How to find Broadway's best

by By Michael D. Gutenplan /  / Updated  / Source: msnbc.com contributor

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Ah, spring.  From kids on break to lovers taking a romantic weekend on the winding streets of Greenwich Village, New York is alive with tourists.  Many won’t leave without at least one New York theater experience.

Because so many shows are available and prices can be so high, a good recommendation can make the difference between a fabulous evening and an uncomfortable two-hour nap.

It you’re a first-timer, you probably will prefer a more traditional Broadway experience.  Many shows come and go but a handful seem to run forever, and with good reason.  “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago,” “Rent” and the Disney shows “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” are the new gold standards on Broadway, and they’re all solid starter shows. 

Each is uniquely different and offers the novice theatergoer a chance to experience Broadway at its best.  You’ll get amazing scenery, memorable music, exciting drama and world-class dance in a package with all the glamour and glitz you came to see.

If you’ve already sampled the abundance of the Great White Way, consider branching out to some of New York’s great off- and off-off-Broadway shows.

Fans of film adaptations on stage are in luck these days. The success of such works as “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” and “Monty Python's Spamalot” are a sign that audiences want more movie-inspired musicals.  I predict “Mary Poppins” and “Billy Elliot” will transfer from London in a few years.  I also see a few more revivals coming our way; “West Side Story” and “The Pajama Game” are rumored to be returning, among others.

After a month of watching as many shows as I could, I’ve compiled a hot list that I think you’ll enjoy:

RECOMMENDED

“Avenue Q”Puppets and humans deal humorously with racism, sex and the miseries of life in New York in last season's surprise Tony-winning homage of sorts to “Sesame Street.” Tuesday through Sunday at the John Golden Theatre (252 W. 45th St.). Tickets: Telecharge, (800) 432-7250 or telecharge.com.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”Based on the 1988 film of the same name about two con men trying to scam a gorgeous blonde. The songs might not be memorable, but the two leads (John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz) give truly fantastic performances. Tuesday through Sunday at the Imperial Theatre (249 W. 45th St.). Telecharge.

“The Producers”
Mel Brooks’ musical, based on his movie about two theatrical producers who try to make a flop, is rich with laugh-out-loud songs, sets and costumes.  (Yes, even the costumes are funny!) Having won the most Tony Awards ever in a single year, this is a sure bet for a fantastic show.  Tuesday through Sunday at the St. James Theatre (246 W. 44th St.). Telecharge.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”
With a flying car, incredible sets and a score that the kids will sing along to, this show is perfect for families looking for a night out on the town. Tuesday through Sunday at the Hilton Theatre (213 W. 42nd St.). Ticketmaster.

“Monty Python’s Spamalot”
And now for something completely different … If you like Monty Python, you will love it. If you’re not a fan, you might want to check something else out … or take a risk and find yourself laughing out loud. Tuesday through Sunday at the Shubert Theatre (225 W. 44th St.). Telecharge.

“Hairspray”
This fluffy musical about a heavy girl becoming a TV dance star offers a dose of campy fun. Tuesday through Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 W. 52nd St.). Ticketmaster.

“Mamma Mia!”
This show -- about a young girl’s wedding, and her desire to figure out who her father is -- will have you dancing in the aisles, literally. Not much plot, but a good family pick nonetheless.  Wednesday through Sunday at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). Telecharge.

“Wicked”
The untold story of the Witches of Oz.  If you are a Wizard of Oz fan, you must check it out.  Though it’s had mixed reviews, I say if you can get a ticket, go for it. Tuesday through Sunday at the Gershwin Theatre (222 W. 51st Street). Ticketmaster.

“Doubt”
This Pulitzer Prize winner portrays a nun who wages a moral war on a priest she suspects of molesting a young student.  An extremely talented cast and a captivating script makes this one of your best bets.  Tuesday through Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 W. 48th St.). Telecharge.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
Edward Albee at his best in this riveting classic production about a married couple’s no-holds-barred battle to uncover the truth during a dinner party.  Kathleen Turner gives a compelling performance as Martha.  Leave the kids at home and treat yourself to a spellbinding evening. Tuesday through Sunday at the Longacre Theatre (220 W. 48th St.).  Telecharge.

“On Golden Pond”
In this intimate family drama based on the 1981 movie of the same name about bridging the generation gap between a father, his daughter and her stepson, James Earl Jones delights audiences with a performance full of humor and love.  A well-written play, acted beautifully. Tuesday through Sunday at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th St.).  Telecharge.

NOT RECOMMENDED

“Good Vibrations”
With the music of the Beach Boys you'd think it would be the next “Mamma Mia!” But it looks more like a bad high-school musical than Broadway material. 

“BKLYN: The Musical”They try to be the new “Rent,” but with an unmemorable score and a story you just don’t care about, you’re better off visiting Park Slope then paying to see this.

Michael D. Gutenplan works on long-form programming for MSNBC Cable.

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