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The Past Is Prologue

Tony Yazbeck performs “The Right Girl” from “Follies” in “Prince of Broadway,” David Thompson’s tribute to Harold Prince’s six decades in the theater. | MATTHEW MURPHY

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The new revue “Prince of Broadway” has its charms, notably in the high power talent on the stage singing their hearts out in a progression of songs from shows spanning six decades. It should be enjoyed for its variety show appeal rather than as a coherent musical — or a thematic revue, for that matter.

The concept for this undertaking is a celebration of the work of Harold Prince. No one is going to deny his role as a major force on Broadway, as a producer and director, but in the weak book by David Thompson that links the musical numbers, we learn nothing about Prince, what he went through to mount these sometimes-challenging productions, or the man as an artist. Such insights would be essential to give the show cohesion and context, and provide a new understanding for a comprehensive body of work. Instead, it’s merely an agglomeration of, for the most part, Broadway standards that could serve as the playlist for an average evening at a piano bar.

Prince himself has directed this, with co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Essentially, they have tried to reproduce some of the elements and original staging of each of the pieces. It appears to have been done on the cheap, though there are nods to the original sets from “Sweeney Todd,” “West Side Story,” and “Company,” for example. It would be more effective with a singular creative concept to frame the numbers, as with Roundabout’s “Sondheim on Sondheim” from 2009. The unfortunate result is that the show ends up seeming like a series of final callbacks for the actors or backers’ auditions for revivals of these shows. And very conventional revivals at that.

A revue, a relationship reviewed, and a Shakespeare adaptation worth re-viewing

The company does a very good job putting over the songs, though it’s surprising that arranger, orchestrator, and music supervisor Jason Robert Brown has set some of them poorly for the voices he’s working with. It’s difficult to watch the wonderful Chuck Cooper struggle with the setting of “Heart” from “Damn Yankees,” almost at the top of the show. He does better with “Old Man River” from “Showboat,” but seems lost in “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Tony Yazbeck is sensational in a variety of numbers that showcase the full range of his talent, including “Tonight” from “West Side Story” and “This is Not Over Yet” from “Parade.” He is sensational as Buddy from “Follies,” pouring his heart — and extraordinary dancing — into “The Right Girl,” providing one of the few legitimately moving numbers in the piece.

Of the other men, Michael Xavier and Brandon Uranowitz are also excellent and best in parts they would be right for, such as, respectively, Bobby in “Company” and the Emcee in “Cabaret.”

Highlights for the women cast members include everything Bryonha Marie Parham does, whether Sally Bowles from “Cabaret” or Amalia from “She Loves Me.” As with Yazbeck, her wonderful versatility gives her an advantage in interpreting diverse roles. Kaley Ann Voorhees gets to do all the ingénues — Christine from “Phantom,” Maria from “West Side Story,” and so forth, and she acquits herself well. Karen Ziemba gives a powerhouse performance of “So What” from “Cabaret,” though presented without context it requires the audience knowing the show. She’s more antic and funny as Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd.” Emily Skinner is a distant Desirée from “A Little Night Music” and totally lost in a ponderous interpretation of “Now You Know” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” I blame the direction for that. She redeems herself with a galvanizing “Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” giving this brassy diva standard a new and sharp edge.

Good individual performances ultimately are not enough to make a satisfying evening out of this disjointed assemblage that is more like a live action cruising of YouTube than a coherent show. The tip-off comes at the beginning, when Brown crams 17 songs into a clumsy one-minute overture. It tries to marry too many different styles and visions and, like the rest of the evening, just never holds together.

Melissa Gilbert and Mark Kenneth Smaltz Thomas Klingenstein’s “If Only,” directed by Christopher McElroen, at the Cherry Lane through September 17. | CAROL ROSEGG

Melissa Gilbert is such a wonderful actress that it’s a shame to see her wasted in the disappointing play “If Only.” In the tiny space at the Cherry Lane, she radiates heart, intimacy and complexity — far more than is written for her.

Gilbert plays Ann Astorcott, a woman who served in a field hospital in the Civil War, where she developed an intimate relationship with a black man. Years later, when he comes to visit her in her comfortable, if staid, life in New York, they talk about it. It’s clear that Ann was most alive when she was serving in the war and persuading President Lincoln to provide the wounded soldiers with milk, and now her life is dull and chafing. In that respect, Thomas Klingenstein’s play has echoes of David Hare’s far more engaging “Plenty.”

The problem with this rambling play is that it never gets to the heart of the issue — the relationship between Ann and her friend, Samuel Johnson, until more than halfway through the piece and then it never goes into it deeply. There is heavy-handed musing about Lincoln and an unnecessary subplot about an adopted child that could easily have been jettisoned to focus on the relationship between Ann and Samuel. Even when when it does get to that issue, the play has a hard time staying focused, as if the relationship were too difficult to write about. That’s the challenge a better playwright would have embraced.

Mark Kenneth Smaltz is very good as Samuel, but his performance relies on his strengths as an actor, one that remains largely on the surface because the playwright never explains how he went from runaway slave to university professor in Chicago. Nor do we ever learn what either Ann or Samuel really wants in revisiting their mutual past.

There might be an interesting piece in exploring interracial relationships after the Civil War. If Kling- enstein had the insight or courage to write that play, the evening might have been salvaged. If only…

Rebecca Naomi Jones in the Public Theater’s Public Works production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” as adapted by Shaina Taub and Lauren Woolery. | JOAN MARCUS

The Public Works program from the Public Theater is the organization’s major community initiative, bringing together people from all five boroughs to experience theater and performance. As artistic director Oskar Eustis said in his curtain speech before “As You Like It” recently, part of the Public’s mission is that it truly is the people’s theater.

Those lucky enough to see one of the production’s five performances at the Delacorte in Central Park were treated to a cast of more than 200 New Yorkers in a spellbinding musical adaption of the Shakespeare play by Shaina Taub and Lauren Woolery.

Their contemporary take on the classic tale was fresh, exciting, and deliciously romantic, and Taub’s score is wonderfully original, witty, and perfectly integrated with the original Shakespeare, making it very much of the moment and giving an immediacy to this centuries-old play.

Combining sensational performances from professional actors — including Rebecca Naomi Jones as Rosalind, Joel Perez as Touchstone, and Darius De Haas as Duke Senior — with amateurs, local choruses, dance troupes, puppeteers, and more, the stage exploded with joy. At the performance I saw, the love and excitement flowing on the stage were as heartfelt as the piece itself.

This adaptation deserves a longer run because it’s so good. But it’s hard to imagine any venue as thrilling as the Delacorte stage, filled with people celebrating the magical power of theater.


PRINCE OF BROADWAY | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. | Through Oct. 22: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $89-$165 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission

IF ONLY | Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. btwn. Barrow & Bedford Sts. | Sep. 13-17 at 7 p.m. | $55; ovationtix.com or 212-989-2020 | One hr., 40 mins. no intermission

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