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New York Nights: Summer Sensations

In his semi-regular column from the Big Apple, Mark Shenton catches Vanessa Redgrave at the top of her game once again & looks forward to the arrival of a clutch of musicals featuring singing puppets, plants, Boy George & both boys & girls from Oz.

By • West End


Time was that Broadway would shut down during New York's brutally hot summer months. The hits (duly anointed by the Tony Awards in early June) would keep going, of course, to entertain the tourists, but the shows that failed to take home awards would quickly pack up shop. And then there wouldn't be another Broadway opening until late September or October.

But the shape of the New York summer is changing. Following the pattern of last summer's arrival of the biggest hit of the year, Hairspray, this July Broadway sees two openings, while a third, originally due this month, opens next month. Meanwhile, the flops have been slower than usual to leave. While Baz Luhrmann's brave but lavishly directed La Boheme departed the Broadway Theatre in late June, Jonathan Kent's revival of Man of La Mancha is staggering on to the end of August (with Marin Mazzie recently taking over from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to be reunited with her Kiss Me, Kate co-star Brian Stokes Mitchell who continues in the title role).

Quirky Offerings

Amongst this month's new arrivals are two quirky offerings. Big River - the 1985 Tony Award-winning Best Musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - is probably the show least in need of such a prompt revival. However, this return (to the American Airlines Theatre) is justified by the fact that it's co-produced with Deaf West Theatre, an LA-based company who combine deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in performing in both spoken English and American Sign Language.

Of course, some wags may say Big River's score is one for which it's a benefit to be deaf; still, the project itself commands respect. As one of the partly deaf actors, Tyrone Giordano, who plays Huck, has noted in an interview: "For deaf audiences, it is new to see such a totally accessible production on Broadway. They don't have to wait for a certain date to see a play."

In an intriguing piece of casting, Broadway's original Huck, Daniel Jenkins, returns to the show, this time as Twain, the show's narrator. Also in the cast is Phyllis Frelich, the Tony Award-winning deaf actress who featured in the last show on Broadway to combine deaf and hearing actors onstage together - Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God, in 1980.

Singing Puppets

The other new production this month is a new musical with its own quirky casting combination - live actors with singing puppets. Avenue Q, which transfers to Broadway's Golden Theatre from an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, is set on a fictitious New York street, where the characters living there are, according to the press release, "members of the younger generation that flocks to New York year after year: out of college, out of work, and out of money, but flush with enough hopes, aspirations, and sexual and identity crises to fill a musical comedy with story and song." It sounds like The Muppets-meets-Rent - a similarity amplified by the fact that the producers are the same team behind Rent. I can't wait to see it.

Another musical with a puppet dimension - Little Shop of Horrors, with its larger-than-life singing and man-eating plant - was meant this month to at last make the trip uptown to Broadway's Virginia Theatre, some 21 years after it originally premiered off-Broadway. But the producers of the new production, first staged in Florida, closed it out-of-town, hired a new director (Jerry Zaks), and now, substantially re-cast (though Hunter Foster, co-writer of the Broadway hit Urinetown, survives from Florida as Seymour), the show will preview instead from 29 August prior to a 2 October 2003 opening.

Boy (& girls) from Oz

The fall season is shaping up nicely with new shows, too. The Boy From Oz arrives from Down Under at the Imperial Theatre, opening 16 October 2003 (previews from 16 September) and starring a Boy from Oz. This musical biography of the late, great (but somewhat forgotten) songwriter Peter Allen, best known as the ex of Liza Minnelli, will feature X-Men superstar Hugh Jackman (who London audiences will remember from Oklahoma! at the National) in the title role. The late Allen (he died from an HIV-related illness in 1992) last appeared on Broadway himself in the self-penned and short-lived Legs Diamond. Let's hope this musical about him lasts longer.

Another singer-songwriter, Boy George, also reaches Broadway this autumn with the transfer of his London hit Taboo. The former Culture Club singer recreates his performance as Leigh Bowery (another Aussie who, like Allen, died from HIV complications) in this partly fictional, partly autobiographical musical with songs by George and featuring a revised script by Charles Busch. Also from the London production, Euan Morton reprises his uncanny star turn as the young Boy George. Taboo opens at the Plymouth Theatre on 13 November 2003 (previews from 21 October).

And after The Boy from Oz, there's also a pair of girls from Oz. Wicked is a new musical, with songs by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin), set in the land of Oz before the arrival of The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy there! According to the press release, "long before Dorothy drops in, two other girls meet in the land of Oz. One, born with emerald-green skin, is smart, fiery, and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious, and very popular. Wicked tells the story of their remarkable odyssey, how these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch." The cast includes one-time Donmar diva, the diminutive Kristin Chenoweth, as the younger Glinda, with Robert Morse (original star of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) as the Wizard. It opens 30 October 2003 at the Gershwin Theatre (previews 7 October).

One more Broadway musical is scheduled this side of Christmas. Never Gonna Dance promises an evening of Jerome Kern songs, threaded through a story based on the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Swing Time. Directed by Michael Greif (who directed the original production of Rent) and with choreography by Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray and Whatsonstage.com Award winner for The Full Monty), it previews at the Broadhurst from 27 October before opening on 4 December 2003. Off-Broadway, meanwhile, finally gives New York its first taste of the long-running London hit, Fame, which is actually set there. It opens at the Little Shubert on 11 November 2003 (previews 7 October).

Blazing into the Night

On the plays front, the last Broadway season ended with a big splash with the stellar revival of Eugene O'Neill's dark family saga, Long Day's Journey into Night. Though this is a four-hour play that often lives up to its title for the audience, it's searingly staged at the Plymouth Theatre (where it continues to 31 August 2003). It's an electrifying evening of theatre and, for this English observer, marks a stunning return to form for one of our greatest living actresses, Vanessa Redgrave, blazing into the night as Mary Tyrone.

For the past 15 years or so, the London stage has mostly seen the eccentric Vanessa. Though earlier appearances in plays like Orpheus Descending, Ghosts and A Touch of the Poet remain forever etched on my memory, her more recent work has varied wildly in tone from night to night, sometimes within the same performance. But, here, the breathtaking stillness of Redgrave's performance reflects the damage, hurt and pain of Mary Tyrone as I've never seen it before. And she stands at the centre of an impeccable cast that also includes the brilliant Brian Dennehy as her spendthrift husband and Robert Sean Leonard and Philip Seymour Hoffman as their variously damaged sons.

The fall season also promises the return to Broadway of the great Eileen Atkins, another sometime Redgrave collaborator, in William Nicolson's The Retreat from Moscow. Previously briefly seen at Chichester Festival Theatre, it opens at the Booth Theatre on 23 October 2003 (previews from 2 October), with John Lithgow starring opposite Atkins as the husband who walks out on her unexpectedly. The piece sounds suspiciously similar to Atkins's last stage role in the National's Honour, but we shall see.

At the Helen Hayes Theatre, Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh stars as Golda Meir in a new one-woman play about the former Israeli prime minister, Golda's Balcony, opening on 15 October 2003 (previews 3 October). And, finally, at the Vivien Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, Kevin Kline stars in a one-evening condensation of Shakespeare's two-part Henry IV history cycle, in a cast that also features Audra McDonald and Billy Crudup, from 28 October.


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