NEW YORK — The new theater season is off to an early start, and if the kickoff shows at the Roundabout Theatre are any indication - sprightly productions of "1776," a classic musical, and "Misalliance," an underrated comedy - audiences are in for a rollicking good time over the next few months.
The arrival of "1776" inaugurates the biggest trend poised to hit Broadway between now and the new year: as many as nine musicals, which would exceed the total for the past two autumns combined, according to the trade paper Variety.
Not all will be megaproductions like "Titanic," despite that show's surprising success. But at least one ("The Lion King") is expected to soar past the $12 million budget mark, and it's unlikely that forays into the French Revolution ("The Scarlet Pimpernel") and 30 years of New York street life ("The Capeman") will come in cheaply.
If some of the other musicals try to distinguish themselves by operating on a more modest scale, as observers expect, they can learn a lot from the sparkling new "1776." It manages to be both toe-tapping and thought-provoking while steering completely clear of ostentation - perhaps necessarily, since it takes place mainly in the chamber of the Continental Congress and is populated almost entirely by statesmen in knee britches and perukes.
What makes "1776" such a consistently pleasing show is partly its willingness to tackle a meaningful subject - the decision made by 13 rowdy Colonies to break away from the world's greatest empire - with wit and high spirits, yet without shying away from complex, even troubling issues. These include the all-too-human failings of the politicians involved and the appalling compromise that kept the Declaration of Independence from taking a stand against slavery.
This seriousness gave "1776" substance in 1969, when it was new, and keeps it fresh in 1997, even though the American political climate has drastically changed. Meanwhile, high-stepping entertainment value comes from Peter Stone's witty dialogue and Sherman Edwards's imaginative music and lyrics. The excellent Roundabout cast includes Brent Spiner and Pat Hingle as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, respectively. Scott Ellis directed.
'Misalliance" is the least-often produced of George Bernard Shaw's major plays, but the 1909 work has everything a first-rate comedy needs. The plot, centering on scrambled romances in an English businessman's home, swings effortlessly between philosophy and farce. The characters, ranging from effete aristocrats to an explosively liberated female aviator, embody an exhilaratingly wide variety of emotions, attitudes, and ideas.
The writing approaches Shaw's highest level, so dazzling in its virtuosity that you almost don't mind when he spins more verbiage than his mischievous points require.
Again the Roundabout does marvelously well by its material. Standouts in the cast include Brian Murray as the homeowner, Elizabeth Marvel as the flier, and Zak Orth as a revolutionary who might do the bourgeoisie some damage if his hands would only stop shaking. David Warren directed the superbly mounted production, which proves (yet again!) that Shaw is still a playwright for the ages.