12/26/00- Updated 11:44 PM ET


Old retreads rolled down Broadway

By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY

Reviewing the Broadway adaptation of The Full Monty in October, I noted that low expectations can sometimes be a critic's best friend. Unfortunately, I found this friend accompanying me to far too many of the stage productions I attended this year — particularly on Broadway, where the current season has been dominated by shows that rely on trite-and-true material and ideas.

Some of my most positive theater-related experiences weren't even plays. Seeing Broadway legend Barbara Cook's cabaret act this fall was certainly a highlight. So was reading Ghost Light, the recently published memoirs from former New York Times chief drama critic Frank Rich about growing up a theater fan in the '50s and '60s — a time when low expectations were seldom a prerequisite for a memorable evening on Broadway.

But like the title character in my favorite production of 2000, I never lose hope in art's ability to enchant and amaze. Here are some of the plays and musicals that helped me maintain that hope — and some that, well, didn't.

The best

1. Meredith Willson's The Music Man. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, so it's no surprise that Willson's classic musical comedy still shimmers and shines. But director/choreographer Susan Stroman has infused this new production with even more style and soul, and the superb cast, led by find-of-the-year Craig Bierko and the always marvelous Rebecca Luker, does her vibrant vision justice.

2. Jitney. The best new American play I saw this year actually was penned more than 20 years ago. But no matter: August Wilson's spectacular drama — expanded for its first New York production — addresses such timeless issues as racism, family ties and '70s pop culture with the humor, insight and humanistic poetry that make him a national treasure. A flawless cast and Marion McClinton's vigorous direction don't hurt, either.

3. Proof. Novice playwright David Auburn, 31, shows wit and depth beyond his years in this study of how reason and emotion, tragedy and triumph intersect in the life of a scientist's brilliant but troubled daughter. Mary-Louise Parker leads a sterling cast.

4. The Unexpected Man. Yasmina Reza's quirky, elegant, insightful account of a man and woman who meet on a train benefits greatly from its two players : Alan Bates, who plays an irascible author with relish, and the magnificent Eileen Atkins, whose portrayal of a witty, worldly literary fan is a revelation.

5. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. A lot has changed in the 15 years since Lily Tomlin and writer/director Jane Wagner first brought Search to Broadway. So it's a tribute to Wagner's forward-thinking wit, and Tomlin's energy and comic intuition, that this one-woman, multicharacter extravaganza remains as astute, hilarious and poignant as ever.

6. Copenhagen. With all due respect to British playwright Michael Frayn's brilliant script, it is three American actors — Philip Bosco, Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty — who lend urgency and warmth to this provocative look at the psychology of faith, war and nuclear physics.

7. Richard II/Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes playing both title roles in this British double dose of Shakespearean tragedy may have been the main attraction, but the supporting actors — particularly Linus Roche, cast as both protagonists' rivals — were equally superb.

8. St. Nicholas. The Northwest premiere of Conor McPherson's one-man play was a delight, thanks to Laurence Ballard's utterly convincing portrayal of a very unlikely character: a cynical, cantankerous, alcoholic theater critic.

9. A Moon for the Misbegotten. Eugene O'Neill's sweetly tragic romance couldn't have been revived more winningly. Co-stars Gabriel Byrne, Cherry Jones and Roy Dotrice all demonstrated the emotional acuity that this gently devastating work demands.

10. Tallulah Hallelujah! They say it's tough for beautiful women to be funny, but Tovah Feldshuh, who co-wrote and stars in this irresistibly bawdy musical tribute to irresistibly bawdy siren Tallulah Bankhead, proves otherwise.

The worst

1. Jesus Christ Superstar. This God-awful revival actually made me feel sorry for composer/lyricist Andrew Lloyd Webber, a man I hold responsible for destroying musical theater.

2. Jane Eyre. That rumbling noise you hear throughout this overblown Broadway lemon isn't coming from the orchestra; it's the sound of Charlotte Brontë turning over in her grave.

3. Taller Than a Dwarf. "Weaker than a flea" more aptly describes the lame humor in Elaine May's comedy.

4. The Dinner Party. Neil Simon ventures into the kind of psychosexual territory previously and more deftly mined by August Strindberg and Harold Pinter. Better he should stick to ethnically tinged middlebrow humor.

5. Seussical. Even if you like green eggs and ham, chances are you'll find this dopey, uninspired musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss' stories a snooze.

6. Down the Garden Paths. Anne Meara ventures into territory previously and more deftly mined by Neil Simon.

7. Macbeth. The fault lay not with the star of this year's mercifully short-lived Broadway revival, Frasier's Kelsey Grammer, but with the director, who tried to pack Shakespeare's poetry and prose into a preposterously fast-paced production that seemed like the theatrical equivalent of CliffsNotes.

8. Game Show. The $64,000 question is: Why would you shell out money to see a cheesy off-Broadway imitation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

9. Dirty Blonde. Nerdy, neurotic boy meets whiny, obnoxious girl in this criminally overrated comedy-cum-Mae West homage. Why shell out money to witness the mating dance of two people you would avoid at any party?

10. The Rocky Horror Show. Let's do the Time Warp again — not.