Entertainment » Theatre

The Sting

by Rob Urbinati
Thursday Apr 12, 2018
Harry Connick Jr and J. Harrison Ghee in the musical adaptation of "The Sting" at the Papermill Playhouse through April 29.
Harry Connick Jr and J. Harrison Ghee in the musical adaptation of "The Sting" at the Papermill Playhouse through April 29.  

In Act Two of "The Sting," the intermittently entertaining new musical adapted from the popular 1973 film, Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee), one of the show's two leading con men, and his pal Luther (Kevyn Morrow), a minor character killed in an early scene, perform an outstanding duet, "Confidence." Luther introduces the production in a framing device added for the musical, then disappears after his murder triggers the plot. He returns from beyond the grave to encourage the disheartened Hooker who's losing faith. The actors share an effortless rapport, the song has a breezy jazz feel and slick musical staging. There's genuine chemistry here. But these characters aren't the two leads.

A young, small-time grafter, Hooker gets into trouble when he cons an associate of Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt), a corrupt mob boss. He solicits the help of veteran hustler Henry Gondorff (Harry Connick Jr.) to help him bring Doyle down. Henry's been hiding out from the FBI, playing piano in a brothel.

Set in Depression-era Chicago, "The Sting," directed by the ubiquitous John Rando, has a book by Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") adapted from David S. Ward's screenplay. The music and lyrics are by "Urinetown's" Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis. The score also includes ragtime music by Scott Joplin, including "The Entertainer," and a few additional songs by Harry Connick, Jr.

Harry Connick Jr. and the company of "The Sting."

The musical adaptation of "The Sting" captures some of the charm and breeziness of the film. The plot piles up a series of elaborately staged cons conceived and executed by Henry, with the help of Hooker and a crew of henchmen. Martin's book follows Ward's screenplay closely - perhaps too closely. Even for audiences not familiar with the film, the schemes aren't as clever as they should be. The art of conning, apparently, has advanced in the years since the film was made. The film was spry, but significantly, as the Harry and Hooker's cons accumulated, the tension built. The characters lives were in jeopardy. In the big, final ruse, audiences could believe that both Robert Redford and Paul Newman had been killed. For the characters in the musical, there's not much urgency. The stage version of "The Sting" is more casual than involving.

The film and the musical adaptation are plot-driven, and a meandering storyline is problematic. Despite book writer Martin's efforts, the characters and the relationships aren't satisfyingly developed. This is particularly true of Hooker and Gondorff in the Redford and Newman roles.

While it's unfair to compare the actors in the musical adaptation to two movie icons, audiences need to invest in these conmen. Their confidence and camaraderie is key to the mischievous tone that sustains the teasingly intricate plot. Both actors give it their all, with considerable musical skills. Ghee has a rich, smooth voice, and moves and dances with grace. Connick, the consummate showman, sings and plays piano exuberantly - and even dances. But "The Sting" is essentially a "buddy musical," where women are secondary, and Ghee and Connick lack chemistry.

The score is an eclectic mix of styles. Joplin's ragtime tunes weave through the production, rhythmic songs liven up the con sequences; tender ballads offer a change in tone and give the characters substance, offbeat duets pop up here and there, and upbeat tunes with brassy accompaniment are exuberantly performed by the ensemble. The big band orchestrations by Doug Besterman are outstanding throughout. While some of the songs are enjoyable, a lively tune that hits its mark is often followed by one that dissipates the show's drive.

J. Harrison Ghee and the company of "The Sting."

Rewriting Hooker for an African American actor is a smart choice. This isn't "color-blind casting." Hooker is referenced as a black man, and his struggle to take on corruption underscores the racial dynamics of the era and lends itself to the infusion of blues and jazz-flavored songs in the score.

Warren Carlyle's tap-happy choreography propels the action. There are a few exhilarating production numbers and lots of clever bits like a giddy tap chase sequence and a sensual ballet. The dancers swirl, bounce and tap their way through the book scenes, invigorating the entire production.

"The Sting's" design borrows the film's sepia tone and muted palette. The sets, costumes, and lights are shades of reds, oranges and browns. The three proscenium arches that fill the depth of the stage support the film and the musical's central conceit - that the con men are essentially "putting on a show." A few "meta-theatrical" references in the book wink at the performance aspect of the cons (the intermission line is "This is only Act One!") and the musical adaptation itself ("Did you put taps at the bottom of your shoes?") Beowulf Borrit provides lush interiors for a brothel, a phony off-track betting parlor and the drawing room of a luxury train. Paul Tazewell has fun with stylish period suits and dresses, and some racier attire. Japhy Weideman's lighting bathes the production in a warm glow.

Like the film, the scenes are introduced with title cards, carried here with a swagger by scantily clad girls who work at Billie's brothel. Kate Shindel is a brash, commanding presence as Billie, and she and Connick do their best to generate a romantic spark the show doesn't accommodate. Janet Dacal's Loretta, the woman with a secret, shows off her powerful pipes. Among the strong supporting cast, Peter Benson gets his laughs as the bumbling sidekick Erie Kid, and Tom Hewitt and Robert Wuhl are appropriately sinister villains.

"The Sting" has its charms, but in the world premiere production at Papermill Playhouse, the pleasures come and go, and some of the songs are superfluous. Occasionally, the show brings the wit, charm and dexterity of the classic film to the stage. The framing device is tantalizing, as is the casting of Hooker, and the nod toward a fuller development of the women characters. But the production doesn't utilize its source to create a piece that fully stands on its own. It can be done, as "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Kinky Boots" prove. "The Sting" isn't there yet.

"The Sting" runs through April 29 at the Papermill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive
Millburn, NJ. For tickets and additional information, visit the Papermill Playhouse website.


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