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Broadway brings the heat

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Triple digit heat waves in Manhattan may slow down the tourists scrambling to cram in a dinner and a show — or locals simply panting to exit the Times Square subway station. But they haven't dampened enthusiasm along the Great White Way. Three of the musicals headed for Charlotte in the PAC's 2010-11 Broadway Lights season — Billy Elliot (opening on Jan. 12), In the Heights (Feb. 15), and Next to Normal (July 12) — are still going strong in Gotham.

We squeezed four musicals into a recent three-day pilgrimage to the theater district, including two productions, Million Dollar Quartet and La Cage aux Folles, that hadn't seen the light of day — or the chill of night — when we last visited in January. We also managed to catch up with Billy Elliot at its 703rd performance, so I can assure you that Elton John's latest is the best new musical I've seen on Broadway since Spring Awakening adorned the 2007-08 season.

Here's the lowdown:

Billy Elliot: The Musical (***3/4 out of 4): Set against the backdrop of the agonizing 1984 coal miner strike in Northeast England during the dreary Thatcher Era, Billy is a lad who discovers the ballet — and an amazing aptitude for it — when he lingers overlong after a boxing class. His hardhat dad, whose 50p for boxing lessons has been rechanneled to the gracious hands of ballet mistress Mrs. Wilkinson, is outraged.

Billy's mum is dead, and we sense that dad's staunch opposition might be softened if she were alive. Elder brother Tony is the more formidable obstacle, virulently homophobic in his prejudices, although his brother is straight. When Billy earns the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet School, Tony is deeply ashamed. And where's the money going to come from to send him there? But all the Elliots are keenly aware that their way of life is imperiled. When union workers go on strike, there's plenty of time for reflection.

Naturally, the story is a beautiful bouquet to dance and an affirmation of the primacy of the arts. But there's also a paean to pursuing your dreams that universalizes Billy's struggle, and there's a working-class nobility to Wilkinson's crusade to help Billy escape the town and the life where she is trapped. Kate Hennig brings a Thatcher-like steeliness and pugnacity to Wilkinson that steers us far from sentimentality, and Tony Award winner Gregory Jbara has returned to the role of Dad, proving himself worthy of the prize in a richly nuanced performance.

More than any movie can be, the musical productions and tours of Billy Elliot are mind-boggling affirmations of youth and talent. Three young actors shared the 2009 Tony Award for the title role, and five altogether different boys were listed on the night we attended. Of course, all the ballerinas in supporting roles are expected to be better drilled than a grimly realistic film, and they are.

Although one might argue that colorblind casting undermines the impression that the elder Elliots are ignorant and prejudiced, I was glad that I saw African American Liam Redhead in the role, just to show how well it works. Redhead is pure grace and joy, and his presence only throws Jbara's excellence — and the seething Jeff Kready's fine Tony Elliot — into stronger relief.

Sir Elton's music, especially the miners' anthems, triumphantly overachieves. If you've already decided, on the basis of last year's Tony Awards telecast, that "Angry Dance" is Billy's pre-eminent showstopper, the climactic "Electricity" may catch you by surprise.

Million Dollar Quartet (***1/4) — Yes, boys and bobbysoxers, it's true that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins were together at the Sun Records studio in Memphis on December 4, 1956. It's also true that Sun producer Sam Phillips had the presence of mind to roll the tape and preserve the impromptu jam session.

There was a bit of legend built into the original CD release of the tape back in 1990, long after The King had died. Though Johnny Cash appears on the album cover of Million Dollar Quartet and the subsequent Complete Million Dollar Quartet, neither his voice nor his guitar is captured on mic — if he even participated. As for the music on these albums, it is a treasurable document but hardly a musical treasure.

Enter writer/director Floyd Mutrux, who had the concept that the first great summit meeting in rock history could be a musical, and writer/rock historian Colin Escott, who helped Mutrux in gathering together enough scraps of history to make the preposterous story line of Million Dollar Quartet seem totally authentic to anyone who knows absolutely nothing about the 50s or the beginnings of rock 'n' roll.

Historians may wince at all the shiftin' and fabricatin', but rock enthusiasts will revel in all the shakin' that's going on at the Nederlander Theatre. Levi Krauss plays hardly more than a supporting role as Jerry Lee Lewis — fittingly, because Lewis was merely Perkins' pianist at the Million Dollar session — but he steals the show with The Killer's mic straddling, stool kicking, elbow-and-foot keyboard pounding antics. We are kept waiting until we hear the monster hits, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." But those iconic rockers are bonuses, never performed at the actual Million Dollar session, and thanks to Mutrux and Escott, Krauss portrays a Jerry Lee transformed into a comically lascivious egotist — with a stray mention of his notorious backwoods escapades — before he breaks loose.

Lance Guest sounds almost spookily like Johnny Cash, with long low notes to die for, best sampled on "I Walk the Line" and "Sixteen Tons." Robert Britton Lyons has the liberty of doing almost anything and convincing almost anybody that he's Carl Perkins in the flesh, but he picks guitar handsomely all evening long, solos capably on "Matchbox," and aims most of his resentment at the upstart Jerry Lee — though it was Elvis who stole his "Blue Suede Shoes."

I may be shortchanging Quartet with my rating because understudy Erik Hayden took over for Eddie Clendening on the night Sue and I attended. Or maybe not: I had a peep at Clendening on the Tony Awards broadcast and didn't exactly go insane. Hayden had The King's moves down pat, indicative of meticulous stage direction from Eric Schaeffer, and if he doesn't have Elvis's high notes or his silky midrange, his "That's All Right" was right in the pocket.

