MILLBURN, NJ – In a premiere production of “The Sting,” Harry Connick Jr. commands the Paper Mill Playhouse stage.
Based on the sensational Paul Newman/Robert Redford film in 1973, the 1930s plot centers on a con game and gambling, sometimes on a train between New York and Chicago. Scott Joplin’s music is intertwined with the show, especially “The Entertainer.” Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis have added music and lyrics, with a book by Bob Martin. Connick has interjected his own music and lyrics, occasionally sitting at the piano on stage. (He plays the Paul Newman part.)
The play starts off on a smashing note with Luther, Hooker and The Erie Kid. J. Harrison Ghee as Hooker swaggers and struts his way through interactions with both low-life gamblers and the Feds. In what had been the Redford role in the film, Ghee actually has more stage time than Connick. Kevyn Morrow as Luther sets the tone of this fast-paced musical when he opens the show with “You Can’t Trust Nobody.” He’s engaging and slyly appealing. Trombonist Lucien Barbarin makes his instrument sing with “The Thrill of the Con.” Peter Benson is their sidekick, The Erie Kid. Tom Hewitt as Doyle Lonnegan is the target of the con artists and later loses lots of money on a horse race. He brings us on board with “Lonnegan’s Revenge.”
“This Ain’t No Song and Dance,’ spearheaded by Connick as Gondorff, is one of the most appealing numbers in the play. There are fleeting love interests, with Gondorff’s affection for Billie (Kate Shindle) and Hooker’s fascination with Loretta (Janet Dacal.) She’s a waitress in a local diner, but later has a pivotal part as the story moves on.
John Rando has directed this multi-talented extravaganza, which has numerous moments of high flying action. Still, there’s a sameness about much of the music, with the entire cast facing the audience repeatedly at each major junction. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are evocative of the 1930s and the chorine strutting across the stage with posters introducing the segments of the action is reminiscent of Ziegfeld Follies. Beowulf Boritt’s smoothly evolving set richly provides elegant train scenes and high class bars. The ensemble cast does flashy work in all the dance numbers, choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Some scenes show males twirling their female partners across the stage on chairs.
Perhaps with this much talent on board, expectations are high, so when the musical doesn’t sustain its promise, it’s doubly disappointing. It may have needed a climactic moment that never really arrives. However, it’s likely the production will move on to Broadway, with its large cast, energetic performances and touches of nostalgia.
“The Sting” continues through April 29 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit papermill.org.