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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Spring theater revivials include 'Les Miserables,' 'Cabaret,' more

Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean in

Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables." Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Surely I can't be the only theatergoer to whom the words "again?" and "so soon?" appear when I study the Broadway lineup these days.

I know that time is said to fly faster as one's years pile up. But really? It is time already for this spring's major revivals of "Cabaret," "Les Misérables" and "A Raisin in the Sun"? Isn't it awfully soon for another "Noises Off" and "The Real Thing," both of which are scheduled for next season?

There is almost nothing on this list that I wouldn't like to see again sometime. But doesn't the premature return of a handful of plays and musicals give the wrong impression that the rest of our theatrical literature is a little, well, skimpy? Or that someone is playing it safe?

We all know that ticket prices are high and that audiences tend to like what they already like and that repetition helps the -- here's the word -- branding of familiarity into what can be marketed as classic.

There may be many reasons for a producer to decide to revive a project so soon -- you know, to re-revive it. From where I sit, I can see three. Audiences are hungry for it. A big star wants to do it. A creative team has a new concept for it.

Let's assume that all the people behind these revivals believe audiences are clamoring to see them again. I have my doubts, but let's assume it's true.

Now let's look closer. "Cabaret," which was a huge, delicious, multi-Tony winning success for the Roundabout Theatre from 1998 to 2004, turns Studio 54 back into the wicked Kit Kat Klub again April 24 with the audience drinking at little tables. This was a magnificent, creepy production and the career-making Broadway debut of Alan Cumming as the Emcee.

Cumming will do it all again, this time with Sally Bowles played by Michelle Williams (who was just at the start of TV's "Dawson's Creek" when the first revival opened with the late Natasha Richardson). Sam Mendes ("American Beauty" and much more) will again direct this landmark production, again with co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall ("Chicago," the movie).

Todd Haimes, Roundabout artistic director, explains the new/old "Cabaret" in a statement. "Sam, Rob and Alan bring back 15 years of experience and perspective to this material. ... A classic like 'Cabaret' should be seen at least every decade in the same way we see classic plays like 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'The Glass Menagerie.'"

OK, I might buy that, though I believe Broadway could give "Streetcar" and "Glass Menagerie" a rest for a while and take a chance on a few of the many other plays Tennessee Williams was writing all his life.

What about "A Raisin in the Sun"? Why revive Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama April 3, so soon after the stratospherically high-profile revival in 2004 (and 2008 ABC film) starring Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad? And with the same director, Kenny Leon?

The answer is simple enough. Denzel Washington wants to do it. Despite his being 59 and portraying a young man in his middle 30s, the actor wants it. As producer Scott Rudin told me after the revival was announced last summer, "Denzel came to us. He has a clear idea of how he wants to do it. Classics stay alive because a great actor or a great director wants to do them."

This is not the place to list the roles that Washington, who won a Tony in 2010 for "Fences," could have chosen. With the entire theater library at his feet, one of the most bankable and gifted stars in the world wants to return to Broadway as a man almost half his age. And so he shall. (Diahann Carroll, 78, was to have played his mother, but withdrew earlier this month citing the rigorous schedule. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, five years older than Washington, is his mother now.)

And here comes "Les Misérables," which only feels as if it never left. The musical ran from 1987 through 2003, then returned in late 2006 through early 2008.

Perhaps taking a cue from the Broadway producers of "Chicago," who turned the movie into a marketing advantage, Brit megaproducer Cameron Mackintosh clearly isn't letting last year's movie, much less Hugh Jackman, get the last high note.

Surprisingly, the "Les Miz" that opens March 23 isn't the same-old monster hit. Mackintosh has tossed out the staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird (and, as I understand it, the turntable) and hired two less venerable directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell, and a new design team to re-imagine the show.

Why, you may well ask? As Mackintosh told the Toronto Star before the new version's pre-Broadway run last fall, "You can't do something better than the original versions. ... But what you can do is create something new and good and different that gives the audience just as much pleasure in a different way and reminds them how much they appreciate the material."

This is bold. And reviews from Toronto and Chicago have been enthusiastic. Mackintosh, who is also behind new versions of "Miss Saigon" and "The Phantom of the Opera," says he is looking to a new generation. "In the last 10 years," he said, "the growth of interest in the theater from young people has been enormous. ... The biggest component of British theatergoing audiences is 18 to 34."

Casting for that audience may be part of the reason for the Roundabout's revival of Tom Stoppard's brilliant domestic tragic-comedy, "The Real Thing," which will star Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor next fall. This sounds irresistible. Still, the play was here in 1984 with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close and in 2000 with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle. Sure, it hasn't been here in 14 years, but what about all the Stoppard we almost never see?

The Roundabout is also behind the January revival of Michael Frayn's backstage farce, "Noises Off," first hilariously here in 1983-85 starring Dorothy Loudon and back in 2001-2002, less hilariously, with Patti LuPone. Andrea Martin, who just had a Tony-winning triumph in "Pippin," has been cast, which sounds swell. Again, it has been a dozen years, but Frayn, an increasingly serious, provocative playwright, should be marveled at here for a lot more than a well-known farce.

Part of my job I've always loved is dealing with new work -- new voices and mature voices saying new things. It is a different sort of challenge than the ones facing music and ballet critics, who mostly analyze and compare interpretive differences in repeat performances of the same designated so-called great works. Yes, nobody says "again?" and "so soon?" about another Beethoven Ninth. But Broadway without new work is a museum.


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