June 4, 2014

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

As usual, I haven’t gotten around to weighing in on all the shows that opened during the run up to the Tony nominations. Although I have managed to have my say in these posts on all four of the Best Musical hopefuls—After Midnight (click here to read my review of that), Aladdin (click here)  Beautiful (click) and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (here)—I’m no where near as caught up in the other categories. So, now that we’re in the final days before the awards will be given out, I’m going to do another of my quick rundowns of the highlights and lowlights of some of the remaining contenders. There are an even dozen of them and so you may want to spread your reading out over the next few days:

ACT ONE. Everyone knows that Moss Hart’s “Act One” is more a romantic fable than a factual account of his life but it’s hard to think of a book more beloved by people who love theater than Hart’s memoir about his early days in show business including his big break collaborating with George S. Kaufman on the 1936 hit You Can’t Take It With You. And now James Lapine has turned that tale into a play that perhaps only true theater lovers will love. 
Highlight: Lapine, who also directed, has remained faithful to the book, to the relief of those of us who consider it almost a sacred text. 
Lowlight:  Lapine has remained faithful to the book and as a friend less enraptured with the theater said to me, “who wants to sit around for two hours watching two guys write?” 

Tony Spotlight: The show has been nominated for Best Play and both Tony Shalhoub (who does triple duty as Kaufman, Hart’s immigrant father Barnett and Hart as an older man) and Andrea Martin (who does the same as Kaufman’s wife Beatrice, Hart’s agent Freida Fishbein and his Aunt Kate, who first introduced the young Moss to the theater) have been nominated too but the production’s best hope for a win seems to be for Beowulf Boritt’s revolving Erector set which fills the huge stage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont theater.

ALL THE WAY.  Playwright Robert Schenkkan’s dramatized history lesson uses two-dozen actors and three hours to chronicle the take-no-prisoners campaign Lyndon Johnson waged to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 
Highlight:  It’s great to see the theater dealing with such an important subject, particularly at a time when the 50 year-old law is coming under pressure from conservatives, including those on the Supreme Court. 
Lowlight: Because Schenkkan tries to cover so much territory—the self-interested maneuvering of politicians like the liberal Hubert Humphrey and the segregationist Richard Russell, the political infighting among black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael—and director Bill Rauch drives through it in such a straightforward manner, much of the drama gets lost and what’s left is the kind of historical pageant that you find at a history museum. 
Tony Spotlight: Despite my carping, this seems to be the frontrunner in the Best Play category and even I agree that Bryan Cranston, who’s making his Broadway debut, is as good as everyone says he was on the TV series “Breaking Bad” and turns in a powerhouse performance as Johnson that’s deserving of the Best Actor in a Play nod he got.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY THE MUSICAL. There were high hopes for this musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 movie about an idealistic playwright who gets involved with a mobster who agrees to finance his show, the mobster’s no-talented girlfriend who wants to be an actress and the mobster’s henchman who turns out to have a surprising talent for dramaturgy.  
Highlight: The TV and movie star Zach Braff is charming in his Broadway debut as the playwright and Nick Cordero brings an appealing tough-guy charisma to the role of the henchman Cheech.

Lowlight: Almost everything else—Allen’s jokes, Susan Stroman’s dance numbers and even some of the actors—pushes too hard. Plus there’s no original music and no one has figured out how to interpolate the period songs from the 1920s that are pinch hitting for the score. 
Tony Spotlight: Although shut out of the Best Musical category, the show picked up six nominations including for Cordero as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, for the ever-popular costume designer William Ivey Long and, inexplicably, for Allen’s book.

CABARET. Back in 1998, director Sam Mendes turned Studio 54 into the Kit Kat Klub, the titular seedy nightclub that provides the backdrop for the Kander and Ebb classic about Germany during the Weimar period when the Nazis came to power. Now Mendes has brought nearly the same production back to Studio 54, with Alan Cumming again playing the club’s sexually ambiguous emcee and the film actress Michelle Williams stepping into the shoes of the late Natasha Richardson as the free-spirited cabaret singer Sally Bowles.
Highlight: The great Kander and Ebb score, Joe Masteroff’s masterful book and moving performances by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein as Fräulein Schneider, the German owner of a boarding house, and Herr Schultz, the Jewish butcher who loves her. 
Lowlight: It’s hard to shake the been-there-seen-that feeling. 
Tony Spotlight: Cumming was disqualified because he won the Tony for his performance back in ’98 and although the production was somehow still eligible in the Best Revival of a Musical category, the folks on the nominating committee snubbed it but they did give nods to Williams, Emond and Burstein.

