Theatre: How New York makes a song and dance about it all

Those who believe musicals are killing the West End will be horrified by the current state of Broadway. Yet David Benedict still found some splendid shows
THE GROTESQUE number of musicals clogging up London's glittering West End is scandalous, or so successive commentators would have you believe. Stuff and nonsense, of course, mere snobbery that holds that all musical theatre is lame-brained, crowd-pleasing tosh, that is unworthy of serious consideration.

Kenneth Tynan was promulgating this "news" as far back as the early Fifties. None the less, present-day journalists who should know better believe that the generally outsize theatres housing these musicals would and should be better engaged in presenting great drama. Fat chance. By comparison, however, a glance at the dismal range of material on Broadway gives one pause. There's not a single new play to be seen, and just four revivals. The most recent is Amadeus which obeys the Nineties rules of being a) tried and trusted: it won Ian McKellen the Tony award on its first appearance there almost 20 years ago; b) British and thus "classy"; and c) a transfer of a London hit which steadies the nerves of Broadway's risk-abhorring producers.

Happily for them, the all-important New York Times critic echoed the sentiments expressed on this page when Peter Hall's production opened here giving the Mozart of actor Michael Sheen the kind of star-making review that even his agent couldn't have dreamed of. Stars - preferably from the movies - are the essential ingredient for Broadway survival. Of the three other plays, only The Price can hold its head up with no household names attached, but that's by Arthur Miller, which is some kind of insurance. The 1950s play The Rainmaker boasts Woody Harrelson in the title role made famous by Burt Lancaster in the movie version. But even he is dwarfed by the stellar casting of Noel Coward's 1960 play Waiting in the Wings. No one in Britain has bothered to revive this large-cast (and, therefore, expensive), creaky so-called comedy about a bunch of retired actresses battling out their final days in a home - a blueprint for Ronald Harwood's shockingly similar Quartet, now at London's Albery Theatre.

The Coward estate knew that there wasn't a cat's chance in hell of anyone doing it cold so they persuaded Jeremy Sams to "revisit" the script to inject life into it. Then, to increase box-office potential, the producers rang round the more glamorous end of American Equity members over retirement age. They even did an availability check on Hollywood's Forties swimming sensation Esther Williams, for heaven's sake, she of Dangerous When Wet fame, but she was too busy basking in the good reviews for her autobiography Million Dollar Mermaid. And who did they wind up with? Lauren Bacall.

She treats the occasion like royalty dropping by for a state visit, swanning about dripping disdain, doing her lines and showing off her wardrobe.

The gloriously imperious Rosemary Harris (whose real-life daughter, Jennifer Ehle, will shortly join her on Broadway in The Real Thing) acts Bacall off the stage. They're surrounded by a clutch of strong supporting performances, but despite Sams's neat excisions and revisions, this is one star vehicle that is barely roadworthy.

Similar charges are almost upheld against the latest incarnation of the Sondheim compilation show, Putting It Together. The great Carol Burnett throws in her trademark sideways slapstick to light up comedy numbers and she reveals astonishing tenderness in the usually lightweight "Like It Was". When she locks horns with show-stoppers like "The Ladies Who Lunch" you virtually stop breathing.

Burnett's musical masterclass is matched by Audra McDonald in the title role of Marie Christine, a relocation of Medea to late-19th century New Orleans. Michael John LaChiusa's impassioned but over-elaborate music is not helped by his own book and lyrics which disastrously dwell for almost the entire first half on character alone, with drama finally arriving two minutes before the end. The second half has more drive and clarity and McDonald's bold passion grabs you by the throat, but you come away wishing a stronger director than Graciela Daniela had fashioned LaChiusa's promise into something more theatrically effective.

Structurally speaking, he could take a leaf out of Sam and Bella Spewack's book. Over 50 years ago they provided the quite ridiculously pleasing, ironclad framework for Cole Porter's masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate (pictured left) - the backstage musical about putting on a musical of The Taming of The Shrew. Director Michael Blakemore's splendid revival has real zip and flair and does the piece the honour of just getting on with it.

One of the characters has been changed (by John Six Degrees of Separation Guare) to overly bombastic and diminishing effect but in all other respects - notably the superb casting - this, you feel, is how it should be done. The carefully conventional choreography has its moments - Bill (Michael Berresse) does some jaw-dropping acrobatics to climb, no, swing his way to his true love - but for the visceral pleasure of dance you need to look further and I'm not talking about Saturday Night Fever, which has just opened to hostile reviews and queues for tickets from undiscerning audiences happy to relive disco fever at any price (well, $75).

They'd be much better off going to Swing! Okay, so this eyebrow-raising compilation of jumping jive, jitterbug and such from the Forties onwards won't win awards for authenticity, but it has none of the dishonest cynicism of the shoddy Fever. And when this winning company is sending the audience into the stratosphere, who gives a damn? And with a crack on-stage band and jazz diva Ann Hampton Callaway, you'd have to have a heart of granite not to have a good time.

There's more swing, in every sense, in Contact. The worst thing about this remarkable show is its subtitle. Writer John Weidman and choreographer/director Susan Stroman (known here for her inspirational work on Crazy for You and Oklahoma!) have conceived what they term "a dance play". This trio of dance-led tales is no more a play than works by Adventures in Motion Pictures but, at their best, the theatrical results of Stroman's imagination are unparalleled.

The extended final story of a hip, but lonely, yuppie video director dreaming of fulfilment and love in a bar while fighting with his downstairs neighbour, courts disaster in its structural only-a-dream flirtations but pulls back confidently from the brink with witty dialogue, satisfying plot twists and exhilarating choreography. The central piece, however, is a solid gold knockout.

Karen Ziemba, a dead ringer for Annette Bening in American Beauty, is a downtrodden Fifties wife out for dinner and dreaming of escape from, her Sopranos-esque mafia husband. Stroman fills the restaurant with couples and waiters, building laugh-aloud comedy from the wife's outlandish, danced fantasies. The split-second timing and sheer physical zest makes you giddy, offering up punch-drunk pleasures reminiscent of Twyla Tharp at her best. It isn't really a "dance play": it's just joyous.