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Billy Elliot scores, Equus stuns, Shrek improves
NEW YORK CITY - Two nearly back-to-back trips to New York gave Bits&Bytes a chance to immerse himself in the New York arts scene.

New musicals, new dramas, exciting revivals, high profile star outings, one-of-a-kind off-Broadway offerings highlighted the trips. Rare Massenet at the Metropolitan Opera, superb performances at the New York Philharmonic, off-beat stagings at America's oldest Yiddish Theatre, late-night cabarets and Sunday jazz brunches - these were all part of the rich New York scene.

A new study, released just this week, showed that 47 million people visited New York City in 2008 - spending $30 billion on tourism. Bits&Bytes was delighted to be one of the 47 million, helping The Big Apple retain its role as the nation's top tourism destination.

MUSICAL BILLY ELLIOT SCORES AS BEST MUSICAL, REPEATS LONDON TRIUMPH
The Best Musical Of The Season is already obvious. Billy Elliot, the London import with music by Elton John, is undoubtedly the best of the new musical works to reach Broadway in 2008. The charming British film successfully transfers as a musical play, a gritty look at a downtrodden English town and the coal miners that get left behind in a crippling strike in the Margaret Thatcher years. One local lad, Billy Elliot, stumbles into a ballet class and finds his calling.

Billy, played by three young actors in rotation (as are the other key children), is an incredibly demanding part. According to all who have seen it, all three teen actors are terrific in the part. SGN saw David Alvarez as Billy and the delightfully talented David Bologna as Michael, Billy's cross-dressing childhood friend. Michael provides most of the humor in the play as a young man who sees no reason he shouldn't dress up in his mother's makeup, earrings and clothing. Michael, as a young Gay man in the making, takes the theatrical pressure off Billy's predicament: Billy's family can rant and rave about neighbors thinking that Billy is "a poof," but Michael gets the most criticism and the most laughs. Michael's show-stopping "Expressing Yourself," midway through Act One, is a comic delight, a plea for individuality and self-expression, and the right to be Gay, to "bloom where you are planted."

Gregory Jbara, a New York actor with numerous Broadway credits, anchors the play as Billy's dad, a man torn by the strike and his fear of the future. When he stands stage center and tears start to roll down his cheeks, it's clear that Jbara is an actor's actor. Haydn Gwynne, the British actress who created the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, the world-weary dance teacher who launches Billy on his path to dance (and escape from the coal mines that wait for him), is incredible at every moment. She knows her limitations but she also knows that Billy is special. She received an Olivier Award nomination for her London work and will undoubtedly be nominated for a Tony Award for her work in the U.S. transfer.

The rest of the large cast is first rate in every role. The spectacular set design, which has Billy's ratty bedroom coming up three stories from below the stage, adds to the power. Stephen Daldry, a noted stage and film director, guided the original film to three Oscar nominations. He repeats his magic in the stage transfer. Peter Darling, who choreographed the film, also repeats, in a totally different manner. Both are undoubtedly key ingredients to Billy Elliot's Broadway success.

Billy Elliot is the first out-and-out new hit of the Broadway season, but, strangely, it is not selling out. Like the current revival of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher, director of Seattle's Intiman Theatre, Billy Elliot is selling at the 98 or 99 per cent level, meaning that there are always a few empty seats during the week. On Bits&Bytes' December visit, Billy Elliot was seating every patron who stood by for cancellations or last minute released seats. Even people who had been turned away early in the afternoon found box office seating by curtain time. Highest Recommendation - The "Must See" Of The Season.

EQUUS REVIVAL RANKS AS BEST SERIOUS PLAY, NUDE RADCLIFFE SCORES
Peter Shaffer's Equus made Broadway history when it first appeared in the 1970s. The lengthy nude scene of the young stable boy who blinds horses in his tormented, sexual frustration was unprecedented. When Daniel Radcliffe, the young British actor who immortalized Harry Potter, decided to tackle the London stage, he picked the current revival of Equus as his vehicle. It was a brilliant move. Radcliffe showed London - and now New York - audiences that he is a talented actor with a wide range of skills. He will always be Harry Potter to zillions of film fans, but he clearly has a future ahead of him as an adult actor. The nude scene, an integral element of the play, is no gimmick. Radcliffe, a diminutive actor, is in incredible shape and carries the scene - and the play - to incredible heights.

Richard Griffiths, a recent award winner as the closeted-Gay professor in The History Boys, plays Martin Dysart, the therapist who tries to help the tormented young man. Anthony Hopkins, later known for Hannibal The Cannibal in Silence Of The Lambs, created the role on Broadway. Tony Perkins and Richard Burton followed. Griffiths is a strange choice for the role. He is physically so overweight that he is disturbing at times on stage. When he reveals that he and his wife have not had sex in years, the audience feels no sympathy for the man. Kate Mulgrew, once a fixture at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, has a key supporting role - a plus for Emerald City fans visiting New York.

Equus runs through early February. Strangely, it is not selling well and is widely available at the half-price ticket booth that dominates tourist ticket sales and play choices. On-line discount coupons are widely available at www.theatermania.com or www.playbill.com.

