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New York, New York: Part 2

Reinventing the musical

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With Christmas and New Year's Eve both embraced in the final week of 2006 -- an embrace warmed by El Niño -- Broadway producers jubilantly rang in 2007 with the highest grossing week in history, raking in $29.1 million at the box office. Attendance for the week ending Dec. 31 also set a new mark at 314,310.

Yes, that's an average ticket price of more than $92.50.

Not a bad argument for mixing some Off-Broadway fiber into your theater diet. Here's another: Three of the ballyhooed shows I saw on Broadway this season -- two of them musicals -- had their beginnings Off-Broadway last season.

Broadway hasn't been turned upside down yet, but there are signs of a paradigm shift. True, the Disney machinery keeps cranking out its family-friendly comfort food, almost impervious to Gotham's feral critics. British imports still have a place at the banquet. And if you've never seen Les Miz or A Chorus Line, the current revivals are virtual clones of the originals, according to all reports.

Adventurous theatergoers, however, can find exotic tastes to savor. At Spring Awakening, you can sit onstage with the actors and musicians if you're willing to surrender your coat in the lobby and wait 'til after the show for your playbill. Grey Gardens follows the familiar formula of musicalizing a motion picture -- this time with a slight twist: Here the inspiration is a 1975 documentary.

Stranger still might be the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which obliterates the dividing line between the actors and musicians. Nor is there a shortage of curiosities Off-Broadway. In The Big Voice, we watch the ultimate in cost-cutting maneuvers. Composer and lyricist perform their own script and songs, telling us the story of their own relationship.

For sheer zaniness, Evil Dead The Musical has moved to the vanguard with the invention of the Splatter Zone. If you sit in the first three rows at this cheesy adaptation of the 1981 gorefest, you'll be showered with the nectar of the grisly technical effects -- stage blood gushing into the audience from walls, scalps and the occasional severed limb. With the genially sacrilegious Altar Boyz and the no-explanation-needed Naked Boys Singing under the same roof, New World Stages has certainly done its share to push the boundary lines in reinventing the musical for a new generation. While redefining the Off-Broadway experience.

Last week in "New York, New York: Part 1," I gave you a peek at the current season at the Met Opera and Carnegie Hall. Now in Part 2, we hopscotch the Theatre District, Greenwich Village and SoHo for the 11 new shows I saw between Dec. 16 and Jan. 1.

Here's my scorecard:

Broadway

Company (**** out of 4) -- If you've pigeonholed Stephen Sondheim's musicals as unremittingly clever and cerebral, this impassioned revival will be a revelation. Raul Esparza is utterly, urgently adorable as Robert, the central character who finds himself reaching his 35th birthday unattached and still scared by the pitfalls of commitment.

Esparza doesn't actually sit down to the keyboard until late in the evening. By that time, we're so accustomed to the multi-instrumental exploits of his fellow cast/band members that picking up a trumpet or a clarinet or a violin in the midst of a dramatic scene doesn't seem any less natural than breaking into song.

But singing is what Esparza does best, and Barbara Walsh matches him in bravura as his would-be seductress, Joanne. Her icy disillusionment balances perfectly against his hard-won affirmation -- sparks it, actually. So at the end of Bobby's odyssey toward openness, Walsh's showstopping rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" followed by Esparza's "Being Alive" make a 1-2 punch whose knockout force I've never encountered before.

Sondheim has deconstructed the happily-ever-after storyline elsewhere. But no musical explores Robert's dilemma -- "What do you want to get married for?" -- more deeply, relevantly or memorably.

Spring Awakening (***3/4) -- The hottest Off-Broadway transplant of the season takes as its source an 1891 Franz Wedekind drama that dealt with teens discovering their sexuality without a shred of knowledge from their teachers or preparation from their Teutonic parents. Layered onto this quaint, excavated tragedy is a rocking song list that gives no quarter to the repressions of the bygone century, rawer and more defiantly punkish than any score that has hit Broadway before.

"The Bitch of Living" and "Totally Fucked" are two of the song titles by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik if you're trying to gauge Spring Awakening's shock voltage. Yet there is also beautifully poisonous poetry amid the hormonal riot as Wendla and Melchior fall for each other. "O, I'm gonna be wounded," they sing. "O, I'm gonna be your wound."

As good as Lea Michele and Jonathan Grofe are as the lead lovebirds, even they're upstaged by manic antics of John Gallagher, Jr., as Moritz, the school's eraser-headed misfit. Bill T. Jones's outré choreography tops off this riveting spectacle.

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