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REVIEW: "The Sting" at Paper Mill Playhouse

By Adam F. Cohen

originally published: 04/10/2018

REVIEW: "The Sting" at Paper Mill Playhouse

(MILLBURN, NJ) -- Scott Joplin’s classic rag “The Entertainer” is highly recognizable. It was used to great effect in an Oscar winning movie called The Sting which happed to star Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  Joplin was born in Texas and found his true calling as a ragtime composer in Chicago in 1893.  His compositions helped fuel ragtime into a major craze. Joplin’s rags are a featured part of the absolutely entertaining new musical The Sting which premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse on April 8th.

The Sting is probably the last movie one would consider musicalizing.  Yet, in the capable hands of Harry Connick, Jr. and in a star making turn J. Harrison Ghee (Johnny Hooker) it absolutely makes sense. 

Set during the Depression in Chicago, the plot involves the teaming of a legendary con man, Henry Gondorff (Harry Connick, Jr.) with a capable young protege, Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) to use an intricate long con bent on revenenge.  Together they want to take down Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt), a filthy rich, ruthless crime kingpin who has murdered an old friend and mentor of Gondorff and Hooker.  Gondorff started his career 25 years earlier as a piano player, when Joplin's tunes were popular, and he and his partner use the music to distract people as they work their cons.  The plan has inherent risks – namely death at the hands of crooked cops or wronged gangsters – but immense rewards – wealth.  Gondorff assembles a capable team of grifters and puts the plan in motion.

REVIEW: "The Sting" at Paper Mill Playhouse

This world premiere musical, deftly directed by John Rando, has elements of an old fashion musical, but the book’s twists and turns keep you on your toes.  Bob Martin’s (The Drowsy Chaperone) book is spry, laced with one-liners. The songs range from jazz, torch, a Sinatra-esqe 11 o’clock number for Connick, Jr.  The score is vibrant.  The dialogue swift.  The dancing tremendous.  The elements are all there for a long award-winning Broadway run.

Plot-heavy but lacing with beautiful, spry story-enhancing dances by Warren Carlyle.  It’s unique that the dancing advances the story more than the abundant songs by Urinetown creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis with additional material by Connick, Jr.  Carlyle uses tap within an evasive chase. An Agnes DeMille-esqe ballet propels act two.  The ensemble work is graceful, athletic and engaging.  And Connick Jr gets in the act also, showcasing his nimble, broad talent with happy feet, demonstrative piano playing, composition, acting, and singing.  The show is the perfect confluence of Connick Jr’s multiple talent.

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The songs offer great ensemble turns while also establishing character shadings, without necessarily advancing the story, as much as the dancing does.  Janet Dacal has a lovely torch number in act 2.  Kate Shindle has a turn as Henry’s on and off lover and she gamely gets into the con, as well. 

The production team has done an excellent job of bringing the style of the 1930's to the Millburn stage. The team includes set design by Beowulf Boritt – there’s an Edward Hopper toned diner where Hooker relaxes. The sets are set on casters and moved by the cast much as they would have been in the 1930s. He creates a multi-car train, Western Union office, and most effectively the betting parlor of the con. The sets are amazing with sound costume design by Paul Tazewell, lighting design by Japhy Weideman is lush and beautiful, using light to frame scenes and spaces. Doug Besterman’s orchestrations are tight and lumiscent. Kudos to the casting for Tara Rubin Casting for bringing Richard Kline (Three’s Company), Robert Wuhl (Arliss) to New Jersey for The Sting’s run – each has fun turns in the show.

REVIEW: "The Sting" at Paper Mill Playhouse

And Ghee is a genuine star in the making.  He’s a spry, long-legged dancer with a smooth voice.  His Hooker is compelling and he’s got a genuine connection with Connick, Jr.  They complement one another and propel the show to another level with a rapport as deep and fluid as Redford and Newman’s.  This is a fun production, with great music, engaging performances, and beautiful dances.

The Sting runs until April 29th at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ). Tickets and more information at

REVIEW: "The Sting" at Paper Mill Playhouse

Photos by Evan Zimmerman and Jerry Dalia.

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Event calendar
Sunday, Oct 21, 2018


DiTrani Bros: Folk, Swing, Jazz, Ragtime!! @ Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse, Dunellen - 7:00pm

Jazz Guitarist Abe Ovadia @ Englewood Public Library, Englewood - 7:00pm

Gypsy Jazz Brunch with Pyrenesia and Max Hansen Buffet @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

Dryden Ensemble: Bach Cantata Fest @ Miller Chapel (Princeton), Princeton - 3:00pm

Suzzanne Douglas @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 7:30pm


The Ghost Princess @ Pax Amicus Castle Theatre, Budd Lake - 2:00pm

The Shuck @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 3:00pm

CDC Theatre presents A Few Good Men @ CDC Theatre, Cranford - 2:00pm

Wait Until Dark @ Somerset Valley Playhouse, Hillsborough - 8:00pm

World Premier of, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, A Horror of a Play @ Forum Theatre (Metuchen), Metuchen - 3:00pm

The Color Purple @ Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn - 1:30pm and 7:00pm

Almost, Maine @ Jay & Linda Grunin Center For The Arts At Ocean County College, Toms River - 2:00pm

Black Tom Island @ The 1882 Carriage House, Liberty Hall Museum, Union - 3:00pm

*Uncle Vanya, Scenes from a Jersey Life in Four Acts @ Hudson Theatre Works, Weehawken - 7:00pm

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie @ Westfield Community Players, Westfield - 2:00pm


DRACULA - THE ATLANTIC CITY BALLET @ The Strand Theater, Lakewood - 4:00pm


A conversation with John Cusack Following a screening of Say Anything @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:00pm


Summit Farmers Market Pumpkin Painting @ Summit Farmers Market, Summit - 10:00am


The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival @ Victoria Theater @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 9:00am


HAUNTED ILLUSIONS LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 3:00pm

THE MAGIC OF BILL BLAGG LIVE! @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 2:00pm

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