Star power lights up B’way

GOOD MORNING from N.Y., where the ghosts of Yul Brynner and Zero Mostel are smiling down on Lou Diamond Phillips and Nathan Lane. The duo have taken on the seemingly impossible task of filling their sandals in “The King & I” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” respectively. It’s been a while since I’ve seen cheers and tears intermingled in a curtain-call standing ovation, but that was the case at the opening of “King” at the Neil Simon Theatre. Simon himself would have been a convert from Off B’way back to the Great White Way (excuse it) if he’d seen the grandeur, splendor with which his theater has been crowned for the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. The stage fairly glistens with the gold sets and costumes and the rich voices of the principals … I first met up with Phillips on the set of “La Bamba”– it was 10 years ago, he reminded me at the preem party. He was remarkable then imitating Richie Valens; now, he is no carbon of Brynner, but his own regal self. “People forget,” he reminded me, “that Brynner was a year younger than I when he first played ‘The King and I.’ And I will be 34 on my next birthday,” he added. Phillips was accompanied by his beautiful wife of two years, Kelly, to whom he dedicated the shows. When I asked him if he would take a lesson from Brynner and abstain from smoking he told me, “I quit two years ago.” Phillips is signed for a year, but, judging by the advance, he’ll have the choice of staying longer. Among others applauding and telling me his excitement of the new “King,” Peter Stone (readying a show for next season) … First nighters included Ernie Chambers and wife Veronica, who are plotting legit outings. Ernie talked with Gavin MacLeod at the “King” party about “Dennis the Menace,” the musical for B’way. Chambers is also readying the “Menace” movie sequel. Ernie is in N.Y. to also try and lure David Letterman to Merv Griffin’s Resorts in Atlantic City; Chambers is prez of Merv Griffin Prods. Also in town and talking a musical: Ray Evans and Jay Livingston met with Max Wilk, who’s written the book for a tuner about the triple Oscar-winning tunesmiths. Evans and Livingston arrived in N.Y. from D.C.; they’d been invited to the Smithsonian last weekend to perform for an SRO crowd in the auditorium on Saturday and on Friday, they taped a three-hour interview with Dwight Bowers for the Smithsonian’s musical archives.

AFTER A PREVIEW of “Forum” (opens Thursday), I caught up with Nathan Lane. Whatta performance! Again, standing ovation time for the exuberant cast led by the tireless Lane as Pseudolus. He said he’d always dreamed of playing the role made famous by Zero Mostel. Lane’s versatility gets an even bigger exhibition in the legiter than in the smash movie “The Birdcage.” He said he’d received many pic offers since the movie opened, but there’s no chance for him to think of anything else for a year. There was a block-long line of fans waiting for him to sign autographs outside the stage door. So far, guests who’d signed Lane’s dressing room book included rave remarks from Don Rickles and Tony Danza. Also in town and upcoming at the Regency Hotel: press junketeers for “Heaven’s Prisoner,” “The Great White Hype” and “The Twister” cast, Jamie Gertz, Helen Hunt , Bill Paxton and Mira Sorvino. The Regency now boasts a plush room where you can read Daily and weekly Variety and other international periodicals in a library setting of leather and boiserie … N.Y.’s finest eatery, Le Cirque, is celebrating its 22nd anniversary this week and lunch features its original exquisite menu of its first year — and original prices: $22 for a gourmet lunch. The announcement of the lunch brought a sellout response for the week on the first day! Le Cirque moves to the Palace hotel at year’s end. Meanwhile, their new Italian eatery, Circo, is a hit on 55th street.

“RANSOM” CONTINUES TO SHOOT all around the city; Monday it was at the YMCA in Harlem, with Mel Gibson (fully clothed) diving into the Y’s pool, searching for a key at the drain — per orders from the movie’s heavy, Gary Sinise. Gibson, recuping from the appendectomy, doesn’t have his heavy fight until the last days , a couple of weeks away. Sinise is now directing “Buried Child,” by Sam Shepard, to open on B’way at the Atkinson on the 30th, and the movie company doesn’t get him back until May 1. A car chase on Madison Ave. in the 90s is upcoming on Sunday; the closure of such main streets is proof of the city’s cooperation … At Elaine’s was Jim Coburn, back east for the wedding reception for Dennis Hopper and Victoria Duffy, who were married in Boston last Friday. Owner Elaine Kaufman recalled the days when Hopper, Peter Fonda (then friends) and Terry Southern used to huddle in the back table, which later became the headquarters for Woody Allen. The place still jumps with thesps and literati. The newlywed Hoppers were partied at the home of Olatz & Julian Schnabel Saturday; on hand were fellow artists Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein; from Italy, Giovanni Volpe. Celia Cruz, the “queen of salsa” entertained.

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