The ghosts of Broadway past are back

The theater season includes several high-profile revivals. But can the new productions improve upon their predecessors?

The new theater season here promises a solid lineup of notable selections, both new and old. And though Halloween is past, ghosts are haunting four of the most anticipated revivals – but they aren't wandering over from the nearby performances of "Phantom."

Cynthia Nixon and Nathan Lane, playing the title characters in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Butley, respectively, and the entire cast of "A Chorus Line" are competing with the previous incarnations of their roles. Nixon's predecessors include Zoe Caldwell, Vanessa Redgrave, and Maggie Smith, while it's Alan Bates who's shadowing Lane. And these two British characters have more in common than an academic profession.

Brodie and Butley both start out as educators devoted to preserving higher standards, and both have achieved big-fish-in-little-pond status. For Brodie, it's a rural, private, all-girls' school in pre-World War II Scotland. Butley labors in the English department at a post-Mod London university. Both Nixon and Lane successfully redefine these iconoclasts, exposing a vulnerable humanity that underpins their iconic defiance.

Brodie challenges as many norms as she can identify in her quest to mold young girls into independent spirits. Playwright Jay Presson Allen's colorful instructor, who is conducting a tortured affair with the school's rogue married art teacher as she approaches her "prime" of age 40, dazzles impressionable minds with tales of exotic foreign vacations, romantic fictional lovers, and the idealized political prowess of idol Benito Mussolini. Director Scott Elliot's frank version of the Brodie character is only slightly larger than the lives around her, but big enough to threaten every kind of order she encounters. Previous Jeans savored her melodramatic grandiosity and her flamboyant classroom style. But Nixon finds, and justifies, the smaller persona, forcing others to cede the spotlight because of her fierce will rather than her histrionics.

Portraying Brodie's downfall after she recklessly encourages one of her less-intelligent charges to follow a fatally misguided adventure into revolution-torn Spain, Nixon chooses to show us this "ridiculous woman" deflating rather than exploding, a character filled not really with fire, but with hot air.

Butley's life implodes through actions of his own making. He is an English lit professor sharing a shabby office with a junior lecturer and former student named Joey, who is now his live-in lover. Butley seems on the verge of grooming them into a same-sex British version of Albee's brawling couple in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" – with Butley as its alcoholic tongue-lashing Martha, and Joey on the road to becoming a failed, unfulfilled academic George.

In the span of 10 hours, Butley learns that his dissipating marriage to Anne and his current partnership with Joey are both coming to an end. The Bates portrayal of Butley was almost menacing in his aggressively verbal, literary assaults. Lane's version is equally at ease with his prose-laced put-downs, but shows us why someone once could have found Butley endearing.

As Joey moves out of Butley's office, apartment, and life, he verbalizes what Butley knows – the idolized mentor, now openly contemptuous of his students, no longer is compelled to teach. Instead, he "spreads futility."

Playwright Simon Gray has his "hero" continually sitting near lamps that refuse to light, just as the inspirational light in Butley fades from within.

The faithfully revived, still-dazzling A Chorus Line, which follows Broadway chorus gypsies through a tortuous audition process, revealing inner lives and outer skills, or lack thereof, aims to honor the original production.

The current production wisely keeps the action set in 1975, proving the genius behind the original – rooted in its era, yet timeless. All the relevant insecurities and jealousies, mistakes, and talent of more than a dozen dancers unfold in a seamless mosaic of dialogue, song, movement, and hope.

Today, no dancer makes it to Broadway without the ability to execute these moves. Three performances underscore why the show is a classic. In each case, it is not just the dancing, but the acting that is so rewarding. As Paul, Jason Tam stirs deep emotions as he retells his transition from street kid to drag performer to legit dancer. Deidre Goodwin's Sheila makes the character's uphill battle for acceptance even more compelling, being portrayed by an African-American performer. And Charlotte d'Amboise stakes out personal territory as Cassie, the dance virtuoso who lost her shot at stardom, mimicking the real actor's saga as a standby in "Sweet Charity" two seasons back.

Audiences are still entranced by Michael Bennett's choreography. With this revival, the issue is not whether the actors are better than those who helped shape the musical from personal life stories, but the fact that they are just as great.

George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is bursting with spirits. The once-stately country home of retired naval Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco) is now a playing field for his free-spirited daughter Hesione (Swoosie Kurtz), her wandering-eye husband (Byron Jennings), their lower-class, ambitious protégé Ellie (Lily Rabe), and a delectable mix of human odds and ends, including Hesione's long-absent sister Ariadne (Laila Robins).

Each entrance populates the stage with the ghosts of everyone's past indiscretions. Shaw's skill at interweaving broad, innuendoed comedy and sharp social criticism gets white-glove treatment, with a finely tuned cast bringing every smirk and swipe to the surface.

Bravely fending off the political folly of the looming Great War, "Heartbreak House" can claim as descendants everything from the Kaufman-Ferber-Hart comedies of Broadway's Golden Age and the crackling repartee of TV's "Frasier" to contemporary attempts at melding social commentary and wit. This production shows them all how to do it right.

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