REVISED PAL JOEY STUMBLES IN REVIVAL, STOCKARD CHANNING SCORES
There's so much to like about the Roundabout Theatre Company's revised, revived Pal Joey that it seems churlish to mention that the show simply does not work. The original script, by John O'Hara, from his New Yorker tales, has always been the weak element of the Rodgers and Hart classic. A new revision by Richard Greenberg corrects many of the flaws but, alas, creates major new ones.

Joey, here played by Matthew Risch, is still a womanizing heel. He dates and seduces women casually and will do anything - or anyone - to turn his dream of owning his own nightclub into a reality. Risch is a Broadway dream come true. As the understudy, he inherited the role when the leading actor withdrew during rehearsals. He gives a solid performance but he fails to dominate the stage or the show, as Joey must.

Stockard Channing, a favorite with Gay audiences for decades, is beautiful as Vera, the rich socialite who falls for Joey and uses her husband's money to bankroll his nightclub. She gets the show's most famous song, "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" with its classic final verse: "I'm vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can be oversexed again, bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I." Jenny Fellner is charming as Linda English, the innocent who falls too hard for Joey. Strangely, Fellner gets no special billing as the show's third lead. The new version builds up the role of Gladys Bumps, a showgirl who had a past affair with Joey, and turns it into a third lead. Wrong decision. Martha Plimpton, who was a regular at the Seattle Repertory Theatre early in her career, is delightful as Gladys, but the role is over-weighted and drags the flow of the key plot elements down.

Should have been, could have been, would have been better - still, any chance to see Pal Joey is a special occasion.

MASSENET'S RARE THAIS THRILLS AT MET OPERA, RENEE FLEMING DELIGHTS
Renee Fleming, probably the biggest female star in modern day opera, often gets to revive a wonderfully old-fashioned "vehicle" for an opulent production each year at the Metropolitan Opera. This year, Massenet's rare bel canto masterwork, Thais, gets the Met/Fleming revival focus. Unproduced in New York for more than 40 years, the opera and the Met production is a visual delight as thousands of Seattle opera fans will see in an encore Live From The Met telecast January 7 at downtown and suburban Emerald City theatres. The Met's opulent production will continue live, with three performances now through January 8.

The tale of a glamorous Egyptian courtesan in the 4th Century A.D. who undergoes a spiritual transformation and finds Christ as her savior, Thais seems written for Fleming and other divas who have steered the vehicle into sold out status over the past century. Thomas Hampson, a hunky favorite of this scribe, is a top-tier baritone. Perfect as Athanael, the monk who sacrifices his own religious fervor to save Thais' soul, Hampson has simply never been better. The "Meditation" violin and orchestra instrumental sequence, probably the best known musical theme from Thais, was beautifully played - the conductor even gave the violin soloist a special curtain call each night.

The production is everything one would expect from The Met - a total delight. Information on all Met Opera productions and the final performances of Thais are available at (212) 362-6000.

39 STEPS SENDS UP HITCHCOCK'S 1930S FILM AS NEW STAGE COMEDY
One of the most unlikely hits of the past season has to be Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a Broadway comedy/mystery that spoofs and celebrates the classic 1930s British film. A hit in London, the U.S. transfer used the British cast of four until the show settled in as a mini-hit for the Roundabout Theatre Company, one of several New York subscription theaters that really serve as the power behind Broadway for straight plays. The show received rave reviews and happy single ticket buyers flocked to the horror send-up. In January, the production plans to change theaters but continue its Broadway run. It will move to the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre, right in the heart of the theater district. That shift will give the production a higher profile for tourists who seem drawn to the "Alfred Hitchcock" element of the new, overly long title.

The stage edition stays true to the plot of the film - but adds numerous tongue-in-cheek references to other Hitchcock horror classics. Seattle is sure to have a production within the next year or so. Like the New York offering, it is sure to be an audience pleaser and a fun night at the theatre.

2009 HOLDS HOPE FOR REVITALIZED BROADWAY & OFF
Although January and February look dreary for out-of-town theater visitors--far too many shows are closing because of the uncertain economy--spring and most of 2009 actually looks terrific for stage fans.

Openly Gay actor Rupert Everett, Broadway favorite Christine Ebersole and Gay icon Angela Lansbury team for a late February opening of Noel Coward's immortal Blythe Spirit, probably the biggest hit the openly Gay playwright produced. It plays the prestigious Shubert Theatre with previews starting February 26.

Star power continues to delight New York visitors. Jane Fonda returns to Broadway in 33 Variations, a new play by Gay-friendly playwright and director Moses Kaufman. It starts previews February 9 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Revivals of Guys & Dolls, Hair, Hedda Gabler, and West Side Story highlight the spring on The Great White Way. Many of these revivals will arrive in Seattle on national tours in coming years, but, for now, Broadway is the place to see the greatest shows in America. Check it out....

Bits&Bytes will continue his trip to The Great White Way in an upcoming column in SGN. Happy New Year!

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