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Broadway Matinee

THE fall theater season is here, and New York's top drama critics - those damned cranky co bras, as they've been called - are taking stock of the productions they'll be sitting (or suffering) through in the coming months.

Naturally, they'll approach each show with an open mind. They are professional hit men, after all.

But like everybody else on Broadway, they've heard the gossip about this show or that, read the out-of-town reviews and have preferences for certain performers and shows and aversions to others.

Six critics agreed to give me their unvarnished reaction to the new crop of shows, provided I not reveal their identities so they can't be accused of bias later.

Maybe because most of them are older and long for Broadway's past glories, the show they are most looking forward to is "The Dancer's Life," 72-year-old Chita Rivera's trip down memory lane.

"It sounds like it will be a nice collection of Golden Age memories," says one critic. "I hope she's not too old for it, though. I wish she'd done it 10 years ago. But knowing Chita, she'll be fine."

Rivera will certainly be compared to Elaine Stritch, who won a Tony for her autobiographical show, "At Liberty."

Stritch was tough, salty and wonderfully indiscreet.

Rivera is a much gentler soul - "she always says nice things about everybody," says a critic who's interviewed her - and there's some fear that her show might be bland compared with Stritch's.

But, as one critic points out, it's being written by Terrence McNally "and he's pretty gossipy."

The blockbuster of the fall will of course be "The Odd Couple," starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.

It's got a $19 million advance, so it really won't matter what the critics think.

Which is probably a good thing, since some Lane-Broderick fatigue has set in.

"They'll be doing the same shtick they were doing in 'The Producers,' " says one critic. "It's good shtick, but we've seen enough of it."

"I'm kind of Matthew and Nathan-ed out," says another. "Other than to make a lot of money, I don't quite understand why they're doing an 'Odd Couple' revival."

A third critic worries that Lane might be miscast as Oscar:

"This production may have two Felixes and no Oscar."

"In My Life" - a musical written, produced and directed by Joe Brook, the composer of "You Light Up My Life" and dozens of commercial jingles ("Dr Pepper" among them) -"looks like a disaster waiting to happen," says one critic.

It's about a man with Tourette's syndrome and his girlfriend, who has obsessive compulsive disorder.

Tempting fate, its logo is full of lemons.

One critic, who attended a "sneak peek" of the show that was staged for the press, says Brook played some songs that "were pretty schmaltzy. They have titles like 'Life Turns on a Dime.' It's all just awash in clichés."

Most of the critics consider Stephen Sondheim God, but there's not a lot of excitement about the revival of "Sweeney Todd," in which the cast, including Patti LuPone (as Mrs. Lovett), doubles as the band.

"[The show is] done constantly," says a critic, noting recent productions at City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington and a televised concert on PBS.

"This is supposed to be a real skeletal production, and anything that's stripped down these days gets credit for being revelatory. But I don't know how much more there is to reveal about 'Sweeney Todd.' "

Another critic, not a Sondheim fan, sneers: "What is this, the 16th or 19th Sondheim revival we've had to sit through in the last couple of years?

"It says something about how dead the musical theater is when Stephen Sondheim is still considered cutting edge.

"And when he dies, we'll have to sit through all these shows again."

A critic who worships at the Sondheim shrine says: "My goodness gracious me, this production sounds eccentric. I can't wait to see Miss LuPone with a meat cleaver in one hand and a tuba in the other."

Very few critics worship at the Andrew Lloyd Webber shrine, and the prospect of Lloyd Webber's "Woman in White," based on Wilkie Collins' Victorian mystery, does not thrill them.

"I thought the '80s and Andrew Lloyd Webber were over," says one.

Critics are supposed to be intellectual types who love sitting through Important Works.

But when it comes to Eugene O'Neill's very long "A Touch of the Poet," which is being produced by the Roundabout, they shudder.

"How long is this one - 18 hours? I'll die," one says.

"It's not a question of how long it is," says another, "but how quickly the time passes. This one might go on a while."

The revival of Edward Albee's "Seascape" (which clocks in at a mere two hours) is far more enticing.

"Edward Albee is an oasis of civilization in the sea of dreck that has washed over Broadway," one critic says. "If I had to pay for one show this season, 'Seascape' would be it."

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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