PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 29-Nov. 4: Attend the Tale

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Oct. 29-Nov. 4: Attend the Tale DirectorJohn Doyle's startling new interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Tood proved more than a match for the murderer's row known as the New York theatre critics. With a few exceptions (The Daily News ever-contrarian Howard Kissel seems to have bolted from the barber chair mid-shave), the Demon Barber of Fleet Street dispatched its would-be judges in cut time.
Michael Cerveris (top) and Donna Lynne Champlin in Sweeney Todd.
Michael Cerveris (top) and Donna Lynne Champlin in Sweeney Todd. Photo by Paul Kolnik

This was by no means a foregone conclusion. The unorthodox staging—in which the shorn-down cast of 10 play all the instruments and present the bloody tale in Brechtian, presentational fashion as the inmates of a lunatic asylum short of scenic luxury—was a critical smash in London. But American critics and audiences hold their musical treasures as sacred, and are leery of British helmsman who go mucking about with perfection (i.e., the visceral reactions to recent Broadway revivals of Follies, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof).

During the preview period, observers were fairly split on the merits of Doyle's Sweeney. Supporters used terms like: innovative, chilling, intimate, intense. Detractors had a different lexicon: confusing, muddled, gimmicky, musically starved. Theatre site chat rooms fairly burned with pitched arguments. But, in the end, it's the reviewers' opinions that matter, and they, on the whole, exited the O'Neill Theatre feeling more bewitched than betrayed. And, thus, the Broadway season of 2005-06 finally has its first solid critical hit. (How it will fare commercially is far from certain. One only need remember the shockingly short run of the recent, critically lauded revival of Assassins to know what a hard sell Sondheim can be with the general public.)

Aside from shoring up Broadway's artistic slide, which began last summer when the life stories of Suzanne Somers and John Lennon proved to make less-than-compelling theatre, Sweeney can be credited for two other positive effects. Firstly, it puts the truth back in the appellation "Patti LuPone, Broadway musical star." LuPone hasn't headlined a Broadway musical in more than 15 years and it was beginning to look as if she never would again. Her acclaimed Mrs. Lovett brings her back to the stage that made her, to our mutual benefit, since the theatre can use every home-grown marquee name it can get.

Secondly, the show gives the community something to talk, bicker and argue about—that is, a debate that goes beyond simply stating whether you loved it or hated it (the extent of most critical disputations in the theatre). Any art form needs that as much, or more, than it does a steady cash flow at the box office.

*** Off-Broadway, meanwhile, wasn't able to share in Broadway's joy. With A Mother, a Daughter and a Gun, that unhappy quadrant of the New York stage world took perhaps its worst beating in an autumn that has left it black and blue. That show opened the day after Halloween, and the critics seemed to react to it with the embittered savageness of someone who already has a bag full of tricks and hungers for a treat. Lambasted (and subsequently brief) attractions such as A Woman of Will, Cycling Past the Matterhorn, Dr. Sex and In the Wings (to mention only a few) have left reviewers increasingly glassy-eyed and thin-skinned. Most of these works were written by artists of little or no reputation. It may take upcoming attractions of more-seasoned pros like Christopher Durang (Miss Witherspoon), Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful) and Harold Pinter (a double bill at the Atlantic Theatre Company) to restore their aggregate good will.

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The world has celebrated playwright August Wilson since his death on Oct. 2, but Signature Theatre Company won't be following suit in 2006. The troupe, which annually devotes its season to one dramatist, had previously selected Wilson for the year after this. But on Nov. 3, it announced that, at the request of the August Wilson Estate, the company would not be producing Wilson as part of the 15th anniversary season. In a letter sent to the company, "the Estate expressed its appreciation of Signature's extensive efforts to celebrate Mr. Wilson's body of work, but said that it couldn't continue to grant rights at this time," according to Signature. That leaves the upcoming Broadway premiere of Radio Golf as the sole Wilson production in New York's future.

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The Lion King and The Pirate Queen will soon share a street. Tony Award-winning American director Frank Galati will stage the pre-Broadway world premiere production of The Pirate Queen, by Les Misérables writers Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schönberg in Chicago in fall 2006, it was announced. The Pirate Queen will play at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre Oct. 3-Nov. 26, 2006, and open on Broadway in spring 2007. The musical is based on the real-life story of the legendary 16th century Irish pirate chieftain, Grace O'Malley. No casting has been announced, although published reports indicate Colm Wilkinson has been in discussions about the project. (Not, presumedly, for the role of Grace, unless this is to be a Hairspray sort of deal.)

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One show which won't be around to greet The Pirate Queen is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That "fine, four-fendered friend" found it didn't have as many friends as it thought, and announced Dec. 31 as the date for its cross-Atlantic flight back to the England that conceived it. The would-be blockbuster will have run for less than a year.

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How cool is the cast of the new Off-Broadway comedy Dog Sees God? So resoundingly hip that your average theatre journalist (say, me) has hardly heard of any of them. Among the edgy, of-the-moment talents are Ian Somerhalder, who appeared in something called "Lost"; Logan Marshall Green, a member of "The O.C." (which, I assume, is a television show and not a branch of the federal government); and Eddie Kaye Thomas from "American Pie" (not the Don McLean song—right?). More comforting to my sense of recall are the involvement of Ari Graynor and Keith Nobbs, who have recognizable New York theatre credits. Hey, what can I tell you? I spend my nights in darkened theatre, the kind that don't sell popcorn in the lobby.