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Broadway Bound 

CL theater critic checks out the current crop

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% boost in attendance.

The roster of current shows on Broadway is solid — financially and qualitatively. Sales for Phantom of the Opera seem to have been rejuvenated by the release of the movie version. Avenue Q, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, Hairspray, Movin' Out, Pacific Overtures, Rent, The Producers, and 12 Angry Men were still selling strongly after the holiday rush. Besides Phantom, shows that ran the table for January 3-9, selling every available seat, were 700 Sundays, Mamma Mia! The Lion King, and Wicked.

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. Likely hits in the pipeline such as Good Vibrations and All Shook Up get derided for being "jukebox" musicals without solid storylines. And the dread label of "unoriginal" is affixed to all book musicals trading on titles with proven movie success — sufficient reason to sneer at Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Monty Python's Spamalot before they take Gotham by storm in March.

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.

As far as those "jukebox" and "unoriginal" brickbats, George Gershwin and Cole Porter cashed in on loosely plotted musicals based on their songbooks without seriously damaging their prestige — after Verdi and Puccini had stolen their venerated storylines with perfect impunity. 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, along with some ticket-buying tips.

Broadway

700 Sundays (**** out of 4) — 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. The difference in profitability is staggering when you consider that Sundays has 27 fewer actors onstage than the musical with Jackman's name on the marquee. Not to mention Oz's two standbys and the union minimum of 18 musicians.

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.

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