Wednesday, May 23, 2018

2018 Tony Predictions: Best Featured Actor

Having tackled some of the creative behind the scenes categories, it is now time to turn the focus of our annual Tony Predictions to the acting categories. So let's get started with the Featured Actor categories, breaking down both who will win and who actually deserves to win. Read on for more!

Best Featured Actor in a Play

Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn in Angels in America.

Nominees: Anthony Boyle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Michael Cera, Lobby Hero; Brian Tyree Henry, Lobby Hero; Nathan Lane, Angels in America; David Morse, The Iceman Cometh

Having not seen any of the nominated performances (I do have tickets to see both Angels in American and Cursed Child later this summer), I'm flying blind when it comes to predicting this category. David Morse feels like a long shot as the Broadway community doesn't seem especially passionate about The Iceman Cometh, but with that said his role of Larry Slade gives him plenty of material to work with in what is essentially a co-lead. More stagetime means more chances to have Tony-worthy moments, so the possibility of a surprise win for Morse is certainly there. Lobby Hero costars Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry may well cancel each other out, and the fact that Lobby Hero is now closed while the other productions are still running is another hurdle either actor will have to overcome. (Historically, being in a closed show severely handicaps a performer's chances of winning.)

Like many of this season's play categories, the race will likely to boil down to Harry Potter vs. Angels in America. Anthony Boyle won the Olivier for his role in Cursed Child's London premiere, while Nathan Lane was surprisingly not even nominated for playing force of nature Ray Cohn in Angels at London's National Theatre. That would appear to give Boyle the edge, but the American response to Angels has also outpaced the British reception, partially evidenced by Angels beating Cursed Child in total nominations. Lane's star wattage is also stronger on this side of the Atlantic, with the beloved character having been a fixture of the New York theatrical community for decades. Despite multiple nominations Lane hasn't won a Tony since The Producers all the way back in 2001, so it feels like he's overdue for another, especially since he has never been recognized for one of his many lauded dramatic roles. I think Lane will win the day, but don't count Boyle out just yet.

Will Win: Nathan Lane, Angels in America
Should Win: Abstain

Best Featured Actor in a Musical

Gavin Lee as Squidward J. Tentacles in SpongeBob SquarePants.

Nominees: Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady; Alexander Gemignani, Carousel; Grey Henson, Mean Girls; Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants; Ari'el Stachel, The Band's Visit

This is a competitive category that could go any number of ways, and might be an early indication of whether Tony voters have played it safe or gotten adventurous with their winners. Norbert Leo Butz is the elder statesman of the group, having won twice for his leading performances in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels  and Catch Me If You Can. He gives a fantastically layered, utterly transfixing performance in My Fair Lady, but is it enough to justify awarding him another trophy over the rest of the category, most of whom are first time nominees? If Butz's name is called on Tony Sunday, expect an evening of choices that rewards the established Broadway elite rather than the new kids on the block.

Ari'el Stachel sits in an interesting space between Butz and the other nominees. He's nominated for his Broadway debut, so a win for him would appear to signal the Tony voters are interested in rewarding new blood. But The Band's Visit is the widely presumed frontrunner for Best Musical, so picking the one representative from that show would be a fairly safe choice. Personally, while I don't think Stachel is bad by any stretch of the imagination, I'm also hard pressed to tell you exactly what his character does in the show. Being unmemorable in a field of flashy performances is a handicap I'm not sure Stachel can overcome (and should Band's Visit be the runaway favorite for the big awards, Tony voters might want to spread the love).

The other nominees are more exciting choices, unexpected but not undeserving. While Alexander Gemignani is the longest shot of the group, he does extraordinary things with Enoch Snow in Carousel, a role which would easily fade into the background in the hands of a lesser performer. But I can't see him triumphing over SpongeBob's Gavin Lee and Mean Girls' Grey Henson, both supremely charismatic performers gifted with bona fide showstoppers. Lee's comic stylings have been polished to a high shine, and watching him tap dance his way through "I'm Not a Loser" is the most joyous part of a show overflowing with unbridled fun. Henson is rougher around the edges, but there's no denying the infectious glee he brings to Mean Girls' "too gay to function" Damian, a clear crowd favorite (so much so the writers added a second big number for Hensen between the DC tryout and Broadway).

