From Boy George to Boy from Oz

Consider some words in the titles from Broadway's most compelling new offerings. They almost tell the story of what's happening halfway through this tumultuous season: "retreat," "wicked," "taboo," and "never."

The Great White Way has weathered a battery of upheavals in recent months. One highly anticipated drama closed after one performance ("The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" starring Ellen Burstyn). Another never opened at all, folding during previews ("Bobbi Boland" starring Farrah Fawcett). And the six-member cast of Richard Greenberg's now-closed "The Violet Hour" grappled with two last-minute replacements (see story, at left).

But the disappointments have been more than balanced out by the successes, most notably Donna Murphy's glittering portrayal of Ruth McKenney in Wonderful Town and the highly praised Lincoln Center production of Henry IV.

All three of this new season's most engrossing dramas share one trait: Every one is built upon strong, complex human relationships among finely drawn characters experiencing universal personal ordeals.

Continuing Broadway producers' taste for revivals, Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Anthony Page, adroitly reimagines the story's nexus, moving it from Maggie to Big Daddy. While this may have been the result of pitting screen stars Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, as Maggie and Brick, against theater lion Ned Beatty, as the Southern patriarch, the results bring new vitality to that family's day of reckoning.

The established but new-to-Broadway Anna in the Tropics, which won the Pulitzer Prize for author Nilo Cruz, lures audiences in at the start, with a lyrical discovery of the work and lives of Cuban immigrants in Florida during the Depression. But as the inner jealousies and conflicts begin to ricochet off the walls of the modest cigar factory where the play is set, tensions mount, and an emotional saga unfolds with tragic results.

The most skillfully calibrated ensemble currently acting in New York brings to life the tortured world of a middle-aged couple in William Nicholson's The Retreat from Moscow. John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins portray the upper-middle-class parents of a directionless son (Ben Chaplin), pulled in both directions as his parents' marriage self-destructs.

Avenue Q set the standard for quality in new musicals very high. Creators Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty have effortlessly woven together hilarious characters (human and puppet), satirical observations on the cultural landscape, and one of the wittiest, most accomplished musical scores of the past decade - the leading contender for the Tony Award.

Setting the standard for controversy, Taboo chronicles the rise and decline of pop icon Boy George. And despite the headline-grabbing clashes between producer Rosie O'Donnell and some members of the creative and performing teams, the surprise of the show is its solid score. As a composer able to use his talents to tell stories, Boy George clearly ranks with Elton John as someone capable of making the transition from the jukebox to the box office.

And meeting the standard for following established musical theater form, Wicked imagines the backstory of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West. Two star turns, by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, enliven the somewhat predictable events, with Menzel, in particular, delivering a performance sure to compete with Donna Murphy for Best Actress at the Tonys.

But simply following a tradition doesn't guarantee success. Never Gonna Dance is built on musical numbers composed by Jerome Kern, and written by an esteemed list of lyricists, including Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, P.G.Wodehouse, and Oscar Hammerstein II. In this case, there are two traditions that have been resurrected: old-style Broadway shows written by several people, and the newer trend of stringing together songs by one creator or team with a serviceable storyline (think the Gershwin shows Crazy for You and My One and Only, ABBA's Mamma Mia, and Billy Joel's Movin' Out). What all these shows, past and present, also had was a lightness to them and a sense of whimsy.

"Never Gonna Dance" does dance fairly well, but even the choreography reminds one that this is a product, not an entertainment.

True lovers of dramatic experience will delight in two landmark biographical one-person shows, Jefferson Mays in Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife, and Tovah Feldshuh in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony. Bringing to life Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir may prove to be the signature role of Feldshuh's career. Her tour-de-force may win this veteran actress her first Tony Award.

However, the truly electric energy of Hugh Jackman, demonstrating the same stage-filling presence he delivered a few years ago as Curly in the London revival of "Oklahoma!" cannot salvage the biographical The Boy From Oz. This tepid retelling of the life of Australian disco song-and-dance man Peter Allen feels more like a home for old show-biz clichés, made all the more disappointing because the real events were truly compelling.

And if "Wicked" and "The Boy from..." don't fill your Oz quotient, there's Circus Oz, the animal-free alternative circus at 42nd Street's Victory Theater.

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