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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Harry Connick, Jr. and J. Harrison Ghee (photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
A recent New York Times editorial column notes that along with his association with developers and celebrities, President Trump has "spent his career in the company of grifters, cons, sharks, goons and crooks." For the rest of us, there is admittedly some degree of danger in keeping that sort of company. In the fantasy world of the theater, however, ordinary play-goers have traditionally enjoyed becoming perversely immersed for a couple of hours among the sleazy and sordid characters who make up the mostly criminal element in our society. There is no end to the straight plays that have over the years ventured into the underworld for some expressly melodramatic plots for our edification and entertainment.

The musical theater has been particularly clever at romanticizing this world as with the classic and satirical Guys and Dolls and the more recent and semi-realistic A Bronx Tale. What we haven't had until now (unless my memory is stalled) is a musical in which all of the main characters with whom we might ordinarily like to identify with or idolize are basically bad news, ostensibly unredeemable and seriously deplorable. It has arrived. It is The Sting, a wonderfully amusing musical based on the 1973 Oscar-winning Best Film. But don't go expecting the collaborators of this show to have simply reprised the wink-wink, smart-alecky style of the very likable film.

The song writers Mark Hollmann (music) and Greg Kotis (lyrics) and Bob Martin (book) and the show's star Harry Connick, Jr. (also contributing additional music and lyrics) are all collaborators in what turns out to be an elaborate con itself. In cahoots with John Rando (direction) and Warren Carlyle (choreography)their version has flipped the tongue-in-cheeky-ness of the film to flesh out its raw and gritty underbelly. This doesn't mean that the music — big and bountiful blasts of jazz, blues, ballads and ragtime (yes, there are integrated selections from Ragtime King Scott Joplin) — doesn't lighten up some of the dirty doings that make up the bulk of its convoluted plot.

Of course, Connick is at the center of this musical caper in which he plays Henry Gondorff, the semi-retired grifter who while waiting for something better to come along, mercilessly pounds the poor keys on a piano in a cat house. To be fair, Connick's style is notable and he gets a couple of opportunities to beguile his fans. Those who remember his Tony-nominated performance in The Pajama Game will be pleased to know he is at the top of his game. And don't think that those taps on his shiny shoes are going to stay in retirement when he decides to go after the most vicious and most crooked gambler in Depression-era Chicago with a revenge-motivated sting to top them all.

Connick is a Sinatra-styled crooner whose stage presence and vocal performance is as endearingly first rate as is his cannily smooth dancing. Naturally you can't believe him when he croons "This Ain't No Song and Dance." It is, and there's lots of it. The beauty of Carlyle's choreography is that it doesn't wait for a lull or a space to get the joint jumpin'. He gets his mostly male chorines to infiltrate the most brutal portions of the plot with hard-hitting precision and energy. Chorus lines don't get any tougher than these.

Audiences familiar with film that starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford will find that the collaborators' choice to make Gondorff's partner Johnny Hooker an African-American is a good one and that the tall, good-looking singing and dancing J. Harrison Ghee gives the role a thrilling show-stopping authority on more than one occasion.

Actually small-time grifter Hooker doesn't have time to stop for much of anything after a con involving a big-time gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt) goes sour. His life isn't worth a plug nickel in Joliet after the murder of Luther (Kevyn Morrow) his older long-time partner in the confidence game.

On the lam in Chicago, Hooker teams up with Gondorff ("I Roll Bones with the Devil") to take Lonnegan for all he's worth in an elaborate horse-racing sting. The musical is structured like a vaudeville show with its scenes — The Switch, The Set-Up, The Hook, etc.— announced by a show girl with title cards.

Whether or not you remember from the film who's double-dealing who or who is going to rub out who, the point is that you won't take your eyes off the stage as you see how these desperate men survive in desperate times when "you can't trust nobody...." least of all the dames . Without giving away too much, Janet Dacal, as Loretta a waitress in a diner, delivers a super ballad "Nighttime is Better." Kate Shindle is a knockout as the queen of the bordello who stands by her man — "Sometimes."

It isn't sometimes but all the time that Beowulf Boritt's handsome mobile settings and Paul Tazewell's snazzy costumes add their period-perfect artistry to this caper for a crooner. Memorable performances are also turned in by Robert Wuhl as a crooked cop and Richard Kline as an old-school con artist. But there is nothing old about this totally fresh, invigorating and fierce new musical that doesn't look for laughs but gets the last laugh one anyway for being so darned good.

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The Sting
Book by Bob Martin, Music & Lyrics by Mark Hollmann & Greg Kotis, Additional Music and Lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr.
Directed by John Rando
Cast: Kevyn Morrow (Luther), J. Harrison Ghee (Johnny Hooker), Peter Benson (The Erie Kid), Drew McVety (Mottola, Jameson, Polk), Sherisse Springer (Gloria), Robert Wuhl (Lt. Snyder), Michael Fatica (Floyd), Tom Hewitt (Doyle Lonnegan), Kate Shindle (Billie), Harry Connick, Jr. (Henry Gondorff), Richard Kline (Kid Twist), Christopher Gurr (J.J. Singleton) Britton Smith (Supplier), Matt Loeher (Englishman, Train Conductor, Mr. Harmon), Janet Dacal (Loretta), Kevin Worley (Clayton, Sheet Writer), Luke Hawkins (Lombard), Lara Seibert Young (Receptionist)
Choreography: Warren Carlyle
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Japhy Weidemann
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Production Stage Manager: Bonnie L. Becker
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J

Performances: 7:30 pm Wednesday, 1:30 and 7:30 pm. Thursday, 8 pm Friday, 1:30 and 8 pm. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 pm. Sunday.
From 03/29/18 Opened 04/08/18 Ends 04/29/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/08/18

. NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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