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy about a close-knit community of Irish eccentrics whose lives are disrupted when a film company arrives in a nearby town has its fans. But most of the people lining up outside the Cort Theatre are there because Daniel Radcliffe is playing the title character.  
Highlights: This is the erstwhile Harry Potter's third time on Broadway (after Equus and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and Radcliffe keeps getting better and better as an actor, this time painfully contorting his body to more accurately simulate the deformity that shapes his character’s life. 
Lowlight: The play has always been a bit twee for me and the affected Irish brogues make some of the dialog difficult to follow. 
Tony Spotlight: Radcliffe’s was one of several worthy performances that got left out of the running in this year’s particularly strong derby for Best Actor in a Play but the production is still up for six awards including Best Revival of a Play and Michael Grandage for Best Director of a Play.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. The most popular new show of the season stars the ever-popular Neil Patrick Harris as the titular German chanteuse who recounts the droll tale of how she got a sex change so that she could follow her American G.I. lover to the U.S., only to get jilted by him and left with some unwanted genitalia as the result of a botched operation.  
Highlight: NPH, slimmed down to waif-size but rocking it heavy in eye glitter and high heels. 
Lowlight:  Not any that I can think of right now. Even the sound design is noticeably good. 
Tony Spotlight: Both Harris and the show are widely considered to be shoo-ins for Best Actor in a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical and there’s also the possibility that Lena Hall, who does some impressive gender bending of her own, could end up with the Best Featured Actress in a Musical prize as well.

IF/THEN.  The creative team behind Next to Normal—composer Tom Kitt, book writer and lyricist Brian Yorkey, director Michael Greif—has reunited for another musical about a woman at a crossroads in her life. This time, she's a fortysomething divorcee played by Idina Menzel and the musical explores how a simple decision about how to spend a Saturday afternoon might lead her into two radically different life stories.  
Highlight:  It’s nice to see African-American and Asian-American actors cast in non-race specific roles and nice, too, to see same-sex couples treated just as matter-of-factly. Plus people who love Menzel will love all the power ballads she gets to belt. 
Lowlight: The bouncing back and forth between story lines gets confusing and makes it difficult to develop a real rooting interest in the characters in either of her lives. Also, while the melodies are lovely, the lyrics too often fall back on profanity; one song is actually called "What the Fuck."  
Tony Spotlight: Kitt and Yorkey are nominated for the score and Menzel for Best Actress in a Musical but I don’t think any of them should be clearing off space on their mantels.  

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL. Legend has it that a few months before she died in 1959, the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, accompanied by a small combo, her Chihuahua Pepi and the demons created by a tragic girlhood marked by rape and prostitution and years of drug and alcohol abuse, performed for just seven people at the small Philadelphia night club that gives this show its name. But audiences have been packing into Circle in the Square to see Audra McDonald recreate that evening as imagined by playwright Lanie Robertson.  
Highlight: McDonald’s impersonation of Holiday’s look, mannerisms and distinctive raspy sound is uncanny. 
Lowlight: Despsite director Lonny Price's attempts to, well, jazz things up, this isn’t a play so much as a 90-minute concert with dramatic interludes. 
Tony Spotlight: Already a five-time Tony winner, McDonald just might take home a sixth. 

MOTHERS AND SONS.  A sequel to the 1990 TV movie “Andre’s Mothers” about a mother whose son has died of AIDS, Terrence McNally’s new play picks up the story 20 years later when the still-grieving mother makes a surprising and disquieting visit to her son’s former lover who is now married to a younger man with whom he is raising a son. 
Highlight: No other playwright has so assiduously explored the changes in gay men's lives over the last four decades and there were moments in this play that really brought home what a thankfully better world we live in now. 
Lowlight: But while McNally gets points for having so many meaningful things to say, he racks up demerits for being so intent on getting his message across that he forgets, at least in this staging by Sheryl Kaller, to dramatize it. 
Tony Spotlight:  Mothers and Sons is a contender for Best Play and the-can't-help-but-be-dynamic Tyne Daly, for whom McNally says he wrote the mother’s role, is up for Best Actress in a Play.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Even in the age of Obama, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play about a black family aching to have a piece of the American dream in an America that refuses to recognize their right to have it still resonates.  
Highlight: Denzel Washington’s name may be above the title on the marquee but he doesn’t approach his role as a star turn but as a member of an ensemble that works so well together it actually seems as though they really are related. 
Lowlight: Director Kenny Leon hits the comedy a little too much and the audience at the performance I attended broke into laughter at inappropriate moments. 
Tony Spotlight: LaTanya Richardson Jackson is just five years older than Washington and she stepped into the role of the family matriarch Lena after Diahann Carroll dropped out, giving Richardson Jackson just a few weeks to get up to speed before previews began. Yet she has crafted a beautiful performance that anchors the production and has deservedly earned a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play. This is one of the strongest categories filled with several other commanding performances but it would be lovely to see her rewarded for such valiant work.

