Theater review: dance is the thing in ‘The Sting’
The Sting: a New Musical
Book by Bob Martin
Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
Additional music and lyrics by Harry Connick Jr.
Based on the Universal Picture film, original screenplay by David S. Ward
Through April 29
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
There’s a tap line. It’s at the top of the very first number at the top of Act One.
The dancers are lithe, the moves are joyous.
There’s another truly heart-stopping tap number at the top of Act Two: “This Ain’t No Song and Dance.” That number features Harry Connick Jr., as legendary con man Henry Gondorff, playing the piano and singing, while the ensemble tap, and advance the action in short scenes.
Warren Carlyle’s choreography steals the show in the production of “The Sting: A New Musical,” which runs at paper Mill Playhouse through April 29.
Carlyle, who won an Outer Critics Circle Award for his choreography in “Hello, Dolly,” makes the songs by Mark Hollmann & Greg Kotis (“Urinetown”), with additional music and lyrics by Connick Jr., better than they are, with syncopating claps and taps.
There is even a choreographed chase involving a step unit. People tap up and down stairs.
The show itself kind of comes and goes.
One reason is that we’re not just asked to like the irrepressible grifters we remember from the award-winning 1973 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford; we’re asked to get into songs glorifying, say, “The Thrill of the Con.” It just feels weird, as if we’re at “Annie” but on Miss Hannigan’s side. The 1973 movie won seven awards, including one for Best Score by Marvin Hamlisch, who brought Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes to glorious full orchestration and made a hit out of the tune “The Entertainer.”
But ragtime was already old in 1936, when “The Sting” is set. In the new musical, when con man Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) meets Gondorff (Harry Connick Jr.), who is a pianist as well as a con man, Hooker calls the tunes “grandpa music.”
So Gondorff demonstrates how he jazzed up the tune for fellow con artist Luther (Kevyn Morrow).
It’s the death of Luther at the hand of thug Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt, hitting the Northern Irish accent perfectly) in Joliet, Illinois that sends Hooker to Chicago, to meet Gondorff. They decide to avenge Luther with a long con.
I wish I could say that when Connick Jr.’s playing is thrilling.
But the banging chords comes across as tortured.
Tortured is not a bad word for the musical as a whole. Not in the literal sense of the word, but in the sense of something that’s been worked too hard and too long. A great artist should make it look easy: Connick Jr. makes it look hard.
But he’s a great jazz singer and lovable lead. He’s funny, too, as he belches and farts to irritate Lonnegan in “The Card Game,” to sucker him in for the con.
But the show overall has an overworked feel. It has been in the works since at least 2013, according to an article in NJ Stage. Even allowing for opening night’s extra long intermission, three hours and 20 numbers (some of them reprises) is too long. Too many of the songs feel derivative.The better songs, such as “This Ain’t No Song and Dance,” or the Act One ending “The First Race,” which dramatizes the broadcast of a fake race in a fake bookie office, are buried by the mediocre ones. Director John Rando gets good performances out of all, but the show sags anyway.
Changing the Robert Redford role to that of an African American in 1936 is a clever touch by bookwriter Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), and Ghee shines as a lovable, sassy conman. Whether he scats or sings quietly then belts, he impresses, and he’s a nimble dancer.
As Billie, a madam with a heart of gold, Kate Shindle shines with humor, and Peter Benson stands out as “I’m not stupid” lovable would-be-con artist, The Erie Kid.
Beowulf Boritt’s scene design, comprised of mostly modular pieces — doors, stair units, offices — summon atmosphere, especially as they are pushed around by actresses in period underwear. Costumes by Paul Tazewell are varied, period, and perfect.
Overall, “The Sting” isn’t bad, and will probably go to Broadway. It’s just not exhilarating.
But Carlyle’s dances are.