PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 4-10: Spirits, Good and Bad

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 4-10: Spirits, Good and Bad [This is the initial installment of a new Playbill On-Line feature, "Theatre Week in Review," a weekly assessment of the week's top theatre stories. Written by PBOL editor Robert Simonson, "Theatre Week in Review" will appear on Fridays and be repeated on Saturday and Sunday's front pages.]

[This is the initial installment of a new Playbill On-Line feature, "Theatre Week in Review," a weekly assessment of the week's top theatre stories. Written by PBOL editor Robert Simonson, "Theatre Week in Review" will appear on Fridays and be repeated on Saturday and Sunday's front pages.]

Perhaps theatre people are just more sensitive than other mortals, but the Tony Awards do seem to generate more controversy than any other prize in the land. Here it is early September, Labor Day barely gone, and the season hardly begun and angry words regarding the Tonys are already filling the air.

This week's controversy has nothing to do with winners or losers, but voters. For many years, membership in The League of American Theatres and Producers -- which, along with the American Theatre Wing, co- produces the Tonys -- meant status as a Tony voter (and, not incidentally, free tickets to all Tony-eligible shows). The League still encourages membership and the dues-paying that goes along with it ($1,000 a year), but now, due to a bylaw change, only producers with a credit on their resume during the past four years can call themselves voters. All others become "adjunct" members with no voting rights.

Needless to say, there has been a mini-revolt, with many producers asking for the bylaw to be rescinded. Some active producers are sympathetic toward their afflicted brothers. Others, of course, are not. "People have been on [the League] list for 20 years and haven't produced anything," said Irving Siders. "They're paying $1,000 to get free tickets at Tony time, but they have as much right to vote for the Tonys as I have to fly to the moon."

One man with no fear of passing a year without producing anything is Todd Haimes, the Roundabout Theatre Company leader who, last year, replaced the ousted Garth Drabinsky as the beleaguered Livent's artistic guide (while promising to see the Roundabout through its move to 42nd Street's Selwyn Theatre). Since then, as the Livent ship has continued to sink and be swallowed nearly whole by SFX, many wondered when Haimes would finally quit the deck for the safe harbor of the Roundabout. Well, the shoe finally dropped Sept. 9, with Haimes returning to his old post and many a Roundabout staffer and subscriber breathing a sigh of relief. Down the block from the Roundabout, the frequently dark and architecturally sublime Lyceum Theatre may become home to the latest example of the Broadway biz's increasing corporatization. Producers David S. Singer, Thomas Viertel and Richard Frankel are working in tandem with international media giant Bertelsmann A.G. to fill the house with something called "Spirit of Broadway," a $25, hour-long melange of songs, characterizations of Broadway legends, a museum and taped promos of current Broadway shows; a six-shows-a-day, 3-D advertisement for the area's wares, directed by Jerry Zaks, no less. The intention is to turn casual Times Square tourists into theatregoers.

The plan does not have a friend in Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld. The Shuberts own the Lyceum, and Schoenfeld maintains "Spirit of Broadway" is not a true piece of theatre and would defy his covenant with the city to keep the Lyceum a working legitimate venue. But Schoenfeld may be more worried about losing control of the house to Bertelsmann, which built its 45th Street tower with air rights purchased from the Lyceum and holds an option to buy the theatre outright.

Other Broadway theatres, meanwhile, became newly active this week, as the 1999-2000 season began to warm up. Epic Proportions, a farce by Larry Coen and David Crane about the filming of a biblical epic, began previews Sept. 7 at the Helen Hayes. The comedy stars Kristin Chenoweth -- arguably Broadway's hottest property-of-the-moment -- a mere three months after winning a Tony for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

And, after a summer-long national tour, The Scarlet Pimpernel "3.O" (as it is affectionately called) begins performances at the Neil Simon Sept. 10. This most-revised musical since Candide now stars Ron Bohmer, Carolee Carmello and Marc Kudisch. It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues also started up again, with 500 seats of its first two performances at the Ambassador Theatre donated to the Actors' Fund.

Brian Friel's Give Me You Answer, Do! also begins previews Off- Broadway Sept. 10. The Roundabout offering -- at their temporary home at the Gramercy, Off-Broadway -- features Joel Grey (in a rare, non-musical role) Kate Burton, Michael Emerson, John Glover and Lois Smith.

On the debit side, The Weir posted a closing notice for Nov. 28, making way for the upcoming Waiting in the Wings, which had already laid claim to the Walter Kerr Theatre weeks ago.

Meanwhile, some of the stars of last year's New York season have opened in shows across the nation. Marisa Tomei (Wait Until Dark) is headlining an American Repertory Theatre production of Dario Fo's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay! at Harvard's Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA; Bebe Neuwirth (who briefly stepped back into Chicago last spring) is history's latest Jenny Diver in American Conservatory Theatre's Threepenny Opera in San Francisco; and Betty Buckley (The Eros Trilogy) opened with Rip Torn in Hartford Stage's revival of Tennessee Williams' suddenly popular Camino Real.

As for Warren Leight, 1999's Tony-honored playwright, winning is having its advantages. Leight received a standing ovation at the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati, where Side Man had its regional debut. Furthermore, Side Man's triumph probably had something to do with Leight's 1984 work, The Loop's current revival at the Currican Theatre Off Broadway. Looks like the perpetual theatrical side man has moved up to lead.