As a freshman journalism major in the early 2000s, I was assigned to watch Shattered Glass. Viewing this biopic about how real-life journalist Stephen Glass faked his way to the top in the pre-internet era, only to get exposed and have his career ended, was meant as a cautionary tale. And as I sat and watched MCC Theater’s world-premiere production of the new Jason Robert Brown-Jonathan Marc Sherman musical The Connector, I realized that that fear of God it scared into me still somewhat exists to this very day.
Not quite inspired by the Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair journalistic fabrication scandals, though not not inspired by them either, The Connector is the story of a wunderkind journalist named Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross) in the mid-1990s. A lifelong admirer of The New Yorker-esque magazine The Connector, Ethan lands his dream gig when editor-in-chief Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula) takes a shine to him, seeing a lot of his past tenacity in Ethan’s personality and writing style.
Pretty soon, Ethan has charmed just about everyone on the staff, from the company counsel (Daniel Jenkins) to copyeditor Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz), another young writer who can’t seem to get the same foothold with the boss that her male counterpart suddenly attained. As Ethan’s longform stories about Scrabble kingpins and crack-smoking politicians entrance the world, certain people — including magazine fact checker Muriel (Jessica Molaskey) and longtime reader Mona Bland (Mylinda Hull, hilariously dark) — start to realize that not all of his details add up.
And that’s where the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering. Sherman, Brown, and director Daisy Prince capture stirringly authentic emotions in this tale of a writer’s rise and fall. Sherman’s lean-and-mean script is the theatrical equivalent of the journalistic inverted pyramid: most important details up front, the rest coming out in dribs and drabs in later scenes. It’s greatly accentuated by Prince’s stylish and fast-moving production, which is tricked out with flashing neon floor lights and transformative projections (both excitingly created by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew), and a sleek, tilted set by Beowulf Boritt that culminates in a thrilling theatrical coup (never mind that he’s used a similar effect in two other shows — it’s never not cool). Márion Talán de la Rosa’s journalism-chic costumes complete the milieu-setting.
Still, you do get the sense that most, if not all, of these people have never actually worked in a newsroom environment. Would any editor who’s worth his salt, as Conrad supposedly is, really become so taken by a writer that they’d run a story without proof of sources? Shouldn’t Muriel have realized that Ethan was a fibber much sooner? I get the need for dramatic contrivances, but at the risk of sounding like Mona Bland, the dramatic contrivances peppered throughout stretch their own credulity too far.
It’s hard to say that Brown (who also did the arrangements and orchestrations and leads the six-member band at every performance) has managed to top himself— when you’ve already written Parade and The Bridges of Madison County, can he really top himself? — but of his current period of writing, this is his most haunting score. Lush and exciting as it blends rock, jazz, bebop, and traditional musical theater, his lyrics are particularly emotional and evocative. There are production numbers thrillingly delivered by Max Crumm and Fergie Philippe, a lovingly introspective ballad for Bakula, making a welcome return to theater after several decades, and a pair of stunning character songs for Cruz and Molaskey that leave you on the edge of your seat.
The jittery hand-wringing Ross displays throughout will be deeply recognizable to anyone who’s ever enveloped themself in a web of lies. His performance is charming enough that you do indeed manage to root for him, while secretly wishing for the comeuppance he eventually receives. Still, this take on the role doesn’t serve the material itself. Ross is a very good leading man, but he lacks savoir faire: this former Evan Hansen reminds us of that character throughout, telegraphing his downfall from the start. Ethan needs to be a Tom Ripley, always one step ahead of everyone, and Ross is not.
Is that enough to lead to the demise of the whole experience? Hardly. Warts and all, The Connector is one of the more exciting nights I’ve had at the theater in a while, and I can’t wait for the inevitable cast album so I can rock out on my own accord.