theatre: Monsters on Broadway

New York has taken the blockbuster route to putting bums on seats. But size isn't everything.

Whether you're a lowly tourist or one of New York's finest, the dramatic question that dwarfs everything that Broadway has to offer is how come we didn't know that detergents beat dry-cleaning? Begging Oscar Hammerstein's pardon, if Monica had washed that man (or, rather, that dress) right out of her hair, Bill Clinton might not have had to face his spot of bother.

The other (possibly interrelated) question in the minds of theatre-goers is "does size matter?" According to Godzilla it does, but look what happened to that. Such box-office horrors aside, somewhere along the line Broadway got big. Very.

Disney - not exactly an organisation which subscribes to the "small is beautiful" principle - muscled in on the theatrical action with Beauty and the Beast. Four years and counting it has been cloned, sorry, restaged worldwide, but in Manhattan it's now strictly for slow-off-the-starting- blocks out-of-towners.

Sophisticated audiences are much more interested in Disney's follow-up. Julie Taymor's vividly theatrical re-imagining of The Lion King is a critical and box-office bonanza. Six Tony awards later, tickets are, shall we say, a trifle hard to come by. Bearing this in mind, a friend pitched up to the box-office last week and requested four tickets for 21 November. "Which year?" came the reply. My friend can have any seat she likes in 2000, there's limited availability in 1999, but don't even think about this year.

It's a similar story with the season's other monster hit, Ragtime. Even the press office couldn't rustle anything up for me. I was forced to wangle a ticket via someone who knows someone who... Ragtime received the kind of notices politely described as ecstatic. Following E L Doctorow's novel and the not altogether dissimilar Show Boat (1927) it dares to look race in the face, charting the three strands of the population at the turn of the century who made America: comfortable whites, oppressed blacks and struggling immigrants.

The seriousness of the creators' intent allied to the frankness of the show's populism - it's a musical, don't forget - across such a broad social canvas has won praise and awards from all quarters. Yet even to one who hasn't read the novel, Terrence McNally's text feels schematic and the production over-literal. But it works. Like Eugene Lee's rather unimaginative but efficient sets, the dovetailing of the plots is superbly engineered and Stephen Flaherty's music floods the action, rising to hugely emotional and highly dramatic climaxes. Londoners will see it all next March when it arrives at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Whether they will get the full 240 volts of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald as the black couple at the considerable heart of the story is another matter. Stokes has presence and dignity to die for (and a damn fine voice) but McDonald is something else. Her physical conviction is mesmerising, her voice simply thrilling, and the whole deal resulted in her third Tony award. And she's only 26.

The afternoon I saw it the show won a standing ovation but that, alas, means precisely nothing except "applause time". No longer the physical expression of true joy, catharsis or plain gratitude at outstanding work, Broadway standing ovations are now completely automatic: the curtain comes down, the audience stands up. It's that simple, and that meaningless. Why? We're back with scale. And cost.

Americans arriving in dollar-devouring London practically burst with glee when faced with London ticket prices. Brits, meanwhile, stand open- mouthed when faced with a $40 minimum for a Broadway show. Bearing in mind that compared with the West End, most Broadway houses resemble aircraft- hangers with added chandeliers, you won't want the cheap seats so you stump up for top whack, which turns out to be $75. That's pounds 50 to you and me.

It's tough on tourists. Imagine you've shelled out for a little old-fashioned spacious elegance by choosing the newly-restored Warwick hotel. You're in walking distance of Broadway but can you afford to see anything? And what percentage of New York's indigenous population can afford this outlay? For those who can, the amount involved has a peculiar knock-on effect. If punters have paid $150 for a pair of seats (plus transport and a sitter for the children) God forbid they might miss something or don't enjoy themselves. Consequently, nervous producers go for the big sell. Subtlety and understatement vanish beneath the need to underline gags or drive home sentiment.

On the other side of the footlights, audiences want value for money. Consequently they are determined to prove to themselves that their money has been spent wisely. This accounts for the - to British ears - extraordinary amount of mutterings of approval at key points which suggests the acceptance of dramatic spoonfeeding and/or an appreciation of the budget, as opposed to being drawn in to the drama. Hence the ovation phenomenon.

There was plenty of leaping out of seats at the end of Twelfth Night at Lincoln Centre. Were I a design correspondent, I too would have been on my feet. Bob Crowley has heeded Feste's song "And the rain it raineth every day". He's developed his glorious rain-soaked set for the disgracefully underrated The Prince's Play at the National, relocated it to India, built vanishing-vista walkways over exquisitely lit pools, saturated it luminous blues and silken purples and created one of the most ravishing sets I've ever seen.

Director Nicholas Hytner is out to enchant and the rhythm and tone of his production are all of a piece but few of his starry actors can meet it. The best performances are Brian Murray's boisterously characterised Toby Belch and Max Wright's dishevelled dandy of an Aguecheek, but nearly everyone else plays one note throughout. Bizarrely, as Viola, Helen Hunt's sincerity (so powerful in the otherwise bogus As Good As It Gets) is her downfall. It comes across as earnest, and her almost uninflected delivery robs the text of light and shade, while Kyra Sedgwick plays Olivia's entire journey within a single scene leaving her with nothing to do but overplay her hand.

At first sight, A New Brain at Lincoln Centre's smaller venue looks like it too might be a case of overstatement. What chance an autobiographical musical about a composer struck down with a brain tumour? In fact William Finn's intimate show succeeds through its unexpected comic tone and smart line in bathos. A little of that would have done wonders for Bob Fosse's half-brilliant, half horribly portentous All That Jazz which followed a similar path detailing Fosse's own heart attack.

Graciela Daniele's crisp direction and choreography makes up for her unleavened musical staging in Ragtime and the classily performed show has rare and genuine charm. Finn's genial score bounces through doo-wop and Motown to late-night piano displaying a flowing instinct for wordsetting and frames thoughts about life and death, art and love with aplomb.

It ain't Dostoevsky, but that's good news, at least for Miss Riverton, who thinks he's the same guy as Stalin when confronted by her boss in the first of the delicious trilogy which is Power Plays. Two of these are written by Elaine May and the third is by Alan Arkin. Both writers also appear in them alongside their offspring - May's daughter Jeannie Berlin and Arkin's son Anthony - both of whom have inherited their parent's gifts. It sounds horribly incestuous but in fact it's a feast of comic writing with blissful performances all round. If Arkin's play - a dark, increasingly surreal fantasy about two working men - had the name David Mamet on it everyone would pay it serious attention. As it is, this hit production shows no sign of flagging, if only because of May's return to Broadway.

Long before Eddie Izzard was even born (1960 to be precise) she made her name improvising comic masterpieces alongside Mike Nichols - yes, that Mike Nichols, the film director of everything from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Primary Colors, which he and May co-wrote. Watching all four in the helplessly funny dental farce at the close of the evening proves that if size is important, I'll have it small and perfectly formed, thank you.

`Ragtime', Ford Centre for the Performing Arts (001-212-307 4450); `Twelfth Night' & `A New Brain', Lincoln Centre (001-212-239 6200); `Power Plays', (001-212-580 1313)

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