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Broadway Crowds Love Their Stars

Audiences flock to see such marquee idols as Julie Andrews and Carol Channing

WE'RE in the middle of the busiest fall season in recent years for Broadway musical theater. So it might seem churlish to point out that the three biggest shows that have recently opened, all to raging box-office response, are more than a little familiar.

Two of them, ''Hello, Dolly!'' and ''Company,'' are outright revivals, while the third, ''Victor/Victoria,'' is a close adaptation of the 1982 film of the same name. Still, it's a pleasure to see full houses for shows not written by British hitmaker Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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''Victor/Victoria retains its original star, Julie Andrews, who is making her first Broadway appearance in nearly three decades.

The musical is set in 1930s Paris and tells of a singer named Victoria (played by Andrews) who hits upon the idea of changing her fortunes by pretending to be a female impersonator. That is, by pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Aided by her mentor, Toddy (Tony Roberts), she becomes the toast of Paris.

Things go swimmingly until the appearance of King Marchan (Michael Nouri), a Chicago nightclub owner who takes a shine to Victor, although he's convinced that the object of his desire is, in fact, a woman. Marchan's mistress (Rachel York) isn't sure whether Victor is a man or a woman, but either way she's not happy.

The basic idea for the show is a tantalizing one, providing many opportunities to send up issues of sexual identity. It also provides a marvelous vehicle for Andrews, who looks gorgeous, even with her hair cut mannishly short. ''Victor/Victoria'' allows her to display her gift for comedy as well as her wonderful voice. The other performers lack the charisma of the film's stars (Robert Preston and James Garner), but still manage to be enormously appealing. York steals the show, wringing laughs from every malapropism with a razor-sharp comic timing.

Overall, though, director Blake Edwards's show lacks impact, with a somewhat stilted, muted tone that never catches fire. The music, by the late Henry Mancini (with mediocre lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and additional music by Frank Wildhorn) is surprisingly weak, and all the best songs (''Le Jazz Hot,'' ''Crazy World'') come from the film.

'Hello, Dolly!'

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There's almost no sense in reviewing ''Hello, Dolly!,'' since whatever anyone says, audiences will still flock to see Carol Channing in her 30th anniversary turn as the irrepressible Dolly Levi. Channing is a force in her own right, and this production is less the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical than it is an homage to one of the most beloved characterizations in Broadway history.

It's estimated that Channing has given 4,500 performances in the role, but you wouldn't know it from the relentless enthusiasm that she still exhibits, an enthusiasm that is returned in spades. From her first appearance, the theater becomes a veritable lovefest, with the thrilled audience cheering her every utterance.

The title song seems to run on longer than it ever did, with reprises designed to milk the applause totally dry. This production, which has been touring the country and is scheduled for such far-off environs as Japan and Australia after Broadway, is little more than ramshackle.

But with Channing flashing those huge, kewpie-doll eyes and commanding the stage with her brilliant comic timing, none of it matters. This Dolly is back where she belongs.

Sondheim's 'Company'

It seems hard to believe, but Stephen Sondheim's 1970 seminal musical ''Company'' has never received a Broadway revival. The Roundabout has rectified that situation with its current production, which is reportedly moving to a larger Broadway theater after its current subscription run ends.

The show tells of Bobby (Boyd Gaines), a thirtysomething bachelor, and his circle of married friends who, in a series of vignettes, illustrate to him the pleasures and pitfalls of marriage. George Furth's highly uneven book has dated badly in some ways, but it's as pertinent as ever in others - providing a workable framework for Sondheim's score.

''The Little Things You Do Together,'' ''You Could Drive a Person Crazy,'' ''Another Hundred People,'' ''The Ladies Who Lunch,'' and ''Being Alive'' display a nearly unrivaled musical and lyrical sophistication that remain as thrilling as ever. Songs like ''Barcelona'' and ''Getting Married Today'' are nearly mini-musicals in themselves, providing more depth and drama in the course of four or five minutes than most shows do in a full evening.

The production, directed by Scott Ellis, suffers from uneven casting, with Gaines lacking the charisma and vocal abilities to fully put over the admittedly difficult lead role, and a few weak links among the supporting players. They include such Broadway pros as Robert Westernberg, Kate Burton, Debra Monk, La Chanze, Charlotte d' Amboise, and Jane Krakowski. Best of the lot is Veanne Cox, who in the song ''Getting Married Today'' goes into a hilarious emotional meltdown that sums up an entire generation's doubts about commitment.

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