'Lear' comes south; 'Hairspray' heading up

The traffic between Broadway and Toronto, Canada’s top legit city, has been one-way in recent years, following the implosion of Garth Drabinsky’s Livent.

Toronto regularly hosts sit-down companies of Broadway’s biggest hits, and this season is no exception. “The Producers” opened in December, and “Hairspray” is hot on its heels, with a May opening set.

But one of the spring season’s most eagerly awaited Broadway shows is a Canadian product: “King Lear,” toplining Christopher Plummer, is a re-staging of the Stratford Festival production.

The high-profile berth for a Canadian-born production in New York comes at a time of busy commerical activity back in Toronto, but continuing controversy in the not-for-profit sector.

Legit activity was brought to its knees during the SARS epidemic of last spring and summer. At that time, the Mirvish Organization posted an early closing notice for “The Lion King” and put “Mamma Mia!” on a three-month hiatus.

But with the coming of milder weather, cooler heads prevailed as well, and things looked up at the box office.

“Lion King” held off its final performance until January and played its final weeks to sold-out houses, while “Mamma Mia!” reopened to near-capacity audiences.

The Mirvish subscription series, the backbone of the operation, had an amazingly successful run. “Chicago” went clean at 100%, “Copenhagen” packed them in for 97%, “Scaramouche Jones” (with Pete Postlethwaite) did a solid 93% and even a tepidly reviewed revival of “The Hollow Crown” earned 91%, thanks to the starpower of Vanessa Redgrave.

Most impressive was the 98% attendance marked by Djanet Sears’ “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God.” This Obsidian Theater hit from 2002 was brought back by the Mirvishes for a 22-week run in a 300-seat house to preserve the integrity of the original production.

The gamble paid off and Sears’ show enters the record books as the longest-running play by a black Canadian in theater history.

The Mirvish production of “The Producers” opened to mixed reviews in December, most finding a certain lack of star quality in the Max Bialystock of Canadian TV comic Sean Cullen.

It’s interesting that after an initial ad campaign that mimicked New York by pushing the images of Cullen and his co-star Michael Therriault (a la Lane and Broderick), the focus has shifted to giant blowups of the leggy Sarah Cornell, who earned raves as Ulla.

The show is currently playing to near capacity, but the fact that it’s not selling out during its first months, when hype is at its peak and the numbers are buttressed by Mirvish subscription figures, makes one cautious for the future.

Next up for the Mirvishes is their production of “Hairspray,” which went into rehearsal on Feb. 23 with a largely Canadian cast, the major exception being “American Idol” finalist Vanessa Olivarez, who was imported to play Tracy.

The show begins previews April 8 and opens May 5 for an open-ended run at the Princess of Wales Theater. Advance sales are reported to be solid.

But if commercial skies are sunny, clouds are the order of the day in much of the nonprofit sector.

The Factory Theater was torn apart by allegations of racism leveled at its artistic director, Ken Gass, after casting disagreements over a proposed production of “The Refugee Hotel” by Canadian-Chilean playwright Carmen Aguirre.

General manager Nancy Webster and publicity director Leanne Squires have both resigned, although they insist their departures are not linked to the Aguirre controversy.

Other alternative venues such as Tarragon Theater and Theatre Passe Muraille have had lackluster seasons so far, and only the largest of all the not-for-profit organizations, CanStage, had a box office bonanza with the Alberta Hunter musical “Cookin’ at the Cookery,” starring local favorite Jackie Richardson.

The most distressing news concerns the ongoing troubles of the Toronto Theater Alliance (Variety, Jan. 26-Feb. 1).

The internal forensic audit undertaken when a crippling deficit was discovered by the new executive director, Jacoba Knaapen, has revealed that $182,000 in funds largely intended for the Commercial Theater Development Fund set up by the province of Ontario were diverted into the TTA’s operating fund to hide the deficit.

This had been done without board knowledge during the administration of the previous exec director, Jessica Fraser, who died July 31.

In the face of arguments over where the organization should go, board president Patty Jarvis resigned, and was joined by two other members.

An annual general meeting on March 8 will present a financial viability study and a vote will be taken that night as to the eventual fate of the organization.

But while highs and lows rage back home, a substantial part of Canada is making an impact on Broadway as well.

March 4 marks the opening of “King Lear” at Lincoln Center in essentially a remounting of the 2002 Stratford Festival production. The 11 leading roles are all being played by Canadians, including Tony Award winner Brent Carver as Edgar.

“Working on this play has proved to be an invigorating experience,” said the 74-year-old Plummer backstage after a preview matinee. “I thought it would be exhausting, but the exact opposite has happened. The more I do it, the stronger I get.”

He credits Jonathan Miller’s direction with his sense of exhilaration. “We keep going into the play more deeply, discovering more power, more resonance, and — blessedly so — more laughter.”

This is only the third time Plummer has appeared on Broadway in Shakespeare (the other two were a 1982 Othello and a 1988 Macbeth) and he admits that financially “it can be risky business. But the last two sold well and this one seems to be doing well in advance, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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