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Miracle Whipped 

Why Rep's Swank affair was no grand slam

When a newborn multi-million dollar theatre property arrives on Broadway, stern gatekeepers from the press corps lie in wait to render judgment -- in reviews that often determine whether the creature thrives or perishes in the cradle. For the recent Charlotte Rep revival of The Miracle Worker, slated to begin Broadway previews on April 8, Judgment Day is on hold.Two days before the tryout run ended here on March 30, Rep producing director Michael Bush learned the news. The money people in New York, namely producers Barry and Fran Weissler, had pulled the plug on the scheduled Broadway opening, indefinitely suspending performances.

Last Wednesday, the New York Post swooped down on the faltering enterprise and declared it dead. "Scrapped" was the precise term. Having spent much of the previous weekend making hurried arrangements to place the production's impressive three-story set in storage, Bush feels he has solid evidence to dispute the tabloid's veracity.

Bush is on much shakier ground when he disputes the Weisslers' verdict on the quality of the production. "The truth of the matter," according to the press release, "is that the production needs some reworking and is not ready in our opinion to open on Broadway so soon."

My assessment of Hilary Swank's readiness was more brutal. I wrote that the Hollywood star needed "a miracle of her own" to triumph at the Music Box Theatre on April 24 when her portrayal of Annie Sullivan became fair game for Broadway critics.

Annie's Irish accent dissolved into Brooklynese whenever Swank articulated the vowels of "advantages," "hands," or "can't." That was one of Swank's more curable ills. Annie's rebellious spunk and youthful arrogance were underpowered throughout Act 1.

There were puzzling technical and directorial lapses. When you splurge on a high-tech iris curtain, it should blot out the Keller house when we shift to Annie's arrival at the train station. When we proceed to Annie's arrival at the Kellers', our star should enter from offstage. Instead, Swank stood plainly in front of us, stage right, with three other cast members, like high schoolers awaiting their entrance cue. Amazingly amateurish.

What fundamentally ailed Rep's production of The Miracle Worker was that too many Broadway outsiders were given too much artistic authority and production leverage. Newcomers to Broadway in the Miracle mix included headliner Swank, 10-year-old Skye McCole Bartusiak as Helen, British director Marianne Elliott, and Charlotte Rep.

Talk about scrapping: Swank ditched a full week of scheduled performances in Charlotte and afterwards called timeouts to attend Oscar Night and the premiere of her new action flick. Meanwhile, Elliott wore her previous unfamiliarity with William Gibson's classic like a badge of honor. For every fresh insight she brought to the terrain, she ignored three familiar signposts. Rep, joyous to be landing the Oscar-winning actress and the British hotshot director, didn't do enough to keep their prize talents on task.

Yet at the Booth Playhouse box office -- and at every public performance -- Rep's star-studded revival was a smash hit. Both of the performances I saw drew lusty standing ovations. Lusty even for Charlotte. There's no reason to doubt Bush's claim that Charlotte audiences responded with the same enthusiasm every night of the run. Receipts for The Miracle Worker, Bush told me last Friday, were the second-highest in Rep history.

So there are some grounds for Bush's faith in the potential of Rep's first Broadway effort. But other factors besides production quality entered the equation when the Weisslers elected to back out of their Broadway rendezvous. Advance sales weren't fulfilling expectations. War in Iraq, jitters over terrorism, and a decline in air travel have clouded the outlook for the upcoming tourist season. The backbreaker may have been the mass cancellations of student matinees by school groups from now through June.

In those circumstances, theatre insiders agree, The Miracle Worker required rave notices from Broadway's critics to succeed. "We needed a grand slam," Bush concedes.

Local notices in the Loaf, the Observer, and online in Charlotte Theatre Magazine indicated that wasn't going to happen up in Gotham.

So did the seasoned eyes of the Weisslers. They've been in the biz for over 25 years, supplying the financial fuel for the stunningly successful revival of Chicago, now in its seventh year on Broadway.

The Weisslers profess interest in working with the Rep again and trying out new theatre properties on the highly receptive Charlotte audience. Financial bleeding for the Weisslers and their investor group has been stanched by their strategic retreat. And with the Weisslers bankrolling the extra Broadway glitter, Rep's expenditures for Miracle were no higher than the budget for Jar the Floor, the comedy it replaced in Rep's current season.

So while Miracle Worker hasn't fulfilled Rep's dream of seeing their logo on a Broadway playbill, the bottom line picture is a lot less bruised than some artistic egos. Rep has been burnt by a miscalculation or two, but what they've learnt from l'affaire Swank/Elliott can serve them well in the future.

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