PBOL'S THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 1-7: Unfriendly Overtures

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 1-7: Unfriendly Overtures The showdown between the Broadway musicians union and the League of American Theatres and Producers is the latest labor showdown threatening to bring The Street to its knees. As usual, it's hard to be sympathetic with either side since both camps seem so intractable and unreasonable.

Local 802's defense of the union's notorious "minimums," which require producers to hire orchestra members they don't want or need, is fairly insupportable. Every guild wants to keep as many of its members employed as possible, but getting people to pay them for doing nothing is not the way to do it. On the other hand, the producers' threat to replace striking players with recorded "virtual orchestras" is utterly unctuous. It makes one wonder if they care about the quality of theatre at all, or just about the quality of their bank balance. Awful, too, is their move to push out of the bargain music copyists, the musically-educated specialists who help orchestrators and composers fashion a completed score during the critical rehearsal-preview period. Producers think this job can be more cheaply done by a few minimum-wage stiffs with a Xerox machine. As an editor, it reminds me of the management geniuses who, a decade ago, thought computer spellcheck would render my profession obsolete.

Negotiations have just begun and both sides are trying to get the other theatrical unions to see their side of the argument. Typically, much depends on the ridiculously powerful stagehands union. The whims of this defiant, blue-collar corner of the theatre controls so many aspects of the commercial theatre, a puzzling realization akin to the jarring notion that rough-hewn Mirimax mogul Harvey Weinstein is responsible for a great many fine films.

The first Broadway revival of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened on Feb. 6. Not surprisingly, since the show's previews have been laced with internecine battles, critics sensed something was off. Fans of actor Charles S. Dutton may have to hurry if they want to see their idol in person. Dutton has made it clear that this will be his last performance on the stage. His remarkable Playbill bio, which, as I believe Bette Davis once said, beat all records for running, standing or jumping gaul, reads: "I have done the theatre some service, and they know it...No more of that!" Of course, it was the original Ma Rainey that made Dutton whatever sort of star he is, so one could argue the theatre did him some service. But no more of that.

The success of the film "Chicago" is perhaps having a good influence of the careers of composer John Kander and Fred Ebb. The Visit, their musical adaptation of the Friedrich Dürrenmatt play, which has been searching for a New York home for a long time, finally got one this week. The show will premiere in New York in January 2004 at Off-Broadway's Public Theater, the composers told Playbill On-Line. In addition, there is apparent progress on two other, long-developing Kander and Ebb projects: Curtains and Skin of Our Teeth. Actors often use Hollywood fame as leverage to get the stage roles they want; why shouldn't composers do the same?

Speaking of the West Coast, Neil Simon's 33rd play, Rose and Walsh, said to be inspired by the relationship between writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, opened Feb. 5 at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, CA, with Jane Alexander and Len Cariou as the lovers. David Esbjornson directs the world premiere, which is being closely watched for a possible New York transfer. A sunny Variety review shouldn't hurt. In the Midwest, Patti LuPone has discovered a nifty way to add a trove of Stephen Sondheim credits to her resume in cut time. She will star in a concert production of Sondheim's Passion Aug. 22-23 at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. This will mark LuPone's third summer of Sondheim at the Ravinia Festival; she played Mrs. Lovett opposite George Hearn's Sweeney in Sweeney Todd in 2001 and Desirée Armfeldt, again opposite Hearn, in A Little Night Music this past summer.

A few other New York notes. Rehearsals for the Broadway's new revival of The Miracle Worker began this week. The show, along with the upcoming Off-Broadway production of Golda's Balcony at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, represents the return of playwright William Gibson, a playwright who has been seen much in New York in the last 20 years. And the Broadway run of Oklahoma! will end on Feb. 23, a lot earlier than expected. There is talk of a non-Equity tour going out into the regions. Then again, these days, there is talk of a non-Equity tour going out into the regions for nearly every Broadway musical revival.

Finally, Kevin Spacey announced that he would become the new artistic director of London's venerable institution, the Old Vic. That an American actor should be placed in charge of such an quintessentially English outfit is surprising enough. Spacey's faith in his own energy and industry, however, is nothing less than astounding. He said he would star in at least two shows each season and wants to explore directing, while still maintaining his film career. That, in addition to the myriad daily duties of an a.d. The first season will begin in 2004. Meanwhile, the roof of the Old Vic needs patching. Kevin has a tool box somewhere, I imagine.

Charles S. Dutton in <i>Ma Rainey's Black Bottom</i>, Len Cariou and Jane Alexander in <i>Rose and Walsh</i>, Kevin Spacey in <i>Iceman Cometh</i>
Charles S. Dutton in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Len Cariou and Jane Alexander in Rose and Walsh, Kevin Spacey in Iceman Cometh (Photo by Dutton: Joan Marcus, Rose and Walsh: Ken Howard)