Theater: It Sure Beats 'Mona Lisa Smile 2'

It's Julia Roberts's first night on Broadway, and her most loyal 1,074 fans have sold out the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. When she finally appears onstage, there's hearty applause followed by flashing cameras. But at intermission the audience is underwhelmed: We can't hear Julia Roberts. Why isn't she projecting her voice? At the next day's matinee, the audience is still tepid. By Saturday, her seventh preview performance, Roberts is sounding better. But there's a new problem: her groupies have grown at the stage door, crowding both ends of the sidewalk. "It's a mob scene," screams 20-year-old Alissa Portet into her cell phone, adding, "This is the best day of my life!" As Roberts makes her way to a chauffeured van, the crowd floods the street. A police officer--there are five--shoves them back. "He scraped my arm," says Robert Certilman, who is contesting a ticket he got for blocking traffic. (The officer said "no comment" when approached by a reporter.)

This Broadway season includes its share of familiar faces--Ralph Fiennes, Cyndi Lauper, David Schwimmer--but why would an A-list star like Julia Roberts, who has no stage experience, risk it? It's certainly not for the money. Harry Connick Jr. is making only $1,100 a week in "The Pajama Game," says the Roundabout Theatre's artistic director, Todd Haimes. Roberts, who's sold out her 12-week run in "Three Days of Rain," is reportedly earning $35,000 a week. But that's still pennies compared with her $20 million-a-film salary. Madonna made her stage debut in 1988's "Speed-the-Plow" and was trashed by critics. When Roberts's show opens April 19, could the Pretty Woman bomb like the Material Girl? "Stage acting is not the same as movie acting," says Haimes, who brought Antonio Banderas to Broadway. "It's a completely different physical technique and really hard work--eight times a week." But "Producers" producer Mel Brooks explains the draw. "You can fail through a couple bad reviews and go back to good parts in movies," he says. "Actors do Broadway because they'd like to try acting once in their life." Last year Kevin Spacey wrapped the role of Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns" and was onstage in London the next night. "I spent 25 years in theater," he says. "It's a thrilling, immediate, visceral and ephemeral experience--like walking a high wire every night." Roberts has always wanted to do theater, says "Rain" producer Marc Platt. She met with him for a quiet reading in L.A. last June. "She's very humble about the experience and continues to work hard," he says. America's Sweetheart, it seems, is ready for a new act. At least for now.