Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Connector (MCC Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Eager beaver Princeton grad Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross) lands a job as a prestigious literary magazine, the titular Connector, after he impresses the longtime editor Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula). He quickly befriends assistant copy editor Robin (Hannah Cruz) who becomes something of a girlfriend. 

But she, unlike Ethan, has yet to have one of her stories greenlighted. The story is set in the world of male dominated mid-1990’s journalism on the cusp of a changing media landscape, one in which scrupulous adherence to the facts is pitted against good storytelling. 

Ethan’s first story is an immediate hit with readers, as are his subsequent pieces, and circulation rises. But his winning streak starts to derail when his sensational expose of an embattled New Jersey mayor raises questions of veracity.

Though that plot twist is a bit of a spoiler, the theme has been widely publicized by the creators and MCC’s program notes which spotlight journalistic scandals such as Stephen Glass’s fabrications at The New Republic, presumably an inspiration for the script.

Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is quite interesting, particularly when the narrative takes that particular turn. I find it difficult to assess Jason Robert Brown’s rhythm-heaving, electronic score on first hearing but it’s certainly as skillful and accomplished as you’d expect from the talented composer/lyricist who leads the band at each performance.

Several numbers beguile the ear, culminating in the Mideast flavored “Western Wall.” Choreographer Karla Puno Garcia has devised her most elaborate movement for that last lengthy number. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that “The Connector” might be just as compelling as a straight play sans songs. 

The show was conceived and very well directed by Daisy Prince in her third collaboration with Brown, following “The Last Five Years” and “Songs for a New World.”

The leads are all well cast. Ross, who starred in the somewhat thematically related “Dear Evan Hanson” for a couple of years, nails all the aspects of his tricky role, and Cruz makes an equally strong impression as the increasingly discontented Robin while Bakula brings the appropriate gravitas. All sing splendidly.

I did feel the band sometimes drowned out important lyrics, but generally Jon Weston's sound design is admirable.

There’s excellent work by Jessica Molaskey as a persistent fact-checker, and Mylinda Hull as a comically dogged fan letter writer whose correspondence take a more aggressive turn when she begins to discern something seriously amiss in Ethan’s copy. Superlative as well is Daniel Jenkins as the magazine’s lawyer. Max Crumm has a standout number as a Scrabble champion, and Fergie Philippe as a rapping informant. 

Beowulf Borritt’s set -- a sort of checkered pattern dominated by a wall of magazine proofs and piles of manuscripts elsewhere -- and dynamic lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew keep the show visually interesting. And Márion Tálan de la Rosa’s costumes capture the period and ambience.

(MCC Theater’s Newman Mills Theater, 511 W 52nd Street;; through March 17)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Scott Bakula and Ben Levi Ross

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