Honestly, Butz probably *deserves* this award the most. The cynic in me thinks Tony voters will ultimately choose Stachel for having the most dramatic performance, but recent winners in this category show a refreshing willingness to acknowledge how difficult a comedic performance can be. For that reason, I'm going out on a limb and predicting Gavin Lee will tap his way to victory, proving once and for all that he is NOT a loser.

Will Win: Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants
Should Win: Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Should Have Been Nominated: Alex Newell for his gender bending, rough raising Asaka in Once on this Island 

Keep checking this space for more 2018 Tony Award predictions in the weeks ahead! In the meantime, make your voice heard in the comments, and check out the rest of my Tony coverage by clicking below:

Tony Nominations React
Best Book and Score
Best Direction and Choreography

Saturday, May 19, 2018

2018 Tony Predictions: Best Director and Choreography

While many Tony categories this year are up for grabs, that seems to stem more from all the nominees being equally good but not great rather than a surfeit of truly standout work. That is not meant to detract from this year's nominees so much as an acknowledgement that there's just less eligible work this season, and it isn't the creative home runs we've been spoiled by the past few years. That said, one area where this year's Tonys are *super* competitive is Best Director, so read on to find out my predictions of who will walk away a winner on June 10th (and if they actually deserve it).

Best Direction of a Play

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and the cast of Angels in America.

Nominees: Marianne Elliott, Angels in America; Joe Mantello, Three Tall Women; Patrick Marber, Travesties; John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; George C. Wolfe, The Iceman Cometh

The level of talent in this category is off the charts. With the exception of Travesties' Patrick Marber, all are previous Tony winners, both hugely influential and highly respected in the Broadway community. And the shows they are nominated for not only represent some of the best reviewed productions of the season, but also display an sense of scale and depth rarely attempted in a Broadway play these days.

While the Tonys typically love an underdog story, I don't see Marber breaking through for Roundabout's revival of Tom Stoppard's heady Travesties. The play is just too obtuse for the average Tony voter to really rally behind, even though they all surely recognize and respect the skill that went into mounting it. Meanwhile George C. Wolfe's The Iceman Cometh's finds itself the victim of poor timing, coming only a few years after a much heralded mounting at Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy that was once rumored for a Broadway transfer. Many critics felt the show didn't quite merit revisiting so soon, and Wolfe will unfortunately be penalized for it. And while I have read nary a negative word about Joe Mantello's mounting of Three Tall Women, I have trouble imagining him triumphing over the other two gargantuan undertakings under consideration here.

Both Angels in America and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are epic plays presented in two parts. Both have a lot of technical elements for their directors to wrangle, with Cursed Child reportedly boasting a physical production and special effects on the level of any big budget musical. There is a very good chance John Tiffany will win for bringing The Boy Who Lived to Broadway in such successful, stunning fashion, a clear triumph of theatrical craft and artistry. But Angels in America is inarguably one of the densest, most thought provoking, and important plays of the past 50 years, and by all accounts Marianne Elliott has nailed it. In what some might consider an upset, I foresee her name being the one called on June 10th, to thunderous applause.

Will and Should Win: Marianne Elliott, Angels in America

Best Direction of a Musical

Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins and Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center.

Nominees: Michael Arden, Once on this Island; David Cromer, The Band's Visit; Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants; Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls; Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

For me, this is hands down the most competitive category of the night. Each director's vision permeates every corner of their respective productions, and yet ultimately it is the material which shines through instead of some heavy-handed directorial "concept." That said, I think we can safely rule out a win for Casey Nicholaw, as the very entertaining Mean Girls is hardly his best work. And while David Cromer is a dark horse for his work on the critically lauded The Band's Visit, I don't think his direction of that show is as integral to its success as the remaining three contenders.

It cannot be understated how much Michael Arden's vision for Once on this Island helped shape that production into the jewel it is today. His environmental staging makes the most out of the deceptively tricky Circle in the Square Theatre, and for all his lush images and inventive staging he keeps the focus squarely on the narrative's big, beating heart. After the Deaf West Spring Awakening revival and now this, Arden has firmly established himself as an artist to watch, but I sadly don't think it's his time to win Tony glory just yet. 

