Broadway thrives despite ailing economy

Legit pundits have been scratching their heads all spring over Broadway’s resilience in a down economy. But the answer may simply be that audiences found the quality of this season’s slate too good to pass up.

Attention on the Gotham legit landscape was heightened by the unusually high number of critical hits and the platoon of stars onstage just when a profile boost was needed. New Yorkers might be tightening their belts in terms of restaurant, shopping and travel choices, but must-see productions remain an affordable luxury, not to mention a necessity to keep up with the culture cognoscenti.

Take Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” a razor-toothed comedy about the savagery beneath the surface of middle-class complacency.

Propelled by incisive turns from James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis — all four Tony-nominated — Matthew Warchus’ production has been playing to capacity crowds since it opened in March, sparking editorial pieces about everything from clafouti to Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. (Translator Christopher Hampton relocated the play from its original Paris setting for its U.S. premiere.)

The season’s blockbuster musical hit, “Billy Elliot,” also tapped into the zeitgeist, its bittersweet tale of a working-class kid whose dreams elevate him beyond hardscrabble reality finding fresh resonance as the country was plunged into recession.

The excitement generated by “West Side Story” and “Hair,” two iconic musicals long absent from Broadway, suggests not only a hungry fanbase eager to revisit beloved shows from their youth but also a new audience connecting to those era-defining shows.

In recent years, every season has a mega-budget hit tuner (this year, “Billy Elliot”) competing for Tony supremacy with an unconventional underdog. The latter role went this season to the emotionally charged “Next to Normal,” about a bipolar suburban mom and her frayed family. After a mixed reception in its early 2008 premiere Off Broadway, the show was significantly retooled and warmly embraced by critics this spring; its commercial foothold has been growing as word of mouth builds.

Among other new tuners, DreamWorks cooked up competition for the Disney market with its enjoyable if uneven “Shrek the Musical”; Dolly Parton’s songs and a trio of engaging leads were crowd-pleasing strengths in “9 to 5,” a tuner that otherwise failed to punch the clock; and ’80s cheesefest “Rock of Ages” proved that the much-maligned jukebox genre could be a guilt-free pleasure.

Special events with stars also contributed to swell the seasonal coffers, notably Liza Minnelli, who showed she could still deliver the goods in “Liza’s at the Palace,” and Will Ferrell, providing a cathartic farewell to the former White House tenant in “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush.”

Holiday entry “White Christmas” was a synthetic approximation of Golden Age Hollywood, but auds flocked like snowflakes to the limited engagement.

If no other new play matched “Carnage” as an instant sensation, there was a deluge of smartly conceived revivals to draw audiences.

Kristin Scott Thomas led a penetrating new look at “The Seagull,” hailed by many vet theatergoers as the best Chekhov production of their lifetimes; John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes channeled Greek tragedy in a boldly non-naturalistic interpretation of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”; Daniel Radcliffe shook off the boyhood cloak of “Harry Potter,” getting emotionally and physically naked in “Equus”; and the trio of Jeremy Piven, Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss made a tangy meal of a minor David Mamet morsel in “Speed-the-Plow.”

Those fall entries were matched by a second wave of strong remounts in the spring.

The most commercially buoyant was Noel Coward’s ectoplasmic comedy “Blithe Spirit,” with Angela Lansbury, Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson and Christine Ebersole. Geoffrey Rush’s tragicomic clowning brought life to Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist comedy about a dying monarch, “Exit the King,” mining a rich vein of contempo political parallels.

And Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” was ushered back to Broadway after a half-century in a haunting production with the superlative cast of Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman and John Glover.

Two plays dating back almost 20 years but presented for the first time on the Main Stem and greeted as significant discoveries were Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” and Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan,” both casting a minor-key spell in delicately nuanced stagings.But some lauded shows struggled to sustain an audience amid the quality glut.

Bartlett Sher’s transcendent staging of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” failed to expand the traditionally limited Broadway audience for August Wilson plays, while “Mary Stuart,” with Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, has initially fallen short of commercial expectations. Also staged by Warchus, Alan Ayckbourn’s melancholy comic trilogy “The Norman Conquests” was a slow starter, although producers are confident that by extending the engagement with extra marathon days they can eke out a profit.

There were also some swift exits and critical punching bags. John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment barely opened in Mamet’s “American Buffalo” before the closing notice went up, and while opinion ranged across the love-or-loathe spectrum for Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms,” with Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber, the curiosity was insufficient to galvanize auds.

Some of the season’s most withering reviews went to a loopy rethink of “Hedda Gabler,” with Mary-Louise Parker in eccentric overdrive; a moribund revival of Hampton’s “The Philanthropist,” with a distancing lead perf from Matthew Broderick; “Impressionism,” a limp mid-life romance with intellectual aspirations that served as a clunky vehicle for Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen; and a leaden screen-to-stage transfer of Nazi spoof “To Be or Not to Be,” in which the Lubitsch touch and the laughs were AWOL.

A low-wattage “Guys and Dolls,” with Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham, also missed the mark, its characters and comedy swallowed by projection-heavy staging. Ditto a bloated musicalization of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” a numbingly earnest “Les Miz”-wannabe marooned in an outmoded 1980s poperetta sensibility.

Jane Fonda’s Rialto return after 46 years yielded admiring personal reviews, but endorsement of Moises Kaufman’s drama “33 Variations” was generally cooler.

Similarly, Frank Langella’s work in “A Man for All Seasons” commanded respect, but Robert Bolt’s 1961 play now seems a hagiographic chore, while David Hyde Pierce’s mellow charm and effortless comic timing made the quaint 1934 artifact “Accent on Youth” palatable, if not quite justifying its return to Broadway.

One of the season’s commercial disappointments looks to be Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” a scalding examination of relationships with an uncharacteristic emotional charge from a writer not known for his compassion. The play’s near-unanimous raves have so far failed to stir a sizable audience in such a competitive field.

Along with underachievers like the pedestrian Holocaust drama “Irena’s Vow,” teen tuner “13,” insider joke-a-thon “[title of show]” and maudlin musical two-hander “The Story of My Life,” the LaBute transfer seemed to suggest that producers may be misjudging the marketplace in their eagerness to upgrade intimate shows more traditionally suited to Off Broadway or regional stages.

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