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Business as usual on Broadway. (Dance Theater).

SO WHICH OUTLOOK WILL PREVAIL as this seesaw of a Broadway season comes to a close next month? The corrosive, downbeat mood of Urinetown and Sweet Smell of Success or the perky uplift of Oklahoma! and Thoroughly Modern Millie? The question comes to mind as trumped-up "reality" shows maintain their grip on television networks and explosion-happy action pictures march unabated into movie theaters. It's hard to see any evidence that September 11 has had any long-lasting impact on the American public's entertainment preferences.

In financial terms, of course, Broadway has suffered substantial losses from the ensuing plunge in tourism--according to the trade weekly Variety, the period between September 10 and December 30, 2001, saw a whopping $314 million drop in overall box office receipts from the previous year. And several long-running hits--Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables among them--came perilously close to shutting down as the economic devastation crept northward from Ground Zero. But the awful events that ushered in this season have not significantly changed the Broadway audience's cravings.

During the always-booming week between Christmas and New Year's, theatergoers went in droves to experience the decadence of Cabaret and Chicago as well as the frivolity of 42nd Street and The Producers. So what kind of shows will they turn to this spring? For sure they will be ready for big musicals with chorus lines and story lines after checking in with the three charismatic women whose solo shows brightened the winter: Barbara Cook, who wrapped her incomparable voice around Sondheim tunes at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater; Elaine Stritch, who took her song-studded reminiscences, a runaway hit downtown, to the Neil Simon; and BeaArthur, whose musical-theater career bumped into a TV character called Maude, and who sang her story at the Booth.

As it happens, most of the spring musicals line up readily on either the cheery or leery side of the fence. The distraction hungry audiences performers made note of in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks are already supporting Mamma Mia!, with its fondly remembered ABBA songs and gaudy '70s nostalgia; they will certainly champion Oklahoma!, with its beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score, London-certified production numbers by Susan Stroman, and sturdy, all-American pioneer optimism. Another drawing card is the casting of the British production's Laurey: Josefina Gabrielle, whose background includes a stint with the National Ballet of Portugal, is an exceptional Laurey who dances the famous dream ballet herself.

The "just-give-me-a-good-time" theatergoers should also welcome Thoroughly Modern Millie when it opens this month. Based on the popular 1967 Julie Andrews movie musical, it features fun-loving flappers and numerous variations by Rob Ashford on '20s-style tap and the Charleston.

There's Charleston and tap--by Eddie D. Robinson this time--in One Mo 'Time as well, but it's a far less sunny look at the '20s. Vernel Bagneris's bittersweet evocation of the triumphs and humiliations of performers at a New Orleans theater on the black vaudeville circuit will probably please audiences with a more sober turn of mind. Bagneris is a commanding performer (if you want to see one of the best dance segments ever put on film, check him out in Herbert Ross's 1981 Pennies From Heaven) and he is re-creating the role of Papa Du, which he originated when One Mo' Time became an off-Broadway hit in 1979.

In One Mo 'Time, the corrosive effects of racism are felt as ghostly stage presences while the performers strut through the jaunty, raunchy numbers of a 1926 vaudeville show. But in Sweet Smell of Success, the corrosive effects of power are all laid out right onstage as John Lithgow, playing a vile but powerful gossip columnist modeled on Walter Winchell, dances alongside a brutal beating that he has engineered. The music comes courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch and the hoofing courtesy of the New York City Ballet's resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon.

Of course, in the best musicals, there lurk shadings and layers of ambiguity that prevent them from being too easily pigeonholed as all light or all dark. Reviewers in London noted that Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! exposes some of the gloom buried in the show, and critics in Chicago pointed out that John Guare's book for Sweet Smell retreats somewhat from the acrid atmosphere of the 1957 movie on which it's based. But audiences who can't decide if they want the sour or the sweet have the perfect alternative in Into the Woods, the final musical of the season. (It opens April 25.) With its tales from the Brothers Grimm all tidy and happily-ever-aftered in the first act, it switches gears in the second to examine how a happy ending can turn into a nightmare--for all those theatergoers who know they won't have that famous cake after they eat it.

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for the Boston Phoenix, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Times, and other publications.
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Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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