Broadway leaps into spring

Some big-name actors return to the stage and stir up the classics.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    '9 to 5: The Musical' has more feminist sensibilities this time around.
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    In the new revival of 'West Side Story,' the Puerto Rican Sharks gang now talk and sing in Spanish.
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Welcome to Broadway's winter of discontent. January and February are traditionally the harshest months on the Great White Way, but the sinking economy has pushed even top shows to shutter early – Tony winners "Hairspray," "Spamalot," and "Spring Awakening" all closed last month. Still, spring will bring nearly 20 new plays and musicals to the stage, many of them stocked with bold-faced-name film and TV stars.

'Impressionism'

Two of our classiest stars of the big screen, Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, splash down in New York in this new play by Michael Jacobs. Both are known for their theater work, but neither actor has been on Broadway since the 1980s: Irons in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" in 1984 (for which he won the Tony for best actor), and Allen in "The Heidi Chronicles" in 1989 (in which she earned a nod for best actress). In this play, Irons plays a jet-setting photojournalist who enters the orbit of Allen's New York art gallery owner, while the two discover that there might also be an art to repairing broken lives. Playwright Jacobs is also back on Broadway after an absence of more than 30 years: He first burst onto the scene at 22 with his short-lived Broadway debut "Cheaters" in 1978. But he's now best known as a television and film producer with credits that include the Oscar-winning "Quiz Show." (Previews begin Feb. 28; opens March 12.)

'33 Variations'

While Irons, Allen, and Jacobs are returning to Broadway after long absences, legendary actress Jane Fonda has them all beat. The two-time Oscar winner hasn't been on Broadway in 46 years – since a 1963 production of O'Neill's "Strange Interlude." But she'll have a steady hand guiding her: Her friend Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project, best known for acclaimed documentary-style plays like "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" and "The Laramie Project," in addition to the Tony-winning "I Am My Own Wife." Let's hope Fonda fares better than other high-profile actresses, like Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore, who have tried their hand on the Broadway stage in recent years but laid goose eggs. In "33 Variations," Fonda plays musicologist Katherine Brandt, who is trying to solve a centuries-old mystery about Beethoven's interest in a waltz that inspired his piano work, the Diabelli Variations. As the music that consumes Katherine comes to life on stage, she races against time to find common ground with her daughter and to embrace the legacy of her own life. (Previews began Feb. 9; opens March 9.)

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'West Side Story'

When the musical "West Side Story" first burst onto the stage in 1957, it landed with an earth-shattering force, forever changing the landscape of the American musical theater. With choreography by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show was envisioned as a contemporary, urban updating of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." But to its book writer, Arthur Laurents, subsequent major revivals felt synthetic and lacked verisimilitude. In an effort to inject the classic musical with a jolt of fresh urgency and to underline the cultural misunderstandings at the heart of the story, Laurents conceived of a bilingual production for its current reincarnation (which he's directing). Many of the songs and much of the dialogue spoken by the Puerto Rican Sharks gang is now in Spanish. For instance, the classic tune "I Feel Pretty" becomes "Siento Hermosa." Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning star and creator of the acclaimed Latino musical, "In the Heights," reworked the lyrics, and Sondheim enthusiastically backed the changes. Word out of Washington, D.C., where the show played a pre-Broadway tryout, has been strong, with reviewers raving about the 21-year-old unknown Maria, Josefina Scaglione, whom Laurents first spotted on YouTube. (Previews begin Feb. 23; opens March 19.)

'God of Carnage'

The French playwright Yasmina Reza has made a career out of penning wry social satires ("Art," "Life x 3") that savagely skewer the hypocrisies, absurdities, and pretenses of bourgeois values. In "God of Carnage," Reza's scalpel seems just as sharp. The play, which was staged in London last year and garnered solid reviews, centers on two sets of parents who meet to discuss a playground altercation between their 11-year-old sons. The seemingly civilized proceedings quickly turn disastrous, with echoes of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Directed by Matthew Warchus, the play has been recast with American actors. Jeff Daniels will play the detached, boorish lawyer, while Hope Davis is his embarrassed, put-upon wife. Marcia Gay Harden portrays the self-righteous liberal activist Veronica, who runs the parent meeting, and James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano, is her vulgar, hotheaded husband. (Previews begin Feb. 28; opens March 22.)

'Hair'

The Age of Aquarius may be dawning this March with the first Broadway revival of "Hair" in more than 30 years. But it's not going to be easy to capture the euphoric magic of last summer's Central Park production of the "tribal love rock" musical, on which the new staging will be based. Director Diane Paulus, who's helming the Broadway transfer, found bittersweet and plaintive notes amid the summer production's exuberant energy. The image of the rebellious, free-spirited hippies clustered together and singing the show's wistful closing anthem, "Let the Sunshine In," then parting to reveal their friend's body on an American flag after being killed in Vietnam is hard to forget. But so will be the sight of exhilarated audience members streaming on to the stage at the close of the show and dancing with abandon. (Previews begin March 6; opens March 31.)

