Broadway season runs on star power

Critical successes flounder, big names steal show

Midway through the 2009-10 Broadway season, two key points are etched in stone: It takes more than good reviews to survive on the Rialto, and in an uncertain economy, star power is the best insurance.

The shows that have been hits, or seem destined to recoup, owe their success to major marquee muscle, helping to overcome the mixed response of critics.

Meanwhile, the season’s best-reviewed productions have become the underdogs. Lacking the box office magnetism of name talent, they have struggled to build audiences and will be lucky to stick around long into January. In the most calamitous case, a superb production opened and closed in a week.

That plight was never a worry for “A Steady Rain,” headlined by Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. Casting that starry duo made it more important to hire a security team than a publicist. Saturation media coverage was a given, as was sellout business. It almost didn’t matter that most New York reviewers were underwhelmed by Keith Huff’s cop drama.

But while the play’s dynamic was familiar and formulaic, John Crowley’s staging delivered taut suspense. And the charged interplay of the charismatic actors showed they were genuine stage animals, not just moonlighting action heroes.

Jude Law worked equally hard — a little too hard — at exercising his stage chops in Michael Grandage’s windy “Hamlet.” The pedestrian production trudged through the drama leaving its tragic depths undisturbed, surrounding Law with a lackluster supporting cast that was capable at best.

Law’s tendency to physicalize the torment of Shakespeare’s most introspective protagonist wore thin with this reviewer, but audiences ate it up, making this one of the more successful commercial attempts to put the Bard on Broadway.

The star wattage of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury also earned a pass for Trevor Nunn’s listless “A Little Night Music.” The enduring charms of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 waltz musical are sufficient to withstand even this lumbering chamber-piece treatment, but this was not the revival for which Broadway has waited 36 years.

If the season made me never want to see another Trevor Nunn show, it also made me want to see anything David Cromer chooses to direct.

The Chicago theater-maker has chalked up an impressive track record of Off Broadway successes, with “Orson’s Shadow,” “Adding Machine” and, especially, a haunting reassessment of “Our Town.”

It was a bold choice to pair Cromer, in his Main Stem debut, with Neil Simon. The director’s exquisitely naturalistic handle on “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and the seamless work of his fine ensemble, brought out the kind of melancholy textures more often associated with Arthur Miller. The production made a strong case for deeper appreciation of 20th century American theater’s premier jokemeister. Audiences, however, were not to be persuaded. Following dismal sales, the plug was pulled just seven days after opening. The tandem Simon piece that was planned to play in rep, “Broadway Bound,” died in the rehearsal room.

The production’s brutal demise prompted much debate about changing tastes on Broadway, questionable marketing strategies and the tough sell of a play without big-name stars. The most lingering discussion centered on whether Simon — once a commercial failsafe — was now considered too demode a playwright to pull in contemporary auds.

While no other show this season suffered as dire a fate, other critical hits have met similar resistance, with some of the most satisfying productions echoing in half-empty houses.

An unexpectedly gentle change of pace after the vitriolic “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” was a soulfully observed tale of troubled fringe-dwellers whose bittersweet notes resonated in these difficult times. And Sarah Ruhl made sweet comic music out of the unlikeliest of subjects for a Broadway play in her uneven but bracingly original consideration of love and sexuality in the Victorian era, “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.”

Stripped of the starry turns that dominated its original production, the revival of Ragtime” uncovered new intimacy and emotional clarity amid its stirring historical pageant. And the first-rate cast of Finian’s Rainbow” delivered some of the most ravishing singing Broadway has heard in years, wrapped around Burton Lane’s lush melodies and the incomparably witty wordplay of Yip Harburg’s lyrics.

One critical hit that has shown promising signs of a sales uptick is Bill T. Jones’ Afrobeat musical, Fela!” The high-energy show brings a welcome jolt of impassioned agitprop theater to politically timid Broadway, as well as electrifying dance numbers that defy the audience to remain still in their seats.

Politics of a different kind figure in the works of David Mamet, repped this season by a revival and a premiere whose structural similarities suggested a playwright reluctant to stretch himself.

Despite compelling work from Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, the gender conflict of “Oleanna” felt more mechanical than incendiary, while “Race” was as blunt and unnuanced as its title. The new play offered stylish provocation without much substance, albeit with entertaining sparks provided by James Spader and David Alan Grier.

Elsewhere, the season has been a mixed bag. The minor-key charms of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Manhattan theatrical dynasty comedy, The Royal Family,” were amplified by a lovely cast, headed by Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell. And Carrie Fisher’s self-deprecating confessions made Wishful Drinking” an amusing tipple, even if the solo show is barely theatricalized standup.

A fictionalized account of a white DJ bringing black rhythm and blues to the 1950s mainstream, “Memphis” hitches a generic patchwork plot to imitative tunes, but the talent and commitment of its cast give the musical undeniable vitality.

Season lowlights, for this reviewer, have been a flavorless retread of Bye Bye Birdie” that threw lavish resources at a staple of high-school and regional theater, only to end up with a depressing amateur hour; and Patrick Marber’s enervated Strindberg update, After Miss Julie,” in which Sienna Miller demonstrated the fecklessness of sending a starlet to do an actor’s job.

Then there was “Burn the Floor.” Ballroom fans not sated by “Dancing With the Stars” might disagree, but for me, this unrelenting assembly line of sweat and aggressive sexuality was like anti-Viagra.

As for the season’s second half, with Julie Taymor’s troubled production of “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” off the radar for now, the pressure is on for “The Addams Family” to fill the blockbuster slot. And if critics had issues with the show in its Chicago tryout, they seemed at least to agree that the raw material is there.

Top of my list of anticipated shows are Martin McDonagh’s first American-set play, “A Behanding in Spokane,” with Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan; a revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” headlined by Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson; “Sondheim on Sondheim,” with the maestro’s songs performed by the luminous Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams; and “Next Fall,” Geoffrey Nauffts’ quietly piercing examination of faith, loss and relationships, which was a summer standout Off Broadway.

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