Alexa

New plays and newcomers salvage a strike-plagued 2007-2008 Broadway season

New plays and newcomers salvage a strike-plagued 2007-2008 Broadway season

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" on Broadway. Uh, wait. That's this fall when a musical version of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" opens at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in September.
Not that Dickens' most quotable line from one of his most popular novels couldn't be applied to the now receding-from-memory 2007-08 theater season.
The worst of times? OK, not exactly Dickens' version of the French Revolution but a crippling 19-day stagehands strike last November. It left Broadway reeling in millions of dollars of losses, facing a disgruntled public and trying to salvage what had promised to be the best of times, the most play-heavy fall season in years.
The total gross for the season, according to the Broadway League (the industry's trade association), was $937.5 million, about a million dollars shy of the previous year. And attendance slipped slightly, too, to 12.27 million, down from 12.3 million in the preceding season.
Out of the wreckage came one drama _ Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" _ that managed to win nearly unanimous critical praise, survive the season and begin collecting every award in sight, with the best-play Tony assuredly in its grasp on Sunday when the winners are announced at Radio City Music Hall. CBS will televise the ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. EDT.
Besides Letts, the season was awash in players new to Broadway, from performer-writers such as Stew of "Passing Strange" and Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights" to film stars such as Terrence Howard and Claire Danes, adding a bit of juice to revivals of such well-known works as an all-back "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Pygmalion," with a most unconventional Henry Higgins in Jefferson May.
But Letts' examination of a supremely dysfunctional Oklahoma family, vividly brought to life by an accomplished ensemble of actors from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, wasn't the only fine play in town.
Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer," the story of a Christmas Eve poker game with one very devilish participant was another. Its limited engagement may be over, but McPherson's fans can still savor one of the Irish playwright's earlier works _ a collection of monologues called "Port Authority" _ getting a tantalizing production at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company through June 22.
Tom Stoppard returned with "Rock 'n' Roll," a look at recent Czech history, primarily in the 1960s, and the music that came out of that era, but the strike stymied its momentum to gain a wider audience.
It's a real skill getting an audience to laugh. But David Mamet did it in "November," his scabrous comedy of presidential wheeler-dealering and featuring Nathan Lane at his most delightfully apoplectic.
Two other performers display remarkable physical skills in comedies: Mark Rylance as a nerdy visitor to Paris, the setting for "Boeing-Boeing," an expertly resuscitated sex farce from the swinging 1960s; and Norbert Leo Butz, whooping it up in drag while playing a supposedly deceased painter in David Ives' adaptation of an unknown Mark Twain farce, "Is He Dead?"
Stew and company slowly built an audience for "Passing Strange," an unconventional musical biography that, despite critical cheers, wasn't an instantaneous hit. But along with "In the Heights," look for them to score Sunday at the 2008 Tony Awards. Both are in serious contention for best musical.
Yet toughest ticket honors went to "South Pacific," an impeccably staged revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein-Joshua Logan classic that turns 60 next April. Along with "Gypsy," starring the indefatigable Patti LuPone, and a projection-savvy production of "Sunday in the Park With George," nostalgia never looked or sounded better.
And, sure, there were disappointments.
More people seemed to remember Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" for its $450 premium ticket price (a plan that quietly disappeared after the mostly poor reviews came out) than for Brooks and Susan Stroman's gargantuan reimagining of his film horror-movie spoof. Disney's "The Little Mermaid" was deemed unseaworthy by most critics, too, although audiences found it more to their liking than "Tarzan."
Other misfires included Mike Nichols' strangely undramatic revival of Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl," which never took off despite the presence of Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher. And "The Farnsworth Invention," Aaron Sorkin's look at the birth of television, proved less than riveting despite director Des McAnuff's flashy, expensive production.
Raunchiness should look easy. It didn't in "Cry-Baby," a hardworking attempt to turn another John Waters' movie in a stage musical _ "Hairspray" was the first.
And then there were the shows that actually made money, paying back their production costs and then some. Besides "August: Osage County," the financial successes, so far, include "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," the revival of Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale," the Kevin Kline "Cyrano de Bergerac" and the Patrick Stewart "Macbeth."
With the right star, and a little help from good reviews, even Shakespeare can sell on Broadway.