Review: ‘Prince of Broadway’ at the Manhattan Theater Club

Hal Prince, producer/director extraordinaire is far too modest. His new offering to the Manhattan Theater Club is so entertaining that I hereby elevate him from PRINCE to KING OF BROADWAY for orchestrating this two and a half hour extravaganza which he managed to accomplish with only nine very talented actors.

The cast of Prince of Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Part of Prince’s gift has always been his ability to surround himself with talents that match his own. In this case, her co-director and choreographer is again Susan Stroman, her book author is David Thompson; its set, costume and lighting designers are the venerable Beowolf Boritt, William Ivey Long and Howell Binkley. Another of his disciples is Jason Robert Brown who arranged, orchestrated and supervised the music of dozens of composers whose works fuel the evening’s entertainment.

Yes, Hal Prince’s control over the set is evident throughout the night; one can sense what they once called the “Ziegfeld touch” – the noticeable presence of personality in a production – also present in the shows of Jed Harris, George Abbott and Mike Nichols, who set the standard of excellence in the Broadway’s glorious past.

Prince’s nine-member company is invited to perform everything from star to ensemble member in this two-act selection of excerpts from the musicals we’ve known and loved. Because they’re so well staged and performed here, they appeal both to those who have never seen any of the original productions, and to veterans like me who have seen them all.

Various members of the company appear from time to time as Prince himself, to lead us to the next number, and these introductions tell us everything we need to know about the circumstances in which these songs were created. We begin simply with Michael Xavier lending his beautiful voice to “Hey There”, the song that helped establish Jerry Ross and Richard Adler as two songwriters of rare promise in The pajama game, which launched them and Mr. Prince with Robert Griffith as co-producer. He was followed by Chuck Cooper as a baseball coach in Cursed Yankees, telling 3 of his players that they must have “Heart!”, another hit from Adler and Ross. As sung and staged, this revival earned the first of a dozen cheers that stopped the show. It starred Michael Xavier, Brandon Uranowitz and Tony Yazbeck.

The next winner of the Prince work was West Side Story. It showed early on that he was a visionary, as the musical was dropped by another top producer (Cheryl Crawford) who didn’t see it developing in the direction she loved. It might never have happened if Prince hadn’t seen his potential. The use of Tony Yazbeck and Kaly Ann Voorhees to sing “Tonight” in the balcony scene introduced us to the romance of musical theater with restless underpinnings rarely exhibited in 1956 musicals. It was, to quote a title of a later project, “Opening Doors”.

Then come two delicious reinterpretations of She loves Me, the first musical he directed from the start. He took over this position on A family matter a year earlier, but all he could accomplish on that first John Kander musical was patchwork. In this current bio-musical, Brandon Uranowitz and Kaly Ann Voorhees have now returned to bring George and Amelia, the two main characters from She loves Me to life alive with “Tonight At Eight” and “Will He Like Me?”, again creating a frenzy of excitement ahead.

And so he went through five more segments in act one alone, giving us some wonderful segments to watch and listen to from Follies, A little night music, fiddler on the roofand the equally memorable Cabaret. In the Follies segment Tony Yazbeck brought great pathos to “The Right Girl” in which he outdid himself again and again in the introspective dance. Brilliant. In night music Emily Skinner revealed tongue-in-cheek comedic ability in dropping wit and sarcasm in “You Must Meet My Wife.” Chuck Cooper, an African American, made Tevya in Fiddler a fascinating Orthodox Jew, asking what would happen “If I were a rich man”. In Cabaret Karen Ziemba proved herself to be a quintessential character actress as Fraulein Schneider tearing up the savage “So what?” with wig, costume and accent that made her someone light years away from the svelte musical comedy maid she had played in her previous shows.

Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper and Tony Yazbeck in Prince of Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Janet Dacal joined the eight I’ve already mentioned, each playing various roles in such distinctive style that the evening truly felt like an extravaganza. Suggestive sets, dazzling costumes, good sound management, superb vocal and orchestral arrangements brought all these musical treasures to life. So when the intermission came, there was a buzz ahead that spelled “Wow!”, a little-used word as far as newer musicals go.

No disappointment either in the second act. Starting with a great set of skeletons, Company was as surprising today as it was when he introduced the term “musical concept” to Broadway in 1970, in which the Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim collaboration was established, a collaboration that would lead to half a dozen of memorable musicals in the rest of the 1970s. In it, Emily Skinner picked up what had been the late Elaine Stritch’s signature song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” She brought a new approach to it that was clearly and more effectively hers. “Being Alive” gave Michael Xavier another home run with his deeply felt and very moving attack on this thriller. Even something as familiar as “Ol’ Man River” brought Show boat back fresh as a coat of paint, sung with special attention to Chuck Cooper’s lyrics. Hal Prince doesn’t favor reshoots and only helmed this classic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical in 1993 because he felt it had been overlooked. Its all-star cast delivered its vision for a run of over 900 performances.

Like Ol’ Man River, Prince of Broadway kept rolling until Brandon Uranowitz cast the role of Molina, the gay showcase of Kiss of the Spider Woman whose explanation of who he is came with “Dressing Them Up” which was another thrilling example of a talented actor doing a real star turn. Karen Ziemba followed with her very original and almost unrecognizable turn as Mrs Lovett describing “The Worst Pies In London”, and Chuck Cooper culminated with “My Friends” in which he completes his right arm by adding his newly silver razor. found, transforming it into Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Jason Robert Brown’s new anthem ‘Do The Work’ ends the evening on a fitting note as it sums up the career of Harold Prince, who at 90 is still there to inspire, mentor, produce and direct, to what we owe him so much. I invite you to see this beautiful and generous tribute paid to him.

Duration: 2h30 including 15 minutes intermission.

Prince of Broadway plays through October 22, 2017 at the Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater – 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or meet in line.