The problem with the new musical version of “The Sting,” which is currently running at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, is that there’s not enough sting in it.
Its scenes of master con men in action, pulling off a scam so elaborate it boggles the mind, are riveting. The climactic scenes at the end of both acts, in particular – in which the music is ingeniously woven into the rhythm of the action — are dynamite.
But there are too few moments like these. Instead, we get many music and dance numbers that seem to be there just to fill time. Or to let the characters tell us about themselves (they really shouldn’t have to do that; their characters should emerge, more organically, from the plot). Or to showcase the (admittedly impressive) piano gymnastics and Sinatraesque crooning of the musical’s primary star, Harry Connick Jr.
Connick plays criminal genius Harry Gondorff, who comes out of semi-retirement to team up with rising con star Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) to avenge the murder of their mutual friend Luther (Kevyn Morrow) by black-hearted gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt). Gondorff and Hooker may sing about “The Thrill of the Con,” as one song puts it. But they never really seem excited to be pulling one off.
Paul Newman — who played Gondorff in the Oscar-winning 1973 movie that this musical is based on — conveyed a rakish charm, with an endearing twinkle in his eyes. So did Robert Redford, to a slightly lesser extent, as Hooker. Connick sings and plays piano exceptionally well, and Ghee is a dazzling dancer. But as actors, they’re too matter-of-fact to make this caper as fun as it should be.
Costumes, by Paul Tazewell, and scenic design, by Beowulf Boritt, are suitably evocative of the 1936 Chicago setting, and there is a liveliness in the choreography, by Warren Carlyle, that compensates, to a degree, for the lackluster book (by Bob Martin) and generic songs (by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis). Scott Joplin’s classic ragtime tunes (which helped establish the flavor of the movie, to a great degree) are sometimes woven in, and Connick himself provided “additional music and lyrics,” according to the program.
Particularly good among the supporting cast are Peter Benson as the comically insecure Erie Kid, and Robert Wuhl — yes, that Robert Wuhl, “Arli$$ fans” — as the menacing but perpetually one-step-behind Lt. Snyder.
The Luther character serves as a kind of narrator at the start of the show, but that concept is largely forgotten for the rest of the evening. There is also a trombonist who roams the stage but is not connected to the story itself, and showgirls who introduce segments of the show by displaying cards reading “The Switch,” “The Sting” and so on, as if they were signalling new rounds of a boxing match.
There are, in other words, a lot of extraneous frills that don’t really amount to much.
John Rando, who directed, was also at the helm of the new musical version of television’s “The Honeymooners” that premiered at the Paper Mill in October and, I felt, made a much more satisfying transition to the stage than “The Sting.” Which I never would have predicted ahead of time. But in retrospect, the “Honeymooners” characters are naturals for musical comedy; the “Sting” characters, much less so. And that’s a problem the creators of this new work are not able to overcome.
“The Sting” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through April 29; visit papermill.org.