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Out of the Woods



Spooooky story time, kiddies. And not only did this one actually happen--it still does. For there are misshapen creatures out there in the dark, denied their dream of home, doomed to roam the countryside forever. Driven away from the bright lights of the big city, they surface without warning after dark, in small out-of-the-way places, bewildering villagers with murky gestures, strange sounds and labored, futile attempts to communicate. Then they vanish--until their backers come up with more funds to keep the show in development.

Those eerie booos you hear when they're nearby? Statements of taste, actually.

For a while we feared the same fate for the musical version of Little Women. The tortuous path from a children's theater company on New York's Seventh Avenue to the Virginia Theater, literally just around the corner on 52nd Street, spanned 12 years, several states, two continents (almost)--and two different scores, when the original composer and librettist were sacked after the show won the Richard Rodgers Development Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998. Optimistic press releases predicted a New York opening first in 2000. Then a Christmas opening in London. Then New York in late 2001, after a series of staged readings, including one in March that year at Duke.

Flash forward, three and a half years later. Little Women's ticket finally punched, it begins Broadway previews Dec. 7. Duke's dates mark its final approach.

I'm expecting it will be a smash. This carefully calibrated family show has been systemically tweaked toward mass taste. Even so, it amazingly still maintains in large part the spontaneity of Jo March, the free-spirited young writer who's its central character.

Much of this is no doubt due to Sutton Foster's exuberant performance in that role. Allan Knee's book wisely plunges us into Jo's blood-and-thunder melodramas from the start, alternating between the realities of frugal family life during the Civil War and the vivid world of her imagination. Though Jason Howland's music and Mindi Dickstein's lyrics seem Broadway boilerplate in places, they score with the amusing melodrama of "An Operatic Tragedy" in act one, and Jo's similarly-pitched exploits in "The Weekly Volcano Press" in act two. Sister Beth's plaintive "Some Things Are Meant to Be" and Marmee's "Days of Plenty"--convincingly sung and acted here by Maureen McGovern--stand out as well.

Set designer Derek McLane's magic attic transforms into French parapets, boarding houses and country gardens. But this production convinces as it shows a vivid young woman negotiating the precarious passages from adolescence to adulthood, while miraculously hanging on to her dreams of literature--and independence. That, in itself, is little less than astonishing.

**** The Dead , Burning Coal--The results are now in writing: Joycean pedants despise the liberties Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have taken with the famous last chapter of Dubliners. Here's why we should ignore them: Even with a problematic end and an Irish folk music score marred by one show tune too many, this work remains its own separate vision of Joyce's world. And anytime a show creates a place and time this palpable, this warm (and suddenly cold), it's unmissable, even if its script violates the sacred scripture. The region's acting students--and a number of its directors--should be required to study the dynamics of organic ensemble present here, and indelible performances by Quinn Hawkesworth, Jan Doub Morgan and Deb Royals indicate what talented actors can accomplish--that is, when a gifted director challenges them. No, I can't entirely agree with this adaptation, but this production's clear achievements in design, music, ensemble acting and direction demand something besides the instant dismissal of Joycean fundamentalists--who, passing strange, have regularly countenanced far profounder mediocrities at other personally sacred venues. (Kennedy Theater, BTI Center. Through Oct. 24. $15-$13. 834-4001.)

**** Underneath the Lintel , ArtsCenter Stage--J. Chachula has aged well--at least as the Librarian in this enhanced revival of Flying Machine's one-man show from last October. Then, we praised Glen Berger's shaggy-dog script, in which a Dutch librarian follows a tantalizing trail of clues in an elliptical odyssey, teasing out a 2,000-year-old religious mystery from the pages of a seriously overdue book. We also questioned the young man in old man's clothing on the night we saw it. Not anymore. This nimble production still amuses with wry, self-deprecating wit, but the wear and mileage are both apparent now in the curious exhibits the librarian presents--and in the man himself. In chasing a mythic figure that a vengeful god has tried to erase, our host makes us ponder the ways we all ultimately disappear. Strongly recommended. (Through Oct. 24. $14-$12. 929-ARTS.)

*** Frankenstein , Temple Theatre--Those who know the story of the electrically reanimated man from ancient horror flicks are in for a shock from this occasionally circuitous new adaptation. The final results are far from revolting. (Sorry; just a few of my, um, current jokes.) In David Blakely's script the "monster" arguably possesses more integrity and taste than the creator who abandons him, first out of physical weakness, and then apparently on the basis of aesthetics. Though there's no shortage of sudden scares, there's more than a note of Jack Palance in Thomas Dalton's creature, in a show buttressed by strong supporting performances from Mark Filiaci, Eric Carl and Bob Barr. Lyrical moments in Jerry Sipp's staging merge fever dream, memory and present action. But the script still flirts with the long-windedness of Mary Shelley's novel. And the ghost of Colin Clive still haunts the doctor's role. This show presents an ethically weak Victor Frankenstein who refuses to claim his "experiment" until it's destroyed everything he values. Actor Michael Brocki and director Jerry Sipp's interpretation replaces the obsessed, doomed romantic genius with a not entirely compelling substitute: a Milquetoast nice-guy science wonk who faints when the going gets rough and then runs from his responsibility. (120 Carthage St., Sanford. Through Halloween night. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

**1/2 Miami City Ballet, Duke Performances--Want a recipe for a weird dance sandwich? Place some salt-cured Tharp between two pieces of Balanchine, one of which has already turned soft. Serve carefully--preferably out of town. Though Balanchine has leads Mikhail Ilyin and a mugging Mary Carmen Catoya neatly invert expectations and gender roles at points in Ballo Della Regina, sloppy execution in the corps marred the work. After that fallen souffle came the most self-congratulatory piece of choreography I've seen in some time: Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. First, truth in advertising: seven duets (with two reprises) are placed on eight tunes in this work. After the first three movements, the couples in them reiterate their gestures in the fourth--to Sinatra's "My Way." Then Tharp repeats the gambit in the final movement, with seven couples from the previous sections--to the same song. Obviously we're presumed to be so enchanted with the preceding work that we actually want to see it É one É more É time! Well, uh, thanks. But actually I saw plenty the first time--particularly of "That's Life," the turgid tribute to abusive relationships that provoked Mark Morris to scream "No more rape" during its premiere at the American Dance Festival. After such pandering to mass taste, the evening was not entirely redeemed at the end by a spirited version of the comparatively modern Stravinsky Violin Concerto. (Closed Oct. 14.)

** Fourth Annual One-Act Festival, Company Carolina--The two-minute improvs and theater games from Chicago's Neo-Futurists were witty, refreshing and iconoclastic. But the same genius who programmed a 2 3/4-hour theater marathon without a single intermission decided to close it with the evening's heaviest work. In 1935, Clifford Odet's Waiting for Lefty marked a major milestone in the theater of social conscience. Cramming it in at the end of this overstuffed evening reduced it to soap opera and non-sequiturs. Criminal. (Closed Oct. 12.).

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