A Star Is Born! A West Side Theater’s Reborn

Once in a long while, we see a young, virtually unknown performer onstage and we’re made to feel truly alive in their extraordinary presence. They literally radiate. We fall in love with their raw talent, because it is still in the making, still on the more innocent cusp of great things. But it is unmistakably there-as in “they’ve got ‘it'”-that indefinable, magnetic, God-given talent we know as star quality.

A lady named Heather Headley has got “it,” all right. She’s the first musical performer I’ve seen in memory about whom I’d say, If she doesn’t make it, we all better give up and go home. She has everything, including great beauty and sex appeal. She’s the most exciting stage presence since Lena Horne.

That’s some claim, I know. And Ms. Headley’s musical range has yet to be put to the fire, if she’s to compete with Lena Horne’s musicality at the highest levels. But the moment she walked on stage during Do Re Mi , the last of this season’s City Center Encores, I was scrambling through the cast list in my Playbill to find out who this astonishing feline creature could be.

In Do Re Mi she was playing the ingénue role of a waitress, Tilda, who becomes a famous singer in this 1960 musical comedy about-if you please-a schlemiel named Hubert who wants to be a jukebox tycoon. They don’t write them like this anymore, more’s the pity. Phil Silvers played Hubert in the original production; Nathan Lane-in top form, the funniest he’s been since Guys and Dolls -plays him in this concert version. Music by Jule Styne; lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; book by Garson Kanin with a fun adaptation by David Ives. Quite the team. I loved every dopey moment of it, wishing only that I could see it all over again, like tonight!

And Heather Headley? I’d seen her before! The Playbill listings told us that she’s currently playing Nala in The Lion King . She has understudied in Ragtime , appeared in a couple of regional shows-that’s all. But Nala? One thinks: Nala who? Is she a lion cub? Simba’s sister? Nala, Nala, Nala … I reviewed the show when it opened, but I can’t remember the role, or even Ms. Headley. Could anyone name or recognize just one lead performer in The Lion King ?

Exactly! Ms. Headley no doubt plays Nala beautifully, but she’s a cute Julie Taymor half-animal, an animated artwork in a blockbuster Disney musical for all the family. She isn’t human or real. She cannot be herself-her divine self.

Contemporary musicals have no humanity in them. (They profess to.) The Civil War hasn’t a single authentic character, only types and stereotypes; Ragtime is another history lesson, but it has all the real flesh and blood of a corporate logo; something like Footloose belongs to the Stone Age; and It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is described everywhere as a musical, but it ain’t. It’s a provincial cabaret, or dutiful recital-and it ain’t nothin’ but the blues, either, unless you think Patsy Cline is John Lee Hooker in disguise.

The long-closed Parade isn’t winning every best musical award in sight because the world has suddenly perceived its merit. It’s winning because it has nothing to beat. The pleasure of the City Center’s Great American Musicals in Concert series isn’t just in reminding us that there were great American musicals (or even minor classics and thoroughly enjoyable oddities). They also remind us of the exciting possibilities-of what could still gloriously happen. We all feel, for example, that there’s more talent onstage in City Center shows like Do Re Mi than we can currently see on any Broadway stage.

There’s more charm on winning display at City Center, too, and far more spontaneity and wit than Broadway offers. Jule Styne knew how to swoon into a love song (“Make Someone Happy”); and Ms. Comden and Mr. Green could write a madcap number titled “What’s New at the Zoo.” Who writes insanely eccentric songs anymore? Who has fun? Because of time and budget constraints, the City Center series can’t be overproduced, over- rehearsed, overdirected or overwrought. Which puts us over the moon. These wonderful shows return the sheer intoxicating pleasure of performing to the musical stage.

That’s their secret and why we love them. (The previous City Center outing, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 , was a rare clunker. Nineteen thirty-six wasn’t a very good year.) To see in Do Re Mi the romantic ease and humor of Brian Stokes Mitchell, released from the one-dimensional bondage of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime , confirms the unrestricted possibilities of giving back the musical to the performers themselves. We tire now of pseudo-Epics and Big Statements as much as we always have of pseudo-operas and cartoons and musicals that aren’t musicals. In the performer is the future. Mr. Mitchell’s show-stopping duets with Heather Headley were like watching a relaxed master with an enchanting, feverishly gifted pupil. But very soon, there’ll be nothing to teach her.

The new, chic Second Stage Theater on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street has been designed by the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and I’d take bets that Mr. Koolhaas prefers movies to theater. In association with New York architect Richard Gluckman and theater design consultant Joshua Dachs, he has designed a coldly minimalist postmodern screening room rather than a theater for the millennium.

Any new theater that’s built in the city should be celebrated, of course. But not blindly. On first viewing, I liked its spare, modest simplicity-its deliberately industrial neo-space age renunciation of 19th-century cherubs and gilt plush, the Edwardian frou-frou legacy of plastic nymphs and chandeliers. The new Second Stage Theater, carved out of a former bank in the heart of the theater district, is no exercise in nostalgia. But how modern is it, really?

It remains essentially and disappointingly a 19th-century proscenium-arch theater. The materials used are one thing. But there’s nothing futuristic about seats that face a stage. Movie houses are designed that way, even chic ones; and most theaters, too. The new Second Stage Theater fails to smash through the conventions to make the entire space highly flexible and changeable. The future of new theaters is in their immense adaptability. New writers demand new spaces and configurations. But Mr. Koolhaas hasn’t seized the moment.

The stage itself is too wide, but it can be played with. The seats are permanently fixed: The environment can’t be transformed into mutating new areas and new audience perspectives. More and more, leading directors and artists are trying to step way beyond the confines of conventional spaces in order to shake up the status quo and make theater excitingly new. But Mr. Koolhaas’ static design won’t let them.

It matters less that the seats themselves are too narrow and hard-edged, or that the leg room is ungenerous. (But it does matter.) Still, I’ve usually found that the discomfort of seats grows-or decreases-directly in proportion to what’s happening onstage. Which, in the beginning and the end, is the point. In that sense, it matters little whether Mr. Koolhaas’ soundproof 12-foot-tall windows within the auditorium are a daring breakthrough, like having windows in a casino. Because the moment the show starts, Mr. Koolhaas’ postmodern gold velour window curtains with the steel studs are drawn, and all eyes are on the stage.

This may be the first theater auditorium in history with windows. But what of that? When the curtains are open, the view isn’t of a staggering cityscape, but of a brick wall. (There are more appropriate theater messages than brick walls.) But when the curtains are drawn, the auditorium is virtually the same as any other, facing a stage where we hope, beyond hope, that magic will always happen-whatever the theater design.

Not this time, I’m afraid. The inaugural production at the new Second Stage Theater is of Jason Miller’s 1972 That Championship Season . We need a revival of it about as much as we need another Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s difficult to believe that this soggy drama about the 20th annual reunion of a high school basketball team that all goes wrong was considered thought-provoking in its day. It’s a bewilderingly tame choice for Second Stage’s new era and new home. If this is the future, it’s backward.

A Star Is Born! A West Side Theater’s Reborn