Christine Ebersole
(Photo: Melanie Dunea)
Christine Ebersole
(Photo: Melanie Dunea)

The first major mystery of 2002 is, "What gives with Christine Ebersole?" One thing the 42nd Street star will not give, for now anyway, is performances.

At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, Ebersole seemed to pull a Cinderella and vanished from human gaze. She did her terrific cabaret act at Arci's Place--for New Year's, the tab was $250 a seat--but one observer said she appeared wan and depleted during the songs. The next thing you know, she canceled her Monday night extended run, leaving owner John Miller scrambling for a replacement booking. Then Ebersole requested--and received--an eight-week leave of absence from 42nd Street, the show that won her a long-overdue Tony as last season's Best Actress in a Musical. Her standby, Beth Leavel, will go on for her for the time being and a name player may run with it till Ebersole's return.

The powers-that-be are being very hush-hush about Ebersole's abrupt departure. A possible explanation may lie in her worksheet: She's toiled nonstop since she switched coasts, going from Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 for Encores! to Mame at the Paper Mill Playhouse to the TV film Mary and Rhoda to Current Events at Manhattan Theater Club to The Best Man on Broadway to a Will and Grace episode to A Connecticut Yankee for Encores! to 42nd Street at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts to the Monday gig at Arci's Place. What's more, she did crackerjack work in all of the above. So, give the girl a break!

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MUFTI GOES POOF-TI

More from the sudden announcements file: A week before opening night, York Theater has decided to postpone its spring Musicals in Mufti series, a tribute to the centenary of composer Richard Rodgers with productions of Me and Juliet, Androcles and the Lion, and By Jupiter. Each show was supposed to have one weekend of performances in January, but now all three have been moved to April.

Why the delay? Not sure. The press agent for the series cited "money problems" but declined to elaborate.

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Carolee Carmelloin Kiss Me, Kate(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Carolee Carmello
in Kiss Me, Kate
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A PAPER MILL KING AND A WELL-CAST WOODS

Gray skies are hovering over the Paper Mill Playhouse's upcoming production of The King and I these days--and I do mean Kevin Gray, who lorded it over Faith Prince so majestically in the last Broadway revival of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's 50-year-old classic and just finished playing the Engineer in a North Shore Music Theatre staging of Miss Saigon. The gifted Mr. Gray is thisclose to assuming his regal place of honor beside Carolee Carmello's Mrs. Anna in the Paper Mill reprise, April 3-May 19.

This doesn't give Carmello a lot of time to regain her ladylike composure after all those months of love-and-warfare in the Broadway Kiss Me, Kate, which finally came to a halt on Sunday; her hubby in that production, Burke Moses, would soon have been playing Theseus to Klea Blackhurst's Hippolyta in the Mufti take on By Jupiter, but see above. Carmello's husband in real life, Gregg Edelman, is playing Prince to Laura Benanti's Cinderella in Into the Woods.

Other freshly cast couples set to venture Into the Woods (beginning in February at L.A.'s Ahmanson and thereafter moving to Broadway's Broadhurst) are: Melissa Dye and Christopher Sieber as Rupunzel and her prince; Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley as the baker and his wife (the latter role is the show's crown jewel, and it won the wonderful Joanna Gleason a Tony); Adam Wylie and Fuddy Meers' fabulous Mary Louise Burke as Jack and his mother; Dennis Kelly and Pamela Myers as Cinderella's father and stepmother. Also: Molly V. Ephraim as Little Red Riding Hood, Jennifer Malenke as Sleeping Beauty, Kate Reinders as Snow White, and Tracy Nicole Chapman as Florinda. The production stars Vanessa Williams as the Witch and John McMartin as the Narrator.

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A HOME FOR CHILDREN

When the threat of legal action frightened Lincoln Center Theater away from The Last Five Years--Jason Robert Brown's first musical since his Tony-winning Parade--it left a Carlsbad Cavern kind of hole in LCT's spring agenda. But now that vacancy has been filled by The Carpetbagger's Children, bowing in March at the Mitzi Newhouse. Horton Foote's three-monologue piece stars the same trio who premiered it last fall in Houston: Jean Stapleton, Roberta Maxwell, and the author's daughter, Hallie Foote.

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THE CAST WE BELONG TO IS GRAND

Michael McCarty, the sugar-daddy producer in 42nd Street, and Ronn Carroll, who was Pawnee Bill in Annie Get Your Gun, have been adversarially cast as the farmer and the cowman who should be friends in the next R&H on the Broadway horizon: Oklahoma!

Meanwhile, Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller is sitting pretty in her favorite slot, Featured Actress in a Musical, which she has hit twice for Tony nominations--successfully (1993's My Favorite Year) and unsuccessfully (1997's Candide). Giving her a race for the Tony this season is Jessica Boevers as Ado Annie, that promiscuous little prairie flower who flits between a cowpoke (Justin Bohon's Will Parker) and a Persian con man (Aasif Mandvi's Ali Hakim).

Director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Susan Stroman are again using the Olivier Award-nominated Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and the Olivier Award-winning Jud (Shuler Hensley) they used in London. Hensley is American-born and Gabrielle will appear by permission of Actors' Equity Association, pursuant to an exchange program between American Equity and British Equity. Patrick Wilson is Curly.

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Eileen Heckart
Eileen Heckart
MAKING THE TURN

Eileen Heckart, who got an honorary Tony for Lifetime Achievement during her stage swan song in Off-Broadway's The Waverly Gallery, passed away on New Year's Eve. Her most famous theater roles were in The Bad Seed and Butterflies Are Free; she won an Oscar for her performance in the film adaptation of the latter.

Another much loved 82 year old, radio commentator and critic Casper Citron, died on New Year's Day. He and Heckart will be greatly missed.