Hugh Jackman as The Boy From Oz
Hugh Jackman as The Boy From Oz
Summer's not officially over for a couple of weeks yet, but as far as New York theater is concerned, the fall can't get started too soon. Lots of shows, both new and familiar, will open between now and December. If you're having a hard time keeping them all straight, or if you just want a heads-up on what's opening when, this fall preview will give you a hand.

The 2003-2004 Broadway season has already seen three openings, the first two of which were revivals. The Roundabout Theatre Company production of "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys has closed but Roundabout/Deaf West's Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will continue its run at the American Airlines Theatre through September 21. And with the kind of raves the season's first new musical -- the people-and-puppet extravaganza Avenue Q -- received from the critics, it's likely to be around quite a bit longer than only for now.

Between now and the end of the year, there are no fewer than 16 Broadway openings scheduled. First up is the midtown premiere of the smash 1982 Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, starring Urinetown's Hunter Foster and Hairspray's Kerry Butler. You may have heard that the show was closed for renovation after its Florida tryout, but it's currently previewing in advance of an October 2 opening. This traditionally small show has been beefed up for the full-sized Virginia Theatre, and lots of people can't want to see how well the tongue-in-cheek musical about a bloodthirsty plant and its nebbishy accomplice transfers to Broadway.

Many of the stargazers along the Great White Way have their telescopes aimed in one particular direction, towards the Imperial Theatre. That's where film star Hugh Jackman is preparing to make his Broadway debut as 1970s-'80s pop music icon Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. There's no question that Jackman has the name and the talent to carry this bio-musical full of Allen songs, but will audiences and critics love the show -- or just Jackman? Don't cry out loud; we'll all find out when Oz officially opens on October 16.

There's certainly no lack of star power elsewhere on Broadway. Some upcoming plays are full of it. First, there's Eileen Atkins and John Lithgow, opening in William Nicholson's new play The Retreat from Moscow on October 23. Then there's Tovah Feldshuh, making her Broadway return at the Helen Hayes in a transfer of William Gibson's Golda's Balcony; the play, all about the life and tempestuous political history of Golda Meir, was produced Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater this past spring to great success. Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill will fox-trot into the Belasco with Richard Alfieri's Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, beginning previews on October 7. Ashley Judd will bear her claws as Maggie the Cat in a revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Music Box, opposite Jason Patric and Ned Beatty. Lincoln Center Theater's Henry IV, in a new adaptation by Dakin Matthews that combines both halves of William Shakespeare's classic history, doesn't open until November 20, but what a cast it has: Richard Easton, Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Dana Ivey, Kevin Kline, and Audra McDonald. Farrah Fawcett will make her Broadway debut at the Cort as a former beauty queen in Bobbi Boland. And Ellen Burstyn will return to the stage in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Martin Tahse's adaptation of Allan Gurganus's popular novel.

Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Are musicals more your thing? If so, there are plenty of those coming up, too. Lots of eyes are on Wicked, Stephen Schwartz's musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire's pre-history of The Wizard of Oz, starring Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, and Joel Grey. The show starts previews at the Gershwin on October 7 and we'll see how popular it is with the critics after its October 30 opening. Taboo, an import of a London hit with a score by Boy George (who also co-stars in the role of Leigh Bowery!), starts previews on October 21 at the Plymouth Theatre, and if the critics don't find it too out of fashion, it will likely keep the Plymouth Theatre rocking right into the new year. For those who like something a bit more traditional, Never Gonna Dance will trip the light fantastic at the Broadhurst; the classic music of Jerome Kern is featured in this stage adaptation of the film Swing Time, directed by Rent's Michael Greif, and choreographed by Hairspray's Jerry Mitchell. Finally, Donna Murphy may well conquer the city again with her performance as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town. The long-awaited revival, based on the 2000 City Center Encores! production of the show, has booked the Al Hirschfeld Theatre for a November 23 opening; expect it to be one heck of a conversation piece this season.

And what would Broadway be without a handful of surprises? Jackie Mason, whose served us Prune Danish last season, returns with Laughing Room Only -- a play with music that will probably live up to its title. You can expect far fewer laughs at I Am My Own Wife, but everyone was wowed by Doug Wright's powerful drama when it premiered at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year. It's about a man who survives decades of difficulty living in Germany dressed as a woman, and Jefferson Mays's performance of all of the roles will no doubt win even more accolades this time around.