When it comes to choosing between Tina Landau and Bartlett Sher it's almost too close to call. The Outer Critics' Circle refused to pick, instead awarding both artists Best Direction of a Musical in a rare tie. Sher has subtly but irrevocably changed the way My Fair Lady plays for a modern audience more aware than ever of how gender politics play out in popular entertainment. He has radically reinterpreted a beloved classic in a way that feels startlingly fresh and contemporary without changing a word of the 62 year old classic.

Meanwhile Landau, who has been attached to SpongeBob SquarePants almost since its inception, has miraculous turned what seemed like a cynical cash grab by a big corporation into one of the most entertaining celebrations of theatrical craft around. She has guided her design team to a visual look that evokes the off-kilter feel of the cartoon without literally copying it, and has assembled a rock solid cast that have been encouraged to take their performances far beyond a funny voice and a couple of quirks. She as much as anyone helped shape the disparate elements into a unified whole that feels entirely at home on stage. 

Sher seems like a safer bet to win, and should he walk away with the trophy on Tony Sunday you won't hear any complaints from me. But Landau is this season's MVP when in comes to direction, and I'm hoping she will walk away with the acknowledgement she deserves.

Will Win: Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady
Should Win: Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants

Best Choreography

The beautiful dancers of the cast of Carousel.

Nominees: Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady; Christopher Gattelli, SpongeBob SquarePants; Steven Hoggett, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls; Justin Peck, Carousel

This article is running a bit long, but that's okay because there's not much to discuss here. Justin Peck easily wins Best Choreography for his beautiful and abundant work on Carousel, the biggest dance show of the season. The revival's producers were smart to hire New York City Ballet's youngest ever choreographer in residence to stage Carousel's many dances - including the signature Rodgers and Hammerstein dream ballet - and I can't imagine anyone else winning this award.

Will & Should Win: Justin Peck, Carousel

Keep checking this space for more 2018 Tony Award predictions in the weeks ahead! In the meantime, make your voice heard in the comments, and check out the rest of my Tony coverage by clicking below:

Tony Nominations React
Best Book and Score

Monday, May 14, 2018

2018 Tony Predictions: Book and Score

And just like that, it's Tony season! As always, I will be doing my best to predict this year's winners, and pointing out any discrepancies between who I think *will* win and who *deserves* to win in my analysis. This season has not produced a Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen level juggernaut, which actually makes a lot of the races more interesting as there isn't a runaway smash to dominate the new musical categories like Best Book and Best Score. So how do I think these two prestigious categories will go down? Read on to find out!

Best Book

Erika Henningson as Cady Heron and Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, and Karen Rockwell as the titular Mean Girls.

Nominees: Itamar Moses, The Band's Visit; Jennifer Lee, Frozen; Tina Fey, Mean Girls; Kyle Jarrow, SpongeBob SquarePants

No point in beating around the bush: this is Tina Fey's award to lose. Her book for Mean Girls is just as hysterically funny and endlessly quotable as the film, and although this is her Broadway debut she is a beloved comedy icon the Broadway community has welcomed with open arms. Her greatest competition is Itamar Moses for The Band's Visit, a critical darling of a musical character study which I found to be lacking in the character department. Understated to a fault, Moses' book does a poor job of transitioning into the musical numbers or sufficiently establishing the characters when they aren't singing, leaving the whole show feeling dramatically inert.

If anyone truly deserves to upset Fey it's Kyle Jarrow, who crafted an original narrative for SpongeBob SquarePants that for the most part seamlessly integrates the songs of over a dozen pop artists. He's a big reason SpongeBob feels like a proper musical and not a corporation-birthed Frankenstein monster, and he deftly balances appeasing the cartoon's massive fan base while keeping the show accessible to those who have never seen an episode in their life. As for Frozen's Jennifer Lee, she has admirable expanded her original screenplay for the stage, but will have to settle for the honor of being nominated (and the huge royalty checks Disney sends her each month).

Will and Should Win: Tina Fey, Mean Girls

Bonus Prediction: After years of handing out Best Book during commercial breaks, the Tony telecast will magically find time to actually show this category and its presumed big name winner on air.

Best Score

The cast of The Band's Visit on Broadway.

Nominees: Adrian Sutton, Angels in America; David Yazbek, The Band's Visit; Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen; Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, Mean Girls; Various Artists, SpongeBob SquarePants

A week hours ago this category seemed pretty cut and dry. David Yazbek, previously nominated in this category three times without winning, has written the score to the most critically lauded musical of the season. And his ethereal music for The Band's Visit is easily the most beguiling part of that production, so a Tony Award appeared to be in his immediate future. But then the Outer Critics' Circle awarded Best Score to the 17 recording artists behind SpongBob SquarePants, a show that increasingly looks like it could be a major dark horse contender during this year's awards season.

