Midtown at Times Square, in the nerve center of New York's theater district, the handiwork of Al-Qaida is offstage and invisible. But there's no doubt that Broadway actors, technicians, and producers are keenly feeling the repercussions of September 11.
Taking in eight shows between Christmas night and New Year's Eve, we mostly saw capacity or near-capacity crowds. That holiday week, however, was a spike on Broadway's ticket sales chart -- a very sharp spike. All 27 Broadway shows that had been open the previous week bettered their sales, boosting attendance by an average of 17.6 percent. The numbers have headed south steeply in the two weeks that followed, with the roster of shows open for business nosediving by 20.7 percent and attendance at those shows dropping by an average of 11.2 percent. In response, Broadway is offering price relief to theatergoers, with discounts ranging from $20 to $40 on prime orchestra seats being made available for 13 current Broadway shows. Included among the shows are two that I raved about during my 2000 holiday raid, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and The Full Monty. This year's crop of offerings -- on and off Broadway -- was much more plentiful and no less tasty. Here's what we saw and what I thought.
The Producers (3/4 out of 4 stars) Honestly, I didn't expect this highly hyped romp to live up to its Tony Awards. My misgivings escalated after we paid $100 apiece for prime house seats and found out at Will Call that our Saturday matinee didn't include Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock.
Nonetheless, this Mel Brooks musical floored me, surprisingly strong in every respect. Nor does it require Nathan Lane to rise to glory. Brad Oscar spells the ailing Lane when his wayward vocal chords bar him from performing. Normally portraying the Nazi playwright guilty of the sure-to-fail Springtime for Hitler, Oscar definitely has the pipes to sing the showstoppers, having earned a Tony nomination in his own right. Moreover, he appears to be channeling Lane's every move and grimace.
Brooks' trademark tastelessness runs riot, climaxing when we reach the goose-stepping hijinks of "Springtime" with scantily clad chorines settling into a revolving swastika formation. But Max's sojourn in Little Old Lady Land -- on a fundraising excursion -- is nearly as offensive, seasoned with a bizarre tap dance performed with walkers.
Matthew Broderick starts off more than a little irritating as oppressed accountant Leo Bloom. But he's cuddly and effective once he gets the showbiz bug and commits to partnering with Max. Cady Huffman, as Swedish bombshell secretary Ulla, keeps everybody's hormones perking.
Urinetown (1/2) Housed in the 600-seat Henry Miller, this Broadway smash remains true to its off-Broadway beginnings. Brainy, grungy, with wit and chutzpah to burn. Every kind of musical -- from Annie to Rent -- is targeted. And both extremes of the political spectrum are in the crosshairs of Greg Kotis' clever book, despoiling industrialists and anti-scientific zealots. John Cullum, of Northwest Exposure fame, plays evil urinal mogul Caldwell B. Cladwell, ruthlessly defending his empire in a drought-ravaged metropolis where citizens must pay to pee.
Jennifer Laura Thompson co-stars as the idealistic heiress to the Urine Good Company fortune. She falls for a fiery revolutionary who sings his anthem, "Run Freedom, Run," at Les Miz intensity to a country shuffle. All the pretentious vapidity of the hip modern musical is mercilessly mocked with our lovebirds enflamed by the profound message that everybody has a heart. Driving home the point that today's audiences are cynically patronized, Kotis offers us the pigtailed Little Sally. Played to perfection by 33-year-old Spencer Kayden, this grimy gamine is always asking the tough questions of our narrator, Officer Lockstock. And articulating painful truths like, "A bad title could kill a show pretty good."
Wickedly avuncular, Jeff McCarthy serves up Lockstock's answers with a candor that is even more hilarious, sometimes brandishing his nightstick with the sleazy showmanship of a used car salesman.