Broadway looks for busy spring

Great White Way anticipates renewed interest after post-Sept. 11 lull

— The chilly days of winter are a lean time for Broadway as tourists disappear, bank accounts shrink after Christmas and weak shows falter and fold.

"The ice months cometh," sighs Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, not entirely in jest. But wait, as January slips into February and then March, can spring be far behind? And this year, there is a surprising amount of anticipation for an earlier-than-usual spring season that begins incongruously before Valentine's Day.

Among the expected offerings: a tantalizing new Edward Albee play, revivals of two works by Arthur Miller (one not seen on Broadway since 1944), Vanessa Williams as the witch in "Into the Woods," a musical version of "Sweet Smell of Success," a major reworking of "Oklahoma!" and two show-biz icons, Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch, in their own one-woman shows.

"There is an interesting irony," Bernstein says. "As much uncertainty as there is about audience response, there is a lot of confidence in terms of being able to raise money and book theaters.

"How do those shows compete for an audience? Who will be winners and who will be the losers? But nobody can say Broadway, intellectually or artistically, shut down. Post Sept. 11, we are going to have a very aggressive and wide range of offerings."

Consider the new play possibilities. Broadway used to be where new plays were born. Now they are an endangered species, finding more hospitable environments in the nonprofit theater, off or off-off-Broadway and in London. This year, however, seven could open before the deadline for Tony Award nominations in early May.

The most intriguing? "The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?" It is the latest work by Edward Albee, who, since 1994 when he scored with "Three Tall Women," has had a remarkable resurgence on and off-Broadway.

"The Goat," according to Albee "has no alcoholism and no imaginary child," unlike his biggest success (whose title also ends in a question mark), "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Its stars are Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman. The play concerns a family and a mysterious creature that comes into their lives. Beyond that, the playwright isn't talking. See for yourself March 10 at the Golden Theatre.

The play's the thing

After its last show, "The Women," which featured a cast of 24, the Roundabout Theatre Company has downsized a bit � to one actor � for its next attraction, "An Almost Holy Picture" by Heather McDonald. The actor occupying center stage will be Kevin Bacon, who portrays a church groundskeeper who hears God's call.

"Metamorphoses," another spiritual exercise of a sort, was a big hit at off-Broadway's Second Stage last fall. Now it reaches for the big time, bringing with it a shallow, yet entrancing pool of water in which Ovid's classic tales of Midas, Narcissus and Orpheus and Eurydice, among others, come to life.

"The Smell of the Kill" is a comedy by Michele Lowe about three housewives who do away with their husbands. No casting announced just yet.

"Topdog/Underdog" concerns two brothers, one named Booth and the other Lincoln, who share a peculiar kind of sibling rivalry. The play by Suzan-Lori Parks attracted enthusiastic crowds last summer at the Public Theater when its stars were Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle. Wright is back for this second go-around; rapper Mos Def reportedly is in negotiations to play his brother.

You loved the movie, but will you like the play? Find out when Kathleen Turner portrays the sexually voracious Mrs. Robinson and Jason Biggs is the impressionable Benjamin Braddock in a stage version of "The Graduate," the classic 1967 film comedy. Alicia Silverstone plays Elaine, Benjamin's love interest and Mrs. Robinson's daughter.

Another older woman and a younger man are at the center of "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," a two-character play by Richard Alfieri. And when the woman is Uta Hagen (Albee's Martha in the original "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") and the man is David Hyde Pierce of television's "Frasier," the combination could be fun. The title pretty much sets the scene.

Musicals to check out

Can we count "One Mo' Time" as a new Broadway musical, even though this sassy revue played more than 1,300 performances off-Broadway starting in 1979? Vernel Bagneris, who starred in and directed the original, is back again to perform the same duties.

No new musical is more anticipated than "Sweet Smell of Success," a stage version of the movie that starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The leads now are John Lithgow as an unscrupulous New York gossip columnist and Brian d'Arcy James as his toady of a press agent.

And for a change of pace, there's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," based on the fluffy movie musical that starred Julie Andrews as a 1920s flapper. This time around, newcomer Sutton Foster is Millie.

Reviving the classics

There are only two musical revivals, yet both have attracted buzz.

Consider "Into the Woods," the 1987 Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. It might seem a little soon to revive the fairy-tale musical that originally starred Bernadette Peters. Not so, says Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the first incarnation. He will do the same for the second, which has Vanessa Williams as a most glamorous witch.

"We are not doing the same production we did in the '80s," Lapine says of his musical that weaves together tales of "Jack and the Beanstalk," "The Baker and His Wife" and "Cinderella" � not to mention appearances by Little Red Riding Hood and that wolf. This time around there are TWO wolves, three little pigs, a storybook design concept and a new song, a number called "Our Little World," taken from the 1990 London production.

Then there is the long-awaited revival of "Oklahoma!" The production, which won raves at London's Royal National Theatre in 1998, has been mostly recast by director Trevor Nunn for Broadway. Patrick Wilson is Curly, Josefina Gabrielle from London plays Laurey and comedian Andrea Martin is Aunt Eller.

The spring season on Broadway, with opening dates and theaters:

� "An Almost Holy Picture" � Feb. 7, American Airlines/Selwyn� "Bea Arthur on Broadway" � Feb. 17, Booth� "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty" � Feb. 21, Neil Simon� "Metamorphoses" � March 4, Circle in the Square� "One Mo' Time" � March 6, Longacre� "The Crucible" � March 7, Virginia� "The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?" � March 10, Golden� "Sweet Smell of Success" � March 14, Martin Beck� "Oklahoma!" � March 21, Gershwin� "The Smell of the Kill" � March 26, Helen Hayes� "Fortune's Fool" � April 2, Music Box� "The Graduate" � April 4, Plymouth� "Topdog/Underdog � April 7, Ambassador� "The Elephant Man" � April 14, Royale� "Thoroughly Modern Millie" � April 18, Marquis� "Morning's at Seven" � April 21, Lyceum� "Into the Woods" � April 25, Broadhurst� "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks" � April, TBA, Booth� "The Man Who Had All the Luck" � May 1, American Airlines/Selwyn


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