June 6, 2015

Hi's and Lo's of Four Tony-Nominated Shows

Once again, Tony time has rolled around before I’ve had a chance to sound off on all the shows that are in contention for the big prizes. And as anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the awards knows, there are more tight races in more categories than there have been in years. Maybe ever. Which should make for a great show tomorrow night, even if they do have to squeeze in the awards giving between 11 production numbers from all the musical nominees, plus a few shows that originally got no Tony love, including Harvey Weinstein’s Finding Neverland. In the meantime, I’m going to resort to one of my quick highlights and lowlights summaries on the four big shows I haven’t reviewed:

THE AUDIENCE. Peter Morgan obviously gets a kick out of turning recent British history into drama and one of his favorite subjects is Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote the screenplay for the 2006 movie “The Queen,” is working on a Netflix series about the royal family called “The Crown” and in between has written this stage play about the private weekly audiences the queen has held with the 11 prime minsters who have served under her.

Highlight:  As in the movie, Her Highness is played by Dame Helen Mirren, who not only portrays the queen at all ages, from her ascension to the throne at just 25 to her present position as the world’s oldest reigning monarch at 89, but she makes the transitions right onstage in front of the audience.

Lowlight: The show is more of a pageant than a real play and some of its impact may be lost for folks who haven’t kept up with British history and can’t tell Harold Macmillan from Harold Wilson.
Tony Spotlight: The focus is, appropriately, on Dame Helen, who’s the frontrunner for Best Actress in a Play. But there’s also a chance that the voters may recognize Richard McCabe, who plays the queen’s favorite minister Harold Wilson, whose story is the only one the plays fleshes out a bit. Or that they’ll reward costume designer Bob Crowley (up for four awards this year) for his spot-on recreations of Elizabeth’s looks through the decades.

THE KIND AND I:  Everyone loves this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about a British widow who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam and the changes her presence brings about in the royal court—and within the sovereign as well, which is why the show has been revived four times since the original production ended its three-year run in 1954.

Highlight: Once again, Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for his direction of the 2008 production of South Pacific, has created a feast for the eyes and ears, sparing no expense, including having a cast of nearly 50.

Lowlight: Despite the fact that the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe has gotten a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of the king (and is sexy as hell) his English is difficult to understand and that threw the production off for me.

Tony Spotlight:  Kelli O’Hara has picked up her sixth Tony nomination for playing the widow Anna Leonowens and she looks so lovely in Catherine Zuber’s gowns and sounds so wonderful singing such R&H favorites as “Hello, Young Lovers” that she should be a shoo-in for Best Actress in a Musical. Except that Kristin Chenoweth, who studied with the same teacher back in their mutual alma mater, is equally terrific in On the Twentieth Century, making this one of the evening’s most anticipated showdowns. But lots of pundits feel that the path to the podium may be easier for Ruthie Ann Miles, who finds quiet dignity in the featured role of the king’s chief wife Lady Thiang, and for the show itself, which seems to have a slight edge in the race for Best Revival of a Musical.

THE VISIT. This is the third new show by John Kander and Fred Ebb to open on Broadway since Ebb died in 2004 and it’s probably the last. Based on a play by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, it tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest—and most vengeful—woman, who returns to her poor hometown and promises to give everyone there enough money to satisfy all their needs if they will kill the man who once jilted her.

Highlight: Claire is played by Chita Rivera, a longtime collaborator with Kander and Ebb and book writer Terrence McNally and, at 82, a must-see theatrical legend in her own right.

Lowlight:  Director John Doyle’s staging is dreary and, with the exception of one dance between Chita and an actress playing the spirit of the younger Claire, emotionless.

Tony Spotlight: The show is up for five Tonys but, unless a large number of the voters are overcome by sentimentality (the last chance to salute Kander &Ebb; maybe the last chance to reward Chita) everyone involved in this show is going home empty-handed.

WOLF HALL. Novelist Hilary Mantel made the 16th century powerbroker Thomas Cromwell the central figure in her two Booker prize-winners about Henry VIII’s quest for a son, which lead to England’s break with the Catholic Church, shifting alliances across Europe and the brutal casting off of Henry’s first two wives, one of whom literally lost her head. Now playwright Mike Poulton has turned all of this into a two-part extravaganza for the stage.

Highlight: The chance to see some two dozen members of the Royal Shakespeare Company do their thing as they swirl around the stage in sumptuous costumes by Paule Constable.

Lowlight: People who aren’t history buffs may find it hard to follow all the court intrigue, a task made even more difficult by the fact that so many of the main characters are named Thomas and so many of the actors play multiple roles. People who are history buffs are unlikely to find anything new in this retelling of an oft-told tale and so may be a bit bored.

Tony Spotlight: The show is up for eight Tonys, including for Best Play, for Ben Miles’ performance as Cromwell and for those costumes. But, for my money, the most deserving nomination is for Nathaniel Parker who brings such brio to the role of the impetuous Henry that you can feel the energy surge when he’s onstage and the lack of it when he’s off.

So there you have it. As I said, it promises to be a nail-biter of an evening. So good luck with your Tony pool. And if you’re looking for a little extra info to give you an edge, you might want to check out the articles I’ve been collecting (including the one about Kelli and Kristin's mentor) in the Tony Talk magazine I’ve posted on the Flipboard site and which you can find by clicking here.

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