score by Urinetown’s Greg Kotis (lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music), and the direction by John Rando (Urinetown, On the Town). Those are some fairly heavy hitters, which of course is no guarantee, but the collective heft of said crew had me intrigued.

Thankfully, in its current form, the new musical version of The Sting, currently playing its world-premier engagement at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, shows great promise. The production is fun and stylish, and features strong performances, sharp staging, and some exciting dance sequences. The Sting is certainly in better shape than A Bronx Tale was when it played the Paper Mill, and A Bronx Tale has been running on Broadway for a year and a half, despite few apparent changes from its Paper Mill form.

Harry Connick, Jr. and J. Harrison Ghee in 'The Sting;'

(l. to r.) Harry Connick, Jr. and J. Harrison Ghee in ‘The Sting;’ photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Bob Martin’s fast-talking, wise-cracking book follows the 1973 film fairly closely, and includes most of the major and minor characters, although the Robert Redford role is played here by an African-American — a terrifically dynamic J. Harrison Ghee (Kinky Boots). This adds some interesting racial nuance to Hooker’s interactions with mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (a suitably blustery and obtuse Tom Hewitt).

The plot features a very convoluted con of the aforementioned mob boss, orchestrated by master manipulator Henry Gondorff, played by Paul Newman in the film, and by Harry Connick, Jr. here. Connick is thankfully far more playful and animated here than in his most recent Broadway outing, the dreadfully misguided revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. It’s almost as though he’s reincarnated. (Ha ha. You see, because On a Clear Dayis about…this guy…who…oh, never mind.)

Kate Shindle and Harry Connick, Jr. in 'The Sting;'

Kate Shindle and Harry Connick, Jr. in ‘The Sting;’ photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

For Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, The Sting represents the best score they’ve produced since Urinetown. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much, as the two notable shows they’ve created since then — Yeast Nation and ZM — really haven’t much to recommend them, although the latter is admittedly still a work in progress.

Kotis and Hollmann’s songs for The Sting are in an entirely different vein from their previous snarky, satirical works. The Sting is set in the 1930s, and the songs are meant to evoke the jazzy, boozy, smoke-filled gambling rooms of Depression-era Chicago. Most of the songs here are serviceable, while some seem in desperate search of a recognizable tune. Two standout songs come during a poker game and a horse race, and involve some innovative use of rhythmic dialogue and character interplay within a larger musicalized scene.

J. Harrison Ghee (center) and the company of 'The Sting;'

J. Harrison Ghee (center) and the company of ‘The Sting;’ photo: Jerry Dalia.

Key assets in the current production include John Rando’s swift, sharp staging and Warren Carlysle’s plentiful and exuberant tap choreography. There’s a recurring element that features an itinerant trombone player that could use a bit of clarifying.

At this point, the show’s greatest liability is its bloated second act. The production clocks in at two hours and fifty minutes, which seems ill-advised for a musical that aims to be breezy and sharp. But cuts should be fairly easy to identify, particularly in a rather ponderous sequence in the middle of the second act that only serves delay the denouement and take up precious stage time.

The sequence features an odd admixture of mini-ballads, Connick piano riffs, a quizzical mini-ballet with chorus men twirling while holding women in chairs in their arms, half-naked people crossing the stage for no apparent reason, a weird sort of cigarette ballet moment, and more of Connick fiddling around at the piano. There’s some essential action embedded within the sequence, but it really should only require a few scant minutes of stage time.

Harry Connick, Jr. (center) and the company of 'The Sting;'

Harry Connick, Jr. (center) and the company of ‘The Sting;’ photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Clearly, the producers have future hopes for The Sting. I mean, you don’t bring in Harry Connick, Jr. to a regional theater unless there’s some kind of financial upside in store. The Sting certainly has enough going for it to justify at least another pass at the script and score to get it in shape for Broadway.

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The Sting (world premiere) presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Milburn, NJ, running through April 29, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission. Book by Bob Martin; music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, with Harry Connick, Jr.; additional music by Scott Joplin; based on the 1973 film. Direction by John Rando; choreography by Warren Carlyle; music direction by Fred Lassen; set design by Beowulf Boritt; costume design by Paul Tazewell; lighting design by Japhy Weideman; sound design by Randy Hansen; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; make up design by Cookie Jordan; vocal arrangements by Fred Lassen; dance arrangements by David Chase; orchestrations by Doug Besterman; fight coordinator: Robert Westley.

Cast:  Harry Connick, Jr. (Henry Gondorff), Peter Benson (The Erie Kid), Janet Dacal (Loretta), Christopher Gurr (J.J. Singleton), J. Harrison Ghee (Johnny Hooker), Tom Hewitt (Doyle Lonnegan), Richard Kline (Kid Twist), Kevyn Morrow (Luther), Kate Shindle (Billie), Robert Wuhl (Snyder) Lucien Barbarin, Darius Barnes, Keely Beirne, Michael Fatica, Luke Hawkins, Tyler Huckstep, Matt Loehr, Erica Mansfield, Drew McVety, Ramone Owens, Tyler Roberts, Angie Schworer, Christine Shepard, Britton Smith, Sherisse Springer,  Diana Vaden, Kevin Worley, and Lara Seibert Young.

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Cover: Harry Connick, Jr. (center) and the company of ‘The Sting;’ photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.


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