PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 2-8: Fringe Benefits

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 2-8: Fringe Benefits The New York International Fringe Festival, which began its seventh annual assault on the city's senses on Aug. 8, is changing. The event's most famous product, Urinetown, transferred to Broadway in 2001 and won its Tonys in 2002, but it is this year that the impact of that show's success can most clearly be seen on the scrappy downtown festival.

Some things haven't changed, of course. There are still way too many entries: more than 200. And the titles and subject matter dependably lean toward the self-consciously wacky and weird. Classics are sent up (e.g., Elephant Titus, McBeth—Over 2 Million Slain), celebrities are spoofed, a la last year's success Matt & Ben (Citizen Walken, The Night Julie Taymor Cried), pop culture is wrung dry (Poseidon: An Upside-Down Musical, Cats Talk Back) and scatological humor remains distressingly popular (Poop...a True Story).

However, when Urinetown debuted at the 1999 fest, musicals were rare offerings. Now tuneful attractions appear to have increased exponentially. Among the new tuners are Suspect, a new work by Romance/Romance authors Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann; Mother Divine, a new musical with a blues and gospel score by Laurel Vartabedian and Bill Evans; Espresso Trasho, a Richard Brinsley Sheridan-inspired show with book and lyrics by Charles Leipart and music by Eric Schorr; Meaningless Sex, with music and lyrics by Seth Bisen-Hersh; Escape From Pterodactyl Island, a musical that spoofs the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; Lost, a music theatre piece based on "Hansel and Gretel" by Kirk Wood Bromley and Jessica Grace Wing; and For the Love of Tiffany by singer-songwriter Amanda Green and composer Curtis Moore.

Past festivals have featured a stray name star here or there. This year, though, quite a few Equity players are slumming. Pterodactyl Island has Tony Award nominee (Me and My Girl) Tim Jerome. Espresso Trasho is lousy with Broadway talent, including Valerie Wright, of Annie Get Your Gun and Steel Pier fame. And, in a most savory bit of irony, Nancy Opel, the Broadway and Off-Broadway vet who won her best role yet with Urinetown's Miss Pennywise, makes her Fringe bow in Tiffany.

A further new Fringe development which must be gratifying to the artists as well as Fringe producer, The Present Company: shows began selling out days before the two-week event began. The first to enjoy this distinction was an item that bore a classic Fringe title: Slut. Since then, a half dozen other entertainments have found themselves short of free seats. Of course, if a commercial producer expresses some curiosity, I'm sure a folding chair could be scared up.

Nathan Lane appears to have committed himself wholly to the theatre for the 2003-04 season. The big buzz of the week was that the actor, who is arguably the most bankable male star on Broadway, will return to The Producers along with original co-star Matthew Broderick. Contracts have not been signed, but the three month encore will likely begin in January. This breaking news perhaps caused Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Nicholas Martin to spill his morning coffee. The Boston theatre recently announced Lane as the star of a new revival of Simon Gray's Butley, set to begin—guess when—in January. Nonetheless, the Huntington assured the public that Lane and Butley would become one sometime during the 2003-04 season. Meanwhile, the two-time Tony-winner will begin the season Off-Broadway as the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Christopher Trumbo's play Trumbo, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 21. And June 2004 will see him as both star and adapter of a new version of Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove's The Frogs, at Lincoln Center Theatre. It's enough to make a theatregoer thank God that Hollywood still hasn't figured out a way to fully use Lane's talents. Mary Chase's own Peter Cottontail won't be hopping down the Broadway trail anytime soon; the Los Angeles revival of Harvey, starring Charles Durning, canceled its New York plans this week, leaving the Lyceum Theatre free for the taking—but not for long. Producer David Richenthal claimed the auditorium for his commercial transfer of Doug Wright's sui generis hit Off-Broadway play I Am My Own Wife. There was a brief rumor that Harvey would take the Cort Theatre instead. Very brief. Bobbi Boland, Nancy Hasty's new comedy, turned out to be the tenant of that house.

Finally, the debacle that was the Broadway bomb The Dance of the Vampires has apparently not affected the employability of its director, John Rando. The theatre's own Energizer rabbit is back to his old over-booked ways. This fall, he will direct Richard Dresser's Rounding Third, beginning performances Sept. 13 at the John Houseman, and Eric Coble's Bright Ideas, starting at MCC Theatre on Oct. 22.

(L-R) Postcard for FringeNYC show <i>Cats Talk Back</i>, Nathan Lane, Jefferson Mays in <i>I am My Own Wife</i>.
(L-R) Postcard for FringeNYC show Cats Talk Back, Nathan Lane, Jefferson Mays in I am My Own Wife. Photo by Carol Rosegg (<i>Wife</i>)
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