Broadway revivals, 'revisals,' breath new life into old musicals, dramas

June 12, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

NEW YORK -- What the 1993-1994 Broadway season lacked in new shows it made up for in revivals. Nearly half -- 17 to be precise -- of the season's 36 openings were revivals. In recognition of this, the Tony Administration Committee divided the revival category into best musical and best play revival for the first time.

What are some of the leading oldies-but-goodies? Well, despite racking up nine nominations -- four more than any other revival -- "She Loves Me" is one of the less inventive, more straightforward productions. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Musical theater buffs -- this one included -- have long treasured this 1963 Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joe Masteroff gem based on a Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo about two bickering perfume shop employees who discover they are anonymous, romantic pen pals. The show failed the first time around, and over the years various theories have been expounded to explain why -- among them, the notion that it was too small to compete with the likes of "Oliver!" and "Hello, Dolly!"

However, the Roundabout Theatre revival, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Rob Marshall, has been justifiably hailed as the production that puts "She Loves Me" in the spotlight it deserves. This will not surprise Baltimore audiences who saw Tony nominee Boyd Gaines play the same lead role in Center Stage's lovely 1985 production. His Broadway performance is broader, more reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, who had the role in the Ernst Lubitsch movie, "The Shop Around the Corner," also adapted from Laszlo's play. In fact, this entire production is broader -- and a bit crasser -- but it's still a delight.

In contrast to this faithful rendering are two productions from Britain's Royal National Theatre that offer new interpretations of old shows. "Carousel" is hardly one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's lighter musicals, and director Nicholas Hytner doesn't let the audience forget that.

Set designer Bob Crowley uses circles as a repeated motif, but his sets become angular when the plot has an edge to it -- at the beginning, when the mill workers are shown laboring over their looms, and most notably in the wharf scene when carousel barker Billy Bigelow kills himself instead of being arrested for attempted robbery.

As Billy Bigelow, Michael Hayden has a disappointingly thin voice, but the cast includes several strong female vocalists -- particularly Tony nominee Audra Ann McDonald, who also manages to turn spirited Carrie Pipperidge into a well-rounded character instead of relegating her to the usual role of mere comic relief.

Of the play revivals, the most nominations (five) went to the National Theatre's production of J. B. Priestley's 1946 thriller, "An Inspector Calls." On the surface, the script is a melodrama set in 1912 about a police inspector who succeeds in implicating the members of an aristocratic British family in the suicide of an impoverished young woman.

Priestley, however, was a strong proponent of social responsibility and was also fascinated by theories of time, and while the script reflects these interests, director Stephen Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil make them the foundation of their production.

Daldry interpolates a silent, judgmental chorus of 1940s-clad observers as well as air-raid and radio noises from the period. The central feature of MacNeil's magnificent set is an elegant townhouse, mounted on stilts and slightly under-sized so its smug, wealthy inhabitants look like foolish, overgrown children, crouching in their dollhouse of a home. When their world collapses, the house literally topples forward.

The result is perhaps the best example of the new breed of revisionist revivals that Variety has dubbed "revisals." This "Inspector" may be a production that outclasses its script, but it's breathtaking, nonetheless.

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