STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997-98 Season From A to Z

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997-98 Season From A to Z And so, as of 10:59 PM EST on June 7, when the Best Musical Tony went to The Lion King, the 1997-98 season was officially over. Our annual report from A to Z:

And so, as of 10:59 PM EST on June 7, when the Best Musical Tony went to The Lion King, the 1997-98 season was officially over. Our annual report from A to Z:

A is for Abraham, as in F. Murray, the winner of the Keene Curtis in Via Galactica/Best Good Sport of the Season Award. The prize, as every schoolchild knows, is given to that actor who must don some ridiculous costume, hairstyle, or other indignity. (It's named for the actor who spent his time in that 1972 sci-fi musical in a box, with only his head showing. Honest.) In The Triumph of Love, Abraham had to play one of those classic French farce characters who so all-too-foolishly falls in love that he gets himself much-too-dandied up in fancified wig and dress. That a Tony and Oscar-winner didn't put his gilt-slippered foot down in protest showed just how much Abraham must have believed in the show. (By the way, the front-runner for next year's Keene Curtis in Via Galactica/Best Good Sport of the Season Award is Chip Zien, who, at least in the early previews of A New Brain, wore a frog suit. Continuously.

B is for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which showed that if even if your author is 27, even if you don't have a name in the cast anyone has heard of -- and even if your entire cast talks in brogue -- you can, if you're good enough, move from off-Broadway to Broadway in a heartbeat. It was a great day for the Irish, wasn't it?

C is for not only for Cumming, but also for Cabaret, a show I wouldn't have believed could withstand another revival, no matter how brilliant, especially in a year when the movie version was touting a 25th anniversary campaign. Who'd buy tickets? Everyone, that's who. Because Cabaret really put you in that night club. I got a feeling that I'd never experiencing in nearly 5,000 nights of theatergoing: The atmosphere was so seedy, nay dangerous, that I found myself constantly checking to see that my coat hadn't been stolen.

D is for Disney, of course. But what can I add that you haven't already read? E is for Gregg Edelman, whom I've never seen better than he is in 1776. I've heard many an actor get stuck in "Molasses to Rum," but I've never seen one float on it as effortlessly as Edelman did.

F is for Follies, in a Paper Mill Playhouse revival that New York hasn't seen. Yet. I've been told the money's in place, but there's "one obstacle" that could prevent a transfer. (By the way, I never say what I say is true. I only tell you what I hear.) Whatever the case, Follies was the crowning achievement in the 60-year history of Paper Mill Playhouse. And what a hot ticket! In the decade or so I've been attending this (Millburn) New Jersey theater, I've never seen such long lines at the men's room.

G is for Gross Indecency, the best off-Broadway play to never win a Drama Desk Award. Seems there was some confusion on the nominating committee. This year's group thought it had already been considered last year -- when it had been only a showcase. Showcases aren't eligible, so the show should have been considered during its current Minetta Lane run. Future theater historians will wonder how Gross Indecency could go through two seasons in which it emerged without a single Drama Desk plaque.

H is for High Society. On second thought, maybe it wasn't.

I is for Scott Irby-Ranniar, who plays Young Simba in The Lion King. He upholds the noble tradition of all those Baby Junes in Gypsy and Young Patricks in Mame -- the performers whom you so enjoy in the first act, knowing how much you'll miss them later when they give way to their older counterparts. Irby-Ranniar was as good as any of those who make you rue, "Gee, they grow up so fast nowadays..."

J is for Julyana Soelistyo, who, in Golden Child, had me thinking that she was an old woman. Until she had me thinking she was a child. Until I read that she's neither. Brava!

K is for Moises Kaufman, the author of Gross Indecency. (Check under G.")

L is for John Leguizamo, who's no freak in my book, but a role model.

M is for McNally, who made a lot of news as the bookwriter of Ragtime, and even more as the author of the forthcoming Corpus Christi. And to think that when I first heard the title, I thought he'd written about life in a sleepy Texas town.

N is for Natasha, the best Sally Bowles I've ever seen, and yes, of course I've seen the movie.

O is for Ovitz, a name we don't usually associate with Broadway, but one we'll have to get used to, now that Garth Drabinsky has passed the torch. A very hot torch.

P is for Paul Simon, who showed in The Capeman that he knew how to write theater songs with drama, taste, style, and melody. Had any of our established composer-lyricists attempted to write "Can I Forgive Him," the song between in which the killer's mothers meets the victim's mother, none would have done better. Such a shame that Simon chose such a bad topic for a show. We could benefit from future Simon scores, but if anyone believes that he'll try again, I've yet to meet him. But let's give him much credit for showing up for the Tonys.

Q is for Quentin Tarantino, who didn't set the town on fire, but let's at least give credit to a movie name for acknowledging the existence of theater. (On the other hand, I'm not sure that Broadway is the ideal place for on-the-job training...)

R is for Ragtime, which made Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens sing out loud, "My favorite year, like no other year of my life ..." Did they ever believe that they would ever be in competition with Paul Simon and Elton John -- and win?

S is for Smith-Cameron, who gave the best un-awarded performance of the year, as a 24-carat phony in As Bees in Honey Drown. The actress' depiction of Alexa Vere de Vere, the quintessential socialite of the '90s was fabulous (and I never use that word). But in playwright Douglas Carter Beane's flashback, which showed the character before she turned devious, Smith-Cameron was able to let you see the seeds of what she'd become. Amazing!

T is for Julie Taymor, who made me sit in the theater and say, "Wow, after 36 years of constant theatergoing, I can still see something new."

U is for Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth, which was definitely the best show I saw all year that began with the letter "U."

V is for A View from the Bridge, still holding water after all these years. I heard nothing but well-deserved raves for Anthony LaPaglia and Allison Janney, and, all too often, ill-deserved knocks for Brittany Murphy as Catherine. Take it from one who grew up around this generation of working class Italian- Americans: That woman exists just as Murphy played her and Michael Mayer directed her.

W is for Wright. All was wright with theater this year. Not just Samuel E. Wright, Tony-nominee for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Not just Max Wright, Tony-nominee for Best Featured Actor in a Play. But all those "wrights" of plays who wrote a nifty number of new works. You know the front-runners but let's not forget Jane Anderson for Defying Gravity, Kia Corthron for Seeking the Genesis, and Tina Howe for Pride's Crossing. Cherry Jones got all the ink, but she needed Howe's character to get it.

X is for all those X-rated words all of you flung at me when I listed a five-person panel's opinions on the 100 Greatest Musical Theater Performers of on and off-Broadway. That's all right, friends. If there's one I can't stand, it's a critic who can't be criticized.

Y is for Yasmina Reza, author of Art, for writing a play that finally dealt with the issue that there's no accounting for taste, nor should there be -- that we shouldn't be so hung up on somebody else' opinion as long as we have ours. I do wish, though, Reza had mined one more opportunity. When Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina were all sitting around, fuming, eating olives, and pitching the pits into an ashtray, I would have loved for them to start arguing about the merits of the olives. "These are too salty." "No, they're not." "I agree with him. They are." Et cetera, ad nauseam.

Z is for Karen Ziemba, who, in case you hadn't noticed, all-too-quietly went into Chicago as the new foxy, Roxie Hart. I've got to get by and see her. Don't you?

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