PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 8-14: Billy, Do Be a Hero!

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 8-14: Billy, Do Be a Hero! Broadway got a welcome break from all the gloom and doom news of recent weeks, courtesy of the rafter-shaking acclaim that greeted the American premiere of the Olivier Award-winning Billy Elliot—The Musical, the hit London musical based on the film of the same name. It opened the evening of Nov. 13 at the Imperial. By breakfast on Nov. 14, the economic horizon wasn't quite as dark a shade of pitch.
David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish all rotate in the title role of Billy Elliot
David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish all rotate in the title role of Billy Elliot Photo by David Scheinmann, Alistair Muir (Kowalik)

"Broadway's long, dark, dry spell of big, smart, smash musicals is officially over," wrote Newsday about the Stephen Daldry-directed tale of a working-class boy's dream of becoming a dancer. Reviews praised the production for its achievement in both the realms of entertainment and art; for its simultaneous emotional, artistic and intellectual impact. The score of pop legend Elton John — heretofore given only slighting praise as a theatrical composer — was roundly lauded as memorable and well-integrated into the story. (The lyrics and libretto are by Lee Hall.)

The reception was particularly comforting because many had worried that the very English storyline — the dramatic backdrop is the coalworkers strike that divided Thatcher-era England — wouldn't translate into a Stateside success. But what most critics found is that Billy Elliot is, at heart, not a regional story, but a universal one about the need for art and joy even among the bleakest of circumstances.

If reviews like that don't propel a show to hitdom, then we surely are in Dutch in this economy. But, for now, all of Broadway is probably hoping that this new English tide raises all boats.

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Whatever indirect impact Billy Elliot may have, it comes too late for the current revival of Gypsy. The show — which stars Tony Award winners Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti, Tony-winners all — will end its run at the St. James Theatre March 1, 2009, at the conclusion of LuPone's original contract, it was announced. Directed by the musical's librettist, Arthur Laurents, Gypsy will have played 388 performances and 27 previews when it closes. A respectable run. But, as with other recent high-profile closings, many expected it to play for a bit longer.

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George W. Bush's reign in the White House is very nearly history, but the theatre doesn't seem ready to let him go. The man who has inspired more political plays (not to mention actual characters in plays such as Stuff Happens and Beast) than any President in recent history continues to inspire playwrights and actors. Writer and actor Will Ferrell's new one-man Broadway show, You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush, will open Feb. 5, 2009 at the Cort Theatre. And now comes news that A.R. Gurney will lay a knock-out punch on the outgoing Commander-in-Chief with his latest, A Light Lunch, due to play the Flea Theatre Dec. 12, 2008-Jan. 25, 2009.

Gurney perhaps hates Bush more than any other American dramatist. During the past eight years, the WASP-centric writer has written several uncharacteristically political works, including Mrs. Farnsworth and Screen Play all produced by the Flea. A Light Lunch is billed as "a post-Bush cautionary tale about the price paid for legacy. When a young lawyer from Texas invites a literary agent for lunch in a New York City restaurant, more than a production is on the table.”

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Off-Broadway saw some significant unveilings. Reviewers thought the Atlantic Theatre Company's premiere of Farragut North — a tale of political skullduggery on the campaign trail by one-time political operative Beau Willimon — to be juicy entertainment backed up by solid performances, led by John Gallagher Jr.. A few detractors quibbled that the play's timeliness had passed with the recent election's conclusion.

Almost no one thought the Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of David Rabe's 1976 Vietnam-era drama, Streamers, betrayed the play as dated in any way. The drama about post-boot camp soldiers on the brink of war was heralded for its clear direction by Scott Ellis and the strong acting of its ensemble, which features Hale Appleman, Ato Essandoh, Brad Fleischer and J.D. Williams.

Also opening, at Lincoln Center Theater, was the latest by young playwright Noah Haidle, Saturn Returns. The play, which looks at the life at one man during these pivotal moments, was thought to be structurally interesting by most, moving and well staged by some, contrived and slight by others.

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The power plays that are inherent to the annual Tony Awards ceremony began early this year. It was reported this week that Tony Award Productions would not renew the contract of longtime Broadway producer Liz McCann, who has been general manager of the annual telecast since 2001. Instead, Alan Wasser Associates will act as the general manager of the 2009 Tony Awards. Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss/White Cherry Entertainment will continue on as the producers of the 2009 Tony telecast.

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Politically motivated exits (that's politics with a capital "P," not petty office politics) are rare in the theatre, which makes the resignation of artistic director Scott Eckern from California Musical Theatre all the more striking. Eckern announced his departure this week in the wake of a firestorm of criticism over his financial support of California's Proposition 8 (he donated $1,000 to what some view as an anti-gay effort). The proposition, which passed on election day, outlawed same-sex marriage in the state. It overturns the May 2008 California Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality.

Many theatre professionals were outraged when they learned of Eckern's action, which the Mormon administrator said was motivated by his personal and religious beliefs. Among those who spoke out against Eckern were composer Marc Shaiman, actress Susan Egan and book writer Jeff Whitty.

In a statement released Nov. 12, Eckern said, "I definitely do not support any message or treatment of others that is hateful or instills fear. This is a highly emotional issue. I have now had many conversations with friends and colleagues and I now have a better idea of what the discrimination issues are, how deeply felt these issues are and I am deeply saddened that my acting upon my religious convictions has been devastating to those I love and admire… I am deeply sorry for any harm or injury I have caused."

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