NEW YORK — Take an old hit, cast stars, and watch new cash flow.
Revivals are still dominant this season on and off Broadway. The rationale among the high-minded is that producers serve as enlightened curators, like those in art museums, preserving and reinterpreting classics for new audiences and that plays can only benefit from a revival. The less stated fact is that producers minimize financial risk by relying on a familiar formula. But are current shows worth an audience paying new money for an old formula?
As recent revivals of "Into the Woods," "The Boys from Syracuse," "Burn This," and "The Playboy of the Western World" show, revivals can range from tepid to vibrant, thought-provoking to embarrassing, with room for revelation or idiocy in between.
At first glance, the major reason for reviving the 1988 musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine seems to be to provide a star vehicle for Vanessa Williams. She is mischievous fun in the pivotal role of the witch in this tale of familiar storybook characters who go into the woods to seek their destinies and find that happily ever after is short-lived. But though she offers a sexiness and comedy different from Bernadette Peters in the original role, is she reason enough for a revival?
Unexpectedly, it's not Ms. Williams, but the themes that make it worth revisiting. Whether the producers were aware of the added resonance when the fairy-tale world collapses and the characters experience a newly insecure world, the audience reacts with applause and whistles. And Sondheim's double-edged music couldn't sound more on target. It couldn't be more right for today's audience and might never be as good again.
In other shows, like the revival of the 1938 musical The Boys from Syracuse, poor choices make the timing bad. Though "Boys," based on Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors," has immortal Rodgers and Hart standards going for it, the production gives object lessons for how not to do a revival. For one, the kind of idiosyncratic humor of neurosis used to update George Abbott's book has gotten very old for audiences. (Nothing dates faster than "contemporary" humor.) Worse yet, director Scott Ellis took out the farce's frenzy. The play is so slow it took a striptease, led by TV star Jackee Harry, to wake up the audience.
Burn This, the Lanford Wilson revival by Signature Theatre seems to have been done because prominent actors love the (emotionally) juicy roles. The 1987 play with Joan Allen served as a springboard for John Malkovich. This time it equally serves Edward Norton and Catherine Keener. Another reason for the revival: Signature dedicates a season to the work of a playwright, and it's Lanford Wilson's turn. The show is at Union Square where it's doing a brisk business.
Besides the casting of movie stars, director James Houghton has given a lighter touch to the story of an insular New York choreographer who falls in love and becomes willing to risk the chaos of authentic feeling. Her object, the Norton role, is full of over-the-top action and Wilson's verbal pyrotechnics. But the play itself, no matter how well directed and acted, seems little more than a perceptive TV drama. The revival is well done. The question is whether a work of slight import should be trumpeted as a masterpiece.
In the business of revivals, the value of a play can be of passing consideration or of paramount value, as in The Irish Rep Theater's revival of The Playboy of the Western World. This revival is so taken with the original 1905 classic that it uses colloquial language from the 19th century to tell the tale of a desperate stranger who becomes a celebrity when he confesses to killing his father. A passionate revival, true to the spirit of Irish folklore, it's marred by adhering to language so authentic it's almost incomprehensible.
Director Charlotte Moore compensated by directing the actors at a high pitch, so their emotion makes sense of the rural accent and exotic expressions. But in this revival, the choice not to compromise the author's vision was at the expense of audience comprehension. It works by a hair, because the actors are equal to the challenge. Equally important is that Irish Rep's audience are mostly partisans of Irish culture. A revival for classicists then, perhaps it should bear a label?
And that is the point for consumers. In this time of economic constraint, the rush to produce revivals continues, no matter what the intellectual rationale. It's a field where playbills should be stamped with "star vehicle," "academics preferred," or "excuse for long-legged chorus girls." Since money can be made with a great revival as well as a poor one, maybe future producers should consider more carefully, why revive it now?