‘Armless’ gets legs

Rattlestick kicked off its 2004-05 season with the memorably, extravagantly scatological “Noble Finer Gases” by Adam Rapp. The company’s next one, “God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny,” promises to up the shock quotient. But, as Will Frears admits, the Rapp play is a tough act to follow.

“It’s hard to top peeing for 10 minutes onstage,” says the director, best known in Gotham for his staging last season of “Omnium Gatherum.”

As might be expected from a show called “Armless Johnny,” the Irish hero of the piece pursues the American dream by singing and dancing without the benefit of two limbs. Frears first directed the play in 2001 at Yale School of Drama, where it was the thesis of his friend Sean Cunningham. Michael Friedman of the Civilians contributed some music, and in its Gotham debut, opening March 31, “Armless Johnny” has sprouted no fewer than 14 songs, which came at the suggestion of Rattlestick artistic director David Van Asselt.

But don’t call “Armless Johnny” a tuner. “A musical is a series of songs connected by a book,” explains Frears. “This is a play where people sing songs.”

In its evolution from Yale, “Armless Johnny” acquired an important friend: Mike Nichols. The helmer had been a fan of Cunningham’s play “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of Making Whoopy Part II: The Houdini Incident” at the Fringe Festival, and was duly impressed a second time when Frears invited him to a workshop of “Armless Johnny.”According to Nichols, no other new work out there is “quite as foul-mouthed or as funny as this one, and none of them offers such a cry of outrage against the world we find ourselves living in today.”

Except for the outrage, it sounds a lot like Nichols’ latest, “Spamalot.”

It’s not such a stretch, says Frears. “Mike Nichols has been a great person to talk to about this, because we owe Monty Python such a debt. They gave birth to this incredible anarchic comedy tradition of absurdity, cruelty and incredibly clever cheap jokes.”

Now for ‘Spamalot’

For a man who doesn’t direct a ton of theater, Nichols has been very busy nurturing legit talent. In addition to Frears and the “Armless Johnny” creatives, there is his protege Casey Nicholaw, who nabs his first Broadway choreography credit with “Spamalot.”

“Mike likes to take care of (you), and you feel taken care of,” says Nicholaw, who secured the job after one interview with the master.

“I didn’t have to take my tape out of my bag,” says the performer turned choreographer. Recommendations from Jerry Mitchell and Jerry Zaks sufficed. Or, as Nicholaw puts it, “Mike has a keen radar for knowing who is going to deliver.”

As a dancer, Nicholaw witnessed a few musicals where the choreographer ended up “directing” the tuner. That’s not the case with “Spamalot,” he says, though the show marks only Nichols’ sophomore effort with the form. (He directed “The Apple Tree” in 1966.)

“We know each other’s strengths,” says Nicholaw, who is enough of a diplomat to include “Spamalot” scribe Eric Idle in his analysis. “Eric is strong with comedy. I’m strong with a dance vocabulary. And Mike is strong with his eye and editing.”

If Nicholaw is Tony-nommed, he might find himself joined by a few other chorus boys-turned-choreographers, including Mitchell (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “La Cage aux Folles”), Wayne Cilento (“Sweet Charity”) and Ken Roberson (“All Shook Up”).

Long Live Off Broadway

The R.I.P. signs appear to be coming down all over Off Broadway. A weekend tour of Barrow Street, Dodger Stages, DR2, the Little Shubert and the Promenade turned up big crowds at such generally well-reviewed new shows as “Altar Boyz,” “Orson’s Shadow,” “Shockheaded Peter” and “Thom Pain,” among others.

Dodger Stages has looked like a white elephant until recently. Maybe the place needed just a few good shows and slightly warmer weather. On a recent Saturday night, the place looked as busy as a cineplex, which is what it used to be.

Tix to most shows at the Stages were available at TKTS at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, but that also was the case with Broadway’s “Doubt,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Off Broadway’s commercial theaters are currently long on comedies and entertainments, but a little short on serious drama. That equation tilts a little when Richard Kalinoski‘s “Beast on the Moon,” about Armenian immigrants, opens at Century Center April 27.

The show has a first-time producer, David Grillo, who optioned the play with the understanding that he would headline. Then he had another, better idea: Omar Metwally, last seen on Broadway in “Sixteen Wounded.”

Larry Moss (“The Syringa Tree”) directs. The L.A.-based acting teacher (he coached Hilary Swank for “Million Dollar Baby” and Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Aviator”) is now a citizen of Gotham, and has at least two plays on his fall 2005 sked, both going to Off Broadway theaters: “Sugar” by April Daisy White and Jack Holmes‘ “The Awful Grace of God,” about Bobby Kennedy.

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