A chilly Broadway gets ready for spring with 'Gypsy' and 'Urban Cowboy' shows

Sunday, February 16, 2003

— Broadway is ready for spring, even if it doesn't arrive for another month, but the warmer weather will bring several tantalizing productions that could shake off the chill of a dismal winter season.

A new revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters as the world's most formidable stage mother, and a musical version of that mechanical bull-ridin', line-dancin' love story, "Urban Cowboy," head the list of more than a dozen shows scheduled to open before June.

But first, the theater has to get through a frigid February and an uncertain March. Ticket sales have been down since the heady Christmas-New Year's holidays.

The cold weather hurt business, and several big shows collapsed. "Dance of the Vampires" already is gone, and the lavish revival of "Oklahoma!" folds Feb. 23. Others, such as "Flower Drum Song" and even "The Phantom of the Opera," are struggling. Plus there hasn't been a hit new play this season, although five are on tap by May 1.

And then there's the potential war with Iraq, which could affect box-office receipts much the same way Sept. 11 kayoed activity for several months in fall 2001. Back then, an aggressive publicity campaign by producers -- plus discount tickets -- helped turn things around.


This spring, it is "Gypsy" that has the buzz -- or at least the curiosity factor -- cornered. The seductive, almost girlish Peters was first noticed by theatergoers in 1968 as the wide-eyed, Ruby Keeler-esqe star of "Dames at Sea." She would seem an unusual choice for the domineering Rose, mother of the young girl who grew up to become famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

But then the director is Sam Mendes who did wonders in 1998 with the still-running revival of "Cabaret." Preview performances at the Shubert Theatre begin March 31. The opening is May 1.

New musicals are a rarity this spring, scared off perhaps by "Hairspray" and "Movin' Out," two heavyweight Tony Award contenders from earlier in the season. Yet "Urban Cowboy," based on the John Travolta-Debra Winger movie, arrives March 27 at the Broadhurst.

The show, featuring newcomers Matt Cavenaugh and Jenn Colella, has an eclectic country score featuring music from the 1980 film; other numbers are by such stars as the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Clint Black, and there are new songs by Jason Robert Brown, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Bob Stillman.

Potential strike

Not that audiences will hear them if Broadway musicians go on strike in March. Their contract expires March 2 and right now they and the League of American Theatres and Producers are in intense negotiations. Among the issues to be resolved: the thorny question of minimums, how many musicians are required to play in each Broadway theater.

There will be three other musicals this spring, two of them new.

"A Year With Frog and Toad," based on the children's books by Arnold Lobel, was born last summer at The Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis and was a huge success. Jay Goede is Frog and Mark Linn-Baker plays Toad in this musical tale of friendship that had a limited run earlier this season in New York at the New Victory Theatre. Look for these reptilian buddies to croak -- and sing -- again, this time at the Cort, opening April 13.

For baby boomers with a hankerin' for a smooth bit of pop-music nostalgia, there's "The Look of Love: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David." This celebration of the 1960s songwriting team features many of their golden oldies including "Say a Little Prayer," "Walk on By" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" No stars, but plenty of talented theater veterans including Liz Callaway, Jonathan Dokuchitz and Desmond Richardson, are in the cast. The Roundabout Theatre Company production opens May 4 at the Brooks Atkinson.

Another musical revival generating attention is the Roundabout's version of "Nine," starring Antonio Banderas as the woman-obsessed Guido Contini, and directed by David Leveaux. A best-musical Tony winner in 1982, the Maury Yeston musical, based on Fellini's movie "8 1/2," features a parade of fascinating females. They include Laura Benanti, Jane Krawkowski, Mary Stuart Masterson and Chita Rivera. The opening: April 10 at the Eugene O'Neill.

Variety's the spice

"Take Me Out," Richard Greenberg's drama about a professional baseball player who is gay and the storm caused by his coming out, scored last September at the Public Theater off-Broadway. It transfers Feb. 27 to the Walter Kerr with most of its original cast intact. Daniel Sunjata is the player and Denis O'Hare portrays his business manager who gains a new appreciation for baseball from all the fuss.

Painter Vincent van Gogh, who is at the center of "Vincent in Brixton," a play by Nicholas Wright about the Dutch master's sojourn to Britain. Jochum ten Haaf is the painter, Clare Higgins his English landlady. The curtain rises March 6 at the Golden.

Yasmina Reza, whose comedy, "Art," was a best-play Tony winner in 1998, returns with another thoughtful bit of humor, "Life x 3." It features three versions of one dinner party, all told in the space of 90 minutes. Helen Hunt and John Turturro, portraying husband and wife, are the harried hosts. The shenanigans start at Circle in the Square March 27.

In London, "The Play What I Wrote" honored the beloved British comedy team of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who are largely unknown to American audiences. When the production transfers to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, opening March 30, references to Morecambe and Wise will be gone. Instead, it will be about two comedians not unlike Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, who star in the show.

One feature from the London production will not be dropped: surprise appearances at each performance by guest stars.

First a novel, then a movie and now a play: "Enchanted April," adapted by Matthew Barber, finds its way to Broadway April 21 at a theater to be announced. It takes place in castle on the Italian coast in 1922 and concerns several unhappy English women on vacation. The cast includes Elizabeth Ashley, Jayne Atkinson and Molly Ringwald.

The Roundabout's third production of the spring will be "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," with its two leads, Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, imported from the recent successful London revival. Peter Nichols' play, which has been done on Broadway twice before, concerns the effect a mentally challenged daughter has on her parents' marriage. It opens April 3 at the American Airlines Theatre.

Blind, deaf Helen Keller and her determined tutor, Annie Sullivan, are at the center of "The Miracle Worker," William Gibson's drama that was a big hit in 1959 for Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. This time around, Hilary Swank is Sullivan and Skye McCole Bartusiak her young pupil. The opening is set for April 24 at the Music Box.

The season is saving what could be its dramatic highlight for last.

O'Neill's greatest play, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," opens May 6, theater to be announced. The stars are Brian Dennehy as the tyrannical James Tyrone, Vanessa Redgrave as his morphine-addled wife and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard as their two tortured sons.

The production, directed by Robert Falls, arrives just under the wire. Shows have to open by May 7 to qualify for the 2003 Tony Awards. The nominations will be announced May 12, and winners revealed June 8.