'Reasons to Be Pretty'

Neil LaBute may be one of the most frequently produced playwrights in New York over the past decade, but the writer and film director has certainly endured his share of criticism and controversy. His plays and films are peopled with the kind of ruthless, petty, and narcissistic creatures who revel in cruelty and emotional violence. No wonder, he has never been produced on Broadway – until now. In the estimation of his loudest critics, LaBute often stands in harsh and unforgiving judgment of his characters. His portraits of reprehensible humans are rife with too much glee and bitter contempt and not enough psychological understanding. But with "Reasons to Be Pretty," which premiered off-Broadway last spring to positive reviews, LaBute seemed to trade in his sadism for a healthy dose of sympathy. He discovered a newfound compassion for the damaged souls in his plays. Still, don't go expecting any saints or martyrs. Piper Perabo and Thomas Sadoski reprise their roles from the off-Broadway run. (Previews begin March 13; opens April 2.)

'9 to 5: The Musical'

Country and pop legend Dolly Parton is finally landing on Broadway, but not in the way she first imagined. Parton had been toying with the idea of writing a musical based on her life when producer Bob Greenblatt approached her about adapting the 1980 hit comedy, "9 to 5," in which she starred alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three working girls facing off against a dastardly boss. Thus was born "9 to 5: The Musical," a frothy new show about three tough-as-nails ladies tired of smacking their heads on the proverbial glass ceiling. Flaunting feminist sensibilities, the musical premiered in Los Angeles last fall to strong reviews. Parton wrote the score, and the famous title tune opens and closes the show. Emmy award-winner Allison Janney ("The West Wing") plays frustrated secretary Violet Newsted, Stephanie J. Block is the easily flustered new girl Judy Bernly, and Megan Hilty portrays the wisecracking assistant with the hourglass figure, Doralee Rhodes. (Previews begin April 7; opens April 30.)

'Waiting for Godot'

Once scoffed at as "a play in which nothing happens – twice," Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" is now an unquestioned tragicomic masterpiece that has influenced everything from the plays of Edward Albee to sitcoms like "Seinfeld" and "Arrested Development." The story revolves around a couple of bedraggled hobos idling by a sad-looking tree and anticipating the arrival of someone who never shows up. The challenge for this star-studded cast is to stoke the play's deadpan comic rhythms, while leavening its brisk comedy with the loneliness and despair of characters facing the existential void. In his mime work and watershed role in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Bill Irwin (Vladimir) has proven himself more than capable of handling the shadows with the light. So, too, has Nathan Lane (Estragon). While it remains to be seen whether John Goodman (who plays Pozzo), and is well-known for his avuncular Dan Conner on "Roseanne" and impressive work with the Coen Brothers, can pull off this balancing act. (Previews begin April 3; opens April 30.)

Guys and Dolls

While it’s been about 30 years since “West Side Story” or “Hair”appeared on a Broadway stage, “Guys and Dolls” was last seen in a majorUS revival in the relatively recent mid-’90s with Nathan Lane, FaithPrince, and Peter Gallagher. The classic musical that many consider thegreatest of all time has become a staple of high school theaterprograms and regional stages across the country. Almost everyone knowsthe indelible tunes of Frank Loesser. Still, for all its longevity doesthe show resonate in our current times? Leave it to director DesMcAnuff (“Jersey Boys,” “The Who’s Tommy”) to find the heart and soulin this story of two men – a craps-game organizer and a high roller –who can’t resist the gambling life, until love comes to town. The castseems intriguing. Oliver Platt, known for raising the bar withunforgettable character parts in otherwise mediocre fare like “Marriedto the Mob,” “Simon Birch,” “Frost/Nixon,” and the TV series “Huff,”gets the role of Nathan Detroit. The smooth Craig Bierko plays thescheming and suave Sky Masterson. While Lauren Graham, wisecracking momLorelai on the TV series “Gilmore Girls,” should make for a sultry andsassy Miss Adelaide. (Previews began Feb. 4; opens March 1.)

Exit the King

The absurdist joke about Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is that it’s acomedy – about death. A megalomaniacal monarch, King Berenger I, whoseincompetence has left his country in near ruin, is knocking on heaven’sdoor. Despite efforts by Queen Marguerite and other members of thecourt to convince the king he has only 90 minutes before the GrimReaper comes a’ callin’, he refuses to relinquish control and usesevery tactic at his disposal to delay the inevitable – ranting, raving,and clinging to existence with lunatic desperation. Ionesco said hewrote the play as “an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying,” and the“King” essentially moves through each of its stages. Holding down thetitle role is Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, who performed the play“Down Under” two years ago to great acclaim. He also assisted directorNeil Armfield with the new translation. The play’s success will hingeon Rush’s ability to find the darkly devastating moments amid theraucous visual gags and slapstick farce. Fellow Oscar winner SusanSarandon, Lauren Ambrose of “Six Feet Under,” and the brilliant comedicactress Andrea Martin are along for the wild ride. (Previews beginMarch 7; opens March 26.)

