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Cover Story: “The Connector” reviewed

Journalism students are often instructed that among the six essential questions, the most important one to ask is why. The truth is they are all important. But The Connector, the new MCC Theater musical from director Daisy Prince and book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman, had me asking a more fundamental one of those questions: Who?

The titular magazine hearkens back to the heyday of magazine journalism, when Pulitzer finalists still had more clout than influencers and straphangers stood side by side holding magazines instead of scanning through apps. A long-gone era, in other words. Ethan (Ben Levi Ross) embarks on the beginning of his career, however, just as the periodical business stopped booming. A prized reporter at Princeton, the New Jersey native charms Connector editor-in-chief Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula, returning to the stage after decades), seeing himself in Ethan’s personality and writing style.

But who exactly is Ethan? Before you can say “Jayson Blair,” Ethan has effectively won over just about everyone on the staff with a transparent charm that Prince and Sherman haven’t seemed to decide is deliberately conniving and or youthfully arrogant. At first he finds an ally in copyeditor Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz), another young writer who can’t seem to get the same foothold with the boss that her male counterpart suddenly attained. The implication seems to be that she’s stymied by a glass ceiling, but Sherman’s book can’t do enough to prove that she is indeed a superlative talent or that the good old boys at the top, embodied by Conrad, are overtly sexist. Everyone just seems bullheaded.

Except, that is, for two people, who start to see through the sheen of Ethan’s immediate success, quickly earned through a series of longform profiles about such subjects as Scrabble champions and corrupt politicians: Connector magazine fact checker Muriel (Jessica Molaskey) and longtime reader Mona Bland (Mylinda Hull). Meanwhile, as an unrealized flicker of romance burns between Ethan and Robin, she, too starts to smell a rat.

But who exactly is Ethan? A calculating charlatan? Anxious newbie desperate to impress the veterans? Sherman is so busy quickly telegraphing that Ethan is a problem, someone not to be trusted, that The Connector never actually digs into what makes him tick. Brown’s song, “So I Came to New York,” tells us that he’s from a place where “everyone’s a scumbag.” Is his Princeton education a sign of his privilege, or has he emerged from the downside of advantage, thanks to his smarts and scrappiness? We never learn. The show keeps him at a distance from us, all the better to make a cipher. But it makes him a supporting player in his own inscrutable story.

What makes things worse, though, is Sherman’s choice to make Robin a de facto narrator, because she remains at the margins throughout the show. “Half the stories of the world are left unwritten,” she sings in a number called “Cassandra.” This could have been a subversive move, but the ambiguousness around her character makes her equally unknowable and also not completely trustworthy.

Eventually, all parties start behaving like fools. When Ethan files a fake character study of a street kid claiming to possess a video of Jersey City’s mayor smoking crack with a teenager, Conrad blindly protects him. Why? This would only make sense if Ethan had a direct family connection to, well, The Connector – but this does not seem to be the case.

It’s clear that Sherman has lifted his plot from the true story of Stephen Glass, who penned a series of false accounts in the 1990s that derailed his career and scandalized The New Republic. But the show relies on this example too much – it’s clear early on that Ethan is not to be trusted, but then it never stencils in just how much or why.

Perhaps he’s the show’s MacGuffin? It could be that Prince and Sherman want him merely to be a catalyst to relitigate where print journalism ended its era of glory – but the show never heads further down that path, either. There’s a glimmer of hope when Molaskey’s Muriel sings “Proof,” a lament on the lack of accountability she has seen, but that number too quickly derails into obsequiousness about Holocaust denial. This show’s scope is too narrow to lose focus like that as it builds to a climax. It is also important to note that the creative team keeps taking potentially complex characters – in this case, all three of whom are women – and simplifying them down to shrill Cassandras with no internal life of their own.

Jason Robert Brown’s effusive score covers a great deal of ground, and provides great moments for some of The Connector’s featured players. Max Crumm nails “Success” while Fergie Philippe brings down the house with “Wind in the Sails.” And  Beowulf Boritt’s set, darkly lit by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, consisting of massive piles of manuscripts, proofs, and archives, is a thing to behold. But those elements can’t disguise that this show has a void at the center. Maybe Ethan isn’t the only one who needs to go to J-School jail.

The Connector
MCC Theater
https://mcctheater.org/