THEATRE

The Broadway bustle

New York stages are brimming with spectacles

PAMELA YOUNG December 11 1989
THEATRE

The Broadway bustle

New York stages are brimming with spectacles

PAMELA YOUNG December 11 1989

The Broadway bustle

THEATRE

New York stages are brimming with spectacles

The wind outside Broadway’s LuntFontanne Theatre was as chilling as a bad review. Tickets in hand, two very young women arrived for a performance of the new production of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 3 Penny Opera, starring the British pop superstar Sting in his stage debut. They made their way to their seats, which turned out to be practically frontrow centre. “Wow,” one exclaimed delightedly to the other, “Sting will be able to spit on us.” The drawing power of a big-name star is not to be underestimated. But in the current New York City theatre season, the liveliest in several years, celebrities including Sting and Vanessa Redgrave are starring in some of the least captivating productions. Tyne Daly and Tom Hulee, however, are among the established actors who are lighting up the Great White Way. And a few unknowns seem to be very close—perhaps even within spitting distance—of stardom.

The current Broadway season, which began officially in June, has been the busiest in seven years. By the end of December, 21 new shows will have opened, seven more than last year’s count. Of the 17 shows that have already opened this year, 11 are still running; they range from a revival of the 1959 Jule Styne-

Stephen Sondheim musical, Gypsy, to A Few Good Men, an absorbing military courtroom drama that marks the Broadway debut of 28year-old playwright Aaron Sorkin. Said Harvey Sabinson, executive director of The League of American Theatres and Producers: “There will always be good seasons and bad ones, but quantity and quality have improved this year over last.”

Two of the most keenly awaited shows of the current season, however, are also among the least successful.

Orpheus Descending is a revival of a 1957 Tennessee Williams play; the current production ran in London’s West End before coming to Broadway in September. It stars Britain’s revered Vanessa Redgrave and was directed by her countryman Sir Peter Hall, formerly director of Britain’s National Theatre. At the centre of the story is Redgrave’s character, Lady Torrance, the daughter of an Italian immigrant. “Lady” grew up in a bigoted southern U.S. town, where she remains locked in a loveless marriage to Jabe, the owner of the local dry-goods store. While Jabe is upstairs dying of cancer, a young drifter named Val Xavier (Kevin Anderson) comes into her life.

As in other Williams plays, the sympathetic characters in Orpheus Descending are poetic souls, too fragile to come to terms with the world around them: they are long on sensibility and short on sense. Val says things like, “My folks all scattered away like loose chicken feathers blown by the wind.” Instead of trying to tone down Williams’s melodramatic excesses, Hall has chosen to play them up with self-conscious shifts in lighting and a sound track of barking dogs and ominous chords. Redgrave’s performance is richly detailed, but seems too calculated.

In Orpheus Descending, much of the blame lies with the original material. But in the case of 3 Penny Opera, John Dexter’s underwhelming direction and Sting’s colorless portrayal of the antihero Macheath gang up on one of the most savage pieces of stage invective ever written and render it toothless. The attack on capitalism by dramatist-lyricist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was first staged in Berlin in 1928. Macheath, its central character, is supposed to have enough charisma to get away with thievery, bigamy and murder. Sting is handsome in his white spats and riverboat gambler’s moustache, but his performance is stiff and unimpressive. And, for some reason, his singing voice, which can be compelling in the recording studio, gets lost on the stage.

Musicals tend to arrive on Broadway with all the excitement of a sale at Macy’s. Frequently, they disappear almost as quickly. But when a musical does manage to graft itself onto the Great White Way, it can put down remarkably deep roots. A Chorus Line has been playing there continuously since July, 1975, and Cats has kept it company since October, 1982. Les Misérables (March, 1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (January, 1988) remain two of the most popular shows in town.

This season’s most ambitious new musical is Grand Hotel, which opened on Nov. 12 at the Martin Beck Theatre. Based on the German potboiler that inspired the 1932 Hollywood movie of the same name, it is about lives intertwining at a luxury hotel in 1928 Berlin. The musical, which was directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, is a burnished recollection of a decadent era that either vanished long ago or never really existed. The guests who pass through the hotel’s revolving door include a terminally ill clerk on a final spree, a dashing but penniless baron and a ballerina on the most recent of many farewell tours. Grand Hotel almost has it all: a fine, if largely unknown, cast, breathtaking choreography and inventive staging. But its gorgeousness does not hide the fact that its songs, by Robert Wright and George Forrest, are more bland than grand.

Because of the enormous risk and expense involved in mounting a musical on Broadway— Grand Hotel cost $5.6 million, and most shows range between $2 million and $9 million— revivals are more common than new works.

