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A&E: A&E road trip: A batch of Broadway

May 19, 2008

Heading to New York on business or pleasure? Here are four new shows from the current theater season-three on Broadway and one off-Broadway-worth catching.

While "South Pacific" may seem like a staple show out here in the Heartland, the new production at Lincoln Center is its first B r o a d wa y a p p e a r a n c e since it debuted in 1949.

And a glorious production it is, offering breathtaking set design, lighting both subtle and stunning, an unheard-of-these-days, 30-piece orchestra, and performances that treat the show less like a museum piece and more like an honest, urgent, deeply felt character study. With great songs, of course.

While there's a lot to love here, for me the production is just shy of the landmark it could be. The reason: the performance of Kelli O'Hara as cock-eyed optimist Nellie Forbush. In previous productions I've seen, she's played as a spunky, All-American gal. Here, O'Hara gives a solid, consistent, rock-solid believable portrayal ... of a cautious woman who you'd expect to see at a Little Rock garden party on the ladies' tee at the right country club. When Paulo Szot, as Emile de Becque, recounts "Some Enchanted Evening" and laments that "This Nearly Was Mine" with strength, self-awareness, charm and (let's not underestimate) vocal power, he seemed to be selling himself short. After all, a whole gaggle of other nurses seemed more worthy of his attention than Nellie.

Still, when the Seabees come over the sand dunes and the glorious orchestra kicks in with the opening bars of "There is Nothing Like a Dame," the case is remade for the magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein's show. Even if you know it backward and forward.

Tony prospects: Expect a major battle between "South Pacific" and the Patti LuPone "Gypsy" juggernaut in revival categories.

Think Broadway lacks subtlety? Check out "A Catered Affair," the new musical adaptation of the kitchen-sink drama from the 1950s.

"Affair" tells of a struggling blue-collar couple who recently lost a son in the war. Their practical daughter, soon to be married, insists on a low-key family wedding, but that doesn't sit well with Mom, who is driven to throw a bash with her son's death-benefit check. Dad, who has planned on using the check to finally buy a cab, suffers largely in silence.

With no dancing, few laugh lines, gimmick-free design and a score whose songs sneak in and out of the script without much fanfare, "A Catered Affair" is a Broadway anomaly: A musical that doesn't seem to beg for attention.

In "A Catered Affair," the music isn't the raison d'etre. Instead, it accents a small, deeply felt story of real people facing real issues. And the performances of Tom Wopat, Faith Prince, and Leslie Kritzer are delicate, detailed and wouldn't be out of place in an Arthur Miller play.

The cast member most familiar to audiences is Harvey Fierstein, who both wrote the script and plays the family's live-in relative. In the film, the character was a drunken uncle prone to embarrassing confrontations. Here, in an expanded and reconsidered role, Uncle Winston is gay, which gives more weight to his outsider status.

Problem is, it's difficult for one person to encompass obnoxious id, self-righteous outsider, voice of reason and social conscience.

Even with such contradictions, "A Catered Affair" is a powerful two-hankie show that should have long life in regional productions.

Tony prospects: Snubbed in the Best Musical and Best Score categories, "Affair" will also likely miss out on worthy awards for nominated performers Prince and Wopat.

"Cry-Baby" is unlikely to be any visitor's first choice on Broadway. However, it's the ideal "second" show to see on a trip to the city. With no ambition besides entertainment and big laughs, "Cry-Baby" is a kick from beginning to end. The overture even gets guffaws, which is saying something.

The plot involves, well, just imagine that a wise producer threw the "Grease" and "All Shook Up" scripts onto the table of the creative team (including former "Daily Show" head writer David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne band member Adam Schlesinger) with orders to "Do something like this, only make it a) rock and b) really, really funny.

Worked into the smile-inducing mix: A prison dance sequence with license plates instead of taps; an unforgettable "kissing with tongues" song; a Molly Shannon-like obsessed fan who belts a Patsy Cline homage called "Screw Loose"; and just enough of the subversiveness of the John Waters sensibility (it's based on his film) mixed with just enough show biz pizazz.

Oh, and what's the last show you can think of that had not one, but five, very funny-and distinct-supporting female roles?

Truth is, I'd see "Cry-Baby" again in a heartbeat and can't wait for the original cast recording.

Tony prospects: I was surprised-and thrilled-to see it land nominations for Best Musical and Best Score. No real chance, but the noms and TV exposure can only help the show's future. It has a shot at Best Choreography, although it's up against the roller skating of the equally silly "Xanadu."

If you like to mix mind-blowing spectacle in with your more traditional offerings-then let me suggest a visit to off-Broadway's "Fuerzabruta," housed in the shell of a former bank on Union Square.

At the onset, the crowd is invited into an open space-there are no seats. A giant conveyor belt is pushed out into the center, a tormented man starts running at top speed (despite being shot and having to burst through walls that come speeding at him) and we're off for an hour of non-stop wow. Performers run high above, perpendicular to an undulating curtain. There's aggressive, pulse-pounding dance, Styrofoam squares broken over heads, and a massive spinning disc that falls apart as two people on opposite sides try, harrowingly, to get to each other.

Oh, and in case you've ever wondered what it was like to be under a slip-and-slide, you can experience it when a clear Mylar pool that lowers from the ceiling just above the heads of the crowd, is sprayed with water, and cast members joyously glide around in it.

There's no dialogue, but there is something of an emotional through-line (I think) about the piecing together of life's challenges before embracing what comes next.

In short: a cathartic, amazing, and surprising experience ... although it did take a day or two for my neck to recover from the craning.
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