The world premiere of "The Prince and The Pauper" is a hugely ambitious new musical, and while it still needs to work out some wrinkles, re-consider some performance choices, and lose a bit of excess material, it has all the makings of a very big hit. There's nothing ground-breaking in the style or structure of this show. It's an old-style book musical, more than a little reminiscent of "Oliver", and without any really unforgettable melodies. What is does have is craftsmanship and integrity, intelligence and heart, combined with color, fun and accessible entertainment. Those looking for that elusive show "for the whole family" need look no farther.
The show is based on Mark Twain's story of two look-alike boys, one a penniless child of the streets, and the other the son of King Henry VIII. They switch places, and then find themselves unable to convince anyone that they are both imposters. The book retains Twain's ironic views of social position, power and injustice, but keeps everything more playful than pedantic, more knowing than scolding. Themes are carried within the context of two young boys given a great, imaginative possibility. Of course, Twain's amusement was that most people choose to believe the costume over the content, the position over the person. That leaves it for the two boys to find the real meaning in their changed circumstance.
Those boys are the heart and soul of this show, and they do a splendid job. Both are accomplished pros, with sweet and strong singing voices and plenty of vitality. It's really not until their first number, "Just Like You", wherein they discover their similarities, that the show first comes to life. The opening number, "Prince of Paupers", is unfocused and unconvincing. While both Cameron Bowen, as Tom the pauper, and Asher Monroe Book as Edward Tudor are excellent, I especially enjoyed Cameron Bowen. During complex scenes with the ambitious and duplicitous Hertford (Alan Coates), this child was able to be both innocent and knowing, aware of his function within the power struggle and still simply a boy. He also handled the fun elements of every child's fantasy of being the King with great aplomb.
As the future King, now finding himself a powerless and endangered street urchin, Asher Monroe Book was also very effective, especially in scenes with Marc Kudisch, as the noble scoundrel Miles Hendon. He was also quite wonderful in all of his scenes with the other boy, and especially when the two are singing together. These boys really do seem like identical twin brothers, albeit startlingly talented ones. When the ragamuffin Edward Tudor is roaming the streets, escaping his mean and loathsome father, his good fortune in finding Miles Hendon is lifesaving, and great comic relief. Twain must have loved the notion of a self-proclaimed drunken coward being the most steadfast and decent character in the story. Marc Kudisch has a ball with the role, and a good deal of the success of the production can be credited to his performance.
Where this show still seems unfinished to me is primarily in some of the production choices. A big, act-one dance number "Be Who You Are", in which Tom brings his lower-class informality to the most formal of Court dances, tried way too hard, got way too silly, and generally broke both the period and style that had been established up to that point. Overall, the choreography by Casey Nicholaw was uninteresting and sometimes trite. It seemed to me the first act could have been about fifteen minutes shorter simply by editing some numbers (that dance for one), or possibly cutting one or two. A lovely number "Though You're Not Him", sung by Tom's kindly mother (Caroline Innerbichler), seems insufficiently motivated, and even though it's halfway through the act, seems premature. When King Henry, shortly before his death, sings "All The Things Your Father Couldn't Say" to his presumed son, the poignancy and intimacy of the moment is subverted by Perry L. Brown's awesome and commanding voice. A message meant as a kind of reverie instead becomes an anthem. The second act seems a bit darker, and bit too unrelieved, but the introduction of more serious material largely justifies that. The resolution seems somewhat long-winded, but the finale is quite strong and satisfying.
"The Prince and The Pauper" is a co-production between Seattle's Fifth Avenue Musical Theatre Company and The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, where it will play next. I think their confidence in this show, evidenced by their investment, is well-placed, and everything about the physical production is first-rate. This is a lavish, elegant show that never feels anything but big-league, and the principal talent is ready to go. With a classic story that is accessible but never simple, some very intelligent music and lyrics, and a book that moves briskly and coherently, this is the sort of show that people are always bemoaning that Broadway can't do anymore. One can never be certain that a deserving show will achieve commercial success, but it seems to me that "The Prince and The Pauper" is definitely deserving.
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