Broadway bound - Strindberg, Ibsen, Webber and $100 tickets

Friday, September 7, 2001

NEW YORK -- Ibsen and Strindberg are the hot playwrights. Andrew Lloyd Webber returns -- with a modest little musical. And the $100 ticket is not just for "The Producers" anymore. Welcome to fall 2001 on Broadway.

Looking ahead to what audiences want to see, though, starts with "Mamma Mia!" The London musical behemoth, featuring nearly two dozen old songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA, already has a $25 million advance. And the show doesn't open at the Winter Garden Theatre (which previously housed another big deal called "Cats") until Oct. 18.

"You mean I can't get two good seats together even in March," proclaimed an irate would-be theatergoer at the Winter Garden box-office one summer evening just before Labor Day.

She would have trouble elsewhere, too. Besides London, where the show began its third year last April, the musical has a touring edition currently in Boston, another company has been playing in Toronto since May 2000 and an Australian company opened in Melbourne in June. All are doing boffo business. Price hasn't been a deterrent, even in New York.

"Mamma Mia!" joins "The Producers" as the most expensive tickets on Broadway. Its top ticket for all evening and Saturday matinees is $98.75 plus a $1.25 "facilities fee." "The Producers," which raised its prices the day the rave reviews came out last April, charges $99 plus a $1 theater-restoration fee. Either way it's $100 -- or more, if tickets are purchased through Telecharge.

'Mamma Mia!'

"Mamma Mia!" concerns a young woman living on a Greek island with her unmarried mother. The daughter is engaged and wants to know who her father is. The possibilities are three of the mother's ex-lovers. The title song is a natural, and such hits as "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All," "Super Trouper" and even "Chiquitita" are plugged into the plot.

Revivals of plays by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg also are attracting buzz. These two long-deceased playwrights are not exactly known on Broadway for setting off a rush to the box office, although Ibsen's "A Doll's House" did well a few seasons back with Janet McTeer as the defiant Nora.

Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" was cheered at Boston's nonprofit Huntington Theatre last season, apparently elevating actress Kate Burton to the star status she has long deserved. Burton portrays the trapped title character in Ibsen's psychological drama due Oct. 4 at the Ambassador. The heavy-duty goings-on are supervised by the Huntington's artistic director Nicholas Martin, and playwright Jon Robin Baitz, author of "The Substance of Fire," has provided the adaptation.

The Strindberg is "Dance of Death," the Swedish playwright's lacerating take on a most caustic married couple. The attraction for theatergoers today? Its two stars, Ian McKellen, in his showiest role since "Amadeus," and Helen Mirren, the intrepid "Prime Suspect" detective on PBS. The adaptation is by Richard Greenberg, who will be represented later in the season off-Broadway by his own play, "Richard Beekin." The director is Sean Mathias, who worked wonders on "Indiscretions" a few seasons back. The opening: Oct. 11 at the Broadhurst Theatre.

'Noises Off' returns

"Noises Off," by British playwright Michael Frayn, was a giddy delight when first done on Broadway in 1984. There's no reason to expect the laughs have diminished 17 years later, especially when the revival cast is headed by Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Richard Easton (Tony winner in June for "The Invention of Love") and Faith Prince.

The plot concerns the hapless off-and-on stage antics of a desperate touring troupe. The new production, directed by Jeremy Sams, originated at London's Royal National Theatre. The laughter commences Nov. 1 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

The fall's last major revival is "The Women," Clare Booth Luce's tale of female friends and enemies. The movie was a catty classic; let's hope this new look at the stage version, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and directed by Scott Elliott, keeps those claws sharpened.

Cynthia Nixon, of television's "Sex and the City," portrays Mary, the sweet, cheated-upon wife. Others in the cast include Jennifer Tilly as bad girl Crystal (a role that did wonders for Joan Crawford's movie career) and Kristen Johnston as the tart-tongued Sylvia. The fur (mostly mink, we hope, and designed by fashion gadfly Isaac Mizrahi) will fly Nov. 8 at the American Airlines-Selwyn Theatre.

New plays will be meager before Christmas. So far, only two appear to be sure bets. What would Broadway do without Neil Simon? His latest -- "45 Seconds From Broadway" -- takes place in a restaurant near Times Square. It's an establishment filled with theatrical types, and among the performers providing the atmosphere are Lewis J. Stadlen, Marian Seldes and Joan Copeland. The comedy premieres Nov. 11 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Getting a brief airing this fall at Lincoln Center will be "QED," a two-character play by Peter Parnell about physicist Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner who had a hand in developing the atom bomb. Alan Alda stars as Feynman. The play has an odd performance schedule, running Sunday and Monday nights only at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where "Contact" still plays the other nights of the week. The opening is set for Oct. 22, for a limited run through Dec. 17.

"By Jeeves" is not your usual Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. No felines, roller-skating railroad trains, crashing chandeliers or South American dictators in sight. It's based on P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories and has been adapted by playwright Alan Ayckbourn who also wrote the lyrics. The musical is a small-scale show -- set in a church hall, no less -- and showcases two of Wodehouse's most enduring creations, that upper-crust British twit Bertie Wooster and his faithful manservant Jeeves.

An earlier version called "Jeeves," starring David Hemmings, flopped in London's West End in the 1970s. The revised musical was done in London in 1996 and later played the Goodspeed Opera House's small theater in Chester, Conn., Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. The curtain for "By Jeeves" rises Oct. 28 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

"Urinetown" is the new musical with the most unlikely title of the year. Don't be put off. A hit off-Broadway last season, the show moves Sept. 13 to the Henry Miller Theatre. The plot? Desperate people have to pay to use the bathroom facilities in this ironic -- and very funny -- satire on corporate greed. The cast includes John Cullum as a dastardly villain (is there any other kind?) and Hunter Foster as the earnest young hero.

Susan Stroman currently has three musicals on Broadway -- "Contact," "The Music Man" and "The Producers." A fourth, "Thou Shalt Not," joins that select group Oct. 25, playing the Plymouth Theatre. The show is based on Emile Zola's novel of adultery and murder -- "Therese Raquin."

The locale is now New Orleans and the time the 1940s. Craig Bierko, Harold Hill in Stroman's "Music Man," and Kate Levering, who tapped her heart out in last season's "42nd Street," play the scheming couple. An even bigger name is the musical's composer and lyricist, Harry Connick Jr., writing his first Broadway score.

The fall's one musical revival is an old show new to Broadway, Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins." First done off-Broadway in 1991, the musical, with a book by John Weidman, looks at some of the men and women who killed or attempted to kill presidents of the United States -- from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald and beyond. Douglas Sills, the swashbuckling star of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," portrays Booth. "Assassins" has set a Nov. 29 opening at the Music Box.

John Leguizamo's last Broadway show, "Freak," earned him and his one-man show best-actor and best-play nominations. Can he do it again with "Sexaholix," which begins performances Oct. 9 at the Royale? No opening date has been set. In it, the performer will explore the history of Latin people or, in his words, "Latinos for Dummies: From Montezuma to Me."

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