Power Performances on Stage


NEW YORK (AP) - If most of the new musicals didn't sing and new American plays were outnumbered by revivals and British imports, there still were performances to savor in the theater season that has just ended on and off-Broadway.

And not just star performers, although Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, Zoe Wanamaker, Brian Dennehy and Bernadette Peters provided enough wattage to light Times Square several times over.

There were others who made audiences sit up and take notice. Not exactly new faces, although some are, but they are the potential stars of tomorrow in the theater and in movies and television, too. Look at the flight several seasons ago of Calista Flockhart to Los Angeles. Does anyone remember that before ``Ally McBeal'' she was a staple on the New York stage?

Here then, in no particular order, 10 actors and actresses who made an impression that lasted long after the curtain came down.

Josh Hamilton scores as the wide-eyed, innocent hero of ``The Cider House Rules,'' the mammoth story-theater version of John Irving's novel at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company.

Hero is a difficult four-letter word to live up to, but Hamilton handled the role with charm and grace, two qualities that seemed in short supply this season.

Jillian Armenante has traveled to New York with ``Cider House'' from its beginnings in Seattle and Los Angeles. The play, done regionally in an epic, two-part version, is populated with memorable characters.

None is more memorable than Melony, a fearless, full-figured tomboy who quite simply hijacks the stage of the Atlantic. Armenante's fiercely physical portrayal of the girl took no prisoners.

It takes a secure actor to play a child or an animal. Roger Bart not only plays a dog, he impersonates a famous one - Snoopy - in the Broadway revival of ``You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.'' Bart manages to play cute without being cloying, the perfect theatrical beagle.

Sally Brown wasn't a character in the original ``Charlie Brown'' more than two decades ago. She is now - and practically steals the musical revue. Kristin Chenoweth's Sally is compulsively self-centered and compulsively comic. A small, pert blonde, she is, quite simply, the musical-comedy find of the season.

No wonder both Bart and Chenoweth are favorites to take home Tony Awards in the featured acting categories.

One of the major mysteries of the 1999 Tony nominations was the omission of Lea DeLaria. DeLaria played Hildy, the raucous taxicab driver - who can cook, too - in the short-lived revival of the musical ``On the Town.'' She sang the role in Central Park in 1996 and belted it again - even better - on Broadway in 1998.

Yet Tony nominators did notice another boisterous performer in ``On the Town'': Mary Testa, as the liquor-tippling voice teacher Madame Dilly. Testa was larger than large, turning what could have been just a cartoon into a blissful comic cameo.

In ``Side Man,'' Warren Leight's blistering family drama, Frank Wood inhabits a man whose whole life is music, specifically jazz. It's an obsession that destroys his marriage and damages his relationship with his son. The man is happiest with his horn, a joy that Wood conveys with heartbreaking intensity.

Finbar Lynch plays a tightly coiled prison trusty in ``Not About Nightingales,'' and the quiet tension he produces is palpable. The prison drama, written by Tennessee Williams in 1938, was not seen on stage until last year - in a highly theatrical production directed by Trevor Nunn in London. That production, now in New York at Circle in the Square, features Lynch, a compact bantamweight who paces the stage like a prizefighter. He fits right in with Nunn's heightened, stylized staging.

Mark Ruffalo gave one of those edgy, explosive performances as a goofy, unhappy teen-ager in the already closed ``This Is Our Youth.'' His touching portrait of a boy who wants desperately to belong blended arrogance and insecurity. ``Everybody's Ruby,'' seen earlier this year off-Broadway at the Public Theater, was about Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Viola Davis didn't play Hurston, but rather the title character, a black woman wronged by a white Southern doctor.

Davis captured the woman's pain and humiliation to such a degree that her hurt seemed unbearable. You couldn't take your eyes off her, something that could be said without reservation about these nine other performers who graced stages in New York during the 1998-99 theater season.