West End shows weigh the risks of Broadway

While magical flying nanny “Mary Poppins” might be the only major London show currently scheduled to take up residence on Broadway, there’s no shortage of West End productions with a strong shot at crossing the Pond.

Coming on the heels of a season in which the artistic and commercial triumphs have included John Doyle’s radical reinterpretation of “Sweeney Todd,” Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater production of “The History Boys” and Jonathan Kent’s staging for the Gate Theater Dublin of “Faith Healer,” the Rialto again appears to be throwing open its doors to trans-Atlantic imports.

The man largely responsible for the Brit invasion of the 1980s with “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” Cameron Mackintosh, is angling to establish a foothold once again, teaming with Disney to bring in Richard Eyre’s staging of “Mary Poppins.”

Opening Nov. 16 at the New Amsterdam, the tuner features vintage Sherman brothers songs alongside new numbers in a book by “Gosford Park” scribe Julian Fellowes, with sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and choreography and co-direction by Matthew Bourne. While Disney took a critical hammering in spring with “Tarzan,” the adaptation of P.J. Travers’ kid-lit classic has a less pop pedigree, which should give it a head start with Broadway cognoscenti.

Another quintessentially British tuner, “Billy Elliot,” has sparked intense speculation regarding its Broadway chances since opening in the West End in March 2005 to critical raves and instant-hit status.

Director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall’s crowdpleasing stage transfer of their film about a lad whose innate talent for dancing provides his exit from a bleak Northern English mining community has not yet set dates but is tipped to hit New York in the 2007-2008 season. For Elton John, who composed the score, “Billy” stands to erase the memory of vampire musical “Lestat,” which suffered a swift death on Broadway. However, insiders are wondering how much the show’s local references will need to be tweaked for U.S. consumption.

There are no such translation challenges with “Evita,” a proven commodity not seen on a major Gotham stage since the original run closed in 1983. The rapturous London reception last month for Michael Grandage’s Latin-flavored revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice biotuner about Eva Peron, and for Argentinian star Elena Roger, have generated buzz about a New York transfer — though a tepid New York Times notice may cool the excitement.

Grandage’s revival for the Donmar Warehouse of “Guys and Dolls” also has been rumored for Gotham, though the clincher for that less likely deal would appear to be the attachment of major stars on the level of London lead Ewan McGregor.

Another London reinvention of a contemporary classic likely to be headed Stateside is Sam Buntrock’s staging of “Sunday in the Park With George,” first seen at tiny London fringe venue the Menier Chocolate Factory before transferring to the West End. The Pulitzer-winning 1984 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical has never had a Broadway revival.

In addition to its ingenious use of projections to further the show’s reflection on the creation of art, Buntrock’s production makes a seamless whole out of two acts often considered disjointed — the first focusing on French pointillist painter Georges Seurat in the 1880s, the second fast-forwarding a century later to encounter his great-grandson, a multimedia artist. The staging also has been applauded for injecting emotion into a show often criticized as cold and cerebral.

Heading the list of plays angling for a Broadway berth is Melly Still’s production for the National of “Coram Boy,” adapted from Jamila Gavin’s darkly Dickensian children’s novel, which deals with orphans, infanticide and child slavery.

David Eldridge’s “Market Boy,” about the greed-driven 1980s in Thatcher’s Britain, might prove too foreign from American experience to make the crossing. The revival of Michael Frayn’s 1976 play “Donkeys’ Years,” which opened to wide plaudits in May and has never been staged in New York, seems a better prospect for transfer, though the Yank appetite for farce is far outweighed by the affection of auds in England for the genre.

One recent premiere whose path to Broadway likely has been accelerated by a rave in the New York Times is Tom Stoppard’s chronicle of political and personal struggles, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which bowed at the Royal Court in June before shifting to a West End run. The drama delves deep into post-WWII Czech politics, while Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia,” upcoming at Lincoln Center, focuses on 19th-century Russian intellectuals. The three-play, nine-hour epic bowed in 2002 at the National; the first part of the trilogy begins perfs in New York Oct. 17.

Following a major uproar earlier this year when the New York Theater Workshop shelved plans to stage “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” about the 23-year-old American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, the solo piece directed by Alan Rickman is on track for a fall run, beginning Oct. 5, at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane. Originally produced at the Royal Court in 2005, then subsequently brought back at the same address and transferred to the West End, the play is taken from Corrie’s writings, edited by Katharine Viner and Rickman.

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