Tough act to follow

After boffo year, 'Tarzan,' Julia Roberts and 'Couple' hope to lead season's B'way pack

Looking for the 800-pound gorillas in the 2005-06 Broadway season? Safe money’s on the man raised by apes, a pair of fractious roommates and America’s sweetheart.

Disney’s “Tarzan,” a revival of “The Odd Couple” headlined by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and Rialto debut of Julia Roberts in “Three Days of Rain” look to be the major events on the Great White Way. But where are the other contenders for box office glory?

Last season will be a tough act to follow, with four breakout successes among the crop of new musicals, and with “Doubt” providing an example of that increasingly rare species, the straight-play smash.

New season got off to a feeble start as the planned August opener “The Mambo Kings” vaporized during its ill-received San Francisco tryout, while the Yoko-centric biomusical “Lennon” got a tepid response and shuttered Sept. 24.

The massive $19 million advance for “Odd Couple” has provided a healthy shot of commercial adrenaline, hitched to the steady performance of an unusually robust crop of summer holdovers.

Joe Mantello, hoping to continue his unbroken hot streak, directs the reteaming of “The Producers” duo Lane and Broderick in the roles of an unapologetic schlub and his fastidious pal. Show is one of two Neil Simon revivals this season, along with “Barefoot in the Park” in the spring.

Factor in Manhattan Theater Club’s October opening of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absurd Person Singular” and that adds up to the return of popular comedies to Broadway after a number of thin seasons.

Following stellar revivals of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” along with a pair of muddled Tennessee Williams remounts, this season has only two revisitations of more challenging texts: Roundabout will stage Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet” at Studio 54, with Gabriel Byrne directed by Doug Hughes (“Doubt”), while Lincoln Center has Edward Albee’s “Seascape” at the Booth, putting together a human couple and a pair of reptiles.

First up among the season’s new works is Richard Greenberg’s “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way,” one of two productions (the other is “Barefoot”) that herald the return of Jill Clayburgh to Broadway after a two-decade absence. The tireless Hughes directs.

But it’s the commercial forecast for Greenberg’s second Broadway outing of the season, his 1998 play “Three Days of Rain,” that looks especially bright. Even as Hollywood faces show up with increasing regularity on the boards, Broadway rarely sees the kind of megawattage that Roberts brings, with perfs starting in March.

Other new plays on the schedule include, from MTC, David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole” starring Cynthia Nixon, and an import from Britain’s National Theater, Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” transferring with all but one of its original ensemble intact.

After plans for a commercial run of Conor McPherson’s “The Shining City” fell apart over the summer, MTC rescued the Irish import by giving it a spring slot at the Biltmore. McPherson, who was set to direct the aborted production, may or may not helm the show this time around.

The Broadway plans of another Brit pickup, Rufus Norris’ striking staging of the Scandinavian family mudslinging match “Festen,” have long been in limbo. But that production reportedly is coming together for an early spring berth.

New tuners will try to make headway in a field still crowded by last season’s successes still running strong.

Chief among the newbies is Disney’s first show in five years, “Tarzan,” promising high-flying, vine-swinging spectacle (courtesy of De La Guarda co-founder Pichon Baldinu) plus more of the jungle exotica that made “The Lion King” an international franchise, this time set to Phil Collins’ music.

Alice Walker’s novel (and Steven Spielberg’s film) gets musicalized when “The Color Purple” opens in December. LaChanze (“Once on This Island”) takes the leading role of Celie.

Another page-to-stage adaptation, “Lestat,” will attempt to break the bloodsucker’s curse of “Dance of the Vampires” and “Dracula,” which were greeted by cloves of garlic from critics before ticketbuyers drove stakes through their hearts. Based on Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire” and its sequel, “Lestat” is the first Broadway venture for Warners’ new legit division.

“The Wedding Singer” joins the band in April as the latest film to undergo musicalization treatment, shepherded by the producing muscle behind “Hairspray,” Margo Lion and New Line Cinema.

In “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” the Broadway diva will recap her career, with the aid of book writer Terrence McNally and a team of backup hoofers. The show has generated strong word of mouth from pundits during its preview run at the Old Globe in San Diego.

Andrew Lloyd Webber will attempt to elevate his fallen Broadway stock with his reimagining of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White,” which has reportedly undergone significant retooling since its West End bow. The lush mystery uses scenic projections more extensively than any mainstream show to date..

After the critical mauling given short-lived Beach Boys tuner “Good Vibrations” and the general snubbing of Elvis-inspired “All Shook Up,” which was to shutter Sept. 25, “Jersey Boys” will attempt to give legitimacy to the jukebox show with a biomusical retracing the paths of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Further down the pipeline, Twyla Tharp will follow her soon-to-close Billy Joel dance piece, “Movin’ Out,” with “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Based on the songs of Bob Dylan, the show premieres at the Old Globe in spring, en route to Broadway.

“Princesses,” the latest from Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”), waits in the wings for a theater to open up. The musical-within-a-musical, about prep school girls who put on a show, got a tune-up during its tryout in Seattle this summer.

While not strictly a musical, “Souvenir” features Judy Kaye trilling tunelessly as Florence Foster Jenkins, a tone-deaf society matron famed for her inept public performances. The show had a well-received Off Broadway run last season at the York.

Every season needs a critical punching bag, and this one scored early with Suzanne Somers’ “The Blonde in the Thunderbird” in July. Cynics are predicting competition from “In My Life,” a musical by Joe Brooks. The lemon motif emblazoned over its marketing material appears to be daring the critics.

Musical revivals have had an increasingly hard time recouping in recent seasons, which accounts for the underpopulated category come Tony time. Last season, only three shows were eligible, and this go-round looks to be the same.

First up is Brit director John Doyle’s reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” with the small cast doubling as the orchestra. Michael Cerveris will strum guitar while slashing throats as the demon barber; his murderous accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, brings Patti LuPone back to Broadway, this time honking a tuba.

Harry Connick Jr. stars in the Kathleen Marshall-directed redo of “The Pajama Game” for Roundabout, while the same company is readying Wallace Shawn’s new adaptation of Brecht-Weil’s “The Threepenny Opera,” with Alan Cumming, Edie Falco and pop star Nellie McKay.

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