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Season’s mixed greetings

Tuners 50-50; plays in state of 'Utopia'

The 2006-07 season so far has been the best and worst of times for new Broadway musicals, while the small crop of plays premiering has been overshadowed by a single titanic undertaking.

But, overall, business is booming. With 32 shows, grosses for the season to date, May 29-Dec. 17, have hit a lofty $500 million, with a strong average attendance of 82.7%. That indicates continuing growth from the previous season’s sturdy $461 million for the same period, with 28 shows and 80.5% average attendance.

While the general ticket hike for musicals (to a top ticket of $110) and plays ($95) is largely responsible for the increase, more shows are hitting $1 million per week — currently six or seven compared with two or three as recently as two seasons back, depending on the time of year.

Fall was unusually competitive for original musicals. Often in past years, Tony Award voters had to wait until spring to find four contenders to fill out the new tuner category. This year has seen seven already.

It’s premature to speculate on profitability, but the reviews for two innovative underdogs upgraded from Off Broadway, “Grey Gardens” and “Spring Awakening,” prove the critical community at least is receptive to unconventional art musicals.

Inventively adapted from the Maysles brothers’ docu about two Kennedy-clan fringe-dwellers living in 1970s Long Island squalor, “Grey Gardens” re-creates the film as well as reflecting on the ’40s heyday before the decline of Edith Bouvier Beale and her eccentric daughter, “Little” Edie. The raves for star Christine Ebersole catapulted her dual-role performance into the ranks of theater legend.

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s “Spring Awakening” uses unlikely source material (an 1891 German Expressionist play) to tap into timeless adolescent unease. The show garnered the strongest across-the-board reviews of any serious musical in recent memory. It also introduces a talented ensemble made up mostly of Broadway first-timers.

Given that neither “Spring” nor “Gardens” is likely to be high on the tourist radar, their challenge will be enduring the lean months of January and February and staying fresh in Tony voters’ minds as new shows compete for attention.

At the other end of the spectrum, the fall claimed two high-profile casualties, both of which seemed to have plenty of points in favor of their finding an audience.

After mining the Billy Joel songbook in her hit dance musical “Movin’ Out,” choreographer Twyla Tharp looked to the anthemic hits of Bob Dylan in “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But the concept was a miss from the start; the overwhelmingly negative critical response to the incoherent, circus-themed tuner segued to dismal box office and a swift exit.

An even faster disappearing act was pulled off by “High Fidelity,” which opened and closed in little more than a week. Nick Hornby’s popular novel about a vinyl collector’s bumpy track record with women and the Stephen Frears movie starring John Cusack turned out to be an awkward fit for a musical that jettisoned classic rock for vanilla showtunes. The bland adaptation mistakenly targeted young heterosexual men, probably the most elusive audience for Broadway musicals.

While Rialto producers once were ruthless about pulling the plug as early as opening night on problem shows, the tendency of the past decade has been to hang in there as long as possible, often pumping money and marketing muscle into a dead horse. The “High Fidelity” crash-and-burn reps the fastest demise of a full-scale Gotham musical in some years.

Teaming with producing heavyweight Cameron Mackintosh, Disney added another Broadway show to its stable with “Mary Poppins.” The show — an impressively designed stage reworking of the P.L. Travers stories about a magical nanny, which mixes Sherman brothers’ favorites with new songs — appears likely to be another Disney mainstay.

Also muscling in on the family market is Jack O’Brien’s production, originated at San Diego’s Old Globe, of “Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.” The candy-colored fable knocked B.O. behemoth “Wicked” from its No. 1 perch, indicating “Grinch” likely will become a Gotham holiday staple. That poses the challenge, however, of finding a suitably sized Broadway house available for a short holiday run each year.

While “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” which closes Jan. 7, was no runaway success, the musical notably countered the egomaniacal promise of its title with a surprisingly generous showcase not just for its impish star but for his talented ensemble.

Business was solid if never spectacular, boosted by Short’s tireless promotion and savvy positioning of some “surprise” guests including Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Jon Stewart, Tom Hanks and Jerry Seinfeld. The run serves as a primer for a planned 35-week national tour, during which the production is expected to recoup.

On the play front, the season has been dominated by what looked on paper like a snob hit, “The Coast of Utopia.” Respectfully received in its London premiere, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about 19th-century Russian intellectuals got off to a grand start with O’Brien’s productions of the first two installments, “Voyage” and “Shipwreck.” Part three, “Salvage,” opens in February. Critical praise has been matched by stellar ticket sales, making this a lustrous feather in the cap of Lincoln Center Theater.

The incisiveness David Hare showed about the Iraq War last season in “Stuff Happens” is exactly what was missing from his more reflective follow-up, “The Vertical Hour.” Witty as always but blighted by cultural arrogance and an opaque point of view, the play nonetheless has sold well. Sam Mendes’ production is hampered by an underwhelming Broadway debut from Julianne Moore in a no-win role, but boosted by a fascinatingly prickly turn from Brit thesp Bill Nighy.

Also from across the pond, Simon Mendes da Costa’s Jewish sibling-rivalry comedy “Losing Louie” swapped its original English location for suburban New York, delivering refried Neil Simon that set no pulses racing in Manhattan Theater Club’s limp production.

The sole new American play has been Douglas Carter Beane’s satire “The Little Dog Laughed,” about a screen star struggling to come out of the closet while his agent conspires to confine him. Principal reason for transferring from Off Broadway’s Second Stage was Julie White’s ferocious star turn, but the comedy is stronger on jokes than structure or substance and is struggling to pull sizable numbers.

As for revivals, Roundabout assembled an accomplished ensemble for its ship-shape staging of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” while director Nicholas Martin misplaced the teeth in Simon Gray’s “Butley,” in which star Nathan Lane foregrounded supercilious comedy at the expense of the play’s bitter heart.

There’s a dichotomy on view in musical revivals this season, between carbon copies of the original and radical reinventions.

“A Chorus Line” and “Les Miserables” stuck slavishly to the templates of their iconic premiere productions. Having been absent the longest, “A Chorus Line” was the more invigorating return, bringing back the show’s pioneering brand of emotional self-exposure and Michael Bennett’s liquid choreography to a Broadway starved for great dancing. Resurfacing only 3½ years after the original run closed, “Les Miz” has more of an air of familiarity but benefits from a robust cast.

After seducing critics last season with his rendering of “Sweeney Todd,” Brit director John Doyle reconfirmed the viability of his central concept of actors doubling as musicians with another Stephen Sondheim musical, “Company.” With its tart ambivalence about modern relationships, George Furth’s book seems surprisingly contemporary, and Sondheim’s songs remain trenchant and tuneful. The coolly sophisticated production propels Raul Esparza into the leading-man spotlight with his wry take on commitment-phobic Bobby.

Roundabout’s “The Apple Tree” falls between old and new. The featherweight Bock & Harnick musical triptych gets a glittery surface sheen from Kristin Chenoweth’s redoubtable vocal and comic gifts. But there was otherwise little call to revive this minor 1966 tuner.

The flood in recent seasons of solo shows has let up, aside from “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” which made an optimistic if largely unrewarded bid to bring ventriloquism fans to the Rialto. Also checking in for a brief run at the Helen Hayes was “Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway,” the uptown arrival of the cult downtown lounge act.

The gnarled alter egos of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman may have left traditional Broadway ticket-buyers scratching their heads, but the duo’s refusal to soften their brittle edges for the mainstream was a refreshing step outside the Broadway safety zone.