In line for '09: 'Plan,' 'Hedda,' 'Bush' (it only seems like Cerveris is in them all)

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With "Shrek: The Musical" launched at the Broadway and "Pal Joey" kicking off Thursday at Studio 54, no more Broadway openings are scheduled before year's end.

But the 2009 action starts early: Prevues begin Jan. 2 on the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Take Me Out" playwright Richard Greenberg's "The American Plan" at the Samuel J. Friedman (until this year known as the Biltmore); it's followed Jan. 6 with prevues starting on the Roundabout's "Hedda Gabler," with Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Cerveris at the American Airlines; and Jan. 20, when Will Ferrell begins the prevue process in "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush" at the Cort.

Cerveris, for the record, is doing double duty, rehearsing Ibsen's "Hedda" by day and starring by night at the Public in "Road Show," a redo of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman "Bounce" (also known before that as "Wise Guys").

As much as I liked the original "Bounce" when I saw it in 2003 at the Goodman in Chicago and again when it had a run at D.C.'s Kennedy Center, this reshaping by Sondheim and Weidman, directed by John Doyle, is a spot-on improvement.

It immensely clarifies the story line based on the real-life battling Mizner brothers — one a major architect who shaped Boca Raton and Palm Beach, Fla., the other a rogue who became a Hollywood screenwriter — this time minimizing the sets to enormous effect, subtracting superfluous characters (the leading lady of "Bounce" has been scissored altogether) and allowing a stronger emphasis on Sondheim's music and lyrics.

Several of the songs from the earlier incarnation have been axed, and the once-title song has been reworked as a jaunty opener titled "Waste." Thankfully, two of the original "Bounce" songs that are among the best S.S. has ever written have been retained: "Isn't He Something!" and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened." The latter initially was presented as a come-on between the rascally Mizner to a dance hall hostess he's (temporarily) pursuing, but this time it's done as a genuine, soaring love ballad sung by the nicer Mizner brother to a man with whom he has entered a serious relationship.

Cerveris, who served Sondheim and Doyle so well in the recent Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," is magnificent as the shady bro, with Alexander Gemignani (the talented son of conductor Paul Gemignani) equally superb as the steadier sibling. No further plans have been announced for the future of "Road Show," but like many of the Sondheim shows that have preceded it, time will guarantee this one having legs and a lengthy life span.

And just wait until the singers of the world discover that song about "The Best Thing": It's one of Sondheim's finest, as well as one of his most accessible stand-alones.

Lively Liza

Something else that has made this month in New York especially glorious: "Liza's at the Palace," which has been extended yet again, through Jan. 4, turning a planned two-week run into a five-weeker.

First off, the lady looks sensational: trim, healthy, glowing. More important, she's in full control. There's no doubt this time that she's going to make it, full-steam, through the entire show, despite some self-effacing references to her age (62).

I've seen Liza in action going all the way back to her first New York stage appearance — in 1963, off-Broadway in "Best Foot Forward" — and have seen her in ace form before, but never as much of a knockout as in this Palace stanza. People will be talking about this turn for years to come.

For those who can't shoehorn in during the next 16 days, the show already has been preserved on a Hybrid Recordings CD that I understand won't be available until February, except in the Palace lobby during this engagement.

Also highly recommended and something that already is available: "Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings" from Collector's Choice Music, which includes 51 Liza renditions from the rarely heard to the Minnelli essentials.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host of Turner Classic Movies.
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