EW picks the best bets on Broadway -- ''Cats,'' ''Grand Hotel'' and other must see productions from this spring's theater rush

By Jess Cagle
Updated April 03, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Broadway marquees these days read like the reservation list at the Ivy: Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, Alec Baldwin, Gene Hackman. Theater box offices are booming, and the spring break ticket rush is about to commence. Visitors planning a theater binge should order early by calling, for a surcharge, Tele-Charge or Ticketmaster. Musicals peak at $65, others at $50. Take out a loan and bring the whole family!

Conversations With My Father: Herb Gardner’s play, in which an author recalls the characters who passed through his father’s tavern, is muddled. But Judd Hirsch gives a brave, harsh performance as a Jewish pogrom survivor trying to ignore his heritage. B

Dancing At Lughnasa: Playwright Brian Friel has the dazzling ability to draw drama from a bunch of spinsterly Irish sisters cooking in the kitchen. There’s a primal jig, a lovely fox-trot, some deli-ciously funny moments, but most of it is numbing-ly subtle. B

Death and the Maiden: A Latin-American woman (Glenn Close) puts a doctor (Gene Hackman) on trial in her living room because she believes he’s the man who raped and tortured her 15 years earlier. Her husband (Richard Dreyfuss) doesn’t know what to think or do. The actors are too white-bread to be convincing as Latin types, but Close is electrifying. And even if Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman falls short of his ambitions, director Mike Nichols pulls a taut psychological thriller out of it. B

Four Baboons Adoring the Sun: Silly and astounding, John Guare’s bizarre family drama staged as Greek tragedy is the most controversial play in town. Two newlyweds (Stockard Channing and James Naughton) bring their nine kids from previous marriages to an archaeological dig. Besides throwing in an earthquake and a volcano, director Peter Hall outfits a singing Eros (Eugene Perry) with a gold jockstrap. The central idea — how children get lost in adults’ misguided quests for happiness — loses out to the elephantine production. C+

Lost In Yonkers: Two little boys suffer 10 months with their glacier-like grandma during World War II. Funny, sad, and cartoonish, it won Neil Simon the 1991 Pulitzer Prize — an honor that makes its few shortcomings stand out. B+

Cats: More of a theme park than a show, but the kids will love it. The Winter Garden Theatre is all done up in giant back-alley debris, and the actors, who sing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, crawl down the aisles. After nearly 10 years — it’s the third- longest-running show in Broadway history, behind A Chorus Line and the revival of Oh! Calcutta! — the production is still vibrant. Lillias White, as Grizabella the Glamour Cat, actual-ly makes the song ”Memory” smell fresh. Imagine what she could do with ”Feelings.” B

Crazy for You: Next to the word Broadway in the dictionary, there should be a picture of this show — pink ruffly chorus girls, bright lights, and 18 Gershwin greats (five from Girl Crazy), including ”I Got Rhythm” and ”Someone to Watch Over Me.” Heaven. Ken Ludwig hangs it on a knowingly corny new book about a New York playboy and a country girl who put on a show to save a theater. Starring Harry Groener and Jodi Benson, who was the voice of the Little Mermaid. A

Grand Hotel: People sing, people dance at the Grand Hotel, but director Tommy Tune’s glitzy energy has fizzled out since the show opened in 1989. Former Duke of Hazzard John Schneider looks like one of the Wide Ends from Saturday Night Live when he tries to dance, but he’s even more awkward during the make- out session with his creaky costar, Cyd Charisse. They’re like Harold and Maude on Valium. D

Les Miserables: The great big, singing-dancing version of Victor Hugo’s novel, set against the French Revolution, is in its sixth year. Debbie Gibson, who joined the show in January, makes an impressive Broadway debut as the lovelorn waif Eponine. Hey Tiffany, maybe there’s an opening in Phantom. A

Miss Saigon: An American soldier fathers a love child in Vietnam and sings a couple of pretty songs. Then a helicopter lands on stage and a Cadillac flies through the air. After $10 million worth of S-H-O-W, the audience is so detached that they applaud the fall of Saigon. Really weird. It’s so slick, you’ll think you’ve seen a movie — until the $65 orchestra seat shows up on the Visa bill. C

The Most Happy Fella: Director Gerald Gutierrez revives Frank Loesser’s operatic 1956 musical by stripping it down to two pianos and gently presenting the delicate love story of a mail-order bride and her oafish husband. A

Phantom of the Opera: Andrew Lloyd Webber puts to music the story of an ugly man who falls for a soprano at the Paris Opera and takes her down to the sewer. It only wants to entertain you, and it usually does. B

The Secret Garden: A rich, adult treatment of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book about a little girl who moves in with her creepy widowed uncle. The sad duet, “Lily’s Eyes,” sung by Howard McGillin and Robert Westenberg, is currently the most charged moment on Broadway, and Alison Fraser’s “Hold On” is the best life-affirming showstopper running. A

The Will Rogers Follies: Keith Carradine is folk philosopher Will Rogers, narrating his own life as a Follies show. It’s directed by Tommy Tune with leggy chorines, hunky dancers, a dog act, and songs by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. Except for the dog act, it’s totally forgettable. C+

Catskills on Broadway: Shtick by four Borscht Belt comics. You’ll kvell over Mal Z. Lawrence and Freddie Roman, but take Marilyn Michaels and Dick Capri — please. B-

Jake’s Women: Writer Alan Alda works through his intimacy problem via imaginary, marginally funny, tedious conversations with the wom- en in his life. Or, Neil Simon goes to therapy and you pay. D

A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange (TC). * Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical with Gregory Hines. * Shimada, a drama about East-West conflicts with Ellen Burstyn and Ben Gazzara.