Sunday, February 23, 2003

Broadway prays new plays break out at box office

By Michael Kuchwara
The Associated Press

Broadway is ready for spring, even if it doesn't arrive for another month, but the warmer weather will bring several tantalizing productions that could shake off the chill of a dismal winter.

A new revival of Gypsy, starring Bernadette Peters as the world's most formidable stage mother, and a musical version of that mechanical bull-ridin', line-dancin' love story, Urban Cowboy, head the list of more than a dozen shows scheduled to open before June.

And then there's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece.

But first, the theater has to get through a frigid February and an uncertain March. Ticket sales have been down since the heady Christmas-New Year's holidays.

The cold weather hurt business, and several big shows collapsed. Dance of the Vampires already is gone, and the lavish revival of Oklahoma! folds today. Others, such as Flower Drum Song and even The Phantom of the Opera, are struggling. Plus there hasn't been a new hit play, although five new productions are scheduled by May 1.

This spring, it is Gypsy that has the buzz - or at least the curiosity factor - cornered. The role of Mama Rose, one of the greatest in musical theater, was created in 1959 by Ethel Merman. Subsequent Broadway revivals starred such different actresses as Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, who both won Tony Awards for their efforts.

The seductive Peters was first noticed by theatergoers in 1968 as the wide-eyed star of Dames at Sea. She would seem to an unusual choice for the domineering Rose, mother of the young girl who grew up to become famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

But then the director is Sam Mendes who did wonders in 1998 with the still-running revival of Cabaret, reimagining the show by putting audience members at small tables in a setting that resembled an early 1930s Berlin nightspot.

What Mendes, an Academy Award winner for American Beauty, will do with Peters and a company that includes Tammy Blanchard as the neophyte stripper and John Dossett as Rose's loyal helpmate, Herbie, is anybody's guess. Preview performances at the Shubert Theatre begin March 31. The opening is May 1.

New musicals are a rarity this spring, scared off perhaps by Hairspray and Movin' Out, two heavyweight Tony Award contenders from earlier in the season. Yet Urban Cowboy, based on the John Travolta-Debra Winger movie, arrives March 27 at the Broadhurst.

The show, featuring newcomers Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella, has an eclectic country score featuring music from the 1980 film; other numbers are by such stars as the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Clint Black, and there are new songs by Jason Robert Brown, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Bob Stillman.

Musical conflicts

Not that audiences will hear them if Broadway musicians go on strike in March. Their contract expires March 2 and right now they and the League of American Theatres and Producers are in intense negotiations. Among the issues to be resolved: the thorny question of minimums, how many musicians are required to play in each Broadway theater. The producers call it featherbedding, the musicians see it as a stand against the onslaught of computer-generated sound.

There will be three other musicals this spring, two of them new.

A Year With Frog and Toad, based on the children's books by Arnold Lobel, was born last summer at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Jay Goede is Frog and Mark Linn-Baker plays Toad in this musical tale that opens April 13.

For baby boomers with a hankerin' for a smooth bit of pop-music nostalgia, there's The Look of Love: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This celebration of the 1960s songwriting team features many of their golden oldies including Say a Little Prayer, Walk on By and Do You Know the Way to San Jose? No stars, but plenty of talented theater veterans including Liz Callaway, Jonathan Dokuchitz and Desmond Richardson, are in the cast. It opens May 4.

Another musical revival generating attention is Nine, starring Antonio Banderas as the woman-obsessed Guido Contini, and directed by David Leveaux. A best-musical Tony winner in 1982 (it beat out Dreamgirls for the top prize), the Maury Yeston musical, based on Fellini's movie 81/2, features a parade of fascinating females. They include Laura Benanti, Jane Krawkowski, Mary Stuart Masterson and Chita Rivera. It opens April 10.

Up first is Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg's drama about a professional baseball player who is gay and the storm caused by his coming out. The play scored last September at the Public Theater off-Broadway and the production transfers Thursday to the Walter Kerr with most of its original cast intact. Daniel Sunjata is the player and Denis O'Hare portrays his business manager who gains a new appreciation for baseball.

From baseball to painter Vincent van Gogh, who is at the center of Vincent in Brixton, a play by Nicholas Wright about the Dutch master's sojourn to Britain. Jochum ten Haaf is the painter, Clare Higgins his English landlady. The curtain rises March 6 at the Golden.

Yasmina Reza, whose comedy, Art, was a best-play Tony winner in 1998, returns with another thoughtful bit of humor, Life x 3. It features three versions of one dinner party. Helen Hunt and John Turturro, portraying husband and wife, are the harried hosts. The shenanigans start March 27.

In London, The Play What I Wrote honored the beloved British comedy team of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who are largely unknown to American audiences. When the production transfers to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre on March 30, references to Morecambe and Wise will be gone. Instead, it will be about two comedians not unlike Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, who star in the show.

One feature from the London production will not be dropped: surprise appearances at each performance by guest stars. In London, that group included Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Roger Moore, Miranda Richardson and others. One of the producers of The Play What I Wrote is Mike Nichols and the director is Kenneth Branagh. Between the two of them, they should be able to snare some big names for Broadway.

Familiar material

First a novel, then a movie and now a play. Enchanted April, adapted by Matthew Barber, finds its way to Broadway April 21. The cast includes Elizabeth Ashley, Jayne Atkinson and Molly Ringwald.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, with its two leads, Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, imported from the successful London revival, arrives April 3. Peter Nichols' play, which has been done on Broadway twice before, concerns the effect a mentally challenged daughter has on her parents' marriage.

Blind, deaf Helen Keller and her determined tutor, Annie Sullivan, are at the center of The Miracle Worker, which was a big hit in 1959. Hilary Swank is Sullivan and Skye McCole Bartusiak her pupil. It opens April 24.

The season is saving what could be its dramatic highlight for last.

O'Neill's greatest play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, opens May 6. The stars are Brian Dennehy as the tyrannical James Tyrone, Vanessa Redgrave as his morphine-addled wife and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard as their two tortured sons.

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