PRINCE OF BROADWAY, the new musical revue of the sensational career of Broadway impresario Hal Prince, is like a crown. Starting with a job as an assistant stage manager on a long-forgotten TICKETS PLEASE! (1950), Prince produced and/or directed nearly 60 productions, garnering 21 Tony Awards, more than anyone in history. PRINCE OF BRADWAY presents three dozen songs in impeccably staged segments from 17 of his productions, popular numbers and a few surprises, too. If PRINCE OF BROADWAY is the crown of Mr. Prince’s unparalleled career, each one of these vignettes is a jewel in that crown - beautifully designed, ingeniously choreographed, lushly orchestrated and wondrously vocalized to revelatory perfection by an amazing cast of nine performers, all in top form.
Before the revue begins, the actors play Mr. Prince sharing anecdotes about the early days. He started out working for free for the legendary producer George Abbot. Autobiographical asides, personal reflections and words of theatre wisdom weave in and out of the production numbers for the two and a half hours of glorious entertainment, one show-stopper after another, that follow.
Prince’s backstage stories are fascinating - how he and Stephen Sondheim met, for example – but, being the penultimate showman, Mr. Prince, who directs the show with co-director and choreographer Susan Stroman - knows the show - not he - is the thing. PRINCE lifts-off with Mr. Prince’s first musical, THE PAJAMA GAME (1954) with the wistful, bittersweet “Hey, There” cleverly played as a recording, as it was in the original show, sung by Michael Xavier (last seen in SUNSET BOULEVARD). PRINCE quickly moves onto DAMN YANKEES (1955) with a rousing locker-room rendition of (Ya Gotta Have)” Heart” with Brandon Uranowitz (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS), Tony Yazbeck (CHORUS LINE, ON THE TOWN) and Xavier as the baseball players and Chuck Cooper (Tony Award for CAROLINE, OR CHANGE) as team manager. Next at bat in song is the female cast.
Newcomer Kaley Ann Voorhees (from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) as Maria pairs off with Mr. Yazbek in a soaring duet of “Tonight” from the beloved WEST SIDE STORY (1957). Bryonha Marie Parham (BOOK OF MORMAN) claims her first solo spot as shop girl Amalia with “Will He like Me”, with a vocal clarity and range that make it sound as fresh and lively as Barbara Cook’s in SHE LOVES ME (1963). Janet Dacal (IN THE HEIGHTS) gets her first spot in PRINCE’s least-known song in the show with the witty, sexy “You’ve Got Possibilities” from IT’S A BIRD… IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN (1966), which despite uniformly positive notices lasted only 129 performances. Mr. Prince reminds us that good reviews don’t mean a box office success and vice versa.
Karen Ziemba (Tony Award for CONTACT) and Emily Skinner (BILLY ELLIOT) enter singing in the segment from FOLLIES (1971) as Sally and Phyllis in a perfectly staged “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.” The FOLLIES segment opens with Ms Dacal as a Ziegfeld showgirl descending a stairway to “Beautiful Girls” framed front and back like giant, old-fashioned, pop-up, die-cut Valentine’s card, splendidly designed, like the rest of the show, by Beowulf Boritt.
With no discredit to any of the other performers (each has at least one showstopper); the showstopper of showstoppers in PRINCE is Mr. Yazbeck’s rendition of “The Right Girl” as Buddy in a stunning, thoroughly original routine choreographed by Stroman. Yazbeck works the song and dance for a breathless 6 minutes, mixing mesmerizing, athletic tap with a balletic prowess that recalls Harold Lang and Gene Kelly. The routine runs through three cycles, where Mr. Yazbeck concludes an exhaustive dance routine and returns to song, then resumes dance, then song. When one thinks his number is done, he takes it higher: after two, non-stop dance/song cycles, he explodes for a third, final cycle that plays as Buddy’s cathartic release of his life’s disappointments and self-delusions. It’s a jaw-dropping, knockout achievement of unimaginable athleticism.
It’s a tough act to follow, but each performer - by dint of sparkling, imaginative orchestrations and unique stylistic vocal interpretations - shines. Among three elegantly staged selections from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973), Ms Skinner imbues the sad, haunting “Send in the Clowns” with such an expressive virtuosity it’s like hearing Sondheim’s most popular song of all for the first time, putting aside memories of Glynis Johns as the original Desiree.
