STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1996-97 Season -- from A to Z

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1996-97 Season -- from A to Z OK -- as of 10:55 p.m. EST on June 1, when the Best Play Tony went to Ballyhoo, the 1996-97 season was officially over. For those who might not have been around for the 313 shows that I saw, let's here's a report on what you might have missed -- from A to Z.

OK -- as of 10:55 p.m. EST on June 1, when the Best Play Tony went to Ballyhoo, the 1996-97 season was officially over. For those who might not have been around for the 313 shows that I saw, let's here's a report on what you might have missed -- from A to Z.

A is for Alessandrini, as in Gerard, who should be getting tired of writing all those Forbidden Broadway parodies. Instead, he did work worthy enough for him to get a Best ever label by a good half-dozen critics. He followed that with a Drama Desk win for Best Lyrics and -- even more astonishing -- a Lucille Lortel Award (which, after all, usually goes to headier fare) for Outstanding Body of Work. Alessandrini showed a lot of class at the latter ceremony, when Phyllis Newman mangled his name in introducing him. Once he got to the podium, he didn't correct her, but just gave a heartfelt speech.

B is for Bebe, as in Neuwirth, who sure made up for that Damn Yankees Tony shutout of a few years back. There aren't too many performers who've won a Best Featured Musical Actress (for Sweet Charity) and Best Musical Actress (for, of course, Chicago), but add Bebe's name to the list.

C will be Chicago for everyone who never saw the original. But I say it's for Robert Cuccioli, inexplicably robbed at the Tonys, and smartly recognized by the Drama Desk. C is also for "Confrontation," the song in which Cuccioli alternates between playing Jekyll and Hyde. But here's the thing: On the show's lengthy tour, Cuccioli sang his Jekyll part while a movie and its soundtrack blared out the Hyde counterpoint. Look at that -- what had been one of the most demanding roles in musical theater history got that much harder when the powers that-be asked Cuccioli to sing both parts of the number.

D is for the Disney Corporation, for giving us the New Amsterdam Theater. I guess this should be under N, but I couldn't wait that long to list it. The stunning showplace is certainly Disney's biggest Broadway achievement, a theater to remind us of The Way It Used to Be, to inspire us to the standards we need to reach again. (Only one thing. I know I'm broad where a man should not be broad, but did the seats seem a little tight to you?) E is for the Easter Bonnet Competition, just as impressive as ever. Where else can you see Whoopi Goldberg, Chita Rivera, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bebe Neuwirth, and a mockery of Annie all on one stage -- and know your money is going for such a good cause as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS? Best bit was the Smokey Joe's Cafe cast singing to Love Potion #9 that all of us who didn't respond to the show could kiss Smokey Joe's behind. Who would have thought that it would outrun Sunset Boulevard? But it will.

F is for Eddie Frierson, who had a nice cracker-barrel quality while playing Giant pitcher Christy Matthewson in Matty. He should have been remembered in some of those Best One-Person Show categories.

G is for Gallardi, the new bookwriter-composer-lyricist who wrote Living Proof and starred in it, too. She has a wild and original sense of humor, a nice understanding of the theatricality of show music, and a way with a tricky lyric -- all in a musical about two Lesbians who are doing well emotionally and financially until one wants to have a child Best line came when a friend said that she didn't want guys to think she was a Lesbian because they'd stop coming onto her. Quipped Gallardi, If they thought you were, they'd come on to you more.

By the way, in the show Amy Stiller tore down the house as a New School-like teacher who comes in to ostensibly run a workshop on alternative parenting. People like this get kidded all the time, and I stopped laughing at such characterizations a long time ago. But Gallardi did it so right that I was doubled over along with everyone else in the house.

H is for all the Harrises we saw. No, alas, Barbara didn't make a comeback, but we did have at the start of the season Rosemary (as she continued with A Delicate Balance) and Ed (in Taking Sides). Then, at the end of the semester, we got both Julie (in The Gin Game) and Sam (in The Life), who each garnered a Tony nomination. All that we needed was for Harris Yulin to have done something.

I is for Ivey, who did fine work in both Sex and Longing as well as Ballyhoo. Congrats to the Drama Desk, who, when giving Ivey her Outstanding Featured Dramatic Actress nomination, was smart enough to cite both jobs.

J is for the Jekkies, who were indefatigable in their support of Jekyll & Hyde. Just before the Tonys, in which the musical barely scored a mention, such stalwart fans as Richie Schwartz, Cory Caplan, Marc Goldman, and Rachel Brown brought four crystal vases designed by Mary Miller to Cuccioli, Linda Eder, Christiane Noll and Frank Wildhorn. Said Eder in a very gracious acceptance speech, You've become more famous than the show!

K was for the two Ks in Caryl Churchill's fascinating The Skriker, a word we all learned to spell pretty quickly. Don't ask me to explain all of the play to you. But I was always fascinated and didn't need to chew on some Trident Cinnamon to keep me awake -- which is how I make it through many other shows I saw.

L is for Langella, who was inexplicably omitted from my recent column on whom the Tonys inexplicably omitted. Apologies, folks. Now I understand how things like this happen.