Pity the child who misses the one-performance-only Actors' Fund benefit concert of Chess on September 22. The musical director/conductor is Seth Rudetsky, and if his previous, star-studded Actors' Fund benefits (Dreamgirls and Funny Girl) are any indication, this one will be a smash as well. The slated stars are Adam Pascal, Josh Groban, Julia Murney, Sutton Foster, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Raúl Esparza, and Norm Lewis.

One last bit of Broadway news, and it's big: the Biltmore Theatre is coming back into use this fall after many years of inactivity, refurbished by Manhattan Theatre Club for use as the company's Broadway home. The lights of the Biltmore will once again be lit on October 16, when The Violet Hour -- penned by Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) -- begins previews. The play will star Robert Sean Leonard, Laura Benanti, and Mario Cantone.

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Mary Tyler Moore(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Mary Tyler Moore
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
You can find plenty of great theater and luminous stars Off-Broadway as well. Film star Heather Graham will kick things off in Craig Lucas's Recent Tragic Events, about a woman who goes through with a blind date on September 12, 2001, at Playwrights Horizons (opening on September 28). Manhattan Theatre Club's first Off-Broadway offering this season is sure to be a hot ticket: Mary Tyler Moore will star in Neil Simon's latest play, Rose's Dilemma, beginning previews at City Center Stage I on November 20. Moore's co-star, John Cullum, will be a very busy man this fall: he'll go in to Rose's Dilemma right from Wilder at Playwrights Horizons. This erotic chamber musical, with book and lyrics by Erin Cressida Wilson and music and lyrics by Mike Craver and Jack Herrick, starts previews on October 14. And there'll be still more star power at the Century Center for the Performing Arts as Brian Murray and Marian Seldes reunite in Beckett/Albee, a program of short plays by the titular authors. Murray and Seldes last appeared together onstage two years ago -- also at the Century Center -- in Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby. Beckett/Albee begins previews on September 23.

Though it was recently announced that Kander and Ebb's The Visit won't show up at the Public Theater this season after all, the Public still has on its schedule a musical that's sure to garner plenty of attention. Playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul) and composer Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie) are teaming with acclaimed director George C. Wolfe (Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Topdog/Underdog) on Caroline, or Change, which explores issues of race and culture in the turbulent 1960s. The show will star Tony Award-winner Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam, The Wild Party); it begins previews on October 28. For something of a very different style, how about Fame, the stage musical based on the 1980s film and TV series about a group of driven, competitive students at the High School for the Performing Arts? Fame has been on the road for years, touring America and the world to great success, but only now is it about to have its New York premiere at the Little Shubert Theatre under the direction of Drew Scott Harris. Opening night is set for November 11.

The Signature Theatre has chosen the artist to whom it will devote its entire season of shows: Bill Irwin, primarily known as a performer for his work in such shows as Fool Moon and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. His year at the Signature starts off on September 23 with the opening of The Harlequin Studies, all about the classic commedia dell'arte character named in the title. Another star, André De Shields (The Full Monty, Ain't Misbehavin', The Wiz), will be in the Classical Theater of Harlem's production of Dream on Monkey Mountain, by Derek Walcott. The play is about a man who, after experiencing a vision, journeys to Africa to put the entire Western world on trial for the crimes of the slave trade.

Elsewhere Off-Broadway, you'll find shows as diverse as Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's Omnium-Gatherum at the Variety Arts Theatre, about a surreal New York dinner party; A. R. Gurney's new evening of two short plays Strictly Academic at Primary Stages; the Mint Theater's new English adaptation of Schnitzler's Far and Wide; Jonathan Bell's September 11 character examination Portraits, A Canvas of Life Stories; the Public Theater production of Shakespeare and Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen; and lots, lots more. There are way too many fall opening Off-Broadway to be discussed here, but please see TheaterMania's listings for a comprehensive run-down.

Both on and off Broadway, there's no shortage of variety as far as the fall season is concerned; theater people will be working nights (and occasionally days) to keep you provoked, informed, and entertained. Even as the weather grows crisper and chillier, New York theater will stay red hot through the winter and beyond.