Mary Stuart

After the glossy HBO miniseries “Elizabeth I” and Cate Blanchett’stwo big-screen forays, do audiences really need to see anymore of thesavvy, strong, indecisive, and confounding Virgin Queen? Well, if it’sFriedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” then that’s a resounding yes. Threeyears ago, the German playwright was suddenly a hot property inLondon’s West End, with his “Don Carlos” and then “Mary Stuart”gripping audiences in quick succession. Now the acclaimed DonmarWarehouse production of Schiller’s classic, written in 1800, about thepolitical machinations between Queen Elizabeth and her cousin MaryQueen of Scots is making its way to Broadway. In the new versionadapted by Peter Oswald, director Phyllida Lloyd dresses the duo inperiod costumes, while the male courtiers don modern clothing,underlining the women’s isolation in a patriarchal society. The playculminates in a famously fictional scene in which the two bitter rivalsmeet at Fotheringay Castle, where Mary is imprisoned. While thisencounter never took place (in fact, the two never met), it highlightsthe ways in which the women are walled in, victims of their dynasticancestry and political gamesmanship in a world dominated by men. JanetMcTeer and Harriet Walter reprise their breathlessly praisedperformances from the London engagement. (Previews begin March 30;opens April 19.)

‘The Philanthropist’

Christopher Hampton, the playwright renowned for his savage stageand screen adaptations of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” has trafficked inhigh-gloss film adaptations such as “Atonement” in recent years. Sosometimes it’s good to be reminded what an incisive and probing writerthe underappreciated Hampton remains. Thanks to the forthcomingRoundabout Theatre revival of his 1970 play, “The Philanthropist”(which he wrote at the age of 24), New York audiences will get amuch-needed refresher course. Written as an inverted response toMolière’s classic “The Misanthrope,” Hampton’s barbed comedy skewersthe pretentious, insular world of academia. The play stars MatthewBroderick as a professor who seems almost absurdly removed from thepolitical turmoil in the world around him, including the assassinationof the country’s prime minister and his cabinet. Broderick has madesomething of a career playing nice guys tired of being walked all over.But unlike his naive accountant-turned-reluctant con artist Leo Bloomin “The Producers,” Broderick’s character in “The Philanthropist” hasno critical faculties, not even “the courage of my lack ofconvictions.” He is so agreeable, in fact, he will go to bed with awoman he doesn’t like simply because he is afraid of hurting herfeelings. “You are so incredibly bland, you just sit there likepudding, wobbling gently,” snaps his fiancée. Even Leo Bloom wouldn’ttake that standing up. (Previews begin April 10; opens April 26.)


As top-tier theater now routinely begins life outside the Manhattan ZIP codes, we include the works of two Broadway veterans that had their world premières this past week in Los Angeles, where staff writer Gloria Goodale took in the scene:

'Minsky's'

Banks are closing. People are losing their jobs. They just want to go to the theater and have some fun.... If these sentiments from "Minsky's" – a new musical – feel timely, the producers of the show, which has been in development for more than a decade, couldn't be happier. Based on a 1960s book and film ("The Night They Raided Minsky's") about the Depression-era trials and tribulations of a third-rate New York burlesque theater, this Valentine to the classical tap dance and flirty costume revues of another era is, no doubt, far cheerier than the bygone real world it depicts. With music by veteran Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie"), "Minsky's" is full of hummable, foot-tapping tunes and impressive stagecraft. While critics have rightly noted that it does not break creative theatrical ground, it is a solid, enjoyable evening of escapist fun that will no doubt make it to Broadway.

'Time Stands Still'

"Time Stands Still," from Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, is a lean, four-person meditation on love, death, and the possibility of human connection. In a tightly emotional style familiar from other Margulies plays, the drama here plays out through the lens of Sarah, a photojournalist; James, her boyfriend and fellow reporter; Richard, a photo editor; and Mandy, his ingenue girlfriend. (She's played by Alicia Silverstone, a bit of casting which is bringing some celebrity and younger buzz to the show). After a war-zone injury brings Sarah back to the US, the two couples tackle the moral and emotional quandaries faced by reporters – and lovers – particularly in crises, such as war. As the only nonjournalist, the young outsider Mandy angrily says, after asking why a nature documentary film crew couldn't help a stranded bear cub find his mother, "Couldn't they make an exception?" Despite the confidence with which Sarah answers that doing so would violate a cardinal rule of separation from her subjects, in fact the whole show is an exploration of the ways in which, ultimately, all these lives interconnect. To deny this fundamental humanity is to risk losing one's own soul, if not one's life. This world première is a commission by the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where it runs through March 15.

This article was updated on Tuesday, Feb. 17.


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