M is for McTeer, as in Janet, who got every possible award in overwhelming us in A Doll's House. Only one thing spoiled it: When she was brought into the press room after winning her Tony so we could interview her, she blithely announced, All I want is a drink, and shunted off without another word. It's one thing for Nora to slam the door on Torvald, but did Janet have to do it to us, too?

N is for The Night of the Hunter, the Best Musical Nobody Got to See But Everyone Deserves to. The excellent book and lyrics were by Stephen Cole, while Claibe Richardson provided the stirring music for this tale of a boy whose stepfather is planning to kill his mother and steal the family fortune. Please -- get this one on before the amazing kid actor Chuck Bradley gets too big for the role.

O is for Once upon a Mattress, the saddest loser of the season. Don't believe what they tell you, folks -- this is a darn good musical. The only thing is, we didn't see it as it was written. For one thing, that Wizard has lines. What Gerald Gutierrez did to this show almost negated what he did for The Heiress and A Delicate Balance the last two seasons.

P is for Elaine Paige, who finally let Broadway see what her country had been seeing for years, and Joanne Pacitti, who couldn't let Broadway see what her country had been seeing all year. Oh, and let's not forget Christopher Plummer. John Barrymore, when he looked up from hell last year, must have been made more miserable by what Nicol Williamson did to him. But this year, Barrymore must have even not felt the flams for the two-hours Plummer portrayed him. Frankly, I'd like to think that Barrymore was singing, He's like a Plummer when you need a Plummer.

Q is for A Question of Mercy, the David Rabe play that was pretty potent down at the New York Theatre Workshop. Sickness and death have invademany of the plays of the last decade, but Question was one that moved me more than most. I was surprised to see it completely forgotten at awards time.

R is for Randall, as in Tony, who had a nifty year. First, he starred as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and if he ever missed any of his 12 performances a week, I didn't hear about it. Not bad for a 77 year-old. Then he got a Tony nomination as producer of The Gin Game, proving that it's never too late for a company to succeed. And speaking of never-too-late, uh, considering what else Mr. R did as a septuagenarian, maybe he should star in a National Actors Theatre revival of Never Too Late, that '60s smash in which an older man finds out that his almost-but-not-quite-menopausal wife is suddenly expecting a bundle of joy.

S is for Side Show, a musical about the Hilton Sisters, the show business Siamese twins of yore. It was the other Best Musical Nobody Got to See But Everyone Deserves to. The excellent workshop presentation at the Rodgers last fall by director Robert Longbottom should have been enough to get it on this year (and beat out some other less impressive contenders?). You're asking, is there a market for a Siamese twins musical? Maybe not, but if one can break through, it's this very sensitive and moving piece.

T is for Julie Taymor, whose puppetry in Juan Darien allowed us to look forward to The Lion King she'll helm this fall. Safe to say that it won't just be a unreasonable facsimile of the film, as its older brother, Beauty and the Beast has been at the Palace.

U is for Uhry, who added a Tony (for The Last Night of Ballyhoo) to his Oscar and Pulitzer (for Driving Miss Daisy). But U is also for Understudy, the most extraordinary of which I saw was Robert Stattel, who subbed a few weeks back for John Cullum in All My Sons. Joe Keller's not an easy role, but Stattel did it without a hitch. Bravo.

V, of course, is for Vogel's play at the Vineyard, How I Learned to Drive. Here's where the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics' Circle Awards take up the slack of the Broadway-centric Tonys.

W is for Frank Wildhorn, who, seems to me, worked harder than anyone else to get Jekyll & Hyde to Broadway -- and was the only one of the creative team to get no mention in any of the awards. Cuccioli got a Tony nod and Drama Desk nomination; Linda Eder got a Drama Desk nomination and Theatre World Award, and even director Robin Phillips got a Drama Desk, albeit not for his sluggish direction, but for his third-of-a-contribution to the set. That Leslie Bricusse was Tony nominated for the faulty book while Wildhorn, who wrote the music for songs that sell umpteen thousand discs, got nothing but a Jekkie? Something's wrong.

X is for our X-rated musical, The Life, which began with Sam Harris complaining that now they've made 42nd Street squeaky clean for Mickey Mouse, before introducing a musical where prostitutes are beaten by pimps, one of whom is murdered. Meanwhile, Harris' character turned out to be quite a stinker. Hmmm, did this show make you nostalgic for the way Forty-Deuce once was? I'd say The Life was the best possible endorsement for what Disney has done and will do for the street.

Y is for Young Man from Atlanta's leading man, Rip Torn, who didn't get a Tony nod. While I sat in the Longacre watching his performance, I thought to myself, Well, there's a Best Actor Nominee. I'll admit, though, that it later occurred to me that if I was thinking, Well, there's a Best Actor Nominee while he was acting, maybe that's part of the reason he didn't get one.

Z is for Ziemba, whose second-act breakdown in Steel Pier was as harrowing as any I've ever seen on stage. But too bad Z wasn't for Zaks -- and it might have been, had he directed Once upon a Mattress. Bet he would have made it work.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic of the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com