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Broadway: A bit esoteric

“Anything Goes” by Joan Marcus

At the conclusion of Act I, Sutton Foster and the cast of “Anything Goes,” the Broadway revival of the 1930s hit Cole Porter musical, dance and sing their way through an energetic rendition of the title song.

The song could be the theme of the 2010-11 Broadway season, a slew of new musicals and plays that cover a wide range of topics. There is a disco singer hiding as a nun, an ambitious mailroom clerk headed up the corporate ladder, a world-class con artist doggedly pursued by an FBI agent, a contemporary “Alice in Wonderland,” a New Jersey housewife upsetting the 1960s recording industry, two young Mormons spreading the Gospel in Uganda and a trio of drag queens traveling across the Australian Outback.

Although there are no megahits, most of the new shows are solid, entertaining affairs that are keeping Broadway’s theaters filled. And, with only one caveat, they are shows to which most group leaders should not have a problem taking their groups.

The one exception is the musical that garnered the most Tony Award nominations, a near record 14, “The Book of Mormon.” The play marks the Broadway debut of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the irreverent animated television series “South Park.”

The story centers around two young missionaries who are sent to Uganda to spread the Mormon religion and the problems they encounter in a society plagued by AIDS, poverty and violence.

Dennis Martin, director of group sales programs for Broadway.com/Groups, said that although the musical is well acted and features several large song-and-dance numbers, it also has over-the-top vulgar humor and language and deals with adult topics, so group leaders need to be aware of its content and their groups’ sensibilities.

A friendly warning
“It has a lot of things to warn people about,” he said. “Other than that, they are all pretty accessible. There is nothing to caution too many people about.”

Although Porter’s sophisticated lyrics can be racy and suggestive — “When grandmama whose age is eighty/In night clubs is getting matey with gigolos,/Anything Goes” — the musical “Anything Goes” is a nostalgic throwback to the classical musicals of the past and has been a hit with audiences.

“It originally was considered to be a limited run, but that changed immediately when it got going,” said Martin.

Foster, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Reno Sweeney, an evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer, leads another ensemble song-and-dance routine at the opening of Act II to “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” that, if not a showstopper, is a “show-pauser” that causes an extended response from the audience.

Set on a 1930s luxury ocean liner, the play also features 79-year-old Joel Grey, who won a Tony nearly 45 years ago for his role in “Cabaret,” in the comic role of gangster-on-the-lam Moonface Martin.

The show features such classic Porter songs as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” “Easy To Love” and “De-lovely.”

“Anything Goes” was one of only two musical revivals last season; the other was “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

A parody of 1960s corporate America, the play stars Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the series of movies and shows he is as adapt at singing and dancing as riding flying brooms.
Radcliffe plays J. Pierrepont Finch, a go-getter working his way to the top of the World Wide Wicket Company. John Larroquette plays his boss, J.B. Biggley.

The show, which won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted in 1961, includes the songs “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man” and “Been a Long Day.”

Continuing a recent trend, three new musicals are based on movies: “Sister Act,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and “Catch Me If You Can.”

“The only absolutely new musical that is not based on anything is ‘The Book of Mormon,’” said Martin. “Everything else is based on a movie, a book or is a jukebox musical.”

One of four nominees for best musical, “Sister Act” is based on the 1992 movie of the same name that starred Whoopi Goldberg, one of the producers of the Broadway play.

Young Patina Miller received her first Tony nomination for the role of Deloris Van Cartier, who enlivens a dying convent’s choir when she is placed in protective custody at the convent after witnessing a murder.

“‘Sister Act’ was very well received and got a bunch of nominations,” said Martin.

“Catch Me If You Can” is about the real-life Frank Abagnale Jr., who led a swinging-style life in the 1960s by impersonating a wide range of people, from airline pilots to doctors and lawyers, before finally being caught by the FBI.

In the show, which follows Abagnale’s exploits, Abagnale is played by Aaron Tveit, who starred in “Next to Normal.” He is pursued by FBI agent Carl Hanratty, portrayed by former Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz. Tom Wopat plays Frank Abagnale Sr.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who also wrote “Hairspray, ” wrote the ’60s-influenced score.
The most over-the-top new show is “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” which features elaborate and imaginative costumes with lots of glitter and boas, drag makeup and dance numbers. The show deals with the adventures of three drag queens as they travel across the Outback in a rundown bus they have named Priscilla.

“Wonderland” is a new take on the “Alice in Wonderland” story by composer Frank Wildhorn, who also wrote “Jekyll and Hyde.” It deals with a modern-day Alice who is estranged from her husband, alienated from her daughter and in danger of losing her career.

“Baby It’s You” tells the story of the groundbreaking 1960s girl group the Shirelles and Florence Greenberg, the New Jersey housewife who discovered them.

Another musical that has had unexpected success also deals with music from the 1960s and later. “Rain,” a tribute to the Beatles, is more of a revue-style production with little storyline.

“It came in last fall to fill a gap at the Neil Simon after ‘Hairspray’ closed,” said Martin. “It sold so well that they actually moved it to a different theater and kept extending it a month at a time.

“But they could never sell groups that way. I met with them, and they joined our co-op and have announced they will be here at least through January.”

The show covers Beatles songs from the early days of the band’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” through its “Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper” days, with costumes and sets to match. It also includes historic film footage and television commercials.

A tangled web
The much delayed and critically abused “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” relaunched in May and is set for a firm fall opening after a major retooling.

“‘Spider-Man’ will actually open in the fall,” said Martin. “It was really reimagined. It was closed for four weeks to put all the changes in. From everything I know about the changes, they are changes that should have been made.

“I have a feeling it will be around for a long time. With all the hassles and angst they went through, they will have something watchable when they come out of the tunnel. It will be mammoth.”

Martin said the trend of groups booking closer to their trip dates makes it more feasible for them to consider plays, which normally do not run as long as musicals and are harder to plan for in advance.

“One of the most enjoyable things I have seen in a play is the revival of ‘Born Yesterday,’” he said. “It is a play I have always loved and read dozens of times, but never seen live. I went and was totally in love, (a) by the production and (b) by the leading actress. It is a wonderful comedy with heart.”

The play, originally performed in 1946, starred Judy Holiday as the not-so-bright girlfriend of a ruthless and loud-mouthed businessman who is trying to bribe U.S. senators to benefit his junkyard business.

Critics have called the play a star maker for Nina Arianda, who was nominated for a Tony for reprising Holiday’s role.

“She has a big challenge not to channel Judy Holiday and still be successful,” said Martin. “She is fascinating, lovely and funny. She is on the map to stay.”

Martin also recommended “War Horse,” “which is what theater is about,” and “The Normal Heart,” with Tony-nominated performances by Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin.

With the current strength of musicals, there are few empty theaters for new shows to fill. New arrivals for the fall are having to stand in line like planes in a holding pattern over LaGuardia, waiting for a theater to become available.

Martin said a couple of possibilities that have star power behind them are a revival of “Evita” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote “Evita,” is behind its revival. The Argentine actress Elena Roger, who played Eva Peron in the 2006 London revival, has been lined up for Broadway, and Ricky Martin has reportedly signed on to play Che.

Michael Crawford, who originated the title role in “Phantom of the Opera,” is currently playing the wizard in “The Wizard of the Oz” in London. The role of Dorothy, played by Danielle Hope, was cast through a reality show contest in England. “She is quite good,” said Dennis Martin. “And there are a couple of new songs to add to the movie’s.”

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