Urban Contempo

West Side Story. Based on Jerome Robbins' concept. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by David Arisco. Choreographed by Barbara LeGette. Starring Timothy C. Johnson, Elissa Anne Boone, Julio Agustin, Connie SaLoutos, and Terrell Hardcastle. Through January 4. Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-444-9293.

Stage Whispers
As the sidewalk bell-ringers in the 1961 musical Subways Are for Sleeping remind us, this is the time of year to "Be a Santa." Theater tickets always make a great gift: Holiday schedules place Ebenezer Scrooge on the boards at Actors' Playhouse and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, while New Year's Eve revels include shows with Broadway vets Chita Rivera (the Broward Center) and Len Cariou (the Caldwell Theatre). Still, to add even more drama to yuletide giving, I offer the following alternatives.

For that friend who can't find a hummable tune in Sondheim's later musicals and considers the composer's acclaim a mystery, I have invented a Sondheim puzzler pack. (After all, Sondheim's mania for games inspired Anthony Shaffer to write Sleuth.) This nonmusical gift consists of a videocassette of The Last of Sheila (list price $14.99), the 1973 mystery movie that Sondheim cowrote with actor Anthony Perkins, bundled with a script of the short-lived 1996 Broadway thriller Getting Away With Murder, which he coauthored with George Furth ($10.95).

If the $99 price tag for Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) videotape makes you ponder "to be or not to be" bankrupt, why not wrap up a less-expensive Branagh portrayal of another disillusioned, verse-spouting malcontent? Just $19.95 buys his incandescent performance in the 1995 British TV production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, the romantic tale of a suicidal ex-soldier's defense of a suspected witch.

Taking as your cue Shakespeare's notion that music is the food of love, give your favorite candlelight-dinner partner a copy of the recently published Grandma Doralee Patinkin's Jewish Family Cookbook ($23.95) along with Broadway and television star Mandy Patinkin's 1994 album Experiment ($10.99 tape/$15.99 CD). Hark to Mandy's angelic voice while re-creating family recipes compiled by the singer's mom.

Ignore the movie hucksters luring you to see Titanic and create your own tribute to disasters. First pick up a copy of the cast recording of Broadway's Titanic ($10.99 tape/$17.99 CD), which has taken up permanent residence in my CD carousel thanks to its majestic orchestrations and stirring choruses. Then call up Manhattan's Triton Gallery (800-626-6674) and order an original show card advertising one of Broadway's legendary bombs. (Prices start at $15, although a copy of the poster touting Eve Arden in Moose Murders will run you $75.)

It's never too early to turn kids on to musical comedy. Just place under the tree a copy of playwright Wendy Wasserstein's book Pamela's First Musical, now available in paperback for a reasonable $5.45. Of course introducing adults to show tunes is more of a challenge, and for reluctant listeners I suggest a copy of Paul Simon's Songs From the Capeman ($10.99 tape/$17.99 CD), which features tracks the composer laid down while developing his new Broadway musical (currently in previews for a January 8 opening). Pop fans counting on hearing Simon's catchy hooks will no doubt be disappointed, and Broadway aficionados will have to wait for a full cast to realize the score's potential, but this hit-and-miss recording nonetheless presents a fascinating look at Simon's efforts to wed Fifties doo-wop and Latin melodies to lyrics bulging with plot-dictated exposition.

Then again you can always play it safe with a copy of the cast album of composer Elton John's The Lion King ($10.99 tape/$17.99 CD); still, because everyone knows the current Broadway blockbuster is really director Julie Taymor's triumph, the better gift is her book Julie Taymor: Playing With Fire ($49.50). Worth buying a coffee table to put it on, Playing With Fire features 195 illustrations of the director/choreographer/designer's theatrical creations, as well as excerpts from her production notes.

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