September 8, 2008

‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘Shrek’ Head Broadway’s Fall Musicals

By Michael Kuchwara

NEW YORK - Not since the heyday of the '80s British musical invasion - which brought "Cats,""The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" - has Broadway anticipated such a big, critically lauded musical from across the Atlantic as "Billy Elliot."

It's the show generating the most buzz, particularly at the box office, and that's saying a lot, as New York braces for a fall of six Broadway musicals - five new shows and one revival - plus several off-Broadway offerings, including one with a score by Stephen Sondheim.

Among the other names contributing to the first half of the season are novelist Charles Dickens, composer Irving Berlin, that conniving cad known as Pal Joey and an ornery green ogre called Shrek.

Set against the backdrop of a bitter miners' strike in the north of England, "Billy Elliot," based on the film of the same name, tells of a young boy who dreams of dancing. The show's most prominent name, of course, is its composer, pop superstar Elton John.

Haydn Gwynne, who originated the role of Billy's dance teacher in the London production, will make her Broadway debut in the show, which opens Nov. 13. Preview performances begin Oct. 1.

Three young performers - David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish - will alternate in the role of Billy.

The show that could give "Billy Elliot" the most competition for popularity, or, at least, name-recognition is "Shrek the Musical," DreamWorks' stage adaptation of its popular "Shrek" movie. It opens Dec. 14 with previews starting Nov. 8.

Brian d'Arcy James will portray that querulous title character; Sutton Foster will be Princess Fiona.

Charles Dickens proved a good source for musical material with "Oliver!" Now we will get "A Tale of Two Cities," his sprawling historical novel set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Jill Santoriello has provided the book, music and lyrics for the show, now in previews. It opens Sept. 18.

Dickens intertwines the stories of aristocratic Charles Darnay, played by Aaron Lazar, and the dissolute Sydney Carton, portrayed by James Barbour, and their love for the beautiful Lucie Manette, played by Brandi Burkhardt.

Back in the 21st century, "13, A New Musical," with a pop-rock score by Jason Robert Brown, explores teenage insecurities. The cast of unknowns are young, but the director is the experienced Jeremy Sams. It opens Oct. 5; previews start Sept. 16.

"Irving Berlin's White Christmas" is not a revival - call it a new musical with old songs, many of them Berlin standards. It's based on the 1954 film about two buddies who put on a show at a Vermont inn and the young women they meet there. Snow begins falling Nov. 14 for a limited engagement through Jan. 4.

The fall's one musical revival is a doozy, the Richard Rodgers and Lorenez Hart classic - "Pal Joey." You know a lot of the songs: "Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered),""I Could Write a Book,""Zip" and "You Mustn't Kick It Around."

But the sophisticated tale of wealthy socialite Vera Simpson, played here by Stockard Channing, and her relationship with the scheming title character, portrayed by Christian Hoff, is taken from short stories by John O'Hara. The Roundabout Theatre Company production opens Dec. 11, with previews starting Nov. 14.

One of the fall's most anticipated musicals is off-Broadway rather than on. "Road Show," the first new Stephen Sondheim musical to be seen in New York in more than a decade, premieres Nov. 18 at the Public Theater.

Sondheim supplied the music and lyrics for John Weidman's book about two brothers, Wilson and Addison Mizner, furiously in pursuit of the American dream. Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani are the competitive siblings and Alma Cuervo their beloved mother.

Henry Krieger wrote the music for two of Broadway's more memorable musicals: the long-running "Dreamgirls," and the short- lived Siamese twins musical, "Side Show," which developed a cult following all its own. Now he has teamed with John Patrick Shanley, author of "Doubt" and the screenplay for "Moonstruck," to create "Romantic Poetry" for the Manhattan Theatre Club, opening Oct. 28.

Shanley not only wrote the book and lyrics but will also direct the production, which chronicles several complicated romantic entanglements.

For those who want a little nostalgia, try "The Marvelous Wonderettes," a hymn to the golden oldies of the late 1950s as well of pop hits of a decade later. The set-up is a high-school prom in 1958, and then in Act 2, the class's 10th-year reunion. The festivities commence Sept. 14.

Originally published by The Associated Press.

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