March, 2004, NEW YORK CITY - To a theater lover, New York is the proverbial candy store of a delighted child. The happy dilemma is "what to see and what show has seats available." February is usually a slow month for Broadway theaters so the chances are good. And, for the child I always seem to become when I'm in New York, my luck was with me. I was able to get great seats for some wonderful shows - two musicals and two dramas.

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a musical I saw ages ago starring the great Zero Mostel. It was an unforgettable performance in a transportingly moving production. The revival of "Fiddler," this time starring Alfred Molina as Tevye, was wonderful. The music, especially, "Sunrise, Sunset," was as moving as I had always remembered it. The choreography by Jerome Robbins was as lively a copy of the original as I had seen. It did not, however, replace my still glowing memory of the first production. The key is the central performance - the role of Tevye. Zero Mostel's was both bigger than life and, at the same time, so achingly human. You truly believed that he had conversations with God. Mostel's Tevye had that rare quality called soul. Alfred Molina turned in a fine performance in the current revival, but the ghost of Zero Mostel's Tevye always seemed to be hovering over him.

The other musical I caught was "The Boy from Oz" about the life, the music, and the struggles of the flamboyantly gay Australian musical performer, Peter Allen. This, unlike the revival of "Fiddler," was a production where the star was the whole show. Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen was a dazzling dynamo that compelled audience attention and commanded center stage. He sang, he danced, and he was Peter Allen. What a brilliant theater talent he is! He was so completely the glitzy Peter Allen that it was hard to ever imagine him as Wolverine in the movie "X-Men." Yet, he was! Stunningly so! Reading the program bio, I learned that he had also won Britain's Olivier award playing the quintessential American cowboy, Curley, in Britain's National Theater production of "Oklahoma" in London as well as Australia's top theater award as Joe Gillis in the Australian production of "Sunset Boulevard." "The Boy from Oz" is a musical that belongs to Hugh Jackman as much as "Fiddler on the Roof" still belongs to Zero Mostel.

All the plays I saw this trip were ones in which the actors made the show. The actors were the reason for the play's success. And the most luminous performance of all was that by an artist named Jefferson Mays. He was the entire cast in a one-man drama titled, "I Am My Own Wife" about the harrowing life of a transvestite during the years of Nazi domination of Germany. It was a virtuoso performance that combined voice, movement, and body with dramatic imagination. Mays became the very embodiment of a man living in a woman's body with dignity, resilience, and the wit of a survivor. He made a complex and unusual character touchingly human and, indeed, inspiring. Jefferson Mays' performance was a consummate demonstration of the actor's craft.

The final play I saw was one of my favorites and a classic of American theater, Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." On the marquee was an all-star cast, Ashley Judd, Jason Patrick, and Ned Beatty as Big Daddy. Two performers shone in this starry production - Jason Patrick and Ned Beatty. Tennessee Williams' plays always contrast opposites: the strong and the weak, the sensitive and the brutal, the beautiful and the vile.

Jason Patrick as Brick, the ex-football hero now a deeply troubled and perhaps homosexual husband of a desperate wife and Ned Beatty as his coarse, powerful, and determined father are the opposites here. One is the sensitive soul and the other is the brute. Yet, both Patrick and Beatty suggest the complexities in their characters. Patrick's Brick has a tensile core of strength and Beatty's Big Daddy reveals his hidden dread of mortality. Theirs were richly textured, deeply felt performances that should be candidates for Tony award consideration in a few months. It was disappointing that Ashley Judd couldn't rise to the level set by her two fine colleagues. Nevertheless, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was a production that had me on my feet shouting "bravo, bravo, bravo," as the actors took their curtain call. Broadway can be proud to have this American classic back on the boards.

I left New York exhilarated. "The play's the thing," Shakespeare wrote. But it is still brilliant actors that make the play.

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