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The Year of the Broadway Star : N.Y.'s Current Theater Season Profits From Some Big-Name Performances

November 18, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

NEW YORK — A Broadway producer once told me, with some satisfaction, that the notion of the Broadway star was becoming obsolete.

The wave of the future, he said, was flashy big-cast shows like "42nd Street" and "Cats," where none of the company received more than feature billing. The audience got a lot to look at and the actors didn't dare step out of line.

If that sounds crass, a lot of Broadway thinking is exactly that. And the producer's prediction has come true in regard to those big battleship musicals that keep steaming into New York from London. Now and then your eye goes to the man on the bridge (Colm Wilkinson in "Les Miserables"), but the real star is the machinery.

Yet when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine started reworking "Into The Woods" for Broadway this season, what was the first thing they went after? A star, Bernadette Peters. When the goal is to bring the audience in, rather than blowing it away, there's no substitute for a fascinating individual performance.

Jackie Mason's solo show, to take another example, remains a hot ticket here--a show that everyone thought would do well to last three weeks. Meanwhile, "Starlight Express," the roller derby musical, is, as the ticket brokers say, "available." Hardware can't do it all.

To his surprise, Mason has become a Broadway star . (In fact, he has become an original cast: The album of his show has just come out.) But his isn't the only performance that people are lining up to see this fall.

The surprise hit of the new season is a revival of "Anything Goes" at Lincoln Center's supposedly unplayable Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Cole Porter's shipboard musical looks great on the Beaumont's half-round stage--the band sits above the actors, on A Deck--and Patti LuPone gives a dynamite performance as that swinging evangelist Reno Sweeney.

It takes guts to do "Anything Goes" in New York. It brings you into competition with an unquestioned star--Ethel Merman. Very few people actually saw Merman in the show in 1934, but everybody has heard the records--"Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and "I Get a Kick Out of You" and the rest.

LuPone doesn't give a damn about comparisons. She gives us her Reno Sweeney: a gal who looks life straight in the eye, talks out of the corner of her mouth, sings through her sinuses, dances with fine sarcasm and may even have a heart.

If Merman's performance is, in Porter's phrase, the Colosseum, LuPone's is at least the Tower of Pisa. "Anything Goes" is rumored to be transferring to Broadway, and an original-cast album will surely be part of the package. (The cast includes Howard McGillin, an easy, lanky young actor built along Jimmy Stewart lines.)

Another dynamite performance comes from John Malkovich in Lanford Wilson's "Burn This." Walter Kerr has written a piece in the New York Times accusing Malkovich of getting in the way of Wilson's play. In fact--as readers who saw the show at the Taper last season recall--Wilson wrote his script with Malkovich in mind.

The characterization is supposed to be excessive; that's the way Wilson sees the character, a foul-mouthed young guy named Pale with whom a proper young dancer (Joan Allen) unaccountably falls in love. Why anyone of any sexual persuasion would want Pale in the house for more than five minutes escapes me. He's loud, rude, charmless and totally self-absorbed. However, it's all in the script. Malkovich makes Pale vivid as hell, which is the assignment.

It's a star turn, for sure. (The black wig and lolling mouth even suggest he's thinking of Olivier in "Richard III." Ludicrous, but not out of line with Pale's lofty opinion of himself.)

Every London star wants to prove that he can carry a long-running Broadway hit. Although he took home a Tony the last time he was here with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Derek Jacobi has never brought this off. His new play, Hugh Whitemore's "Breaking the Code" could change his luck.

Based on fact, it's the story of an eccentric British cryptographer whose service to his country during World War II doesn't help him a bit when he is arrested for "interfering" with a young man (Michael Dolan) during the 1950s.

The story jumps between the cryptographer's boyhood and his maturity--his chronological maturity. Jacobi instantly conveys how many years his character has gained or lost since the last scene, while also making clear that this man is temperamentally still 12 years old, and intends to remain so. Growing up would be surrendering to "their" game.

Emotionally, he's the victim of everybody he meets, and no actor can portray a person in that fix with more compassion and humor than Jacobi. At the same time, this is supposed to be a man of penetrating intellect and coruscating honesty.

These qualities don't come across so keenly: Here the part seems to demand one of the great scornful English actors, like Alan Bates. But if there's room on Broadway for a thoughtful and well-told story about a decent man, Jacobi should be in town for some months.

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