‘The Sting’ at Paper Mill Playhouse. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
By Bobby McGuire
At first glance, the title page of the program for The Sting at The Paper Mill Playhouse screams “sure bet.” Staffed by an award-winning creative team and performed by a troupe of Broadway pros led by a modern jazz A-lister, the world premiere musical looks like another winning hand for the regional theater turned hit factory.
But winning hands aren’t always winners. And while the evening provides more than a few first-rate elements, it lacks cohesion. Like a dealer who alternately dispenses a 21 during a game of poker and a straight flush at the Blackjack table, The Sting teases, but never pays off.
Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy. Quite the contrary, there is enough to like in The Sting for at least five musicals — just not in the same evening on the same stage. If the musical is guilty of anything, it’s lack of focus.
Choreographer Warren Carlyle (who fares best here) promises a tap show, but fades into more subdued jazz numbers and eventually generic Broadway hoofing. Even designer Beowulf Boritt turns in a mixed bag of realistic and stylistic scenery. Throughout it all, it’s unclear what kind of show director John Rando wants to create.
Faithfully based on the 1973 film, The Sting tells the story of Depression Era grifter Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee), who, after the murder of his cohort, Luther (an underused Kevyn Morrow), teams up with washed-up conman Henry Gondorff (Harry Connick, Jr.). The pair concocts an elaborate scheme to swindle murderous racketeer Doyle Lonnegan (a terrifically malicious Tom Hewitt), the man who ordered the hit on Luther.
The show’s ace-in-the-hole is its leading man, jazz superstar Harry Connick, Jr., who presents a broader, more sophomoric take on Gondorff than his film predecessor, Paul Newman. With a tickle of the ivories (he plays piano on stage), charm to spare and star quality, Connick more than makes up for any acting shortcomings he brings to the stage.
In the more pivotal role of Hooker, J. Harrison Ghee carries the emotional arc of the evening’s revenge comedy. Most recently seen on Broadway as Lola in Kinky Boots, Ghee brings in his triple-threat chops and literally carries the show.
The rest of the supporting cast is also superb. The always delightful Kate Shindle stands out as Gondorff’s love interest, the cathouse manager, Billie. Janet Dacal is perfectly sultry as the enigmatic waitress Loretta who steals Hooker’s heart.
With the veteran Broadway team involved, it wouldn’t be surprising if The Sting had its eyes on a commercial transfer across the river. However, without substantial edits, it would take a producer with the conman skills of Hooker and Gondorff to make The Sting sing.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through April 29
Bobby McGuire is the backstage veteran of nine Broadway shows and national tours. His post-showbiz life led him to work for Ogilvy and Mather, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and EDGE Media Network. He resides in Manhattan with two roommates and a Maltese named Nero.