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'The Connector' review — Jason Robert Brown musicalizes fake news

Read our four-star review of The Connector off Broadway, a world-premiere musical from Jason Robert Brown starring Scott Bakula, Ben Levi Ross, and Hannah Cruz.

Caroline Cao
Caroline Cao

Do you hear the papers rip? You do at The Connector, Jason Robert Brown’s newest musical at MCC Theater — and you'd never except the sound to be sublime percussion.

Director/conceiver Daisy Prince (a previous Brown collaborator) and bookwriter Jonathan Marc Sherman set the story in the late 1990s, when 20something Ethan Dodson (Ben Levi Ross) scores a writing position in the New York office of renowned magazine The Connector. Better yet, the kindly editor-in-chief Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula, returning to musical theatre) favors him as a mentee. However, Ethan’s deceitful stories are about to take down the publication.

These events unfold through the eyes of assistant copy editor Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz, melodic), whose story submissions languish on O’Brien’s desk. Sherman’s book shows Robin's skill with textured language while she deals with latent sexism. Though attraction may brew between her and Ethan, she remains wary of his white male confidence and breezy upward mobility. Robin is consigned to tell Ethan's story, but her expression says, “I’m no buried lede in this musical.”

Halfway through, she delivers Ethan an indictment – “You’re no longer interesting to me” — though his nerdish amiability (while it lasts) and egoism stay magnetic to us. Pay attention to Ross’s body language: Without being derivative, he seems to channel movie actor Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Stephen Glass, a real-life New Republic writer who bluffed fabricated stories into print, in the movie Shattered Glass. Just as Christensen expertly wields a puppy pout and crocodile tears, Ross arms Ethan with entitled defensiveness when confronted.

The audience might notice the cracks in Ethan’s tales more quickly. His "firsthand" journalistic anecdotes involve ensemble dancing (Karla Puno Garcia’s sprightly choreography). Márion Talán de la Rosa also gives imagined characters a strategic dash of eye-popping color, contrasting otherwise gray office attire. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt also excellently recreates a newspaper collection: The exposed wings reveal valleys of crates and papers, perhaps representing the unseen labor of sifting through countless archives to get the facts.

Rounding out the office setting are Jessica Molaskey as the exhausted Muriel, a fact-checker harried by Ethan’s storytelling and untraceable sources. Mylinda Hull perfects the levity that is Mona Bland, a devout Connector subscriber whose good-natured nitpicks fester into an avalanche of inquiry, as her perkiness crumbles into one of shattered intellectual faith.

From a musical standpoint, actor Max Crumm (as a Scrabble champ) knocks out the song "Success" just as actor Fergie Philippe (as a hooded whistleblower) seizes his showstopper, “Wind in the Sails.” The show also boasts an intoxicating prayer number, which highlights the violinist Todd Reynolds as well as the thought-provoking link between stories and faith. In an intermission-free 105 minutes, these numbers – career gold for Brown – overcome the sleepiness in the musical’s first hour, when the Ethan/Robin dynamic almost stales.

Later stagings may yield an evolved draft, but much of The Connector’s premiere has credible charisma enough to compensate. When the musical sprints toward a finale where tearing paper becomes music, we’re consumed.

The Connector is at MCC Theater through March 17. Get The Connector tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Ben Levi Ross and Hannah Cruz in The Connector. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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