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If you’ve seen the 1973 film classic The Sting, you no doubt recall its myriad pleasures. They include David S. Ward’s marvelously clever screenplay, the superb production design, the classic Scott Joplin ragtime music and the effortlessly charismatic performances of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, both at the top of their game. It’s highly doubtful, on the other hand, that after watching it you came away thinking, “What that movie really needed was singing and dancing.”
Unfortunately, we live in an era in which every successful film has become grist for musical adaptation, and that’s exactly what’s been done in the new musical version featuring a book by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and score by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (Urinetown). Starring Harry Connick Jr. in the Newman role of Henry Gondorff and relative newcomer J. Harrison Ghee in the Redford role of Johnny Hooker, The Sting, directed by John Rando, is receiving its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in what is being billed as a pre-Broadway engagement.
So, will the musical make it to the Great White Way? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t, considering the property’s name recognition and Connick’s drawing power, especially with the women who make up the majority of Broadway audiences. But that doesn’t prevent the show from feeling wholly unnecessary.
Martin’s book is faithful to the film’s intricate plot to a fault, with one key difference: Hooker is now African-American, which was apparently the screenwriter’s original intention. Rather than being an example of color-blind casting, the character’s race is made integral to the plot and the fresh angle works quite well.
But the source material doesn’t particularly lend itself to musicalization. The complex storyline — involving the veteran grifter Gondorff and petty conman Hooker teaming up to pull an elaborate sting on a vicious gangster (Tom Hewitt) as revenge for his murdering their old friend and mentor Luther (Kevyn Morrow) — doesn’t feature much in the way of emotion. There was certainly no real love relationship in the film, unless you count the Newman-Redford bromance.
The stage version adds a plethora of songs and production numbers, many of them featuring elaborate choreography by Warren Carlyle. But they mainly serve as distractions rather than advancing the plot or enhancing the characterizations. You find yourself wishing they would hurry up and get back to the action, which, even if you’re familiar with its ingenious twists and turns, is still deliciously entertaining.
It’s disappointing that Martin, whose Drowsy Chaperone was such a paragon of wit, here resorts to cheap fart jokes. He’s also done little to restyle the property in musical terms, retaining large chunks of the film’s dialogue which, as we know, didn’t contain many song cues. Among his more successful embellishments is the incorporation of the Luther character, accompanied by an onstage trombonist, as a framing device who even shows up late in the proceedings in ghostly form. Some of the humor has been punched up and Gondorff now has a background as a former saloon pianist, which provides the opportunity for Connick to display his keyboard skills. Another addition is the casual romantic relationship between Gondorff and Billie (Kate Shindle), the owner of the brothel where he lives, but that subplot doesn’t add up to much.
The score by Hollmann and Kotis lacks the anarchic wit of their work in Urinetown. The music, which at times hints at jazz and ragtime, is pleasantly melodic but unmemorable, and the lyrics, such as those for “The Thill of the Con,” in which the grifters exult in their crooked profession, are generic and predictable. The musical highlight is “This Ain’t No Song and Dance,” a lavish production number that opens the second act, but even that feels extraneous. It’s only in the rollicking, percussive horse-race numbers that the music feels organic to the material.
Connick is credited with “additional music and lyrics,” and although his contributions aren’t specified, they’re not hard to guess. Not surprisingly, Joplin’s ragtime music, including “The Entertainer,” is also prominently featured, albeit in short doses and usually between scenes.
Choreographer Carlyle delivers plenty of large-scale numbers featuring generous displays of tap-dancing (even Connick does some hoofing) and, for some reason, male dancers carrying women sitting on chairs. The overall effect is impressive enough but hardly integral to the storyline; it makes the show feel attenuated in its 165-minute running time.
Connick brings his usual charm, if not Newman’s sly humor, to his role, and cuts a dashing figure whether wearing undershirts or a sharply pressed tuxedo. He’s given plenty of opportunity to show off his pipes, and he doesn’t disappointment. Ghee, whose previous credits include playing Lola in Kinky Boots, has charisma to spare and estimable singing and dancing chops.
The terrific supporting cast includes fine turns from Hewitt, enjoyably recreating Robert Shaw’s heavily brogued menace as the gangster Doyle Lannegan; Shindle, appealing as the sardonic brothel owner; Janet Dacal, suitably sultry as the diner waitress with whom Hooker has an ill-fated dalliance; Richard Kline, amusing as the elegant con artist Kid Twist; and Robert Wuhl, effectively creepy as crooked cop Lt. Snyder.
Director Rando delivers a suitably fast-paced, cinematic staging, and the production certainly can’t be faulted, with Beowulf Boritt’s versatile sets, Paul Tazewell’s handsome period costumes and Japhy Weideman’s superb lighting all of Broadway-level quality.
The Sting proves entertaining enough, in its creatively limited way. It’s certainly not a con job perpetrated on the audience. But it mainly serves to prove once again that simply adding singing and dancing to a familiar property does not a great musical make.
Venue: Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey
Cast: Peter Benson, Harry Connick Jr., Janet Dacal, J. Harrison Ghee, Christopher Gurr, Tom Hewitt, Richard Kline, Kevyn Morrow, Kate Shindle, Robert Wuhl
Book: Bob Martin
Music & lyrics: Mark Hollmann, Greg Kotis
Additional music & lyrics: Harry Connick, Jr.
Director: John Rando
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Randy Hansen
Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse
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