Sue, a reliable barometer in these matters, was as aglow as I've seen her since we exited Jersey Boys a year ago. All isn't testosterone, however. The writers have contrived to insert Elizabeth Stanley into the plot as Dyanne. Stanley serves as a fine adornment for Elvis as he drops by on ole pal Sam outfitted with a lady friend, sings "Fever" less coolly than Peggy Lee, and is a fitting object for Jerry Lee to drool over. Hunter Foster (Sutton's brother) isn't nearly as Southern in his eccentricity as Sam Phillips as Chad Kimball is as the hero of Memphis, but we take to him as his bittersweet fate earns our sympathy.

Fela! (***) — By all rights, the exotic freedom-loving core of this show should make it tower over the likes of Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet. For here we have the music and crusading spirit of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian inventor of Afro-beat and the rebellious founder of the MOP (Movement of the People) party in opposition to the corrupt military government of his homeland. At the peak of his popularity and notoriety in 1977, his Kalakuta compound was attacked by 1,000 Nigerian soldiers and his 82-year-old mother was thrown from an upstairs window to her death.

But director/choreographer Bill T. Jones wasn't sold on the idea of having even a flimsy book, a la Million Dollar Quartet, to tell the story of his hero, let alone a fully fleshed-out storyline like we get in Memphis. Instead, Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis take us to Fela's final concert at his Shrine Club in Lagos, six months after his mother's death. While the walls of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre are festooned with simulations, artifacts, and AV projections that evoke the tumultuous ambiance of Nigeria's capital, emphasis onstage is shifted radically to recreating the experience of attending one of Fela's charismatically defiant late-night concerts.

No wonder, then, that audience reaction will be wildly polarized. If you're intrigued by a fine Afro-beat concert lightly spiced by hints of a stirring saga of brave activism — and some confused wisps of story that you'll need to research later — Fela! may indeed strike you as excitingly new. On the other hand, if you were looking for something more conventional in a musical — like a linear story — you might be disappointed by Fela! in the wake of all the rabid enthusiasm it has aroused, and if Afro-beat doesn't grab your fancy, you might walk out.

I'm convinced that the raid on the Kalakuta compound would have made an unforgettable Act 1 finale, with the comeback concert at the Shrine serving as a life-affirming climax to Act 2. Yes, that first act curtain would have exposed Lewis and Jones to Fela on the Roof quips, but the ultimate product would have packed more muscle and protein.

Taken for what it is, Fela! is a rather colorful entertainment, enlivened by striking costumes and rousing dance. We saw Kevin Mambo in the title role, a fine handsome actor who makes Fela something of a black Elvis in his eye-popping jumpsuits, but I suspect that Sahr Ngaujah delivers a more primal experience. So I counted myself somewhat unlucky since even Stephen Hendel, one of the show's producers, couldn't predict which of his two stars I would see when I spoke to him a week earlier.

Lilias White is perpetually the ghost of Fummilayo Kuti, Fela's mother. I pitied the poor woman in her spectral role, repeatedly striding across the upstage parapet like a mummified mommy, allowed only fleetingly to be human. Jones has trapped White in a dream mode, without an opportunity to even dance her way out. She sings magnificently but never to an infectious pulse.

La Cage aux Folles (**3/4) — My taste in La Cage productions obviously differs from that of the New York press corps. They basically drummed the 2004 revival starring Gary Beach out of town, reviling the star's performance — and the production — for being gaudy and bland. Beach breathed fire two weeks after the pans came out, leaving me shaken after his stirring rendition of the anthemic "I Am What I Am," and I found nearly everything about Jerry Zaks direction powerful and pertinent, whether the show was thrusting dramatically or satirically.

Yet now the Gotham critics are raving about this comparatively toothless revival at the Longacre Theatre. Directing this downsized English import, director Terry Johnson takes us back to the familiar St. Tropez nightclub we remember from stage and film, only now it has gone to seed, an interesting premise with promise.

Unfortunately, Johnson seems to believe that Harvey Fierstein's book is pure farce and homophobia can now be laughed away as an extinct fossil. Dindon, the prospective in-law who threatens the domestic tranquility of the Georges-Albin household with his retro political plank, is played by Fred Applegate as a blustering buffoon. As for Les Cagelles, the crossdressing chorus line who welcome us to the risqué nightclub milieu, they have been largely deflowered of their former grace, and Arnold Schwarzenegger bodybuilding poses have been sprinkled into their choreography. Sacré bleu?! Not anymore.

On the other hand, Douglas Hodge is a wondrous Albin: delicate, flamboyant, and incurably effeminate. He and Robin De Jesus as the aspiring waiter/cook Jacob are the pair most worth watching if you surrender to the farcical tone of this production. The shame is that there is no chemistry established between Hodge and our current Georges, and Johnson has their son Jean-Michel shunning Albin like a leper until the denouement.

The reconciliation isn't convincing, let alone moving, as A. J. Shively takes the dubious prize for the most despicable Jean-Michel I've seen, while Chris Hoch, for all his mustached suavity, is surely the coolest, most clueless Georges in Broadway history. Kelsey Grammer, of Frazier fame, normally plays the role. He may add some of the warmth this Cage desperately needs.

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