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BEAUTY, BEASTLY EXCESS SHAPED N.Y. SEASON THIS YEAR

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Although the new year has definitely arrived, let's hold off raising the curtain upon the New York stage in 1995. Instead, let's recall together the theatrical highlights of this last year. Expect no thumbs up or down - these are not chariot races, and Top Tens are best expressed by David Letterman.

Looking back over the 200 or so New York shows I witnessed in 1994 - Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway - more than a score of them made a lasting impression. For instance . . .Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" was memorable for Donna Murphy's thrilling performance as a lovesick invalid and for the melancholy ambience in mood and decor instilled by director-writer James Lapine. There were vivid moments of drama and beauty to Sondheim's score, but the experience was like drinking Campari - enjoyably acrid to some, bitter to many. In contrast, Andrew Lloyd Webber's creamy "Sunset Boulevard" music goes down like some lethal frozen drink: It's tasty, even heady stuff, but you're going to hate yourself in the morning for lapping it up. Still, Glenn Close's blazing performance as a mad ex-queen of the screen must be experienced to be believed.

Though it began as a cartoon feature, composer Alan Menken's tuneful score to "Beauty and the Beast" is indeed a genuine Broadway beauty - with hopefully many more shows to come - and the stage extravaganza has some amazing moments, especially the stupendous "Be Our Guest" number that never stops coming at you. But the theme park-ish look of Disney's very first Broadway venture is beastly when more imaginative visuals would be a nicer setting for Menken's sparkling songs.

Sprawling visuals nearly overwhelmed the charms of Menken's latest score, his hummable musical version of "A Christmas Carol" staged at the hideous 5,200-seat Paramount space in Madison Square Garden. The script was OK, and Susan Stroman's prop-happy dances for a 100-member cast were fun, but everything was far too huge for the show itself to make much of an impact. Maybe the holiday musical will be better focused when it's restaged next November.

The 32-year-old composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa made quite a name for himself in these parts in 1994. His haunting "First Lady Suite" completed a New York Shakespeare Festival run at the top of the year. His sexy circle game, "Hello Again," came next, beautifully directed by Graciela Daniele for Lincoln Center Theater. Expect to see this insinuating decade-by-decade "La Ronde" musi-cal in many a future regional production. LaChiusa finished up 1994 back at the Shakespeare Festival with "The Petrified Prince," an amusing Graustark-type romp all swanked out in a toy theater staging from Harold Prince. With these shows, LaChiusa has leapfrogged over the "promising" career stage - he's delivering.

Among memorable musical revivals, director Nicholas Hytner's so-called "sex and violence" concept for Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" brought fresh new resonances to their 1945 classic. Designer Bob Crowley spun the musical out in a beautiful Shaker-blue box that looked simply heavenly at Lincoln Center Theater's Beaumont. The Kern & Hammerstein masterpiece "Show Boat" was then refloated by skipper Harold Prince in a great and grand new production recertifying the 1927 show's claim as the great-granddaddy of all concept musicals: It's a swiftly moving three-hour epic packed to the rafters with classic songs, engrossing characters, fine visuals, splendid dancing and an American heart as wide as the Mississippi River.

This past year was much brighter for seeing playwright Edward Albee enjoy his long-delayed but highly deserved renaissance in New York theater. Earlier in the year the Signature Theater devoted its entire season to some of Albee's lesser known works, perhaps best in a triple bill of old and new one-acts titled "Sand." Then the Vineyard Theater offered Albee's new "Three Tall Women," an elegantly written contemplation of mortality and morality, stunningly performed by Marian Seldes and Myra Carter. The classy Pulitzer Prize-winning production moved to an off-Broadway run where it currently remains. A similar must-see, though more for its dazzling acting than its lady-authors-in-love script, is "Vita & Virginia" as thrillingly embodied by Vanessa Red-grave and Eileen Atkins. Watching these two women perform is to savor what great acting is all about.

The very highest excellences in acting and playwriting also distinguish Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!," now in the process of moving from Manhattan Theatre Club to the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. McNally's appealing study of middle-aged gay white male life is uncompromising, tender, funny and heartbreaking. Fluently staged by Joe Mantello, a superb ensemble led by Nathan Lane and Stephen Bogardus team up to make "Love! Valour! Compassion!" compelling theatergoing.

New classical productions or revivals of famous stage oldies were mostly of the uh-huh quality this past year. Diana Rigg made a smashing "Medea," Julie Harris was a dead-ringer for Tennessee Williams' mother in "The Glass Menagerie," and the all-male ensemble in Cheek By Jowl's Brit import "As You Like It" brought new meaning to Shakespeare's old wordplay. It was free and easygoing Shakespeare in Central Park this summer with OK "Merry Wives" and "Two Gents" courtesy the NYSF. Theater For A New Audience fielded a luridly amusing "Titus Andronicus." Broadwaygoers are still impressed by Stephen Daldry's revival of J.B. Priestley's portentous "An Inspector Calls," though it appears to be just so much noisy scenery to me.

Finally let's not forget those solo artists who did amazing things all by themselves. Devilish Ricky Jay of "His 52 Assistants" fame raised card trickery to high art. Patrick Stewart held 1,400 people in rapt silence every night for his solo version of "A Christmas Carol." Vernel Bagneris still glides about elegantly as Jelly Roll Morton in "Jelly Roll!" Backstopped by vivid state-of-the-art technology, Anna Deavere Smith's one-person account of the Los Angeles riots was striking. And Danny Hoch, all of 23 years old, somehow embodied all of the new voices in America still trying to be heard in his memorable "Some People."

Great things happened on the New York stage last year. Sure hope that you were able to see some of it. Make a resolution to see some of what's going to arrive in 1995.