Talkin' BroadwayV.J.

The 2002 - 2003 Theatre Season: With Five Months To Go Before The Tonys . . .

Matthew Murray takes a look at the 2002 - 2003 theatre season with a list of the shows and performers of note so far, both on and off Broadway.

This fall has seen an unusual number of highly anticipated shows open, in a refreshing turnaround from the glut of shows that begin performances around Tony Award time. The Tonys are a long way away, and, as recent years have proved, anything can happen between now and then.

As the season's three biggest hits have already demonstrated, everything has happened this Broadway season. If you're looking for a modern take on a traditional musical comedy, you'll find it in Hairspray , there's a ballet at the Richard Rodgers in the form of Movin' Out , and La Boheme provides opera at the Broadway. Each production, while flawed, is thoroughly and intelligently crafted, and they're all must-sees for understanding what succeeds on Broadway in 2002. Yet some of the most distinctive and worthwhile work on Broadway this season has been seen in shows that had difficulty finding an audience.

Take, for example, Amour, which closed on November 3 after a scant 17 performances. The show had a modest production provided by director James Lapine, a tight ensemble of nine excellent performers led by Malcolm Gets and Melissa Errico, and a bouncy and romantic score courtesy of Michel Legrand. Perhaps Amour was so unassuming and so difficult to market in a climate still crazy for shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie or Hairspray that it just got lost in the shuffle? Bigger isn't necessarily better; Amour's courtroom scene, which climaxed in a show-stopping can-can, remains one of the most exciting moments in a musical production so far this season, and hopefully the creativity and invention in this show will be remembered and (eventually) rewarded.

The revival of Herb Gardner's I'm not Rappaport at the Booth this summer ran over three times as long (53 performances), and featured Judd Hirsch reprising his role from the original production. Hirsch's chemistry with co-star Ben Vereen made this production a must-see that, sadly, no one saw. Though the play is dated, the production (directed by Daniel Sullivan) was attractive and well done, though it perhaps pointed up the dangers of reviving a non-musical so soon after the original production.

The revival of Chicago, on the other hand, received an injection of adrenaline this November when it celebrated its sixth anniversary on Broadway, with Charlotte D'Amboise, Caroline O'Connor, and Billy Zane headlining in the top roles. Chicago remains an excellent example of consummate Broadway showmanship, and will hopefully have a long life at its new home, the Ambassador Theatre, where it's moving next month.

December brought seven openings to Broadway, a mixture of old and new, yet each having something to offer. Those appreciating classic works could find them in Medea with Fiona Shaw's fierce portrayal of the title character, or Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Boheme , which sought to bring opera back into the mainstream. The revival of Man of La Mancha featured a strong performance from Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Paul Newman led a cast in performing one of the best plays of the 20th century, Our Town, in a thoroughly respectable production. Lincoln Center Theater's Dinner at Eight was a tasty resuscitation of the play, perhaps most notable for John Lee Beatty's strikingly elegant sets. David Gallo's sets for Dance of the Vampires, if not exactly elegant, were themselves accomplished creations, highly worthy of accolades come awards time. Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, which chronicles the literary feud of Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, may have been the month's most innately unusual production, but it provided two of the most electric performances of the season from Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones.

But while Kurtz and Jones provided the most striking Broadway partnership of the season, Jon Tenney and Alvin Epstein held their own Off-Broadway in the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, providing emotional and moving moments of reflection and insight to the touching story of a man who learns the lessons of life through another's death. Though Joyce Aaron and Ron Faber had little interaction, their relationship helped make the 41st anniversary production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at the Cherry Lane Theatre quite a happy one indeed.

Any season, likewise, will be a happy one with Rosemary Harris and Marian Seldes involved, as they appeared in, respectively, All Over and Play Yourself, each giving excellent performances that proved we cannot see these two remarkable actresses on stage often enough.

The Mint Theatre Company unearthed yet another gem in the sharply produced and well-acted The Charity That Began At Home, while two tributes to great twentieth century performers - Jolson & Company and Hank Williams: Lost Highway - demonstrated intelligent ways to incorporate previously existing songs into musical biographies, offering strong performances and good theatre as part of the bargain.

Finally, one of the most significant theatrical achievements to show up this season on or Off-Broadway could be found in Yellowman at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Dael Orlandersmith's powerful poetic play transcended color barriers to move, inform, and warn - without condescending or sugar coating - of discrimination and intolerance in any form.

Despite so much major activity this fall, there are still twelve shows scheduled to open on Broadway this spring. Half of them are revivals: Sam Mendes and Bernadette Peters will be taking on Gypsy, Henry Goodman will star in Tartuffe, Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton will star in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, there's Nine with Antonio Banderas, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with Eddie Izzard, and The Miracle Worker with Hilary Swank.

New musicals this spring will be few, with only Urban Cowboy, A Year With Frog and Toad (transferring from its run at the New Victory), and The Look of Love, featuring the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, currently scheduled to open. Take Me Out and The Play What I Wrote are about it as far as new plays, though the first played in London and then at the Public Theater Off-Broadway, while the latter was a sellout hit in England. Mario Cantone's solo show, Laugh Whore, is also scheduled to open.

Note: As always, the schedule of Broadway openings remains flexible and some shows currently set to open before June may not make it in this season for any number of reasons. And, previously unannounced productions may slip in without much notice.

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