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Restored New Amsterdam Spurs Revival in Times Square

Historic showplace debuts 'King David' musical

Echoes of the original "Ziegfeld Follies" competed with the Old Testament epoch of King David May 18, as Times Square celebrated the rebirth of its most splendid showplace, the New Amsterdam Theater.

Built in 1903, the theater hosted for decades New York's most sophisticated musical revues, starring such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, and Will Rogers. Its Art Nouveau interior, one of America's first, rivaled the spectacles on stage in ornate detail. Following a 50-year period of slow decline and eventual closure, this landmark theater has been recently restored and is now premiring "King David," a concert event created by Alan Menken and Tim Rice.

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Tracing the saga of Israel's first king, Saul, the sung-through musical is performed in the increasingly popular concert style. Using an onstage orchestra and singers who perform with a near-absence of props, sets, and special effects, the style was first employed successfully in "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert," which has revived classics.

"King David," at nearly three hours, stretches the form to its limit, although its A-list creative team - director Mike Ockrent, scenic designer Tony Walton, and lighting designer David Agress - manages to add spark to the endeavor.

Any attempt at retelling a Biblical tale through contemporary words and music brings with it some predictable obstacles, notably the clash between reverential themes and modern sounds and images. Previous works, from "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell" to numerous film scores from the 1950s set behind CinemaScope epics, have achieved some measure of success.

"King David" does draw heavily from past achievements by its lyricist/book writer Rice, notably "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat," "Evita," and "Jesus Christ Superstar." But lacking the visual impact of a wide-screen motion picture, or the youthful exuberance and diverse musical styles of "Godspell," this composition relies on its large choral arrangements and full onstage orchestra.

An ambitious work, however, may be just the right selection for the historic reopening of this structure, which counts among its treasures terra-cotta balustrades depicting characters from Aesop and Hans Christian Andersen, murals heralding the signal events of New York City's earliest days as New Amsterdam, and plaster relief panels celebrating the works of Shakespeare, Wagner, and the story of "Faust."

The proscenium arch, 40 feet high and 36 feet wide, features 16 proud peacocks, bracketed by 12 seating boxes, which had been removed in the '40s when the famed house was converted into a movie palace. Carefully sculpted oak carvings, stripped of their paint layers and restored to their original finish, frame every doorway and alcove. Elaborately painted domed ceilings celebrate Poetry, Truth, Love, Death, Chivalry, and Romance in vivid murals. Wood relief constructs, painted the original green, rose, lavender, and gold, recall the innovative design elements that set the interior apart from other performance spaces of its day.

The reopening marks another milestone in the transformation of Times Square, as the once-seedy area emerges as a family-friendly, performance-rich district. The Walt Disney Company, which restored the New Amsterdam for $34 million, has been instrumental in launching the revival.

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Disney has employed its business savvy by connecting its new merchandise outlet on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street to the New Amsterdam's lobby, certain to facilitate marketing ambitions when the site hosts Disney's animated film "Hercules" this summer and the stage version of "The Lion King" in the fall.

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