Paper Mill Playhouse has gifted us with a brilliant new musical that updates a favorite film. “The Sting,” a classic con tale, is now a World Premiere Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse, featuring headliners Harry Connick, Jr., as Henry Gondorff, one of the Kings of the Con, and J. Harrison Ghee, as Johnny Hooker. In fact, think of their names“Gondorff” could be a portmanteau of the Yiddish “goniff,” an opportunist who stoops to low practice, combined with “dorf,” German for “village”the head thief of the town … Hooker is much easier to parse. These world-class talents lead a cast of all-stars in a singing, dancing evening of low and high humor, and more twists and turns than a corkscrew, as criminals and gangsters cross paths and more. John Rando’s direction keeps us guessing, and thrilling to dance and action in multiple perspectives and a whirl of energy.
This is a culturally aware update of the Paul Newman and Robert Redford film and an exploration of what David S. Ward had originally positedthat one of the characters would be non-white. This production has more of the variety of 1930s Chicago than the original film. The best con is turning the tables on a nefarious type and Doyle Lonegan, as given life by Tom Hewitt, is the personification of corruption. The book is by Bob Martin and music and lyrics are by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, with Connick providing some delightful improvisation and lyrics as well. Music by Scott Joplin, including “The Entertainer,” used in the film, is here, too. The dance is exhilarating thanks to Tony Award-winner and multiple nominee Warren Carlyle, whose tap and more make for toe-tapping and wearing out the seat cushion, as we want to dance with the winsome ensemble. Beowulf Borritt’s sets and the whirling dervish of a stairway, which is a frequent partner in pas de deux, are worthy reasons for attendance on their own.
Chief among the attractions for me were Connick piano improvisations, which give us a feel for the jazz of 1936 and the improvisation yet to come. Music flows from him organically. Vocally, Ghee’s beautiful interpretation and improvisations are period-perfect and give us so much to enjoyif this is what he does in such a brilliant miniature, we can well imagine the depth of his gift. Describe both as “MORE!”
Kate Shindle as Billie and Janet Dacal as Loretta are both steel hands in velvet gloves, and their metal and feminine ways and wiles are perfect for the work each does. They are portraits done in rich color and detail and the two of them together are virtually unstoppable. And the con within the con within the con is a nautilus shell, a Fibonacci expression, as the layers go on and on.
Pure delight are the characters that are the texture in the tapestry of the storyLuther (Kevyn Morrow), the Erie Kid (Peter Benson), Lieutenant Snyder (Robert Wuhl), and Kid Twist (Richard Kline) and JJ Singleton (Christopher Gurr), who are the Justice League of confidence men. Gondorff and Hooker orchestrate this Sting, and we’re happy to be along for the ride. Don’t remember the film? Better stilleverything will be superbly fresh, and you’ll stream the film later when you get home.
World Premieres don’t come along every day! “The Sting” plays through April 29. Relieve your “taxing” stress and get your tickets now at the Box Office or online at www.PaperMill.org
for a fresh look at a refreshed favorite.