PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 12-18: The Helen Hayes Gets a Second Act

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 12-18: The Helen Hayes Gets a Second Act And the nonprofit world gets another one!

A Broadway theatre, that is. The Roundabout Theatre Company has the American Airline Theatre (formerly the Selwyn) and Studio 54 (formerly that other Studio 54); Manhattan Theatre Club has the soon-to-be Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (the soon-to-be former Biltmore Theatre); and Lincoln Center Center, of course, has always had the Vivian Beaumont. If you're a big-deal nonprofit in New York City, a piece of Broadway real estate is the ultimate status symbol, and an ingredient in the recipe for possible future financial stability. It also allows for instant Tony Award eligibility.

Now Second Stage has entered this elite club. No, the Shuberts and the Nederlanders haven't loosened their grasp on any of the couple dozen theatres they control. (Have you noticed any pigs flying over Times Square?) Martin Markinson, the quixotic owner and operator of the Hayes since 1977, has decided to sell to the 29-year-old Second Stage. The company's ownership will begin in 2010. In the meantime, artistic director Carole Rothman and her crew will be looking under couch cushions for the $35 million needed for the purchase and renovation.

The acquisition comes at an appropo time: In the past six years, a number of Second Stage productions have gone on to Broadway runs: Metamorphoses, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Little Dog Laughed. The company will continue to present productions at its current Off-Broadway homes: the 296-seat building on West 43rd Street and the 108-seat McGinn/Cazale Theatre.

So good news for Second Stage, but bad news for those of us who have been mightily entertained over the years by Markinson's quirky booking choices, which have often confounded Broadway observers. With Markinson, Times Square got such quality productions Golda's Balcony, Dirty Blonde and Prelude to a Kiss. But it also got George Gershwin Alone, Hershey Felder's play solo play about Gershwin with music by Gershwin; Band in Berlin, an odd, quasi-documentary production about the Nazi-era German singing group the The Comedian Harmonists; such open-and-close cases as The Smell of the Kill, Getting and Spending and Epic Proportions. And let no one forget Squonk, the beyond-description, fantasy concert with puppets.

Ah, memories! I doubt Second Stage will give any of the above a second staging. ***

Regarding the Helen Hayes' current tenant, Xanadu, Whoopi Goldberg will join the Broadway company of as one of the musical's scheming muses, it was announced on "The View" July 14. She will replace cast member Jackie Hoffman. Goldberg will join the Broadway production beginning July 29, for a six-week limited engagement through Sept. 7. Hoffman will be on leave from the production to promote the release of her album "Jackie Hoffman Live from Joe's Pub." Hoffman is scheduled to return to Xanadu Sept. 9.

***

Xanadu opened in the summer months last year and no one thought it would last. But that summer-opening strategy has paid off fairly well in recent years. It certainly worked for Avenue Q.

Two of the producers of Avenue Q, Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, tried the same technique with [title of show], the show-within-a-show-within-a-show musical that's been around for four years in various incarnations and finally opened on Broadway at the Lyceum on July 17.

The spare, self-referential, tale of theatre-world ambition and wishfulness has changed over the years. It had to, since the story is basically that of the show's co-creators Jeff Bowen (score) and Hunter Bell (book) as well as co-stars Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. The Broadway version includes events that transpired in the two years since it closed Off-Broadway.

Detractors' general knock against the show is that it's too edgy and intimate and insidery to belong on Broadway. But some critics seemed to like it more than they had Off-Broadway, where reviews were mixed-to-good. Youngish Charles Isherwood of the Times loved it, oldish Clive Barnes of the Post hated it.

***

Arthur Laurents has been taunting folks for some time about how modern and different his new upcoming Broadway production of West Side Story is going to be. This week, we discovered one of the reasons why. The production "will introduce the unprecedented element of selectively weaving Spanish throughout both the book and songs," according to the July 16 announcement.

Laurents stated, "This show will be radically different from any other production of West Side Story ever done. The musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity. Every member of both gangs was always a potential killer even then. Now they actually will be. Only Tony and Maria try to live in a different world…"

Let the debate over this artistic choice begin. Oh wait! — it already has. (Check out the chat rooms.)

***

More from Broadway. Complete casting was announced for the Broadway production of Billy Elliot—The Musical, which will begin previews at the Imperial Theatre Oct. 1 with an official opening scheduled for Nov. 13. As previously announced, young actors David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik will alternate in the musical's title role. Haydn Gwynne, who created the role of dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in the show's original London cast, will repeat her work for Broadway audiences. Also cast are Gregory Jbara as Dad, Carole Shelley as Grandma and Santino Fontana as Tony.

***

Come fall, the cast of 9 to 5 will be working 8 to 11 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles before moving to Broadway March 24, 2009. The cast of the Dolly Parton-Patricia Resnick will be headed — as the three aggrieved workers laboring under a beastly supervisor — Allison Janney as Violet, Stephanie J. Block as Judy, Megan Hilty as Dorelee (the Parton role in the move). Marc Kudisch, whose has been carving out a nice career on Broadway playing various bosses (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and bad guys (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) will be the bad-guy boss.

***

Jeremy Piven has a co-star in the upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, and a theatre to go to as well. The Belasco Theatre is the house, and the ever-working Raúl Esparza is the actor. Since Taboo in 2003, the performer has rarely been absent from the New York stage. The third role of secretary Karen, which was created in the original production by Madonna, has yet to be cast.

***

Off-Broadway, Stephen Rea starred in the U.S. premiere of Sam Shepard's Kicking a Dead Horse, which officially opened at the Public Theater July 14. Rea played Americana art dealer Hobart Struther who heads west in search of the "real thing," but all he gets is a dead horse and an existential crisis. The critical reaction was pretty much what it's been whenever Shepard has rolled out a new play any time over the last couple decades: disappointment, with respectful grousing that the new work is not up to the level of the playwright's greater mid-career achievements in the 1970s and 1980s.

***

Elsewhere Off-Broadway, The Fantasticks opened yet again, on July 17. Off-Broadway is never without this classic by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt for long, it seems. The original was the world's longest-running musical, having played a record-breaking run of more than 17,000 performances at Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse until it closed Jan. 13, 2002. It returned soon after at the Snapple Theater Center, where it ran 27 previews and 628 regular performances before closing on Feb. 24. That closure turned out to be a "hiatus" and the show's back. Now New York City's theatre universe is whole once more.

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