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Winter is usually a prime time for gloom and doom on Broadway, a post-holiday stretch of dismal sales extending from January through much of March.

But this year, any clouds have come lined in silver. For the majority of the 2006 winter frames, weekly grosses have topped the tallies registered over the last five years. This year, 10 winter weeks of sales (up through the week ending March 5) have amassed just shy of $160 million — around $8 million more than the strong cumes of comparable periods in 2003 and ’04.

Another indicator of a healthy Rialto slate: Fewer shows shuttered when the new year rang in. “There hasn’t been the usual mass exodus at the start of January,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters and Producers.

Spells of unusually mild temperatures seem to have helped, too.

“We’ve been very lucky with the weather,” says Group Sales Box Office prexy Scott Mallalieu. “We always pay for a bad winter.”

Of course, rising ticket prices also contribute to rising grosses, with five hit tuners now charging a top ticket price of $110. That extra income helps balance attendance figures, which did not set any records this year.

About 2.1 million theatergoers came to the Rialto during the last 10 weeks. That’s about 150,000 fewer than the robust tally logged by the same sesh in 2003.

Biz traditionally gets more brisk as the temperatures become less so. The current season will put the pedal to the metal starting in mid-April, with a dozen Broadway offerings opening between then and the May 10 Tony-eligibility deadline.

A New World, after all

It’s a whole new world for Dodger Stages — or at least a whole new name — when the Off Broadway multiplex is officially rechristened New World Stages this week.

The switchover, which happens midnight March 16 (the new sign goes up April 1), reflects the handoff of the venue from Dodger Theatricals to the Dodgers’ former partner, Stage Entertainment.

Beverley D. Mac Keen, who was managing director of Dodger Stages, has been upped to executive director.

A Canadian who has been in town only since August, Mac Keen has already created a high profile for herself with the inauguration of a regular meeting of Off Broadway denizens, unofficially called the Brainstorm, for throwing around ideas about improving the scene.

“There’s a lot of exploratory dialogue right now about a collaborative approach to the marketplace that would suit everybody in an equitable fashion,” she says. “Off Broadway is a puzzle with some pieces that need to be rearranged.”

Juggling the circus

Clowns? Check. Chinese jugglers? Check. Acrobatic cats? Check.

Three rings? Not this time. But storyline? Check.

Thanks to producer Kenneth Feld and his 27-year-old daughter and co-producer, Nicole, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is shaking things up for the 136th edition of its traveling show. The woman tapped to do the shaking is TV director-choreographer Shanda Sawyer.

Ringling’s market research indicated its auds wanted a story, and scribe-helmer Sawyer, along with co-writer Bradley Zweig, provides one in which a typical family (Dad, Mom, big sis and little brother Dan) gets picked from the crowd to live its circus dreams.

That’s about it. Sawyer had to keep the storyline simple enough to be conveyed over the great distances of an arena. (The playing space is so large, in fact, that young Dan is played, with minimal disruption, by a different actor in each of the show’s two acts.)

If it all sounds like innovating in an attempt to catch up with Cirque du Soleil, Sawyer insists that’s not it. “Audiences are really different for this,” she says. “This is true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Americana.”

So while she’s incorporating video, she doesn’t want to mess too much with the old-fashioned formula. “The last thing you want to do is create New Coke.”