Theatre Year in Preview: Playbill.com Looks Ahead to the New Year on Broadway

Theatre Year in Preview: Playbill.com Looks Ahead to the New Year on Broadway Summer and fall are behind us, but the winter and spring roll up to the Tony Awards nominations remains.
From Top: Bridge and Tunnel; The Two and Only; Ring of Fire; Lestat.
From Top: Bridge and Tunnel; The Two and Only; Ring of Fire; Lestat.

***

Last summer was basically a bust. And, apart from the critical and/or popular successes of Sweeney Todd and Jersey Boys (and, to a lesser extent A Touch of the Poet), the autumn was a disappointment. But hope springs eternal on Broadway, and so does spring. The four-month bobsled ride down to the 2006 Tony Award nominations begins with a long-promised solo show. Sarah Jones' Bridge & Tunnel was acclaimed during a 2004 Off-Broadway run, and produced, in an unusual professional cameo, by Meryl Streep. Its Broadway prospects have been chirped about ever since, and, beginning Jan. 12, they will be realized at the Helen Hayes. Jones, who plays everything from a Pakistani accountant to a Chinese mother to a young Latina in the piece, will follow in the footsteps of such chameleon-like talents as John Leguizamo.

The only other solo show solidly scheduled for the coming months isn't quite—as the title Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! would indicate. The act—like Bridge, a hit Off-Broadway—sees longtime ventriloquist Jay Johnson mixing his personal story with the history of his craft. You think The Lion King and Avenue Q know puppets? This show will show you where it all began. Johnson will follow Jones' limited run into the Helen Hayes—Broadway's official home of solo artists during the 2005-06 season.

Hoping to capitalize on the sudden reversal of fortune for the so-called Jukebox Musical, ushered in by the hugely popular Four Seasons show Jersey Boys, the producers of the new Johnny Cash vehicle Ring of Fire will premiere their work at the Barrymore Theatre Feb. 8. Like Jersey Boys, the show comes to town followed by good word of mouth. Richard Maltby Jr. directed the project at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo last fall. It is described as more of a revue, which uses Cash's oeuvre to suggest the man's musical and emotional world, rather than literally tell his story.

Otherwise, the winter and spring crop of new musicals is a decided diverse lot, to put it mildly. Lestat, the Elton John and Bernie Taupin musical based on the apparently deathless Anne Rice vampire novels, promises to be quite different from either John's previous Disney musicals, or Billy Elliot, the smash hit currently triumphing in London. It is directed by Robert Jess Roth, the first (and later replaced) director of John's Aida, and boasts a book from original Aida librettist Linda Woolverton. The San Francisco tryout, currently going on, hit a bump early on, replacing one of the stars, Jack Noseworthy. The show opens at the Palace on April 13, the third Vampire-related musical to bow on Broadway in less than four years. Sir Elton's sometime employer, Disney, will also have a new muscial on Broadway—its first since Aida. That is Tarzan, which like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King before it, is based on an existing Disney animated film. Phil Collins will provide the score, his first for the stage. The show is also a first for designer Bob Crowley, who here takes on directing duties in addition to the scenic and costume design. The preview period begins March 24 for an opening on May 10.

The Wedding Singer, meanwhile, is the first major project shepherded into Broadway by producer Margo Lion since she hit the big time with Hairspray. The new project shares some things with the former. It is adapted from a well-known movie, was written by a largely unsung composing team (bookwriter Tim Herlihy, bookwriter-lyricist Chad Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar), is directed by an experienced industry hand (John Rando) and, at its center, rests an unorthodox piece of casting: singer and comedian Stephen Lynch as the title character. Previews beginning in spring at the Hirschfeld will illustrate if the formula can work twice.

In revival land, Broadway will take another look at Adler and Ross' The Pajama Game and Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera. The former is directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, a musical purist who shies away from imposing her vision on an established show. The latter is directed by Scott Elliott, the New Group chief, who has no such qualms about fidelity to tradition, and always leaves a personal stamp (for better or worse) on his productions. Both shows have one thing in common. Pajama Game (beginning Jan. 27) stars Harry Connick, Jr., who, while an experienced film actor, made his name as a jazz musician and crooner. Threepenny (beginning March 24) will star not one, but two recording artists: "She-Bop" '80s wonder girl Cyndi Lauper and sui generis, just-out-of-her-teens, singer-songwriter marvel Nellie McKay.

Playwright Richard Greenberg stumbled a bit last fall with his critically dismissed A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, but no doubt he'll savor victory again this spring with the revival of Three Days of Rain starring none other than Julia Roberts. At least commercial victory, anyway, as the show is sure to sell out, Odd Couple-style. Joe Mantello will direct the three-hander, which begins March 28 at the Jacobs.

Three other major play revivals cross the boards. Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park will be the second Broadway assignment this season for both director Scott Elliott and actress Jill Clayburgh. It also marks a return to the theatre for Hollywood golden boy Patrick Wilson, who steps into Robert Redford's shoes here. Previews at the Cort begin Jan. 12. Starting March 23 at the Belasco, Lincoln Center Theater and director Barlett Sher offer the only Odets production to grace Broadway during the centennial of the playwright's birth. Ben Gazzara and Zoe Wanamaker will star. Finally, "Friends" star David Schwimmer will make his Broadway debut in the upcoming revival of Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, beginning April 14. Jerry Zaks will direct.

New plays haven't done as well with critics this season as they did in the last (what with Doubt and The Pillowman). Perhaps set to change that will be Rabbit Hole, the Broadway debut by Manhattan Theatre Club-championed playwright David Lindsay Abaire. The piece, about a couple whose life is shattered by an accident, is supposed to be darker and more dramatic than previous Lindsay-Abaire comedies. Star Cynthia Nixon won't hurt in bringing the venture added attention. Previews begin at the Biltmore Jan. 12.

MTC will also use the Biltmore to present Conor McPherson's Shining City, about a guilt-ridden man who visits a therapist after seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife. Oliver Platt stars and Robert Falls directs. Previews begin April 13. Beginning its run a month earlier, on March 10 at the Longacre, is the Broadway rebirth of one of the most praised Off-Broadway plays of recent years, Lisa Kron's Well. The show is the latest attempt to infuse Broadway with searching drama by brave producer Elizabeth McCann (The Goat, Virginia Woolf). The drama comedy, difficult to categorize, sees Kron (who often performs solo) expounding on the subjects of family and emotional and mental wellness. But the play, like her past life, gets away from her as actors rebel against her leadership and her infuriating, yet likable mother keeps stealing center stage. Kron and Jayne Houdyshell will repeat their Off-Broadway work.

Finally, what's a Broadway spring without a dose of British theatre? Alan Bennett's Olivier Award-winning The History Boys will begin previews on at the Broadhurst April 14. Its the latest National Theatre transfer from the Jumpers, Democracy and The Pillowman duo, producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber, and their most English offering by far. It concerns a bunch of sixth-form boys at university, a few of their teachers and the headmistress. Sounds like a good episode of "Masterpiece Theatre," but Bennett has a habit of confounding odds and entertaining audiences of all stripes, regardless of the seeming narrowness of his material. It is, by the way, Bennett's first Broadway play in 30 years. Nicholas Hytner directs.

Other shows have been hinted for a Broadway berth, including the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, Martin Short's solo show, and a revival of the World War I drama Journey's End. Whether they make the cut will have to wait until the journey's end of season 2005-06.