The “Prince of Broadway”
Is Trapped in “A Play
That Goes Wrong.”
by TONY VELLELA
You are drowsy. You quick-click the remote, skipping from Benny Hill to Carol Burnett to vintage Ed Sullivan to vintage Soupy Sales to Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” to The Three Stooges to . . . you fall asleep. To sleep, perchance to dream, and in that dream, parts of all those shows combine into a dizzying, hilarious kaleidoscope of scenes and characters. You wake up, and realize that you’ve been in the audience of “The Play That Goes Wrong.”
Comfortably settled into the Lyceum Theatre, written by [or perhaps concocted is more appropriate] Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, it seems to be capturing the spirit of that long-ago Broadway manic phenomenon, “Hellzapoppin,” except that this has an actual story line to torpedo. A product of London’s eleven-year-old Mischief Theatre, it captured the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. And unlike most comedy forms, which require a set-up and a pay-off, this one delights in skipping the first step, going directly from pay-off to pay-off, much like the brilliant stand-up Stephen Wright did, with simple one-liners [“If coconut oil comes from coconuts, where does baby oil come from?”].
Here’s the premise: a local theatre company, the Cornley University Drama Society, thanks to the generosity of its newest member, is presenting “The Murder at Haversham Manor” in a large legit theater. It’s a murder mystery wherein a typical Brit dysfunctional family must deal with the serial knockings-off of one after another of them. And even before the ‘play’ begins, two crew members can be seen scurrying about on stage, trying to repair and replace failing mantles and loose floorboards. Once underway, the usual list of motives, such as secret indiscretions, basic avarice, revenge, tangled family relationships, and more, identify possible suspects. But the telling of the tale, by this profoundly inept troupe, rolls out misadventure after mishap, giving slapstick a good name by its elegant delivery. If bad acting alone were punishable by death, there would be no living actors of this amateur troupe onstage for a curtain call.
Director Mark Bell possesses both superior stage direction skill and a keen sense of choreography, which provides “The Play That Goes Wrong” with its fast-paced gallop, never out of step. Like Michael Frayn’s iconic stage/backstage farce “Noises Off,” “The Play That Goes Wrong” relies on a split-second timed delivery of each beat, because the moments are laid out like dominoes, ready to fall one after the other, unless something causes the action to jump ahead, skipping over some of them, resulting in plot points to collide, out of order.
Some tried-and-true laugh-getters come through unapologetically. The reliable spit-take gets maximum use, as when paint thinner is mistaken for whiskey. Another veteran development comes when the inevitable necessity for someone – in this case the stage manager – to go on when the heroine gets knocked out by a wayward door. The reluctant stage manager becomes so enamored with performing that she embellishes every gesture, but is taken aback when she drops her prompt book, tossing the pages all out of order. Buster Keaton would be proud of this gang.
The scenic design, by the brilliantly creative Nigel Hook, is a grand conglomeration of innocent-enough elements -a grandfather clock, only three doors [a rarity for a successful farce], a down-center chaise longue, a telephone with a not-quite long enough cord, and so much more, all of them fodder for sight-gags and riotous visuals.
If there’s anything that could be called wrong with this production, it would be its length. With intermission, it clocks in at two hours fifteen minutes, which means the comic momentum that builds in act one must be re-ignited at the start of the second act. They manage to do it, of course, however not without a certain fatigue setting in. That’s just about all that’s wrong here.
To segue from a play with that comedy’s title, to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of “Prince of Broadway,” would be ungracious. Several years in development, following a try-out in Japan, this “Prince” seeks to chronicle and to celebrate the unparalleled Broadway career of 89-year-old producer/director Harold ‘Hal’ Prince, stretching from his role as co-producer for 1954’s “The Pajama Game,” right up to and including this one. If you sit across from him at his desk, he is flanked by his record-breaking 21 Tony Awards , including the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
Google him to get the full list of credits. The line-up in this show draws from seventeen of them. And many proved to break new ground in the musical theatre universe. “West Side Story” tackled ultra-sensitive gang territorialism, “Fiddler on the Roof” brought Sholem Aleichem’s classic stories of Jewish oppression to audiences, “Follies” exposed the painful emotional challenges of women whose identities were tied to physical beauty, “Cabaret” revealed how some managed to survive the great and growing political power of 1930’s Nazi-ism in Germany, “Company” showed the false sense of security and happiness that comes from a single life built on an inability to make commitments, and on and on and on. Big themes inside big productions.
Where “Prince of Broadway” falls short is in conveying these themes before any of the chosen musical selections are performed. Those of us, for example, who were lucky enough to have seen the original “Cabaret,” can recall how unexpectedly moving it was to experience subjects that were, and remain, vital and timeless [the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” about how German youth, brain-washed by state propaganda, came to believe in the inevitable world domination by their homeland, will always grab one by the throat]. But what if you don’t know the “Cabaret” premise? The plaintive “So What?” was written by Kurt Weil for his wife Lotte Lenya, who introduced it in that show’s premiere. Without that cloak of context to explain how a Protestant Berlin landlady, who has been proposed to by a gentle, caring Jewish grocer, could seem selfish or heartless when she rejects his entreaty.
