PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 21-27: Giant Looms Large, Into the Woods Returns to NYC, Wit Is a Hit

News   PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 21-27: Giant Looms Large, Into the Woods Returns to NYC, Wit Is a Hit Wit, Margaret Edson's play about a starchy poetry professor facing cancer and mortality, premiered at the Friedman Theatre this week. And it's as big a critical hit on Broadway as it was Off-Broadway 14 years ago.

Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon Photo by Joan Marcus

Wit, the only play Edson has ever written, bowed Off-Broadway in 1998. It won the Pulitzer and was named Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Drama Desk Awards, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama League and the Lucille Lortel Awards. And it ran for more than 500 performances Off-Broadway. But it never made it uptown, because Broadway theatre owners thought cancer was a downer.

Manhattan Theatre Club and artistic director Lynne Meadow, who directs, corrected that mistake, and cast Cynthia Nixon in the lead role. (Both women have survived bouts with breast cancer.)

Some critics admitted they had doubts whether the warm, youngish Nixon was the right actress to play the reserved, exacting professor. But their fears evaporated after the production settled in. "This is a performance that is large and lucid and delicate at the same time, and it justifies Manhattan Theatre Club’s decision to mount what is essentially a chamber piece on Broadway," wrote the Times. "As directed with a persuasive combination of showmanship and sensitivity by Lynne Meadow, this production magnifies the innate theatricality of Ms. Edson's play without compromising the firm emotional truth at its center."

Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Fearless doesn't even begin to describe Nixon's performance. She never leaves the stage…And from her 'Hi! How are you feeling today?' introduction until her rebirth-like valediction, she never fails to captivate." Said Bloomberg News, "Nixon gives us a woman whose mind demands attention even as her body is inexorably failing. You hear urgency in the crackling tone of her voice and see it in the undimmed sparkle in her eyes. She never stops wrestling."

Often when prize-winning plays are revived, the passing years dim their luster. But a number of reviewers said Wit was even better than they remembered. "The way Edson gradually fills in the blanks of Vivian's personality rings true, as is the scholar's discovery of her own humanity," said the Post. Bloomberg stated, "We have a drama laced with humor, most of it acid and utterly devoted to the power of metaphor, simile, paradox — and wit. Not the debased, bilious language the spills from most stages these day, but words that matter, that touch the soul." Expect an extension, and maybe a transfer.

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Warren Carlyle
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Little Tramp is going to get the Broadway treatment.

Becoming Chaplin, a new musical depicting the life of film icon Charlie Chaplin, will open on Broadway during the 2012-13 season, its producers said this week.

The folks responsible for making the silent film icon sing are composer Christopher Curtis and bookwriter Thomas Meehan. Warren Carlyle will direct and choreograph the production.

Becoming Chaplin is the project's second name. It was called Limelight in a popular 2010 production at La Jolla Playhouse. The producers have the very appropriate names of Bob and Mindy Rich. It would be the first Broadway outing of their Rich Entertainment Group, a conglomerate that is based in Buffalo and owns everything from a retail bakery service to holiday resorts to a Triple AAA baseball team — the redundantly named Buffalo Bisons.

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Kate Baldwin in Giant.
photo by Karen Almond

A musical as big as Texas has its eye on New York.

This week, Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson's musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's iconic novel about the the Lone Star State, Giant, opened — where else? — at the Dallas Theater Center.

The identity of the director, the Broadway regular Michael Greif (Next to Normal, Rent), is an indication that the producers think the show's cowboy boots are pointing east. So is the fact that this is a co-production between DTC and the Public Theater in Manhattan. The Public has not announced dates of production.

The musical had its world premiere at the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, VA, in 2009, where it was reportedly more than three hours in length. (That's changed, we hear.)

Starring in the central love triangle are Kate Baldwin, Aaron Lazar and P.J. Griffith. They play roles that were created on the silver screen by, respectively, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. How's that for having the weight of expectations on your shoulders?

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Lily Rabe is becoming the queen of the Delacorte Theater.

She starred with Al Pacino in the Central Park production of The Merchant of Venice that transferred to Broadway. Now, for the 50th anniversary Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte, she will star as Rosalind — the "female Hamlet" — in As You Like It. It will be directed by Daniel Sullivan, who staged Merchant.

The second show of the anniversary season will be Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, directed by Timothy Sheader with co-direction (whatever that means) by Liam Steel. Based on the Olivier Award-winning Regent's Park Open Air Theatre London production in 2010, The Public Theater staging will be an all-new production with an American cast to be announced.

The second selection is unorthodox, but not without precedent. In the past, the Public Theater has presented revivals of the musicals On the Town and Hair in the park. Both transferred to Broadway. Whether Into the Woods would do the same is unlikely, as the musical was revived on Broadway — unsuccessfully — only a few seasons ago. And this production is said to be tailored for the outdoors, where trees and a yonder castle are part of the existing Central Park landscape.

The Delacorte Theater officially opened in Central Park on June 18, 1962, with The Merchant of Venice, directed by Joseph Papp and Gladys Vaughan and featuring George C. Scott as Shylock.

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