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Omicron could not come at a worse time for Broadway

But in a week of dispiriting theater closings, a critic finds hope in a rejuvenating visit to a sensational new musical

“Hamilton” was forced to cancel performances through Dec. 26 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre because of covid breakthrough cases. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — I went to the theater this week, which shouldn’t be news. But unfortunately it is, in this holiday season of spreading infections and resurgent shutdowns. As coronavirus cases rise yet again, so does the threat to the full recovery of cultural life: not just theaters, of course, but theaters, certainly. And Broadway, definitely.

The frustrations of trying to sustain an entertainment machine as immense and important as Broadway — which pumps as much as $15 billion into the New York economy — are especially vivid now. The holiday weeks are normally when Broadway and theaters elsewhere fatten their box office receipts, stocking up like hungry bears for the leaner, colder, more traditionally challenging months of January and February.

The viral variants that are hitting New York and other states could not, then, come at a worse time for the performing arts. Broadway shows canceling performances — including smash hits such as “Hamilton” and shows still in previews, like “MJ,” the Michael Jackson musical — lead the local TV news. The Rockettes have mothballed their holiday tap shoes for the season, the musical “Jagged Little Pill” decided to call it quits for good, and even Candace Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City,” had to stop her one-woman off-Broadway show, “Is There Still Sex in the City?” All these recent events were attributable to breakthrough novel coronavirus cases showing up in tests of casts and crews — sometimes a single result or two, other times in wider exposures.

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New Yorkers are now such seasoned coronavirus fighters — having suffered terribly in the first devastating outbreaks in the spring of 2020 — that the dread and fear are more tempered this time. The streets during this first Christmas of the mostly vaccinated are far more crowded with visitors than at the desolate end of 2020, when Times Square looked like a scene from a dystopian movie. (It will also look a bit different from the past for the New Year’s Eve ball drop; Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that crowds, reduced from the usual 58,000 to 15,000, will have to be vaccinated and masked.) The city’s requirements for proof of immunization in restaurants and entertainment venues seem to have had some salutary effect: On Wednesday, for instance, as omicron cases multiplied, some 13 Broadway productions had to scrub plans for their evening shows. But at 18 others, the show went on.

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This on-again, off-again phenomenon, precipitated by day-of positive test results of production members, forcing last-minute cancellations, has not been a boon to theatergoers’ confidence. That monarch of the holiday season, “The Lion King,” was forced to shutter until the day after Christmas, and both “Come From Away” and “Moulin Rouge!” had to send their masked audiences home on recent nights after they had been seated. Privately, some producers acknowledge that the psychological impact is depressing demand and that other shows — some on the boards longer than “Jagged Little Pill,” which opened a year ago — are on what might be deemed an unofficial endangered list. Late Thursday, two more shows, “Waitress” and “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” announced they were closing immediately.

But which shows and which companies are in the most serious trouble is impossible to ascertain from the information that the industry provides through its collective communications organ, the Broadway League. Before the pandemic shutdown that commenced in March 2020, the league published a weekly tabulation of gross revenue and attendance statistics for each show running in one of Broadway’s 41 theaters. After shows started coming back — beginning with “Springsteen on Broadway” on June 26 of this year and revving up with the return of “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and others in September — the practice ceased. Presumably the concern among commercial and nonprofit producers and theater owners was that the early numbers would look anemic. And this is a business that thrives on an illusion of full houses and glowing reviews — even when neither is the case.

Several weeks ago, the league began publicly circulating weekly data for Broadway’s collective take; the numbers reveal only that lumped together, Broadway has been filling 80 to 85 percent of its seats, and the average ticket price is about $120. This selective information release does little to quell anxieties, and resentment toward the Broadway establishment is often triggered. This week, league president Charlotte St. Martin ignited a social media firestorm when she told the Hollywood Reporter that some cancellations could be due to understudies who “aren’t as efficient in delivering the role as the lead is.” The reality, of course, is that understudies are a vital backbone, making possible performances that otherwise would not go on; some productions have even hired additional understudies and standbys because of the pandemic. St. Martin quickly issued an apology.

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There’s also frustration with gloom-and-doom forecasts. “BROADWAY TRIUMPHS!!!! Why don’t we see that headline?” Harvey Fierstein tweeted on Tuesday. “No Broadway show has been a super-spreader! We are all vaccinated & tested almost daily. If someone’s positive, they isolate. Audiences r vaccinated & wear masks. BROADWAY IS DOING THIS RIGHT!!!!!”

The sense that theater in the United States has been comparatively judicious and sensible is underscored by the ongoing chaos in the London theater world, as I found during an October visit. Until a recent return to stricter mandates, the lax protocols there had been haphazard to the point of reckless, and the show cancellations far more ubiquitous.

In London, the shows go on even when the masks don't

The industry here is still waiting to see the longer-term effects of the omicron variant on the vaccinated, the population on which Broadway is counting. As one of the triple-vaxxed, I have been to dozens and dozens of shows, in New York, Washington and elsewhere over the past several months, and have felt safe among my masked seatmates. Only in the past week, with the reports of breakthrough cases multiplying, did I feel a bit of trepidation about sitting in a theater.

But I ended up going. Because there was a show I wanted to see, and the greatest of all fears in theater land is the fear of missing out. So to off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company I went for “Kimberly Akimbo” — a show that had to cancel its two prior performances for covid safety reasons. And I am so, so, so glad I did.

It felt like a Christmas miracle, having worry evaporate in the heady air of the funniest and most moving experience of my entire return to theatergoing. (A third of the seats were empty in the 199-seat theater for Tuesday’s performance.) Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) has written the book and lyrics for this sensational two-act musical based on his play of the same title, about a teen with a genetic disease that ages her four times faster than normal. Composer Jeanine Tesori, of “Caroline, or Change” and “Fun Home” fame, contributes touching and witty melodies to Abaire’s words, as if the inspiration was pumped from a single heart.

Kindness laps up against pain poignantly in this story, anchored by Victoria Clark’s impeccably wise and funny turn as Kimberly, a girl who looks, well, of an age but acts like one decades younger. The jeans and jumpers that costume designer Sarah Laux smartly lays out for Clark situate us perfectly in the late 1990s high school world of suburban New Jersey that Lindsay-Abaire conjures. And, as smashingly directed by Jessica Stone, the cast of nine unspools this choke-back-the-tears tale without a scintilla of schmaltz.

Among the delights: Bonnie Milligan as Kimberly’s hilariously larcenous aunt; Justin Cooley, a find as a puzzle-loving nerd who sees the life, not the lines, in Kimberly’s face; and Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey as the parents Kimberly got and not the ones she needed. Courtesy of the writers and a portrayal by Clark so captivating, physically and vocally, the musical seems to speak directly to our moment, when time in the company of others feels particularly precious. It beseeches us to seize the day — a practice one wishes on theaters and theatergoers everywhere.

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