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« First Poster for "The Greatest Showman" | Main | Review: "Ingrid Goes West" »
Monday
Aug282017

Stage Door: "Prince of Broadway"

by Nathaniel R

Though I don't cherish the form I've seen quite a few jukebox musicals in my day. Sometimes they take the biographical route like Jersey Boys. Often they'll sift through the lyrics of some artist's catalogue hoping to yank out phrases and threads from which they can stitch together a frankenstein story. Mammia Mia is either the apotheosis or the nadir of that latter form, depending on your perspective. But what if the jukebox isn't beholden to one composer? Prince of Broadway, which just opened at the Samuel Friedman in NYC, is devoted to the producer Harold Prince who did not write music. So what you have is a greatest hits of, uh, dozens of different composers from a wide range of musicals. If this were a CD it might be called "Now That's What I Call Broadway, Vol. Whatever"

Prince backed a TON of über famous shows in his illustrious career including Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret... you name it! None of the musicals sound alike so there's little hope of cohesion in the show. Wisely Prince of Broadway  doesn't try to create a "story" from these disparate musicals in a career that stretches all the way back to 1950 (Prince is 89 years old and directed this production).What they've come up with instead is much less intrusive even if it doesn't totally work...

Tony Yazbeck and Kaley Ann Voorhees do West Side Story while Chuck Cooper takes on Fiddler on the Roof

Instead of a story, random cast members occassionally pop up between songs to quote Harold Prince himself, their sunglasses and black & white outfits the only clue that they're playing him instead of a character this time. Unfortunately this practice is so inconsistent that it looks like an afterthought; it's neither true biography nor thematic structuring quotables. Some of the musicals are name-checked, others are performed with no warning. Not that musical nerds need to be told  'this is a number from A Little Night Music' once "Send in the Clowns" begin, but if you're going to introduce the other shows... 

But you're here for the musical hits anyway. As befitting a "revue" rather than a traditional musical, Prince of Broadway is wildly uneven. In some ways it's a rare treat to hear so many famous songs performed in a single night. In another way there's a certain low-rent quality to it like a fully staged karaoke night with Broadway calibre friends. It's fun to see some of the actors play roles they'd never normally be asked to play since in many cases they've ignored ages, races, and physicality in who does which numbers.

Tony Yazbeck is Tony-worthy again in "Prince of Broadway"

Time and again though one performer soared above them all. Though Chuck Cooper put up a fight with an exuberant funny Tevye from Fiddler and a moving "Old Man River" from Showboat, the MVP of the show is Tony Yazbeck. This charismatic performer rose to fame in the Gene Kelly role in On the Town revival a few years ago. If anything he's an even better performer now with that demanding show and subsequent concert performances under his belt. His voice, which has previously taken a backseat given his once-in-a-generation dancing, is a thing of delicate beauty in two West Side Story numbers that are early highlights of this show. Despite leading man charisma he can also blend well into the ensemble while still delivering good-sized musical comedy laughs in the "You Gotta Have Heart" number from Damn Yankees. If all that weren't enough he then brings down the house with a solo of "The Right Girl" from Follies. It's the most thrilling take on the song I've personally ever witnessed -- equal parts beautiful singing, incisive acting, and utterly dynamic dancing -- and I'm more than a little familiar as it's one of my all time favorite shows. Yazbeck is too young to play Buddy in a real production at the moment but if the Broadway Gods are kind he'll win a Tony playing that role in a revival in, say, 2030.

Unfortunately for Prince of Broadway all of that Yazbeckian pleasure is stuffed into the first act and things go downhill rapidly in Act Two with less of him onstage. His one solo in the second act places him behind bars for Jason Robert Brown's Parade which is no way to use Yazbeck's amazing physicality.

Emily Skinner has great fun with "Ladies Who Lunch" while Bryonha Marie Parham shows amazing versatility with her voice in several different styles of music (here in Cabaret)

The highlight of Act 2 is arguably Emily Skinner's "Ladies Who Lunch" but the competition isn't there. Sweeney Todd is a bonafide musical masterwork but the two song choices are strange ones in this standalone context despite a fine Mrs Lovett by way of Tony winner Karen Ziemba. I thought the night had hits its nadir during a painfully oversold "Being Alive"  -- calm down Michael Xavier, every line cannot be the climax of the song! But the Andrew Lloyd Webber section was yet to come.

Prince of Broadway is a tribute show and since Phantom of the Opera is Harold Prince's biggest hit (29 year on Broadway and no sign that it will ever close since it still plays to 88% capacity)  it's penultimate placement in this revue is more than understandable. Still, hearing that damn cheesy echo on those cheesy songs while the fog machine rolls out some ambience for the sudden gothic posing of the set, was an unfortunate way to wind this sometimes rollicking celebration down.

But, hey, glad i was there for Act One!

more Broadway...

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