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New year, new tuners in London

Actresses primed for banner year in 2013

Dominated by tuners, the London legit scene nevertheless experienced a distinct shortage of new musical offerings in 2012 — but that looks poised to change in 2013, with the season already filling up with transfers from Broadway and a couple of attention-getting new kids on the block.

First up is the Feb. 25 start of “The Book of Mormon” at the Prince of Wales, and judging by the huge, already long-running advertising campaign, producer Scott Rudin is taking no chances in a country that barely knows about Mormonism. The transfer of “Once” begins previews at the Phoenix Theater three weeks after “Mormon” launches. Rumors also had put Broadway alum “(title of show)” in the West End’s 480-seat Duchess Theater, a house small enough for the cult show’s intimate appeal, although no news on that is yet confirmed.

All eyes, however, are likely to be on two high-profile premieres.

First is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” produced by Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, Neal Street Prods. and Kevin McCormick, with previews beginning May 18 at the Theater Royal Drury Lane. Not only does the musical arrive with a globally recognized title, it’s also scoring buzz with a creative team that includes music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (“Hairspray”), design by Mark Thompson (“Mamma Mia,” “One Man, Two Guvnors”), choreography by Peter Darling (“Billy Elliot,” “Matilda”) and direction by Sam Mendes.

The other big arrival is the return of lyricist Tim Rice to the fray with his first stage project in 10 years. “From Here to Eternity” previews at the Shaftesbury beginning Sept. 30, with music by West End tyro composer Stuart Brayson, book by Bill Oakes and direction by Tamara Harvey.

The abundance of new tuners marks a shift from 2012 — not that London audiences were deprived of the sound of music, but the tune everyone danced to was that of nostalgia. The year ended, after all, with the dramatic dud that is “The Bodyguard,” boasting little but Heather Headley’s stellar vocals in a jukebox mix of Whitney Houston songs; swiftly followed by Judy Craymer’s bewilderingly slack “Viva Forever,” which failed to do for the Spice Girls what her “Mamma Mia” did for Abba. 

Revivals of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Top Hat” and “Crazy for You” all battled for big audiences and, with the exception of “Crazy,” found them. However, in terms of consistently delivering musical and dramatic thrills, all three paled beside the intensity of “Sweeney Todd.” Expertly helmed by Jonathan Kent, the Chichester Festival Theater production boasted scalding perfs from Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

The Kent-Staunton collaboration so excited Stephen Sondheim that he’s pairing them up for a revival of “Gypsy,” a show much revived in Gotham, but seen in London only once.

One of the other visible trends in London 2012 — aside from the over-predicted slump in audience attendance during the Olympics — was the relative absence of perfs from top-drawer female thesps with international clout. 2013 kisses goodbye to all that.

Kristin Scott Thomas will open Jan. 31 in Harold Pinter’s dreamy memory play “Old Times.” It reunites her with Ian Rickson, who directed her to mesmerizing effect in “Betrayal” and “The Seagull,” the latter netting her an Olivier and a hit Gotham run.

Two weeks later, Helen Mirren will return to the London stage in a role that’s familiar to her, playing Queen Elizabeth II in “The Audience,” the new play from Peter Morgan (“The Queen”). Here, the monarch holds private audiences with her prime ministers over six decades.

In March, Judi Dench stars in Michael Grandage’s preem of “Peter and Alice” (March 9-June 1), the new play by John Logan (“Red,” “Skyfall”) about the woman who inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” And starting June 1, Kim Cattrall will star as a fading Hollywood diva in Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” at the Old Vic, helmed by Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”).

Other promising projects include Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival Theater production of “Private Lives,” which opened last fall. While there are no confirmed dates, the show is skedded to arrive sometime in the spring. Devastating divorcee Amanda is always a plum role, but Anna Chancellor’s impetuous, wickedly defiant, fiercely heartfelt performance was nothing short of a triumph.

Finally, in a year of change that saw comings and goings at numerous key legit addresses, outgoing a.d. Dominic Cooke presided over a bumper season at the Royal Court. Among its many topnotch world preems, “Constellations” won playwright Nick Payne a West End transfer and the Evening Standard play award.

Cooke will be succeeded in April by Vicky Featherstone, formerly a.d. of the National Theater of Scotland, in a hugely popular appointment. Her opening slate has yet to be announced, but Cooke’s final season of world preems looks as hot as ever.

Queen of the dysfunctional-family play Polly Stenham (“That Face”) is reunited with director Jeremy Herrin for “No Quarter” (Jan. 11-Feb. 9), which promises an anarchic twist on the drawing-room drama. But it’s “The Low Road” — billed as a fable of free market economics and cutthroat capitalism — that’s whetting most appetites. That’s the latest from Bruce Norris, whose “Clybourne Park” bagged the Pulitzer, the Tony and, in Cooke’s London production, the Olivier. Running March 21-April 27, it’s Cooke’s swan-song after seven outstanding years at the helm. His plans for his future? Firmly under wraps.

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