PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 11-17: Quite Contrary

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 11-17: Quite Contrary Sure, supernanny Mary Poppins can do wonders with unruly children, and even recalcitrant adults. But no one, even when armed with a magical umbrella, can bring the New York theatre critics corps to heel.
Ashley Brown in Mary Poppins.
Ashley Brown in Mary Poppins. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Disney and Cameron Mackintosh-produced musical Mary Poppins — surely one of the biggest musical ships to dock on Broadway in some time — opened on Nov. 16. Yes, some reviewers said the show had delights to spare, but most had at least one or two cavils, claiming the Richard Eyre-directed production was overstuffed or bloated, and that the Julian Fellowes book lingered too much in the shadows and self-help aisles. Critics were more complimentary of stars Ashley Brown, as Mary, and Gavin Lee, as chimney sweep Bert.

Disney and Mackintosh might have hoped for more, especially since the show is arguably the most important Broadway opening in a decade for each producer. But no one should count the musical out. Mary Poppins is a brand name forged in steel and dipped in gold. The character and story's reputation as a classic child-pleaser alone could very possibly feed the New Amsterdam Theatre with a steady stream of ticketbuyers.

Also opening on Broadway this week, on Nov. 13, was Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, another show about a strange and determined woman who likes to control other people's lives. Star Julie White doesn't have an umbrella, but watch out for that cellphone.

***

A new salvo in the deathless battle over the idea of intellectual and creative property, where it concerns theatre directors and designers, was fired this week. A collection of the creators and designers of the Broadway production of Urinetown, along with their unions, held a press conference to accuse two 2006 regional productions of the show of plagiarizing their direction, choreography and design. Among the complaining parties were director John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa. The offending productions at the Mercury Theater in Chicago (produced by Blue Dog Entertainment) and at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH. The creators stated that "significant aspects of the Broadway Team's original, creative work were used in your recent production of Urinetown." The creators claim that work is their exclusive property, not to be wantonly borrowed by any theatre that comes along.

These claims are touchy ones in the theatre world. To date, only the work of the playwright and the choreographer has been deigned by the courts as worthy of copyright protection. Legal and artistic experts have often pointed out the difficulty of defining what is "owned" by a director in a theatrical production, which is a collaborative creation, and in which all work arguably grows out of the script.

The last major dust-up involving this issue occurred in the late ‘90s and involved a production of Love! Valour! Compassion! at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton, FL. Original New York director Joe Mantello cried "thief" when he saw the staging, which he said resembled his in many ways. Mantello, backed by his union, sued, though the matter was settled before ever coming to court.

One intriguing aspect of the current fracas is that the Akron Urinetown was directed by Jennifer Cody, who starred in the original Broadway production as Little Becky Two Shoes. Stepping up to defend Cody was Hunter Foster, her husband, and the original Bobby Strong in Urinetown. Foster pointed out that "there are parts of the original production of Urinetown that will always be a part of the show no matter who directs and choreographs them." He also posed the rhetorical question, "And isn’t Urinetown a parody of musical theatre itself? Didn’t Carrafa and Rando borrow from [Jerome] Robbins and [Bob] Fosse anyway?"

The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) said it would give the recipients 10 days to respond and submit "a detailed accounting of all revenues" from the productions so that an "appropriate license fee and damages" can be determined. The Broadway team is also seeking "a mechanism by which if people really want to do the Urinetown they saw on Broadway, they can, by licensing the work from the creators and giving them credit."

***

Will a Coram Boy be as bankable as a History Boy? Well, producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber think so. The duo struck box-office and Tony gold with the Broadway transfer of the London hit The History Boys, and will next bring another National Theatre production, Coram Boy, to Manhattan this spring. Helen Edmundson's play will begin previews at a Broadway theatre on or about April 10, 2007, with an official opening tentatively scheduled for May 1. Melly Still, who directed the London production of Coram Boy, will repeat the same duties on Broadway. Adapted by Edmundson from a novel by Jamila Gavin, Coram Boy tells a story of two orphans at the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children in 18th-century England.

***

Playwright Sarah Ruhl's cleaning up, following the critical reception of her Off-Broadway hit The Clean House. Her re-imagining of the classic myth Eurydice — which recently played at Yale Repertory Theatre — has been snatched up by Off-Broadway's Second Stage, to play next year. The Clean House also premiered at Yale Rep, and then had to wait more than two years to get to New York. Since the Clean House reviews came out, New York producers have apparently discovered Metro North.