Theater review by Adam Feldman
“There’s nothin’ to it, but to do it”: That’s the inspirational advice of the baseball manager in Damn Yankees’ “Heart,” the opening number of Prince of Broadway. It’s also the implicit credo of this collection of songs from shows produced or directed by Harold Prince over the course of his astonishing seven decades on Broadway. Prince of Broadway is a revue of musical numbers—really, more of a dutiful review—with brief snatches of narration in Prince’s voice, delivered by nine actors wearing Prince’s signature glasses on their heads. It builds to a finale, written by Jason Robert Brown, that is brusquely banal: “Do the work. / Do it now,” it orders the audience. “If there’s something to say, then say it.”
Fine. But what does this musical have to say? Now 89, Prince has had a storied career, but we don’t get that story here. Beyond his penchant for unconventional material, there’s little insight into Prince’s craft or his vision. It’s not easy to detect the director’s history in what we’re seeing, since the musical numbers—greatest hits from shows including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Company and Cabaret, plus a sprinkling of relative obscurities—feature new casts, new choreography (by codirector Susan Stroman) and new sets (by Beowulf Boritt, making budget-conscious nods to the originals). The songs wind up in an awkward space: divorced from the dramatic context that gave many of them their power, yet too tethered to their first incarnations to enjoy the interpretive mobility they might have in a straightforward concert or cabaret show.
Prince of Broadway does provide a fine showcase for several of the artists. Tony Yazbeck delivers a lengthy, exceptional explosion of tap-dance frustration in “The Right Girl,” from Follies. Brown’s ingenious overture kicks things off smartly, and Bryonha Marie Parham and Janet Dacal demonstrate considerable vocal power and versatility. But pros Karen Ziemba and Emily Skinner—the latter saddled with a lurching arrangement of “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along—have trouble selling material stamped hard by its original performers, and Michael Xavier seems out of his depth in numbers including the production’s low point, a stiffly kitschy slice of The Phantom of the Opera.
Although the gorgeously deep-voiced Chuck Cooper contributes an amusing account of Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man,” what should be his crowning moment—Show Boat’s “Ol’ Man River”—is muddied with interpolated lyrics, used by Paul Robeson in concert in the ’40s, that reverse the song’s cosmic cry of despair: “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living but scared of dying” becomes “I keep laughing instead of crying / I must keep fighting until I’m dying.” That change, at least, has the virtue of seeming pointed, in a show whose point is rarely very clear. It’s a pleasant collection of beloved and familiar Broadway songs, but there isn’t much to it.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). Book by David Thompson. Music and lyrics by various writers. Directed by Harold Prince and Susan Stroman. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Oct 22.
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