Prince of Broadway
A musical revue at Manhattan Theatre Club celebrates the career of Harold Prince.
Harold Prince is the producer and director behind some of the most important Broadway musicals of the last century. West Side Story, Cabaret, and Evita are just a few of the 17 shows highlighted in Prince of Broadway, the musical celebration of Prince's career at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. A more comprehensive list of titles flashes onstage during the overture and the audience claps for the ones they know, going silent for the ones they don't (sorry, Tenderloin). It is all vaguely reminiscent of the "In Memoriam" segment of an awards show, an appropriately funereal beginning to a mostly lifeless evening.
It really shouldn't be this way. These are some of the greatest show tunes of the 20th century performed by a stellar cast. This is a chance to hear "If I Were a Rich Man," "Ladies Who Lunch," and "Ol' Man River" in the span of two hours and 30 minutes. It ought to be a primer for Broadway newbies and a stroll down memory lane for longtime fans. Instead, we get a mediocre revue encased in an extremely guarded memoir.
The first half of the show moves chronologically from The Pajama Game to Cabaret, slowing to a crawl during an extended section about Follies. This is despite Tony Yazbeck's electrifying performance in "The Right Girl," a physics-defying feat of tap dance. It rightly stops the show, but we still have eight more songs in the first act, all of which are less impressive. It feels a little bit like performing "Free Bird" during the first 20 minutes of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
There are other individually wonderful performances: Brandon Uranowitz shows himself to be one of the most exciting new interpreters of old songs with a frenzied rendition of "Tonight at Eight" from She Loves Me. Bryonha Marie Parham delivers memorable performances of both "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" from Showboat and the title song from Cabaret. In the latter, she conveys a fascinating mixture of defiance and terror that makes us wish we could see a full production with her as Sally Bowles.
Unfortunately, most of the segments aren't as vital. A tribute to The Phantom of the Opera, with Michael Xavier as the Phantom and Kayley Ann Voorhees as Christine, is painfully campy. At one point, he places his hand on her face and she grimaces in horror and we feel suddenly transported into a Forbidden Broadway parody.
Admittedly, a director's work is not as conducive to revue as a composer's; it is far more ephemeral. He stages the show for just that production, and it can never truly be re-created. Prince and codirector Susan Stroman prove that by staging reduced versions of Prince's original work, none of them are as satisfying as the real thing.
For their part, designers Beowulf Boritt (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) do an excellent job squeezing 17 different shows into one. We spend much of the show wondering how Boritt fits as many set pieces as he does backstage and in the fly system. Howell Binkley's lighting similarly affects a number of disparate aesthetics. Jon Weston is a bit too fond of echo in his sound design, but it works for shows like Phantom. Jason Robert Brown's arrangements and orchestrations are intermittently successful, with Parade sounding as good as ever, but Evita sounding particularly thin. The cumulative effect makes Prince's canon seem smaller, sillier, and wholly without context.
David Thompson's book doesn't come to the rescue with that context. Rather, it simply tees up the next act with a snappy statement in a manner resembling a bad awards show: "A window-dresser is locked away in a Latin American prison and lives in a fantasy world to escape his life of humiliation and torture. That's a musical? Damn right," says Janet Dacal as she clutches a pair of chunky black eyeglasses meant to indicate that she is playing Hal Prince (everyone in the nine-person cast plays Prince during the transitions). Then we watch a couple of numbers from Kiss of the Spider Woman. We don't learn much about the man or what drove him to create.
The most disappointing thing about Prince of Broadway is that we never get a sense of these musicals in conversation with the wider world or in Prince's own life. The fact that he could direct both Cabaret (the most powerful anti-authoritarian statement ever created for Broadway) and Evita (a musical that romanticizes a glittering fascist) suggests that he was very much tuned into the greater political and social movements of the last century. Sadly, this show makes his work seem mostly ornamental. Although Prince is one of the figures responsible for the survival of the Broadway musical into the modern era, this museum piece offers us no indication of how or why.