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Broadway Preview: Steve Martin, Saoirse Ronan, Lupita Nyong’o Make Spring Debuts

THR looks ahead at the productions still to come in the 2015-16 theater season, starting Jan. 14 with 'Noises Off.'

The Broadway year got off to a buoyant start, with New Year’s box office yielding the best-attended and highest-grossing week in history. Close to 360,000 people caught a Broadway show during the week ending Jan. 3, generating a whopping $43 million in ticket sales.

In addition to holiday heavyweights like The Lion King, Wicked, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, the brisk trading can also be attributed to an unusually robust crop of fall openings that combined upbeat critical response with strong commercial appeal. That includes the Gloria and Emilio Estefan bio-musical, On Your Feet!; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s redo of the beloved Jack Black movie, School of Rock; and illuminating revivals of The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof.

Then, of course, there’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary powerhouse, Hamilton, which has ensured that empty seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre are a thing of the past, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. With $60 million in advance sales in the bank, the hip-hop historical musical has given Broadway a massive booster shot of pop-cultural relevance, which is good for business across the board.

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But the 2015-16 season is only at the halfway point, with another 17 productions so far scheduled to open between now and the cutoff date for Tony Awards eligibility on April 28. Expect one or two more as-yet-unannounced late entries to be added.

New musicals entering the fray include the first foray of singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles into theater; the return of Duncan Sheik, following Spring Awakening; and a show co-written by Steve Martin and built around his passion for bluegrass music.

Adapted from the 2007 indie sleeper hit that starred Keri Russell as an unhappily married Deep South diner server and gifted pie-maker, Waitress is written by Jessie Nelson, with a score by Bareilles and direction by Diane Paulus, a Tony-winner for Pippin. The first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team, it stars Jessie Mueller in her first major role since winning a Tony as Carole King in Beautiful. (Opens April 24, Brooks Atkinson Theatre.)

Benjamin Walker steps into the killer shoes of Patrick Bateman, the Manhattan investment banker with a taste for carnage, in the musical reworking of Bret Easton Ellis’ era-defining cult novel, American Psycho. Adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, with a score by Sheik, the dark satire of 1980s greed gone wild is directed by Rupert Goold, who earned stellar reviews this season for his staging of King Charles III. (Opens April 24, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.)

Carmen Cusack in ‘Bright Star’

Martin wrote the book and co-wrote the score with composer-lyricist Edie Brickell for Bright Star, inspired by a true story and set in the American South in the 1920s and ’40s. Walter Bobbie directs newcomer Carmen Cusack as a literary editor who meets a young soldier just back from World War II in an encounter that transforms both their lives. (Opens March 24, Cort Theatre.)

Natalie Babbitt’s beloved children’s novel about a young girl who stumbles upon a family’s secret of eternal life, which became a 2002 Disney movie, is now the source of the musical fable Tuck Everlasting. Claudia Shear and Tim Federle adapted the book, with music from the team of composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen. A whimsical story set in the late 19th century, the family-friendly show will be shepherded by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, already represented on Broadway with The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten! The cast includes Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. (Opens April 26, Broadhurst Theatre.)

On a much lighter note comes Disaster!, a musical spoof of cataclysmic 1970s Hollywood thrillers like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, loaded with vintage pop, rock and disco hits from the era. Written by popular Broadway radio host Seth Rudetsky (who also features in the cast) and Jack Plotnick (who also directs), the comedy assembles an impressive crew of New York stage veterans, including Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal and Rachel York. (Opens March 8, Nederlander Theatre.)

The jury is still out on whether one of the most eagerly awaited entries of the season will be considered a new musical or a revival. Either way, it has the longest title: Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Written and directed by the estimable George C. Wolfe, and choreographed by tap maestro Savion Glover, the show, as its title suggests, revisits the jazz-age musical by the vaudeville songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, which became an unlikely smash in Depression-era New York. It also boasts a cast of Broadway’s finest, with six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald flanked by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. (Opens April 21, Music Box Theatre.)

Falling more neatly into the revival category is She Loves Me, the 1963 musical based on the same Hungarian play that spawned the Ernst Lubitsch screen classic, The Shop Around the Corner. Written by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret), the romantic comedy features a score by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, a duo already represented on Broadway this season by Fiddler on the Roof. Directed by Scott Ellis, She Loves Me will star Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi as the story’s unwitting sweethearts, alongside Jane Krakowski, Gavin Creel and Byron Jennings. (Opens March 3, Studio 54.)

On the nonmusical side, two new plays will ride in on a wave of superb reviews from their off-Broadway premieres in the fall.

The lack of an available theater nixed a planned Broadway transfer of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet in 2011. But the timing has been more fortuitous with his new work, The Humans, a richly nuanced tragicomedy about the sorrows and secrets of a Pennsylvania family gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving, laced with disquieting hints of the supernatural. Directed by Joe Mantello, the play’s flawless ensemble includes Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed and Sarah Steele. (Opens Feb. 18, Helen Hayes Theatre.)

