PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 8-14: And MTC Makes Three

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Dec. 8-14: And MTC Makes Three Soon there will be another nonprofit on the Rialto.
Vanessa Williams, the Biltmore, pre-renovations, and Eve Ensler.
Vanessa Williams, the Biltmore, pre-renovations, and Eve Ensler.

Soon there will be another nonprofit on the Rialto.

Manhattan Theatre Club broke ground Dec. 12 on its $35 million renovation of the dilapidated Biltmore Theatre. When the long suffering, 75 year-old house is back up and running — fall 2003 is the projected date — MTC will join the rarified ranks of Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout Theatre Company as a New York nonprofit with a Broadway presence. Of course, MTC has done fairly well up until now in bringing its shows to Broadway (e.g., Love! Valor! Compassion!, Proof, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, A Class Act), but now it can originate productions there.

MTC reiterated its commitment to the continued operation of its two Off Broadway spaces, Stage I and Stage II at City Center. Thus, it will possess three stages, one more than LCT and maybe one more than the Roundabout. By 2002, the Roundabout will exchange the rented Gramercy Theatre for the newly-refurbished American Place Theatre on 46th Street, to be rechristened the Laura Pels; it is not clear how many stages the Pels will contain.

The groundbreaking marks (one hopes) the end of the long, sorrowful decline of the Biltmore, built by the Chanin brothers in 1925. In its time, it hosted such shows as My Sister Eileen, The Heiress, Barefoot in the Park and Hair. In November 1987, the theatre's interior was declared a landmark. Since then it's been a relentless downpour of calamity. In December 1987, arsonists destroyed the stage and auditorium. Later, vandals gained entrance and did their work. The owner tried to auction it off three times and then defaulted on his mortgage, causing the city to take ownership. James Nederlander and Stewart Lane bought the dying theatre in 1993, later selling it to developer Joseph Moinian, who announced several plans, none of which came to fruition.

MTC's Biltmore designs also represent the latest chapter in what has been the biggest Broadway theatre-building spree since a short burst in the early seventies which resulted in those musical barns, the Gershwin and the Minskoff. So far, the rebirth of Times Square has helped to rebuild the New Amsterdam (courtesy of Disney), the Selwyn, now called the American Airlines Theatre (and home to the Roundabout) and the Lyric and Apollo, in the form of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the brainchild of the now defunct Livent. Those stages are all on 42nd Street. MTC's Biltmore plan is the first to bring the renaissance further north. Any bad news here? Well, yes. Though corporations have given Broadway back several of its theatres, they have also besmirched it with ugly names like the Ford Center and the American Airlines Theatre. MTC, too, will offer "naming opportunities." Let's hope there's someone out there with both money and taste.

Michele Lowe's black comedy, The Smell of the Kill, once announced for Off-Broadway, has moved up to the big leagues. The show will open at Broadway's Helen Hayes in March 2002. The play was lucky in its stars at a summer 2001 Berkshire Theatre Festival staging: Kristen Johnston, Claudia Shear and Katie Finneran. But it is unlucky in the fact that all three actresses have been even luckier since then. Shear has begun a new national tour of Dirty Blonde and Finneran is locked into the hit Noises Off, leaving only Johnston, now heading the cast of the Roundabout's smash, The Women, possibly available to return to the project.

Me & Mrs. Jones, a soul-based musical built around the songs of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, starring Lou Rawls and Darlene Love, may come to New York sooner than expected. The show is currently finishing its world premiere at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre, a debut that nearly sold out its initial run, then extended a week. The initial plan was for Me & Mrs. Jones to do a national tour and then come to Broadway, but recent scuttlebutt is that the show may come to New York more quickly than that, perhaps following a January return to Philadelphia.

The new Broadway revival of Into the Woods finally announced its full cast, though most of the names had been ricocheting around chatrooms and barrooms for months. Joining Vanessa Williams as the Witch will be John McMartin as the Narrator and Mysterious Man, Laura Benanti as Cinderella, Gregg Edelman as her Prince, Christopher Sieber as Rapunzel's Prince, Melissa Dye as Rapunzel, Kerry O'Malley as the Baker's Wife, Stephen DeRosa as the Baker, Adam Wylie as Jack, Mary Louise Burke as Jack's Mother and Molly V. Ephraim as Little Red Riding Hood. The show opens at the Broadhurst on April 25.

One more piece was placed into the Oklahoma! casting puzzle. Actress-dancer Josefina Gabrielle will reprise her Olivier Nominated performance in the London Oklahoma! when the revival reaches Broadway Feb. 23, 2002. She joins Patrick Wilson's Curly and former UK cast-mate Shuler Hensley as Jud.

Off-Broadway, Peter Frechette and Reg Rogers will reprise the roles they created in The Dazzle by Richard Greenberg when that play has its New York debut at the Gramercy Theatre, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company. And Stephen Belber's Tape, which has a hit at the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and inspired a film version, will be staged in New York City this January at the hands of Naked Angels.

Though tour dates for Broadway's mega-hit The Producers are still being worked out, on New Year's Eve 2002, that California town will get the West-Coast premiere of the Mel Brooks-Thomas Meehan tuner, for a two-week run at the Civic Theatre through Jan. 12, 2003.

Finally, this sounds like an end-of-an-era sort of story. Playwright Eve Ensler, who established the Off-Broadway success of her play The Vagina Monologues by performing the entire work herself, will return to the show for a two-city run in Boston and Washington, D.C. The show will play Boston's Wilbur Theatre Jan. 8-20 and D.C.'s National Theatre Jan. 22-Feb. 3, and a press statement trumpets the mini-tour as Ensler's "final engagement" in Monologues. Then, perhaps, she'll pour her energies into creating a new cottage industry out of her latest play, Necessary Targets, now at Hartford and eyeing Off-Broadway.

—By Robert Simonson