Gypsy, which opened last month at the St. James Theatre, is one revival that is too vital to be dismissed as a period piece. The show is very loosely based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose given name was Louise. She and her sister, June, were pushed onto the vaudeville circuit in childhood by their mother, Rose.

Despite the musical’s title, its central character is the terrifyingly ambitious stage mother, who was played by Ethel Merman in the original 1959 production. Tyne Daly, who won four Emmy awards for her portrayal of policewoman Mary Beth Lacey on TV’s Cagney &

Lacey, is magnificent as Momma Rose. While she does not have the solid brass pipes of Merman—not necessarily a shortcoming— she reveals the humanity inside a larger-thanlife character without softening Rose’s abrasiveness. Crista Moore, who makes her Broadway debut as Louise, is also outstanding.

Another revival—and star vehicle—that has received rave reviews is The Circle, which opened last month at the Ambassador Theatre. A1921 drawing-room comedy by W. Somerset Maugham, it stars Sir Rex Harrison as a man who ran away with his best friend’s wife (Glynis Johns) decades earlier. The two meet up with the cuckolded husband (Stewart Granger) and the son whom the wife abandoned, for the first time in years.

Serious plays used to give the musicals a run

for their money on Broadway, but dramas are now far more commonly found off-Broadway. Said Sabinson of The League of American Theatres: “It will never go back to what it was at mid-century, when shows were cheaper to mount and the competition from television for writing talent was not that great.” But A Few Good Men, at The Music Box, defies the odds. With it, Sorkin has a shot at overnight stardom. He sent his first full-length work to David Brown, who produced the movies The Sting and Jaws. Brown, in turn, called in several theatrical producers. The result is a $910,000 production starring Tom Hulee, who played

Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus.

A fictionalized account of a true story, the play is set in motion when two marines stationed at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—a legacy of the pre-Castro era—are accused of murdering one of their peers. In Washington, an intense young female investigator (Megan Gallagher) suspects that a coverup has taken place. She and two naval lawyers, one of them an easygoing wisecracker played by Hulee, eventually bring the case to trial. It turns out that the fanaticism of commanding officers has played a significant role in the marine’s death. After the trial, Hulee’s character rams home the play’s antimilitary moral when he says, “You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honor.” Despite its moments of smug righteousness, A Few Good

Men is an intelligent and often funny play, superbly performed and paced at an invigorating quick march.

Some of the most exciting New York theatre is scattered among off-Broadway houses. The CSC Repertory is currently presenting a double bill of plays by Britain’s Harold Pinter. Both star Jean Stapleton, a versatile actress best remembered as the dim-witted Edith Bunker on television’s All in the Family. Pinter’s newest play, Mountain Language, makes an interesting counterpart to the other work on the program, The Birthday Party (1958), his second play. In Mountain Language, only 20 minutes long, a military power has conquered a region, and its soldiers force the inhabitants to speak “the language of the capital” rather than their native “mountain language.” Women wait outside a detention centre to see their husbands and sons; by mistake, guards take one woman through the wrong door, and she sees her husband being tortured.

The themes of repression and the deprivation of language also run through The Birthday Party. Menace stalks a lodger at a shabby English seaside rooming house in the form of two mysterious men in suits. In Pinter’s hands, the most repetitive, vacuous and pause-ridden speech is rife with terrifying threats.

Those who prefer the poetry of The Bard can go to the off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre, which is currently mounting The Tempest. Two years ago, B. D. Wong won a bestactor Tony award for his performance as a Chinese intelligence-gatherer who disguises himself as a woman in M. Butterfly. Now, starring as the sprite Ariel, Wong moves with the fluid weightlessness of seaweed in water and speaks his lines with ethereal eloquence. Frank Langella, known for his stage portrayal of Dracula, brings dignity and warmth to the role of Prospero, the exiled duke, in the enchanting production.

It seems likely that the season will retain its momentum into the new year. Artist Descending, an adaptation of *a 1972 Tom Stoppard radio play, opened last week in a new production at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre after a successful West End run. Another London transfer is Dustin Hoffman in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a show that opens Dec. 19. City of Angels, a new musical detective story with tunes by Sweet Charity composer Cy Coleman, was to open on Dec. 4. Other major musicals slated to arrive in 1990 include Annie 2 and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, Aspects of Love, which premiered earlier this year in London. Among planned nonmusicals, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Kathleen Turner stands out. Now and then, the lights on Broadway may flicker, but for the moment they show no signs of dimming.

PAMELA YOUNG