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed in ‘The Humans’

Another stellar ensemble populates Eclipsed, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o in her first New York stage role. Written by Danai Gurira (best known as Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead) and directed by Liesl Tommy, this compassionate, affecting and unexpectedly humorous drama takes us deep inside the harrowing conflict of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Given the under-representation of women playwrights on Broadway, the arrival of this bold new work with its all-female creative team, and its trenchant theme of women’s struggle for survival with dignity, commands attention. (Opens March 6, John Golden Theatre.)

The same could be said for any vehicle that brings the wonderful Linda Lavin back to Broadway. Our Mother’s Brief Affair is an intimate comedy-drama by Richard Greenberg about the after-effects of a woman’s shocking confession to her grown children. Lynne Meadow, who directed the 2013 premiere of Greenberg’s exquisite The Assembled Parties, reteams with the playwright on a work originally written for the late great Jill Clayburgh. (Opens Jan. 20, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.)

Another respected Broadway veteran, Frank Langella, stars in French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father. Adapted by Christopher Hampton and directed by Doug Hughes, the Pinteresque drama centers on a retired dancer living with his adult daughter and her husband — at least that initially appears to be the situation — as he grapples with his declining mental faculties. (Opens April 12, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.)

Jeremy Shamos, Kate Jennings Grant, David Furr, Andrea Martin and Campbell Scott in ‘Noises Off’

First up among the play revivals is Michael Frayn’s ingeniously structured backstage farce, Noises Off, originally seen on Broadway in 1983 and again in 2002. Staged by Jeremy Herrin, the new production stars Campbell Scott as the volatile director of the play-within-the-play, Nothing On; Andrea Martin as his fading, forgetful star; and a company of talented New York theater pros that includes Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, David Furr, Megan Hilty, Kate Jennings Grant, Rob McClure and Jeremy Shamos as the frenetic cast and crew. (Opens Jan. 14, American Airlines Theatre.)

Jeff Daniels drew rave reviews off-Broadway in 2007 in Scottish playwright David Harrower’s intense two-hander, Blackbird. Starring opposite Alison Pill, Daniels played a man trying to move on with his life, confronted by a young woman with whom he had an illicit sexual relationship many years earlier, when she was underage. Working with the same director, Joe Mantello, Daniels returns to the play, this time co-starring with Michelle Williams in what promises to be a combustible match. (Opens March 10, Belasco Theatre.)

Anyone who has experienced Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s thrilling current revival of A View From the Bridge (and if you haven’t, get tickets) will be salivating at the prospect of his take on another Arthur Miller classic, The Crucible, which uses the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century as a stinging allegory for McCarthyism. Then there’s that cast to pump up anticipation, including Saoirse Ronan, fresh off her star-making turn in Brooklyn, with Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds and Jim Norton. If that’s not enough, there’s also an original score by Philip Glass. (Opens April 7, Walter Kerr Theatre.)

Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in ‘Blackbird’

Another deluxe cast will flesh out Jonathan Kent’s production of another towering American classic, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. play the conflicted Tyrone family, drawn from the playwright’s own unhappy personal history and plagued by addiction, dysfunction, resentment and corrosive secrets. (Opens April 27; American Airlines Theatre.)

That play is one of two major O’Neill revivals in the pipeline, to be preceded by Hughie. Forest Whitaker makes his Broadway debut as the boozing small-time gambler who haunts a shabby New York City hotel lobby in summer 1928, trying to dodge his demons while regaling the night desk clerk with tales of his past. Michael Grandage directs the production, which also features Frank Wood. (Opens Feb. 26, Booth Theatre.)

While Hughie is essentially a monologue, it involves the interaction of a second character, but there’s no mistaking the virtuosic solo nature of Fully Committed. That 1999 comedy about New York’s high-end restaurant world will star Jesse Tyler Ferguson (back on Broadway for the first time since Modern Family premiered), channeling multiple roles as a reservations clerk and the various management, staffers and customers in his frazzled orbit. Staged by Avenue Q director Jason Moore, who’s been busy in Hollywood on Pitch Perfect and Sisters, the play has been updated by writer Becky Mode to reflect Manhattan’s ever-evolving foodie culture. (Opens April 25, Lyceum Theatre.)

Finally, it opens a month after the Tony eligibility cutoff so strictly speaking belongs on a 2016-17 season roundup, but this spring will also see the arrival of Cirque du Soleil on Broadway with Paramour. More than the company’s string of Vegas shows, this production aims to fuse avant-circus spectacle with a musical-theater love story. Performed by a cast that mixes dramatic actors and dancers with acrobats and aerialists from 13 different countries, it’s directed by Philippe Decoufle. (Opens May 25, Lyric Theatre.)