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FEW SHOWS ARE LIKELY TO LIGHT UP GREAT WHITE WAY

The upcoming Broadway season looks slim, congenial and rather familiar this fall.

Revivals dominate the sparse roster of shows scheduled for the next few months. Three major musicals, especially the New York bow of the headline-grabbing "Sunset Boulevard," should bring some glamour to the Times Square theater district, but devotees of new serious drama again have to head off-Broadway to see their favorite kind of stage fare.With a mere half dozen or so shows scheduled to open on Broadway this fall, it might appear that Broadway is practically moribund. Not quite. True enough, the new season is off to a slow start, but it's important to remember that Broadway is no longer just a seasonal affair. Once upon a time, especially in the era before air-conditioning, many Broadway shows opened with cooler weather in the fall and (except for the very biggest hits) would close in late spring. Times have changed, however, and half of the 18 Broadway attractions currently held over from previous seasons are more than a year old.

In the pattern of recent years, theatergoers should expect the greater number of new Broadway productions to light up marquees in spring 1995, closer to the time when awards are given out and the influx of summer tourists begins.

And for the record, the first show of the current season already opened - on July 10. That was Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Ibsen's dark classic "Hedda Gabler," which drew downbeat notices for star Kelly McGillis and the production around her. The play ran through its monthlong limited engagement and closed in August, unlike Roundabout's two previous hit summer entries of "She Loves Me" and "Anna Christie."

One of Broadway's several resident theater companies, Roundabout also offers the second production of the season, the current revival of Irish author Brian Friel's first great international success, "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" which opened Sept. 8. Written in 1965, the well-known play centers upon a young Irish fellow who's about to emigrate to America. Staged by Joe Dowling, former artistic director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, the new production stars Robert Sean Leonard, Milo O'Shea and Pauline Flanagan among the 11-member cast. The show is set to run through Oct. 16.

"Showboat," one of the most famous, groundbreaking and enduring of all classic musicals, returns to New York in a sumptuous new production. This marks its fifth New York revival - former reincarnations of the 1927 masterpiece created by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II from Edna Ferber's bestseller were staged in 1932, 1946, 1966 and 1983. Serious underlying issues of race and class in Hammerstein's libretto that were softened up in various movie versions and earlier revivals are reportedly brought out fully in director Harold Prince's dramatic staging.

The Toronto "tryout" of the musical, which opened last October, has been such a hit that it's still going strong there while most of the principals sail on to Broadway. Rebecca Luker portrays the headstrong leading lady of a show boat troupe who marries gambler Mark Jacoby. Elaine Stritch and John McMartin are her scrappy folks, Lonette McKee takes the role that made Helen Morgan a star in 1927, and Michel Bell sings "Old Man River." Previews at the Gershwin Theater commence Sept. 22 for an Oct. 2 opening night.

Another famed American classic that's being readied for Broadway this fall is Roundabout Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Tennessee Williams' lyrical play "The Glass Menagerie." The great Julie Harris, whose collection of five Tony Awards is more than any other performer's, plays the faded Southern belle who harbors bright ambitions for her dreamer son and misfit daughter. Zeljko Ivanek and Calista Flockhart portray Tom and Laura for director Frank Galati, who was last represented on Broadway with "The Grapes of Wrath." The revival begins previews Oct. 26 and officially opens Nov. 10.

Still a big hit after more than a year in London with Betty Buckley now in the role that Patti Lupone originated, "Sunset Boulevard" finally arrives on Broadway on Nov. 17. But this lush musicalization of the famous 1950 film about a mad has-been silent screen queen is shaping up to be one of the blockbusters of the decade. Advance ticket sales for the $13 million production have already hit the $22 million mark.

Under the direction of Trevor Nunn, Glenn Close again dons the turbans and maribou feathers of Norma Desmond, with Alan Campbell repeating his Los Angeles assignment as her uneasy screen-writer boy-toy and George Hearn as Norma's faithful butler Max. The massive John Napier settings are presently being installed at the Minskoff Theater, where previews begin on Nov. 1.

Most people have never heard of Donald Margulies' comedy, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" but it debuted at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1985. Now it comes to Broadway as staged by Joe Mantello, who's best known for his Louis in "Angels in America." Faith Prince plays a Jewish mother who doesn't let her death interfere with making her family know what's good for them. Jerry Stiller also stars in the comedy which begins previews in November at the Brooks Atkinson for a Dec. 8 bow.

That batch of juggling fools known as The Flying Karamazov Brothers - although they're neither brothers nor Russian - are said to be definitely landing upon Broadway in November in a new show. At this very moment, however, there's not a fact to be had about the dates, the theater, the content and even the title for said show. So we're all in for a surprise from those high-flying fellows.

Did you ever see "Greater Tuna"? That's the comic saga of Texas' third smallest burg in which two dozen typical hick citizens are portrayed by two men. It ran for a year Off Broadway in 1983 and subsequently toured everywhere. Now just in time for the holidays, original creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams dish up their sequel called "A Tuna Christmas." Look for it in mid-December at a Broadway house still to be announced.

But "A Christmas Carol" is coming to one of the biggest theaters anywhere - to the 5,600-seat Paramount space at Madison Square Garden, in fact. Going head to head with Radio City Music Hall for the holiday family trade, this new musical version of Charles Dickens' tale is being prepared by some of the biggest names in the business of Broadway.

Alan Mencken of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Shop of Horrors" fame is writing the music to lyrics by Lynn ("Once on This Island") Ahrens. Script and staging are up to Mike Ockrent, helmer of "Crazy For You" and "Me and My Girl." Susan Stroman, also of "Crazy For You" and also the new "Show Boat," choreographs the production, which is being performed by a 90-member cast. The design team is equally impressive, headed by Tony Walton whose original screen and stage sets range from "Mary Poppins" to "Grand Hotel."

With as many as four performances given on Saturdays, the 90-minute musical begins previews on Nov. 23, opens Dec. 1, and plays through Jan. 1.

- WHAT ELSE? - There's been talk of a few other Broadway possibilities happening before the new year - a play about the Holocaust called "Blue Light" and a stage version of "On the Waterfront" to star David Caruso - but that's what it's been - talk. Circle in the Square, dark for more than a year, has a brand new artistic co-director in Josephine Abady, late of Cleveland Play House, and may revive "The Shadow Box" before the year is through. The National Actors Theatre is expected to light up the Lyceum for a three-show season starting in January.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Center Theater, with "Carousel" still doing fine business in its Broadway-scale Beaumont space, is offering the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" in October with Stockard Channing downstairs in its off-Broadway-size Mitzi Newhouse Theater. But that's what's happening off-Broadway - and that's another story. Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, A.R. Gurney Jr., Christopher Durang and Tony Kushner are among playwrights whose latest works will bow off-Broadway this fall.