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LOU'S VIEWS: A trio of terrific leading ladies in NYC theater

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Lou Harry

This week, an ogre's beloved, a troubled and troubling mother, and a cad's catch highlight a sampling of the current Broadway season.

Yes, the stories you've heard are true. The lights have gone out on much of Broadway. With a long list of shows shutting down, the pickings are slimmer for anyone who goes to New York hoping to catch a big-name show.

Even those braving the cold at the bright, newly redesigned TKTS half-price ticket booth at Duffy Square seemed baffled as to whether to bother with discounted seats to a been-around-forever show such as "Mamma Mia!" or "Chicago." Sure, there's a small list of hot tickets right now—including "Billy Elliot" and Will Farrell's one-man show—but, for most theatergoers, it's hibernation time until the spring brings another crop.

None of which is to say there isn't Broadway pleasure to be had right now. And on my recent three-show trip, those pleasures came largely thanks to a trio of very talented—and very different—actresses.

The first of those leading ladies is the least familiar beyond the boroughs. Yet Sutton Foster has had a remarkable few years, originating leads in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Little Women," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Young Frankenstein" and, now, "Shrek: the Musical."

In the latest, which opened in December at the Broadway Theatre, Foster infuses Princess Fiona with a bipolar lovability, a game goofiness that makes sense for a woman trapped in a tower for most of her life. Sutton's royal knucklehead gamely holds her own, not just against spells and an evil lord, but also against lyrics that seem a few rewrites shy of being ready (they rarely seem to end on the right line).

Remember in the "Shrek" movie when Fiona's high note inadvertently causes a songbird to explode? In the stage version, that moment launches a tour-de-force Act II opener called "Morning Person," with Foster trying to channel her excess a.m. energy first with the aforementioned bird, then with a hapless deer, and finally with a chorus line of rats. The gags are good, but it's Foster's crazed earnestness that makes magic.

There's more to like in "Shrek" beyond Foster. In the title role, Brian D'Arcy James infused the ogre with great warmth and humor, avoiding imitation of Mike Myers, and proving remarkably nimble, given the costuming. And, as Lord Farquaad, the hilarious Christopher Sieber should receive combat pay for performing most of the show, including dance numbers, on his knees.

In the realm of deconstructionist fairy tales, "Shrek" still trails Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," which holds up to repeat viewings and resonates in sometimes very adult ways. In the world of cartoon-to-stage transfers, it takes more creative chances than "Beauty and the Beast" but doesn't have the same quality tunes. And there's no unifying vision to get it near "The Lion King."

But despite its flaws, I'm smiling as I think about it. Sometimes, good-enough material—performed by an outstanding cast—is good enough.

It's so tempting, when visiting NYC, to limit your theatrical options to musicals. But just because straight plays don't get the biggest Times Square billboards, doesn't mean they shouldn't be part of your mix.

Take "The American Plan," Richard Greenberg's drama given an impeccable production by the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has a long history of sniffing out and nurturing outstanding contemporary plays, including "Proof," and "Doubt." You could do a lot worse than simply buying a ticket, sign unseen, to whatever MTC is staging the next time you are in New York. "The American Plan" is MTC's eighth collaboration with Greenberg, whose work you might be familiar with if you frequent the Phoenix Theatre here in Indy, which staged his later work, "Take Me Out," "Eastern Standard" or "Three Days of Rain."

Set in the Catskills in the early 1960s, "The American Plan" concerns a mother and daughter and how pragmatism and fear both protect and limit. It takes some time to get used to Lily Rabe (daughter of actress Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe), whose intensely mannered portrayal of the daughter ends up being sadly right for such an isolated, desperate, troubled soul. But as her mother, Mercedes Ruehl (Academy Award winner for "The Fisher King" and well remembered as the mother in "Big") is compelling from the get-go, while constantly revealing new sides to her character. "How can you take the sadness away from a girl who learned it so early in life?" she asks at one point. That single line may not excuse the mother's behavior, but it helps explain and humanize it.

With two such powerful forces at work, it's a letdown that so much of the second act focuses on the less-interesting men of the play. And while it's bold that such a dark play is largely set in the sun, the intensity of the emotions occasionally seems bleached. Still, there's a special kind of suspense that comes from a well-tuned, well-cast relationship drama.

"Pal Joey" has been filled with mismatched relationships since Gene Kelly played the title role back in 1941.

The story of a heel who holds off the good girl while simultaneously romancing an older woman for her money, "Pal Joey" is one of the earliest Broadway shows that's still a candidate for revival, thanks to its still-relevant characters and strong Rodgers and Hart score (including "I Could Write a Book").

But it needs a star. Or, at least, star quality. Joey Evans, crooner and cavorter, has to be charming enough to convince us that these women could love him despite their better judgment. Unfortunately, Matthew Risch, an able singer, swell dancer, and all-around handsome gent, comes up far shorter than the sum of his parts.

Which makes Stockard Channing's performance all the more remarkable. You know Channing from "The West Wing" and "Grease," but having had the privilege of seeing her on stage in "Joe Egg," "Six Degrees of Separation," and now "Pal Joey," I have no doubt where her true home is. Opposite a blank slate of a leading man (and in front of a fairly chilly matinee crowd), Channing brilliantly painted a riveting picture of a woman trying to maintain her dignity and cynicism while losing herself romantically in a relationship she knows is doomed to fail. Her "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" captured, exquisitely, a woman coming to terms with the end of her love life. If the rest of the show rose to her level, this production would be talked about for years.

As it is now, it's likely to be forgotten by spring.

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