Season's after-party steals the spotlight

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NEW YORK -- The final new Broadway offering to debut within this year's Tony cutoff deadline opened last week, with "110 in the Shade" pulling ecstatic reviews for Audra McDonald and officially ending the 2006-07 Broadway season. Final tally: 33 new productions -- including 11 new musicals, nine new plays and five musical revivals -- with such golden names as Angela Lansbury, Vanessa Redgrave, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Sondheim, Nathan Lane, Tom Stoppard, Harold Prince, Frank Langella, August Wilson, Christopher Plummer, Hugh Dancy, Brian Dennehy, Kevin Spacey, Ethan Hawke, Marian Seldes, Christine Ebersol, Billy Crudup, Kristin Chenoweth, Eve Best, Donna Murphy, Eugene O'Neill, Michael Cerveris, David Hyde Pierce and Kander & Ebb prominent in Playbills and making the local theater scene particularly enticing. The big surprise is that only days after "the season" ended, what came along was the most thoroughly enjoyable show to be seen in these parts in, what, the past 12 months? Two years? The seven years since 2001's Lane-Broderick version of "The Producers"? It was the latest "Encores!" offering, "Stairway to Paradise," toplining the above-mentioned Chenoweth among an amazingly talented troupe of 31, directed by Jerry Zaks. "Encores!" has made its vaulted reputation by doing affectionate redos of long-buried shows; "Stairway," by contrast, was an original, conceived by Jack Viertel as a mini-cavalcade of the once-revered revue format (songs, sketches, pretty girls, no plot) that was a Broadway staple until television came along in the 1950s and pirated it for that medium's (temporary) bread and butter. This "Encores!" culled many of the best parts of 29 revues, from the first "Ziegfeld Follies" show in 1908 (which introduced the song standard "Shine on Harvest Moon") to Leonard Sillman's "New Faces of 1952." What made revues great were the superb songwriters, the clever sketch writers and magnificent performers involved, and here this "Encores!" edition particularly triumphed. Chenoweth again proved to be a pint-sized giant among today's Broadway babies, born for the revue format if anyone ever was, deliciously showing off both her glass-shattering vocal range and her zany comedy skills. (She might eventually opt for a television career over the stage, but K.C. will never shine more brightly than she does when behaving like a Lilliputian Lucille Ball in front of a live theater audience.) Kevin Chamberlain, Christopher Fitzgerald and Capathia Jenkins also were individual standouts. And if today's theater were still a place where, as in eras past, one could become an overnight star by delivering one show-stopping number, such would be the fate of Kendrick Jones, an extraordinarily gifted young tap-dancer, on momentary loan to "Encores!" from the Opera Comique in Paris, where he's starring in "Looking for Josephine" (a revue about Josephine Baker). He was the "Stairway" showstopper. Overall, It made for a great evening in the theater, and there's more in the immediate future: "Encores!" will do a July 9-19 presentation, also at the City Center, of Sondheim's "Gypsy" with Patti LuPone, directed by Arthur Laurentis. And thereby hangs an curious showbiz tale, but, to quote a line that has been the final words spoken in three famous movies, "That's another story."
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