PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 19-24: Nine Lives and Out

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Feb. 19-24: Nine Lives and Out Truth to tell, this batch of kitties had many more that nine lives. But -- slogan or no slogan -- no feline lives forever, and so, last weekend, Cats, the longest-running show on Broadway -- the longest running show in Broadway history -- announced it would follow Grizabella into kitty-cat heaven. The musical will have run a total of 7,397 performances over its 18-year reign at the Winter Garden Theatre. It's grossed more than $383 million and played to more than 10 million people.

Truth to tell, this batch of kitties had many more that nine lives. But -- slogan or no slogan -- no feline lives forever, and so, last weekend, Cats, the longest-running show on Broadway -- the longest running show in Broadway history -- announced it would follow Grizabella into kitty-cat heaven. The musical will have run a total of 7,397 performances over its 18-year reign at the Winter Garden Theatre. It's grossed more than $383 million and played to more than 10 million people.

Rumors of the show's closing had been floated as far back as last summer, but publicists routinely dismissed such claims with a chuckle of disbelief. Even in recent weeks, as weekly grosses dipped below $300,000, the show dismissed any suspicions concerning its imminent demise.

News of the shuttering resulted in a predictable boost at the box office; in the two days following the closing announcement, Cats has grossed $460,000. None of those tickets, however, were sold for the production's final three shows, which are not on sale to the general public. No doubt, some special goings-on are being planned, perhaps involving Betty Buckley, New York's original Grizabella, who has expressed a wish to revisit the show. Indeed, the final exit of such a long-standing Broadway institution is likely to bring out the nostalgic in other famed Cats alumnae, including Terrence Mann, Harry Groener and Liz Callaway.

Cats, of course, was the first of the "now and forever" brand of British mega-musicals to reach these shores and paved the way for the likes of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. All three are still standing in New York, though the last has lately seemed as shaky as Cats, its weekly gross typically hovering around $300,000 and attendance often descending below the 50 percent mark (though last week, numbers went sharply up). A spokesman for the show denied any plays to shutter the musical, though general manager Alan Wasser rather cryptically told Variety, "we're always looking where the show stands, but nothing firm [to announce] yet" -- which is not exactly the simplest way of saying "no."

On the topic of musicals moving into town, Feb. 23 saw Aida finally arrive at Broadway's Palace Theatre, after runs in Atlanta and (much later) Chicago. In contrast to the many personnel changes made after the Alliance Theatre production, the Broadway cast and crew retains everyone involved in the Windy City bow, including director Robert Falls, choreographer Wayne Cilento, scenic designer Bob Crowley, and stars Heather Headley, Adam Pascal and Sherie Rene Scott. And, of course, Elton John and Tim Rice are still the composers of Disney's first written from-scratch musical. There have, however, been a few alterations to the production; Newsday reported that a new song has been written for Pascal, while an existing tune has been reassigned to him. Theatregoers have a month's worth of chances to see this latest version of Aida before it officially opens on March 23. Meanwhile, Off-Broadway, the first Wild Party of the season received its official opening at Manhattan Theatre Club on Feb. 24. Reviews were mixed to negative, casting some doubt on whether the show would automatically leap to Broadway (as had been rumored) and challenge the other version.

Other notable openings of the past week -- all Off-Broadway -- included the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Arthur Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo; The Signature Theatre Company final production in its Maria Irene Fornes season, Letters from Cuba (which was promptly extended to March 12); and the Drama Dept.'s revival of George Kelly's first play, The Torch Bearers. Because cast-members Marian Seldes and Faith Prince both have other commitments, the rave reviews Torch-Bearers received won't result in a transfer. Still, three extra performances were added (March 6-8) as a benefit for the Greenwich House Reconstruction project.

Elsewhere Off-Broadway, there was happy news from the WPA Theater. Last July, the 22-year-old troupe lost its longtime space on West 23rd Street. As fall 1999 came and went, it looked like the company that first produced Little Shop of Horrors and Steel Magnolias might never see a 23rd season. But, this week, artistic director Kyle Rennick announced WPA had a new space and a new production, Jonathan Sheffer's Blood on the Dining Room Floor. The play begins April 6.

Finally, for a gal who's hard to get for an interview, there's a whole lot of Audra McDonald going around lately. The season began with singer actress McDonald taking the lead role in Lincoln Center Theater's Marie Christine. Following the close of that show, she began a two-week stint in the Off-Broadway production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. And now, on Feb. 29, comes the release of her latest album, "How Glory Goes." The CD will be backed up with a mini-concert tour of the U.S., beginning March 4 and running through may; and through the PBS television special "Audra McDonald at the Donmar, London," aired throughout the country during March.

--By Robert Simonson and David Lefkowitz