I thought I knew the Broadway schedule between now and the end of the year.
But suddenly, or so it seems, the Theater District is filling up with short runs of all kind of variety shows and unexpected engagements that feel disconcertingly like whistle-stop gigs on some out-of-town tour.
Sure, we usually get one or two shows about Grinches and reindeer around the holidays, but this year, they are spread around larger venues beyond Broadway. What we do have, however, are four quick, limited runs that, no doubt, serve to make theater owners less anxious while waiting for the next big thing to move in.
The most fitting is a stint at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with Kristin Chenoweth (Nov. 2-13), in a solo act called “My Love Letter to Broadway.” With a Tony for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and nominations for her Glinda in “Wicked” and last season’s “On the Twentieth Century,” she has earned the right to title a show anything she pleases, no matter how gooey it sounds.
The showcase is billed as “an intimate evening of romance, glamour and laughter,” but, more practically, it’s also a nice way to use the Lunt-Fontanne to plug her new album, “The Art of Elegance,” which came out last month. (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” doesn’t start previews there until March.)
The weirdest use of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre ever is “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science.” From Nov. 22 to 27, also known here as Thanksgiving tourist week, the Food Network personality presents what he or his publicists describe as a “new form of entertainment — the live culinary variety show.” Brown promises new songs, new comedy, new puppets and “bigger and better potentially dangerous food demonstrations.” (That leaves plenty of time to clean food off the poor Barrymore stage before Cate Blanchett starts previews there Dec. 17 in “The Present,” an updated adaptation of Chekhov’s first play, “Platonov.”)
The other two quickies are less surprising. From Oct. 21 to 29 — before Chenoweth delivers us her love letter — Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons take over the Lunt-Fontanne to remind fans of “Jersey Boys” that those characters were based on real people. This is Valli’s second time singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” on Broadway, the first being a similar week in 2012. This one is well timed to get back onstage before “Jersey Boys” sings “Bye, Bye, Baby” for real on Jan. 15 at the August Wilson Theatre. (Not incidentally, the British hit adaptation of “Groundhog Day” starts previews at the Wilson in March.)
Finally, The Illusionists, the magicians who entertained Broadway over the last two Christmas holidays, return Nov. 25-Jan. 1 with “Turn of the Century” at the Palace Theatre. This show features The Clairvoyants, recent runners-up on “America’s Got Talent.” The Palace was supposed to be closed for drastic renovations, but is heavily rumored to be staying intact for a winter run of “Sunset Boulevard,” again starring Glenn Close. No one will confirm, but, perhaps, The Clairvoyants know.
REMEMBERING A FORCE OF THE THEATER
The death of Gordon Davidson, 83, in Los Angeles Oct. 2 marked the silencing of a singular theatrical force. Along with the death of Zelda Fichandler, 91, in Washington, D.C., last July, his loss also closed the pioneering chapter in the history of regional theater.
It is hard, even for me, to process that not very long ago, the American theater was defined as New York and out-of-town — and New York basically meant Broadway and the commercial theater.
Fichandler co-founded Washington’s Arena Stage in 1950 with a mission to produce classics and serious new work. But the Arena was put on the map — at least the map of Manhattan — when she produced the world premiere of “The Great White Hope” starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, and sent it to Broadway to win the 1969 Tony and a Pulitzer Prize.
Fichandler, often considered the matriarch of the resident theater movement, retired in 1991. Davidson, who would have been amused to be called the patriarch, chose to stop running his beloved Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre in 2005.
Davidson was a vibrant whirlwind of a man, Brooklyn-born, who dared to create significant, often controversial work in a theater-backwater town owned by movies and television. In 1967, he opened the Taper with nothing less troublemaking than “The Devils,” John Whiting’s adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel about lust and heresy in the 17th century Catholic Church. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, walked out at intermission.
Davidson brought deaf actors into the theater with “Children of a Lesser God,” gave a major showcase for Chicano theater with “Zoot Suit,” produced anti-Vietnam plays before they were safe history and commissioned Anna Deavere Smith to build a theater piece around interviews about the L.A. riots. He also had the guts and foresight to present the first complete two-part production of “Angels in America.”
He was the only artistic director I knew to hang out in the lobby of the theater on opening nights to greet the critics. Davidson was frequently called the Joseph Papp of the West Coast, and, despite the differences, the titans each had guts, social conscience and a wicked sense of humor.
Michael Ritchie, his successor, wrote recently in American Theatre about something Davidson called the “rubber band theory.” That is, when Davidson first came to Los Angeles, he planned to stay for a few months until, as Ritchie put it, “the rubber band of reality snapped him back to the place where he and every other self-respecting theater artist belonged: New York.
Theaters around the country — in Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, San Francisco, Houston — have grown into an oddly shaped aggregate that some have called America’s own national theater. Not long ago, Davidson passed on the rubber band theory to Ritchie. “If you are lucky,” he told him with typical unflagging enthusiasm, “yours will break as well.”