Though the 2002 season of the City Center Encores! series doesn't begin for another two months, it's not too early for musical theater aficionados to begin playing the casting game vis-à-vis this coming year's productions: Carnival (February 7-10), Golden Boy (March 21-24), and The Pajama Game (May 2-5). I've already heard several ideas, ranging from the eminently sensible to the rather odd, put forth by various friends, colleagues, and TheaterMania readers.

Carnival is the 1961 Bob Merrill musical based on the M-G-M film Lili, about an innocent French waif and the bitter puppeteer who falls desperately in love with her. Originally played on Broadway by Anna Maria Alberghetti, the role of Lili requires a lovely young woman with oodles of charisma and an extraordinary soprano voice capable of both lyrical ballad singing and coloratura flights. The clear first choice for the Encores! production is Kristin Chenoweth; though she is actually a bit too old for the assignment, Chenoweth still doesn't look much more than 25 on stage, and she's one of precious few candidates who could even begin to sing the role properly. As Paul, the tormented puppeteer, Brian d'Arcy James might have been phenomenal--but, alas, he's busy with Sweet Smell of Success. Chenoweth's erstwhile fiancé, Marc Kudisch, would also have been a great choice--but he'll be busy with Thoroughly Modern Millie. (Broadway leading men of such quality don't tend to go very long between jobs.) Is it conceivable that one of these guys could break away from rehearsals of their other projects to do five performances of Carnival? No one else leaps immediately to mind--unless Encores! wants to go the color-blind casting route and give the part to Norm Lewis, who certainly has the voice and the acting talent for it. The part of Rosalie, originally played by Kaye Ballard, seems to have Mary Testa written all over it, though Marcia Lewis would have been terrific if she were a bit younger. As for Marco the Magnificent, how about Testa's 42nd Street co-star Michael Cumpsty?

The aforementioned Norm Lewis is also one of two obvious choices for boxer Joe Wellington in Golden Boy, the 1964 Charles Strouse-Lee Adams-Clifford Odets-William Gibson musical based on the play of the same title by Odets. The other obvious choice for the role originally played by Sammy Davis, Jr. is Taye Diggs; Lewis has the better voice but Diggs has a film career. Other possibilities: Billy Porter and Michael McElroy. And wouldn't Chuck Cooper be great as the racketeer Eddie Satin? I don't know about you, but he certainly scared the crap out of me in The Life.

Despite artistic director Jack Viertel's insistence to the contrary, some observers are convinced that Encores! would not be planning to do the well known, highly commercial, eminently revivable Pajama Game unless there were some thought that this might become the series' second Broadway transfer (the first was the amazingly successful Chicago). So it might be wise to secure big stars for the leads of this 1954 Richard Adler-Jerry Ross-George Abbott-Richard Bissell show--and nowadays, of course, that means film and/or TV stars. One fanciful suggestion has Will and Grace's Debra Messing and Eric McCormack as Babe Williams and Sid Sorokin. Both of them can sing, but McCormack may not be able to warble quite well enough to fill a role originally played by John Raitt; ditto George Clooney, who

definitely fits the part in terms of physical appearance and demeanor. If Encores! were to go the racially integrated route taken by the short-lived, mid-'70s Broadway revival with Barbara McNair and Hal Linden, we might have seen and heard series veteran Vanessa L. Williams as Babe--but she's busy with Into the Woods (or she would have done Richard Rodgers' No Strings for Encores! as originally planned). Abandoning the movie star concept and going instead for a solid cast of musical theater mainstays, how about Karen Ziemba as Babe and Howard McGillin or Davis Gaines as Sid? How about Lewis J. Stadlen as Hines, Charlotte d'Amboise as Gladys , and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Prez? And, though it's a stretch, what about Janis Paige--the original Broadway Babe--in the Reta Shaw role of Mabel?

Want to play? Forward your thoughts to us at editorial@theatermania.com. Depending on the creativity and/or hilarity of the responses received, we may print some of them in a future Follow Spot column.