One show alone has been the talk of a steamy August in Manhattan: no, it's not The Producers, but rather one that has literally had people camped out overnight in Central Park to see it - a Mike Nichols directed staging of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Park's outdoor Delacorte Theatre for a five-week run that has just ended.
Streep's the Thing
Truth to tell, it was neither Nichols nor Chekhov that was the draw, but rather a line-up that included Meryl Streep, back on the New York stage (where she was first discovered) for the first time in over two decades. Her co-stars from Sophie's Choice and The Deer Hunter respectively, Kevin Kline and Christopher Walken, also featured alongside John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman.
Streep's 21-year-old son Henry Gummer, currently a student at Dartmouth College, also made his New York theatre debut with The Seagull in a bit part. All that, and an onstage cartwheel, too, from La Streep - but whether or not theatregoers turned cartwheels through Central Park after seeing it is another question - though I certainly turned a mental one when I managed to get my ticket.
Not surprisingly, it became an Event - all the more so because tickets were in fact free, distributed on the day of the performance at 1.00pm to those who began queuing as early as the night before. (Expect tickets to leap to around $100 each if and when the show hits Broadway, as expected, for a limited season this autumn.)
Quality versus Star Count
But is this production any good? In parts, yes; but as a whole, not yet, even when I saw it in the last but one week of the Central Park run. Certainly, with such an experienced cast, you don't get any bad performances; but their very celebrity, ironically, steps in the way of them forging their own characters' identities, either individually or more especially as a group. Streep and Kline, who have a real rapport, came off best as Arkadina and Trigorin; Seymour Hoffman and Portman, worst as Konstantin and Nina.
But the wide fan-shaped venue - charmingly rustic as it is, and one which enabled Portman's Nina to actually make an entrance on horseback - also militates against the intimacy of the drama. Seemingly in a direct flight path (with planes coming in overhead every few minutes), it not surprisingly required full amplification of all speech, which further reduced the audience's concentration on the play. On balance, I would prefer to see the production indoors; and since you've now missed it in the park, that's where you'll have to do so, too.
Heavyweight & Lighter Fare
Assuming it reaches Broadway, The Seagull will join a surprisingly heavyweight roster of plays that also includes revivals of Strindberg (The Dance of Death), starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, at the Broadhurst from 18 September) and Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), starring Kate Burton at the Ambassador, from 19 September).
Lighter fare is offered from Neil Simon (the premiere of his latest, 45 Seconds from Broadway, at the Richard Rodgers, from 16 October) and our own National Theatre's hit West End revival of Noises Off, recast with Patti LuPone and restaged by Jeremy Sams for Broadway (at the Brooks Atkinson from 16 October). Also, a new production of Clare Booth Luce's The Women with an all-star cast headed by Sex & The City's Cynthia Nixon and Golden Girls alumna Rue McClanahan, is produced by the Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre from 8 November.
Taking the Piss?
The Broadway musical line-up, meanwhile, kicks off with the transfer of the early summer off-Broadway hit, Urinetown, to Broadway's Henry Miller's Theater (from 27 August). The calendar continues with another original show, Thou Shalt Not, featuring music and lyrics by Harry Connick Jnr and direction and choreography by the prolific Susan Stroman (who did Tony-winning duties, on The Producers). Stroman is reunited with the original star of her still-running revival of The Music Man, Craig Bierko, in this adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin (Plymouth, from 20 September).
Also heading to Broadway this autumn: Mamma Mia! from London to the Winter Garden (from 5 October), and a revival of Sondheim's 1990 musical, Assassins, originally produced at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons (scheduled to preview 1 November).
Due early next year, meanwhile, are: Trevor Nunn's revival of Oklahoma! (with choreography by Stroman, so she'll possibly be competing against herself again for the dance Tony), due at the Gershwin from 23 February 2002; and stage musicalisations of yet more movies including, Sweet Smell of Success (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and direction by Nicholas Hytner), due in March, and Thoroughly Modern Millie (also set for March). Also high on the list of possibilities are Moonstruck, Summer of '42 and Hairspray.