ROCKY. Sylvester Stallone won the Oscar in 1976 for his movie about a palooka who yearns to just go the distance with the champ and to win the shy girl who considers herself to be as much a loser as he is. But just about everyone, including me, laughed at the idea of "Rocky" as a musical. And yet, this show, with a book by Stallone and three-time Tony winner Thomas Meehan, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, packs an affective punch.  
Highlight: Nearly all the talk has been about the last 20 minutes of the show when a full-sized boxing ring is rolled right into the middle of the audience but I think I got an even bigger kick out of watching how director Alex Timbers and set designer Christopher Barreca found theatrical ways to recreate iconic scenes from the film, like Rocky’s workout in the meat locker and his run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Lowlight: I can’t remember any song from the show, except the iconic Rocky anthem from the movie. 
Tony Spotlight: The role of Rocky is so identified with Stallone that Karl deserves his nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for remaining true to the character Stallone created and played in umpteen sequels, while still finding a way to make it distinctively his own.

VIOLET. Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s adaptation of a short story about a young woman disfigured in girlhood by an accident with an ax, her journey to find a faith healer she believes can remove the scar and the life-changing encounters she has with two soldiers she meets along the way has been a cult favorite ever since its inaugural one-month run at Playwrights Horizons back in 1997.  
Highlight: The score is a cornucopia of American roots music and the singers, lead by Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani and the show-stopping Joshua Henry, are all terrific. 
Lowlight: The production is so modest—straight-back chairs filling in for the bus the characters travel on, jeans and military uniforms for costumes, and not only no scar but no makeup of any kind on Foster—that it’s hard to justify the $142 ticket price. 
Tony Spotlight:  The show has picked up nominations in most of the major categories in which it was eligible—Best Actress in a Musical for Foster, Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Henry, Best Director of a Musical for Leigh Silverman, the only female director to get a nod this year, and Best Revival of a Musical—but I think it may take a miracle for it to take any prize home.

1 comment:

Esther said...

I made my first trip of the year to New York last weekend, so I had a chance to catch up with the spring Broadway shows.

I also adored Hedwig. Neil Patrick Harris has an incredible amount of energy and he's such a great storyteller. I'd seen the movie so I wasn't going in totally cold but he really drew me in to Hedwig's story in an absorbing and poignant way. And he has such a strong voice. The only downside - I thought the music was really loud, especially the opening number. And I had trouble making out the lyrics on the louder songs.

And I agree about Cripple of Inishmaan. This was my first Martin McDonagh play. I'm glad it's his least violent, from what I've been told. But I also found it a little too quaint. It's like he had a checklist of Irish "types" to include and after 2 1/2 hours of the maiden aunties and drunken town gossip, I was growing weary of it. Still, always great to see Daniel Radcliffe. I enjoyed Sarah Greene, who was hilarious and reminded me of a grown-up and slightly smutty Anne of Greene Gables!

I was amazed at how Audra McDonald was able to make her voice sound so different in Lady Day. She's mesmerizing. And I didn't know much about Billie Holiday. So I enjoyed learning about her life and times, hearing the songs that made her famous.

Lastly, I saw A Raisin in the Sun. I'd seen the original movie, the TV movie made of the last revival and I'd seen it onstage at Trinity Rep. I went mainly because I'd never seen Denzel Washington onstage. I missed Fences. I was really bothered by the laughter. This was the first time I've seen the play treated as a comedy. (I had the same problem with Betrayal last fall. Seems like playing up the laughs in serious plays is a Broadway trend.)

There was none of the tightly coiled anger and frustration bubbling to the surface. Even in the big dramatic speeches, he was too laid-back. Washington is a fine dramatic actor but his performance lacked the punch I was expecting.

The women were terrific in evoking their characters' weariness and strength and determination to make their lives better. This was my first time seeing the play since becoming a homeowner and I was especially struck by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Her yearning for a place of her own got to me. The play felt more about the women than about Walter.

(To be fair, two friends who had never seen the play in any form loved it and weren't as bothered by the laughter.)

I love Raisin and I'm still glad I saw it. I'm not a big repeater when it comes to books or movies or theatre but I did feel like I got something new out of it this time. And it was so interesting to hear Lorraine Hansberry's voice in the interview you hear before the curtain.

Thanks for the roundup. I always enjoy reading your reviews!