In the closing sequence of Act One, CABARET (1966), Mr. Uranowitz makes us forget, too, about Joel Gray in "Wilkommen". One of the most poignant moments in PRINCE comes in “If You Could See Her” which reminds us quietly of anti-Semitism, still rearing its ugly head. In an inspired touch, one of the players (no spoiler) emerges from the ape costume in pink chiffon to deliver, in perfect German accent, “So What”, which serves to remind, too, that, despite hardship and tragedy, life goes on. Ms Parham as Sally Bowles concludes the first act with an unapologetically angry, fierce, bold declarative “Cabaret”. Liza Minnelli can keep can her version: Ms Parham owns this one all to herself.
Act Two opens with the rousing ensemble title song of COMPANY (1970), followed by Ms Skinner’s “Ladies Who Lunch”, which is the finest interpretation one can hear since Elaine Stritch’s heretofore indelible original. Believe it or not, one forgets about Stritch with one of the most famous 11 o’clock numbers of all time in Ms Skinner’s hands. Mr. Xavier’s interpretation of “Being Alive” is distinctly almost sung-spoken in the beginning and concludes with his magnificent tenor in, again, one the best versions one could witness.
Highpoints, one after another, of Act Two include a defining, thunderous version by Mr. Cooper of “Old Man River” from SHOWBOAT (1994), followed by another showstopper from Ms Parham as Queenie singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” charmingly choreographed for dance duet with Ms Voorhees as Magnolia.
Ms Dacal is a fabulous Eva Peron, especially in the “Buenos Aires” sequence from EVITA, performed with a sexy, splashy, tango-inspired routine by Stroman. One of the lesser known of Sondheim’s songs, ”Now You Know” from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (1981) gets a sprightly, spunky solo treatment from Ms. Skinner. Mr. Yazbeck returns for an emotional “This Is Not Over Yet”, another nod to contemporary issues, from PARADE (1998), Mr. Prince’s piercing musical drama about civil rights. Mr. Uranowitz takes flight as Molina with “Dressing Them Up” from KISS OF A SPIDER WOMAN (1993). Ms Dacal makes another eye-popping entrance for the title song as Aurora, costumed in a spider web that morphs to fill the complete backdrop.
The last numbers contrast my personal most and least favorite of Mr. Prince’s canon. Ms Ziemba as a plucky, chirpy Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Cooper as the brooding, obsessed Sweeny perform with perfect precision “The Worst Pies in London” that segways into “My Friend” from SWEENY TODD (1979). Ever the showman, Mr. Prince concludes the revue of his career with his biggest hit, THE PHANTON OF THE OPERA, with Ms Voorhees’ heaven-sent voice as Christine and Mr. Xavier’s commanding tenor as The Phantom.
Most compelling about PRINCE OF BROADWAY is how each of the sequences authentically creates the essence of the original production. Every aspect -from Boritt’s scenery to impeccably articulated costumes by William Ivey Long to the technical finesse of Howell Binkley’s rich lighting design - is nonpareil, a celebration of the finest craftsmanship and artistry of Broadway theatre today. Kudos to Jason Robert Brown for his luscious arrangements and sparkling, new orchestrations: his overture masterfully incorporates musical elements from 17 of Mr. Prince’s prodcutions.
A casual observer of PRINCE OF BROADWAY might conjecture that it’s self-congratulatory or self-indulgent, or, on the other hand, that Mr. Prince needn’t be immodest, that he has every reason to toot his own horn (which he has). Contrary to both notions, PRINCE OF BROADWAY is really Mr. Prince’s love letter to Broadway and grand, grateful tribute to all those thousands, past and present in his life - from the legendary producer George Abbot to the crew now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater - for whom theatre is both dream and lifeblood and who do the work of it.
How fitting that PRINCE OF BROADWAY concludes with a new song, “Do the Work”. The ensemble sings out “Find your voice… For the love and for the art, you’ve got to tell your story”. PRINCE OF BROADWAY tells Mr. Prince’s story for everyone who loves musical theater, magnificently and joyously.
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