However, while SpongeBob's win is an interesting wrinkle, it probably won't affect the final outcome. Remember that Yazbek wasn't eligible for this year's OCCs since The Band's Visit premiered Off-Broadway last season and so competed in the 2017 awards (which it and Yazbek both won). I still consider him the front runner, but if there were to be an upset, SpongeBob now seems the most likely suspect. The merely serviceable score of unmemorable songs in Mean Girls poses no real threat. Meanwhile, husband and wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have beautifully augmented Frozen's score for the stage, but the Disney megamusical has left critics cold and no one can argue the multiple Oscar and Emmy winners *need* another award. And while its wonderful for Adrian Sutton that his Angels in America score was nominated, this is still at heart a musical songwriting category, and I cannot imagine Tony voters going against that with even semi-viable alternatives, which they have.

Will and Should Win: David Yazbek, The Band's Visit

Keep checking this space for more 2018 Tony Award predictions in the weeks ahead! In the meantime, make your voice heard in the comments, and check out the rest of my Tony coverage by clicking below:

Tony Nominations React

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

2018 Tony Nominations React

Hamilton Tony-winner Leslie Odom, Jr. and current Waitress star Karen Cartwright Katherine McPhee announcing the 2018 Tony Award nominees.

And just like that, Tony season has officially begun! The nominees for the 72nd Annual Tony Awards were announced this morning (sometimes quite creatively by presenter Katherine McPhee), and as the dust settles we have time to take stock and celebrate those illustrious artists who will now always be able to use the phrase "Tony nominee" in their future bios.

Looking at the list, the nominations largely went as expected. There are no huge surprises, either among those nominated or those excluded. Overall I agree with the nominations committee, although there are a few oversights I might quibble with. They were perhaps a tad generous to Carousel, but I suspect that has a lot to do with the smaller number of eligible productions this season in comparison to last year. Here are some more specific thoughts:

The Good

It was truly the "Best Day Ever" for Ethan Slater (center) and the entire cast and creative team of SpongeBob SquarePants, nominated for 12 awards total.

-Congratulations to the entire cast and crew of SpongeBob SquarePants, which is tied with Mean Girls for the most nominations this season (12 total). It's easy to be cynical about this show (produced by a corporation, based on a major brand, featuring a score cobbled together from various pop artists), but I honestly found it to be one of the more charming productions of the season and deserving of all the accolades it's received. Tina Landau really made sure artistry and craft took center stage, and the results speak for themselves.

-I'm thrilled to see My Fair Lady so well represented among this year's nominees, especially in the acting categories. Top to bottom, it is some of the best acting on Broadway at the moment, musical or otherwise. And Bartlett Sher has outdone himself when it comes to direction; his subtle but distinct slant on the material goes a long way towards keeping the show relevant for contemporary audiences.

-I am pleasantly surprised to see Alexander Gemignani among the Best Featured Actor in a Musical nominees for his work in Carousel. Enoch Snow isn't the showiest role, but Gemignani is sensational with what material he has.

-There was some truly jaw dropping design work on Broadway this year, and I'm glad to see so much of it rightfully recognized in this year's nominees. My Fair Lady, Once on this Island, SpongeBob, and Carousel are all stunning, and from the pictures I've seen Angels in America and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are just as impressive (I look forward to seeing both this summer).

The Questionable

Jessie Mueller continues her Tony hot streak, nominated for her 3rd performance in a row (and scoring her 4th total nomination in just 6 years).

-Don't get me wrong, I *love* Jessie Mueller. But Julie Jordan is probably my least favorite performance of hers, and I think the Tony nominators may have chosen her more out of habit than merit. (For the record, I like her much better as Carrie Pipperidge in the 2013 concert staging starring Kelli O'Hara as Julie.)

