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A guide to Broadway's record-breaking season

We rate the shows, from ”Jekyll & Hyde” to ”Titanic”

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A guide to Broadway’s record-breaking season

Let us sing and dance the praises of Rosie O’Donnell. Not only did the Queen of Nice help boost ratings for the tired old Tony Awards telecast by acting as the formal but funny host at Radio City Music Hall on June 1, but her talk show seems to have given Broadway itself a nice jolt. Belting out show tunes at her desk and routinely welcoming Great White Way guests (from Jekyll & Hyde‘s Linda Eder to Brittny Kissinger, the moptop heroine of Annie), the one-woman Broadway Booster Club has played at least a small part in this season’s all-time-high ticket sales, which topped out at nearly half a billion dollars.

With 38 new productions, Broadway is sustaining 1996’s boom pace. But all things are not quite equal. Last year, Rent and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk appeared to herald a shift toward social relevance and artistic urgency, while this season’s crop of musicals seems slightly wilted — despite pedigreed creators such as Cy Coleman (Titanic sailed away with five Tonys not for being great, but for being less boring than Steel Pier). Right now, revivals are the best bets — notably the revolutionary production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the electrifying Chicago. And some veterans remain vital. Whoopi Goldberg spins hilariously in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Faith Prince has put even more dazzle in The King and I; and this week Cats becomes the longest-running show in Broadway history, which means that it may actually go on now and forever.

For those planning a Manhattan summer vacation, here’s your guide to the 1996-97 lineup. Just remember: Watch your wallet.

A DOLL’S HOUSE

You’ve never seen anything quite like Tony winner Janet McTeer’s performance as Nora, the housewife heroine who trades her husband and child for freedom, in Henrik Ibsen’s 118-year-old drama. McTeer’s Nora is a dervish of contradictions: a woman of girlish charm and frightening strength. Her desperate, darting eyes are windows into a soul taking its first painful steps. (TC) A

AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER

When the author is Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), the play can be expected to deliver wit and intelligence; here, however, is wit and intelligence without much of a play. The story has a female surgeon general nominee’s chances scuttled by a press frenzy (think Kimba Wood, media victim). Thus ensues much well considered hand-wringing over ambitious women getting shafted. But it never adds up to more than a very long editorial-page piece. (TC) B-

ANNIE

If Broadway directors were arrested for neglect, Martin Charnin would be put away for good. In this 20th-anniversary revival, Brittny Kissinger, the moppet who took over the title role after the original star was fired, belts out ”Tomorrow” with gusto, but the rest is a joyless affair. Nell Carter (as Miss Hannigan) and choreography do not mix. (TC) C-