Arts » Performing Arts

Broadway Lives!

Crystal clarity, with a Cherry on top

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Any way you look at it, 2004 ended triumphantly on Broadway. Ringing in the New Year, the Great White Way posted its highest-grossing week ever from December 27 through January 2. Eleven of the 31 shows on Broadway actually sold out for the entire week. That capped a year that saw an all-time high in gross receipts and a healthy 2.2 percent boost in attendance. The roster of current shows on Broadway is solid — financially and qualitatively. Where's the beef? August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, starring Phylicia Rashad, is clearly the playwright's most visionary drama to date, the cornerstone of his epic 10-play journey across 20th Century America.

In its second go-round on Broadway, Pacific Overtures can lay claim to being the most ambitious effort in Stephen Sondheim's cerebral oeuvre. And if Michael Frayn's Democracy doesn't quite have the freshness and éclat of Copenhagen, it certainly boasts the same intellectual and historical heft.

Still, the dyspeptic posse of Broadway theater critics has found numerous reasons to grouse. Dramas like Gem of the Ocean are so expensive to bring to Broadway, wails the New York Times, that August almost didn't get there in December. Others bemoan this season's failure to hatch a new blockbuster hit of Wicked proportions.

Tough crowd. You can complain that most of the crop are one-person shows, revivals or Brit imports, but with eight non-musicals on Broadway for the holidays, we can leave the species off the endangered list. Ironically, the strongest new American drama on the scene, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, may not be able to wrest this season's Tony Award from Gem of the Ocean because there may not be a vacant Broadway-sized theater in time to qualify for the prize.

Meanwhile, the show is running at Manhattan Theatre Club through January 30, and you can't get a ticket. Dearly departed Michael Bush is credited as the director of artistic production for the Shanley smash, proving conclusively that there is life after Rep.

Or to quote the old Arabian proverb, courtesy of Mr. Bush: "The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on."

During my recent 12-day holiday in New York, I managed to take in 14 shows: seven new Broadway productions, five off-Broadway offerings and two operas. Here are my reviews (on a four-star scale) of the cream of the crop — and ratings of the rest. Complete reviews of all I saw are available online, along with some ticket-buying tips.

Broadway

700 Sundays () — To say that Billy Crystal has become this season's Hugh Jackman is something of an understatement. Crystal is likely to follow in the screen Wolverine's paw-steps and devour a Tony Award in his Broadway debut — while succeeding Jackman at the podium hosting the ceremonies in June. But Mr. Mahvelous's one-man show, chronicling his Long Island childhood with a heartfelt personal tribute to his dad, is currently bringing in more cash per performance than Boy from Oz did a year ago — with 27 fewer actors on payroll.

Crystal gazers will no doubt recognize a shard or two from the comedian's stand-up. Some of us may have ferried through his birth canal before. We've likely heard how Billy's worship of Mickey Mantle inspired him to perform his bar mitzvah rites in an Oklahoma drawl.

But I'd never known that Crystal had been to his first movie theater in the lap of jazz legend Billie Holiday — or that his father had the guts to record Lady Day's "Strange Fruit" for the first time on his Commodore Records label. With the assistance of Alan Zweibel, Crystal skillfully interlaces heartfelt reminiscence with his trusty one-liners, weaving a narrative that is both fascinating and nostalgic.

We seem to be visiting with Crystal on his front porch. The intimacy is further heightened when the front windows disappear and scrapbook memorabilia — or 8mm-film footage shot by his dad — are projected on the screen.

After intermission, Crystal lingers on his father's death just long enough for it to continue resonating. He masters long-form narration rather impressively, easing rather than rushing into his chronological presentation, planting little signposts along the way in Act 1 that he deftly references in Act 2.

We're reminded that he learned to hit the curveball from his dad. We revisit Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series shortly after 9/11 — this time in the VIP box — where Crystal has the opportunity to lampoon fellow guests Henry Kissinger and President Bush.

And he makes his second fantasy journey to confront God, a segment so powerful that many in our audience presumed it was the finale. Des McAnuff's direction is lightly but inconsistently stylized, leaving us with a couple of stagey moments, but Crystal's spell prevails.

1/2 — La Cage aux Folles, Gem of the Ocean

1/4 — Democracy

— Pacific Overtures, Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance

1/2 — 'Night, Mother

Off-Broadway

Doubt () — Cherry Jones is Sister Aloysius and Brian O'Byrne is Father Flynn in a classic struggle at a Catholic school between the Sister's dogmatic conviction and the Father's progressive compassion. Or is that compassion a smokescreen for child molestation? With priestly hanky-panky so much in the headlines these days, we're apt to jump on board the bandwagon with the Sister's suspicions even before there are solid facts powering it forward.

We're back in 1964, the early days of Pope Paul VI's reformist papacy — when women's powers as decision-makers are still nil. But it's Father Flynn who seems most transported by crusading zeal, reaching out to the first African-American to enroll at St. Nicholas school in the Bronx. In her nun's habit, Jones's zeal is prosecutorial. Her steely Aloysius presides in the principal's office more like a bird of prey than a mother hen, instantly elevating suspicion of Father Flynn to certainty.

To gather damning evidence against Flynn, Aloysius enlists Sister James. Still enraptured by her commitment to Christ, the young idealist finds the inquisition unsavory. Sister James is charmed and counseled by Flynn, a man who's more prone to see the virtues of remaining in doubt.

Additional surprises tighten the tension when the allegedly molested boy's mother is summoned for a conference in Sister's office — and we get our first scary inkling that the dogmatic Aloysius is no stranger to political and moral compromise. All of the cast is superb as this taut drama careens to its haunting denouement. But Jones is clearly the standout in one of the first great theater roles of the new century.

3/4 — Bug

3/4 — Lone Star Love

— Newsical

1/2 — White Chocolate

Opera

1/2 — Kát'a Kabanová

— Tales of Hoffman

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