‘Tis the season to be a diva. Julie Andrews, 60, is back on Broadway after a 30-year go at movie stardom. Carol Burnett, 62, is back after 30 years in the TV wars. And Carol Channing, 74, is back in Hello, Dolly! after 30 years of doing…well, Hello, Dolly! But getting a show to Broadway, as the current crop of divas has discovered, is no dressing room full of roses. Channing toured arduously on the road for a year and a half in this current production of Dolly!, generating buzz and perfecting the show (as if she needed practice). Once she arrived, critics were kind — except New York’s John Simon, who observed that the original 1964 production ”starred Carol Channing sounding like a Carol Channing with a frog in her throat. Now…it stars a Carol Channing sounding like a frog with Carol Channing in its throat.”
Andrews and husband Blake Edwards, who wrote and directed this musical version of his 1982 movie Victor/Victoria, were at first cold-shouldered by some producers — they liked Andrews but doubted Edwards’ abilities as a stage director and thought the music was just awful. Finally, the show got its backing and opened last month. Sure enough, critics liked Andrews but doubted Edwards’ abilities as a stage director and thought the music was just awful.
As for Burnett, her comedy Moon Over Buffalo underwhelmed Boston audiences, who wanted to see more of her. So playwright Ken Ludwig scrambled to beef up what had been a supporting role and include her beloved physical shtick from TV. No, she still doesn’t do her Tarzan yell — but the play is a hit.
Even with their shows up and running, these legends are now engaged in an Olympian box office struggle to determine who will be truly triumphant. Heating up the competition are the neo-divas: Patti LuPone (in Patti LuPone on Broadway) and Betty Buckley (in Sunset Boulevard). Of course, age counts for something. Then again, nobody ever accused a frog of having LuPone in its throat.
NEW ON BROADWAY
Company The Teflon musical. Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 masterpiece still evokes awe and joy even when it’s stuck in this ill-conceived and aimless production. Scott Ellis, a usually on-the-mark director, succeeds in whitewashing Sondheim’s ambivalent, dark take on commitment and monogamy, while Boyd Gaines, who can be an appealing leading man, too often fails at hitting the notes. C
Hello, Dolly! Even as you’re hoping Carol Channing won’t tumble down that staircase, you find yourself smiling with joy and respect at her dauntless devotion to the role. And after nearly 4,500 performances as Dolly Levi, she still manages to move the audience to multiple and heartfelt standing ovations. God bless her. B
Moon Over Buffalo Broadway’s funniest show happens to also be a somewhat lazily constructed backstage farce about a low-rent husband-and-wife acting team from the ’50s. What’s so good about it? Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco sparring, boozing, tumbling, and slipping toward greatness. And we live in hope of seeing Shirley Jones and Marty Ingels do the national tour. B
Patti LuPone on Broadway Unceremoniously dumped from the New York production of Sunset Boulevard after starring in the musical in London, LuPone finally gets some respect with this richly staged concert, which runs through Dec. 31. Backed by a talented male quartet, LuPone — the best belter since Ethel Merman — pumps out Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, and Sondheim with humor, poignancy, and charm. For your money, it’s the best two hours of music on Broadway. A
Sacrilege The estimable Ellen Burstyn stars as a nun fighting for the right of women to enter the priesthood. After this tediously polemical drama by Diane Shaffer, nuns may have a hard time getting into the theater, as well. C-
Sunset Boulevard When Betty Buckley replaced Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in July, all of New York (or at least the few locals who still go to see Broadway shows) was divided on who made a better Norma. Some favored Buckley, who can sing (wow, can she sing!). But I say that the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (with lyrics by Don Black) isn’t really worth singing, and that Close was better at scenery chewing. John Napier’s monstrous, acrobatic set remains a tour de force. B
Swinging on a Star This interminable revue of lyricist Johnny Burke’s songs (”Pennies From Heaven,” ”Misty”) stars a fine group of singers, but the songs all begin to sound like one long lullaby after a while, and the production is too cutesy, too cloying, and too eager to please — sort of like a big musical version of Meg Ryan in French Kiss. C-
The Tempest Director George C. Wolfe’s technically triumphant and flamingly vibrant production (supporting cast members parade about on sky-high stilts) stars Patrick Stewart as a likable, complex, and altogether fascinating Prospero. And Mario Cantone, a stand-up comic extraordinaire, turns the clownish Stephano into a hilarious, schizoid mosaic — all drunken, quixotic rage, with some of Cantone’s trademark impressions subtly tossed in. Even Norma Desmond and Paul Lynde make brief appearances. A
Victor/Victoria Julie Andrews reprises her 1982 movie role as a woman imitating a female impersonator. Rob Marshall’s choreography and sparky sexpot Rachel York give this musical adaptation a jolt, but they can’t make up for writer-director Blake Edwards’ insipid book and the dull songs by Henry Mancini, Frank Wildhorn, and Leslie Bricusse. Andrews still has a fresh and glowing stage presence. But her voice — how do I say this politely? — isn’t what it used to be. C+
Zoe Caldwell — ‘Master’ Thespian
Imagine John Wayne in a Chanel suit. That’s how Zoe Caldwell carries herself in her funny and spellbinding performance as the mercurial opera titan Maria Callas in Master Class. Caldwell, who last appeared on Broadway in 1986’s Lillian, has already been unofficially declared a no-contest winner in a Tony race that won’t end until next spring. Her intricate performance is carefully displayed in Terrence McNally’s play — the most talked-about event of the season and McNally’s most consistently affecting work so far. As she listens to three opera students, Callas is transported into her past by the arias of Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini. And the direction, by Leonard Foglia, is as elegantly simple as the play itself. Alone in a spotlight, Callas relives moments in her volatile career and tortured relationship with Aristotle Onassis. What unfolds is a lovely symphony of pathos, swelling with Callas’ own operatic passion and arrogance, underscored by her everyday heartbreak and longing.