I've become somewhat jaded and downright cynical when it comes to the tidal wave of musical stage productions based on popular, non-musical motion pictures. So it was with a sense of wariness that I approached the world premiere engagement of "The Sting" at the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ. After all, the classic, Oscar-winning 1973 film doesn't need musical production numbers to "improve it". There was already a great deal of interest in the production prior to the relatively last-minute announcement last month that the production would star Harry Connick, Jr. That sent already healthy tickets sales into overdrive and you'd be hard-pressed to find seats for the engagement, which runs through April 29. It doesn't take long to set aside one's suspicions that this might be a lightweight rip-off of a great film. As with all Papermill shows, this one first impresses with its creative and often ingenious sets designed by Beowulf Boritt and the magnificent orchestra under the musical direction of Fred Lassen. Not having seen the film version in decades, I can't say precisely how much of the movie's script by David S. Ward makes it into the musical production, but the book by Bob Martin seemed to include most of the important elements. The plot, set during the Depression, can be summarized succinctly by simply saying it involves the teaming of a legendary con man, Henry Gondorff (Harry Connick, Jr.) with an aspiring young protege, Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) to use the ultimate scam to take down Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt), a filthy rich, ruthless crime kingpin who has murdered an old friend of Gondorff and Hooker. The elaborate plan requires military-like strategy, a good deal of money and a virtual army of experienced grifters. The pace of the production is suitably brisk, the dialogue punctuated with wisecracks and most of the musical numbers enable the advancement of the story line. The score by Mark Kollman and Greg Kotts (with contributions by Connick) is breezy and fun even if there isn't a single breakthrough number that you'll find yourself humming afterward. The dance numbers are outstanding thanks to the talents of choreographer Warren Carlyle. Connick's legions of loyal fans will be pleased that he gets to perform some solo numbers and he proves to be a very able and charismatic actor, as well. His on-stage partner in crime (Ghee) also delivers the goods with an assured and highly amusing performance. We won't make the case that Connick and Ghee will make you forget the teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford but they clearly have broad appeal to the audience, if the reaction at the show I attended is any indication. It must be said that the show benefits from some sensational supporting performances with Tom Hewitt in the villainous role so memorably played on film by Robert Shaw, Kate Shindle as a hooker with a heart of gold, Janet Dascal as a femme fatale and Kevyn Morrow as the ill-fated grifter whose murder sets off the caper especially impressive. Special praise should be lavished on Tony-nominated director John Rando, who has the daunting task of seamlessly overseeing the movements of a very large cast, which includes an abundance of nattily-clad con men and scantily-clad prostitutes, as well as ensuring that the cumbersome, elaborate sets are moved quickly and flawlessly. This production cost a considerable sum and every penny of it is up there on the stage. The goal is very obviously to move the musical a scant few miles to Broadway, as so many other Papermill productions have.
Robert Shaw, Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the Oscar-winning film version.
The production can still use some tweaking. The first act ends with the con men having successfully amassed their "army" of fellow charlatans, thus the audience is eager to get to the actual caper in the second act. However, there are so many musical numbers (all of them admittedly impressive) that it distracts from the sense of anticipation to see the elaborate "sting" enacted. At least one of the numbers can be eliminated because several are superfluous to the main story line. Additionally, although there is an abundance of great Scott Joplin songs, audiences may feel cheated that there are only a few fleeting, occasional strains of the legendary "The Entertainer", so memorably arranged for the film version by Marvin Hamlisch. In a recent interview, Harry Connick Jr explains why he had reservations about using the tune, but that won't negate the feeling of disappointment by viewers. It's like making a James Bond movie and not including the signature theme. Still, these are minor criticisms. "The Sting" musical production has not been created with the intention of winning awards or pleasing critics, who are generally down on these adaptations of hit movies for the stage. Its main purpose is to appeal to mass audiences and if the reaction I witnessed is any indication, the creative team has succeeded admirably.