(l to r) Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper, and Tony Yazbeck in ‘Prince of Broadway.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)
By Ryan Leeds
Harold Prince. To theater aficionados, he is the epitome of Broadway. Even to casual theatergoers, his body of work has crossed over into pop culture. The preeminent director and producer has been working in the industry for over 60 years. His latest directorial project, Prince of Broadway, is a revue-style show that celebrates many of his most notable works. It even includes a few bumps in the road.
Over the course of this fantastic evening, nine talented (and mostly seasoned) Broadway stars introduce many of Prince’s works. Each of them speaks in first person voice as Prince, who believes that the sum of his career was based on more than just skill. “Never underestimate luck,” says Brandon Uranowitz at the top of the show. “Luck is being born at the right time in the right place.” Prince was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of George Abbott, a larger than life director who gave him his first job.
There are numerous shining moments in the show, many of which come in the fourth sequence. One only wishes that the pizazz and sparkle would continue after the thrilling overture. Jason Robert Brown’s arrangements, under conductor Fred Lassen’s baton, is the best musical overture you’re likely to hear on Broadway right now. By the end of it, theater geeks will be reminded of why they adore musicals so much. The rest are likely to become die-hard converts.
As the performers take to the stage, selections from The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and West Side Story are pleasant enough, but they fail to captivate. Uranowitz delivers a marvelously neurotic rendition of “Tonight at Eight,” followed by an absolutely glorious interpretation by Bryonha Marie Parham of “Will He Like Me”—both of which are from 1963’s She Loves Me.
Tony Yazbeck, who won hearts in the most recent revival of On the Town, shows off his flawless dance moves with a tap break. In “The Right Girl,” from 1971’s Follies, Yazbeck practically stops the show with his fluid athleticism and finesse. Vocally, he also shines—not only in this song but also in later moments.
It is both a fascinating and admirable gesture that Prince does not shy away from his theatrical disappointments. Before the Follies sequence, Parham (as Prince) explains that “At the time, Follies was the most expensive musical ever produced, but it didn’t recoup its investment.” It remains his favorite show, however. Parham continues, “What I really believe is this: Never confuse hits and flops with success and failure. You can have a hit that’s an artistic failure and a flop that’s an artistic success.” He admits to having eight failures in a row which is why he advocates scheduling a meeting for his next project after opening night. “If the show gets bad reviews, will you be glad to start working on something new.”
Tony winner Chuck Cooper has some winning moments. In Act I, he infuses Tevye, the lead character from Fiddler on the Roof with fun and melancholy in “If I Were A Rich Man.” In Act II, his “Old Man River” from Showboat is deeply affecting and genuine.
Songs from 1970’s Company open Act II. Michael Xavier, last seen in the Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard, has a soaring voice, which shines in “Being Alive.” Broadway veteran Emily Skinner, as Joanne, has the daunting task of delivering the late Elaine Stritch’s most well-known song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” She channels Stritch, but still manages to make it her own.
Numbers from Merrily We Roll Along, Parade, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Sweeney Todd follow. Prince’s most successful and popular show, The Phantom of the Opera is also represented. Composer and Lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s final original number “Do The Work” is an honorable testament to Prince’s ethics:
Do the work/Get it done/When you’re finished, you start the next one/Will it last/Will it count/Time will tell/Fill the Space/Do the work, Pal/And do it well.
With Prince of Broadway, Mr. Prince—and his entire company—can reflect on a job that has not only been done well but one that has been done with heaping servings of vitality and panache.
Prince of Broadway
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street, NYC
Through October 22nd.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.