No narrative presents the back story for “A Little Night Music.” Same fate for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Ditto “Evita.” Ditto “Parade.” What narrative does exist comes through when various cast members take turns “standing in” for Hal, entering with his signature pair of glasses perched above his forehead, giving a very brief intro to what we are about to see, and what ‘he’ was feeling about it at the time. And even though designers Beowulf Boritt [scenic and projection design], William Ivey Long [costumes] and Paul Huntley [hair and wig design] strain to capture the spirit of all these shows, precious few manage to convey their meaning. The basic skeletal set housing the “Company” numbers did recall that show’s ‘feel.’ And projections used with the “Evita” segment gave the songs the feel of the time they were meant to represent, which begs the question why more projections were not used.
And so – – – how could a work that draws from a peerless collection of great musicals covering more than six rich decades of Broadway history seem so – so – shapeless, or uninspired. Perhaps the fault lies in the book, by David Thompson. His work has been seen to suffer from a kind of episodic format. The compelling subjects within his “Scottsboro Boys” managed to move the stories to the forefront, with help from its director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who performs the same task here. His book for “Steel Pier,” though, lacked the forceful compelling immediacy that the life-threatening conditions facing its participants, and was watered down further by a romantic relationship that weakened the impact of the plot.
This cast of nine, including fine work from Stroman regular Karen Ziemba, plugs away delivering each of their assignments with varying degrees of success. Another stand-out is a show-stopping tap routine by Tony Yazbeck within the “Follies” medley.
The jukebox musical phenomenon that captured the Street a decade or two ago and can still provide an evening’s worth of great entertainment [see “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical”] is not what “Prince of Broadway” can be compared to, and that difference may be at the heart of why its lack of cohesion is so disappointing. What unites all these represented shows, from “Damn Yankees” to “Evita,” from “Follies” to “Show Boat,” is the involvement of Mr. Prince, as either producer or director, or both. What is common throughout all those titles, show to show, musical to musical, decade to decade, is his dedication to creative excellence, regardless of what rules must be broken, to achieve the best result, the most compelling theatrical experience that can be shaped, to give each individual work its shot at having its story, its theme, its subject clearly received by its audience. Different rules had to be jettisoned, and new approaches had to be invented – so that each show’s integrity could be uniquely performed for its particular audience.
A new, and much-anticipated jukebox musical “Red Roses, Green Gold” has been written by librettist Michael Norman Mann, drawing from the collection of music and lyrics the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Mann, whose previous credits, culled from Dead-inspired works, were “Cumberland Blues,” staged in 1998, and “Shakedown Street”, done in 2005.”Roses/Gold” has been booked into the Minetta Lane Theater in the Village, opening on October 29. Tickets should be available now . . . Guess who’s coming to Broadway. Actually, three guesses, since there are three correct answers. First up is one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors, three-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance [“Jerusalem,” “Boeing-Boeing” and “Twelfth Night”], who will portray King Phillipe V of Spain in “Farinelli and the King,” by Claire van Kampen. The limited engagement begins a limited run at the Belasco on December 5. Number Two is Uma Thurman in Beau Willimon’s new play “The Parisian Woman,” under the direction of Pam MacKinnon. The limited run engagement at the Hudson Theatre kicks off its previews on November 7. And Number Three? Not a real person [yet], but a very vivid personality, who knows from all different types of the color ‘blue.’ Yup – it’s Amanda Priestly, who was first seen in the 2006 picture “The Devil Wears Prada,” portrayed by Meryl Streep. The musical adaptation will feature a score by Elton John [“Aida,” “The Lion King”] and a book by Paul Rudnick [“The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told”], and adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel.
The celebrated play about a theatre production that is unable to keep things on track, the iconic farce “Noises Off,” by Michael Frayn, is published by Samuel French. Frayn’s writing has never been equaled when it comes to the stage-based premise of how whatever can go wrong, can and does . . . the murder mystery play, long a staple of regional and amateur theatre groups, gained prominence because of two crackling good murder tales by Agatha Christie. Both are published by Samuel French. The first, “Murder on the Nile,” was published in 1948, and the second, “The Mousetrap,” premiered in 1954, and is still running in London – an established favorite for generations . . . and if your curiosity has been aroused by all this murder mystery play talk, pick up the entertaining and comprehensive “Curtain Up – Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre,” by Julius Green. The handsome tome was brought out by HarperCollins in 2015 . . . so many of the productions that Hal Prince initially brought to life have become landmarks in their particular genre, such as “Cabaret.” One of the most influential revivals, directed by Sam Mendes for the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company’s production. You will be happy to immerse yourself in “Cabaret – The Illustrated Book and Lyrics,” edited by Linda Sunshine, for Newmarket Press, which serves as both a playscript and a historical look at the play and its various incarnations. Great pictures! There are more than 100 photographs and drawings [including 82 in full color], by Joan Marcus, as well as never-before-seen backstage photos by Rivka Katvan, and archival photographs of past productions.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.” His Best Play Award-winning work “Admissions,” at the New York International Fringe Festival, was published by Playscripts. He has written several other plays and musicals, and his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. He has covered the theatre and the performing arts since 1968, his articles appearing in dozens of publications, including Parade, Rolling Stone, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Dramatics, Crawdaddy, The Christian Science Monitor and the Robb Report. He has taught theatre-related courses at several institutions, including HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, and colleges & universities, such a Columbia University’s Teachers College.