PBOL'S THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 21-26: Monster Musicals Make Their Moves

News   PBOL'S THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 21-26: Monster Musicals Make Their Moves
A few messages came down from Olympus this week, as decisions were made on musicals fostered by some major nabobs.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the London stage musical based on the indelible children's film, will come to Broadway. (Did anyone doubt it would?) The target time is spring 2005. Producer Michael Rose said, with evident surprise, "Every American child seems to have heard of it." (Could it be all those countless Thanksgiving television airings paid off?) He also disclosed, somewhat mysteriously, that there will be “some quite large structural changes with some new material geared to the American market specifically.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, due to land on the West End on Aug. 28, revealed one of the great reunions in modern theatrical history. Michael Crawford—whose career was made by Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and, some would say, also made the musical in turn—returns to the composer's material, playing the Italian villain Count Fosco (this, after playing Count von Krolock in the short-lived musical Dance of the Vampires). Co-starring is London favorite Maria Friedman as Marian. Anne Hathaway, who took part in a workshop of the musical, is also expected to be part of the company, although her casting has yet to be confirmed.

Not to be left out of the headlines, Disney Theatricals chose the Palace Theatre in Cleveland to launch its new musical On the Record. Opening is Nov. 9 (just after another Disney project, Mary Poppins, ends its pre-London UK premiere). The piece — co-conceived by director Robert Longbottom and Disney's Thomas Schumacher — will play the Cleveland theatre through Nov. 21 before launching a national tour. It features songs from the Disney canon — both from classic Disney films and Disney's Broadway outings — and will be set in a recording studio. Among the 50 sampled shows: "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Tarzan," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Sleeping Beauty," "Dumbo," "Peter Pan," "Pinocchio," "Lady and the Tramp," "Cinderella" and "Snow White."

Back to the present tense. The new revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which opened on Feb. 26, pooled the talents of many a reputable artist—among them director David Leveaux, and stars Alfred Molina and Randy Graff. But when opening night is recalled by theatre historians in years to come, it probably will be for Sonia Cullinen, the 91-year-old woman with the unfamiliar name who died of a heart attack minutes before the 6:30 PM curtain. A death on opening night is remarkable enough. But this theatregoer happened to be the sister of late director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose dances she was about to see re-created on the stage of the Miskoff.

In the most underwhelming announcement of the season, Duet, a new play by Otho Eskins about a fictional meeting between the two divas, which boasted no stars and a clutch of unimpressive reviews from its Off-Broadway run, said its proclaimed plan to inhabit Broadway's Circle in the Square this spring would not be carried through. Several pigeons in Duffy Square blinked. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof lost its Cat on Feb. 22, but has managed to keep a roof over its head. Leading lady Ashley Judd's foot injury, suffered Feb. 17, did not improve and the actress left the production on Sunday to undergo surgery. Producers opted to soldier on with the staging, which is scheduled to close March 14. The happiest beneficiary of this alteration in plans? Understudy Kelly McAndrew, who has graduated to the role of Maggie for the duration of the run.

Judd's early exit was, of course, nothing she could have helped; as Broadway stars go, she has by most accounts behaved (some say, suffered) nobly during her stay at the Music Box. Elsewhere, however, name performers continue to assert themselves in unsettling, disruptive and downright ugly ways. The main offender this week was Tony Award-winning actress Amanda Plummer, who gave the backers of the Off-Broadway premiere of Tracy Letts' Bug precisely 24 hours notice that she would not be in attendance at the first preview.

It is hard to imagine that, after this frightful season of celebrity defections and contretemps, Broadway and Off-Broadway producers will not sit down and seriously rethink the logic of star (some say "stunt") casting. Certainly, if you don't cast a name in your coming production, you may run the risk of not securing an audience for the show. But it's become abundantly clear that if you do cast a star, by opening night there may not be a show to speak of for that audience to see.

Finally, if Eric Idle does not succeed in his current calling as actor, comedian, author, songwriter and all-around entertainer, he might want to consider becoming a press agent. Most show folk don't have much of a sense of humor about their work, but Idle is the embodiment of amused self-deprecation. Take the recent notice that Monty Python's Spamalot — the Broadway-bound stage musical based on the British sketch comedy team's film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" — will have its world premiere at Chicago's Shubert Theatre on Dec. 21. Of the self-proclaimed "officially ripped-off" stagework, he said the show will boast "a chorus line of legless knights, men in tights (with legs), killer rabbits and dancing divas who create unforgettable musical production numbers." He went still further to say it will be "almost as good as anything else opening in Chicago that week." Now there's a spin after the theatre press' own cynical heart.

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