Now you might expect that the target audiences for the long-aborning “Prince of Broadway,” previously seen in Japan, could fill in many blanks for themselves. But there was a moment toward the end of the first act that made me wonder. We were being treated to selections from “Cabaret,” the 1966 show (based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”) that established Mr. Prince as a musical theater revolutionary.
As with most of the scenes performed here, an effort has been made by the designers — including Beowulf Boritt (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) — to summon the look of the original show. And there, leading a seedy onstage band of nightclub musicians, is a ringer for Joel Grey as the cabaret’s M.C.
The man behind the makeup (and slipping coif) is Brandon Uranowitz, whom we have previously seen in this production as a dispirited baseball player (from “Damn Yankees”) and an anxious Viennese shop clerk (from “She Loves Me”). Now, in black tie and satanic clown face, he is dancing with someone in a gorilla costume, to whom he is declaring his love in song. It’s all quite blithe until the final lyric, when the M.C. sings that if we could see the gorilla “through my eyes” — pause, then a fierce whisper — “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”
The night I saw “Prince of Broadway,” that pronouncement elicited gasps like those that accompany the falling chandelier in the deathless “Phantom of the Opera” (another Prince extravaganza, and the longest-running Broadway show of all time). You could argue that such a response is appropriate, a reminder of Mr. Prince’s confrontational boldness.
But since the anecdotal setup for this number had been minimal, some theatergoers seemed truly rattled and confused, especially with the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., still fresh in the memory. I suppose it’s encouraging to discover that a 51-year-old song can still shock. But presented as just another page in a nostalgic scrapbook, the number feels even uglier than it should.
A quality of randomness is perhaps appropriate to a show that begins with the observation, “Never underestimate luck.” That’s Mr. Uranowitz speaking, pretending to be Mr. Prince. (All the cast members take turns pretending to be Mr. Prince, wearing black and white, oddly mod outfits, with glasses perched on their heads, a signature of their director; David Thompson’s script also has them deliver unilluminating maxims on success and failure and the importance of hard work.)
What follows has the feeling of a work assembled by dice roll, and I don’t think Dadaism was anybody’s intention. The individual numbers nearly all feature literal-minded scenery, such as a bank of candles and a wrought-iron gate for the “Phantom” sequence, and they are performed with the high earnestness of audition pieces.
One thing in common among the diverse musicals overseen by Mr. Prince — from the frisky “The Pajama Game” (1954) to the morally admonitory “Parade” (1998) — is their status as frames for complex character portraits. Think of the stars he has directed in career-high performances: Mr. Grey in “Cabaret,” Patti LuPone in “Evita,” Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in “Sweeney Todd,” Brent Carver in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and pretty much everybody from the original “Follies” in 1971.
For theater fanatics, these performances are indelible. It just isn’t cricket to ask other singers to claim such star turns as their own, amid sets and costumes that directly summon the originals. The intimidation factor may be why some cast members are so combatively fierce in attacking their solos. They’re a likable group, and I don’t fault them for the impression I often had that I was at a dinner theater.
They include Tony Yazbeck (who brings a pugilist’s aggression to tap dancing in a “Follies” number); Chuck Cooper (who here becomes both Sweeney Todd and Tevye the Milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof”); Bryonha Marie Parham (a feverish Sally Bowles from “Cabaret”); Janet Dacal (Evita); Michael Xavier (bachelor Bobby in “Company” and the masked Phantom); and Kaley Ann Voorhees (Maria in “West Side Story” and Christine in “Phantom”).
The two standouts are the Broadway veterans Karen Ziemba and, especially, Emily Skinner. Ms. Ziemba brings a gripping philosophical weariness to “So What?” from “Cabaret.” And Ms. Skinner (of the original “Side Show”) delivers such an electrifying and individual take on “The Ladies Who Lunch” that every casting director in town should make a point of seeing it.
That angry paean to empty affluence is from “Company,” the pioneering concept musical of 1970 about commitment-phobia in Manhattan and the first of a landscape-altering series of collaborations between Mr. Prince and the composer Mr. Sondheim. One of Mr. Prince’s onstage alter egos admits a special fondness for “Follies,” a ravishing elegy to dashed dreams and a bygone era of showbiz.
With its opulent original production design and intricately drawn studies in ambivalence, “Follies” is an unlikely candidate for re-creation in a quick-take anthology show. But watching Ms. Skinner and Ms. Ziemba, as middle-aged former showgirls being reintroduced to their youth, I was shivering.
And not just because the 1971 “Follies” was the first Broadway show I ever saw. Even more, my excitement came from watching two fine actresses capture their characters’ echoing feelings of loss with originality and immediacy. I recalled how often in my years of theatergoing performances in Mr. Prince’s shows have evoked similar shivers. If only such reminders came more frequently in this motley production.
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