-I can't say I'm surprised The Band's Visit did as well as it did (11 nominations total). It's probably the most critically lauded musical of the season, but I have not met many audience members who share the critics' enthusiasm for the show. I don't begrudge anyone who worked on it their nomination - and I'm actively rooting for David Yazbek to win Best Score - but I must admit it left me rather cold. Perhaps it worked better in the intimacy of Off-Broadway, like last year's often nominated but seldom victorious Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

-The Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle noms indicated Alex Newell was unlikely to be recognized for his performance as Asaka in Once on this Island, but that doesn't make the omission sting any less. Best Featured Actor in a Musical is loaded with scene stealers this year, and in my opinion Newell ranks right there with the best of them.

The Bad

Don't cry, Anna (Patti Murin). The Tony nominators may have left you out in the cold, but your warm and utterly charming performance has certainly warmed my heart.

-Like the Tony voters, I liked but wasn't obsessed with Frozen. But to me, the single best aspect of Disney's big budget film adaptation is Patti Murin's performance as Anna, and I think it is a shame she was not included among this year's Best Actress in a Musical nominees. I have always maintained it's only a snub if you can point to a nominee you feel the unrecognized performer is unequivocally better than. And Patti Murin was snubbed (I will let you figure out who I think took her spot).

-I wouldn't call her snubbed per se, but I am deeply disappointed Kate Rockwell didn't get nominated for her side-splitting work in Mean Girls. Just like Amanda Seyfried in the film, Rockwell's Karen is quietly the funniest person in the entire show. "Sexy," her ode to slutty Halloween costumes, is one of the most hilarious musical comedy moments in years.

And for those keeping score at home, my Tony predictions were particularly accurate this year. I completely nailed the Best Musical, Best Musical Revival, and Best Play Revival categories, and got an almost perfect score on Best Play. The only nominee I didn't see coming was Latin History for Morons, which also scored its creator and star John Leguizamo a special Tony Award this year.

Those are my feelings on this year's nominees; let me know yours in the comments! And keep an eye on this space for more Tony predictions in the coming months!

Monday, April 30, 2018

2018 Tony Nominee Predictions

It's that time of year again! Tony Award nominations will be announced on Tuesday, May 1st, and as always I will be doing my best to predict the nominees. While popular sentiment (including mine) states that this has not been the most exciting Broadway season in recent memory, there is still plenty of award-worthy work to be discussed, so let's get to it!

Best Musical

Erika Henningsen as Cady, Ashley Park as Gretchen, Taylor Louderman as Regina, and Kate Rockwell as Karen in Mean Girls.

Nominees: The Band's Visit; Frozen; Mean Girls; SpongeBob SquarePants
Wildcard: Prince of Broadway

This category seems pretty set in stone. The only other eligible productions, Escape to Margaritaville and Summer, are both critically reviled jukebox musicals that I can't imagine connecting with Tony voters. Band's Visit has felt like a Tony contender since the time it opened, and the eagerly anticipated Mean Girls is probably its greatest competition. Frozen is solid enough that I expect it to be nominated, but Disney's latest effort has left the critics somewhat cold. And based on the recently announced Drama Desk and Outer Critics' nominations, SpongeBob SquarePants will fulfill my prediction to be this year's "surprise" Best Musical nominee. If one of those shows somehow doesn't make the grade I suppose the Hal Prince revue Prince of Broadway could sneak in there, but that seems about as likely as Hamilton closing anytime soon.

Best Play

The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway.

Nominees: Farinelli and the King; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Junk; Meteor Shower
Wildcard: The Children

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child's nomination and eventual win both feel like foregone conclusions at this point. It is the most awarded play in the history of London's Olivier Awards, where the new play is generally much more competitive than it is on Broadway (in the US, Off-Broadway and regional theatres are the hot spots for play development). In some kind of freaky alternate reality where Harry Potter wasn't a critically adored, money printing hit, Farinelli and the King is probably the next most likely candidate. I think Junk and Meteor Shower will get token nominations to round out the category, but I can also imagine either one being left out in favor of another British import, MTC's fall production of The Children.

Best Musical Revival

Lauren Ambrose (center) and the cast of Lincoln Center Theatre's My Fair Lady.

Nominees: Carousel; My Fair Lady; Once on this Island

There are exactly three eligible nominees in this category (Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Once on this Island), so everyone should get nominated by default. On a positive note, all three shows are strong enough to merit nominations even in a more competitive season. I suppose if the Tony voters were feeling extra ornery they could whittle this category down to two, but I have trouble believing they hate Carousel enough to do so.

Best Play Revival

Beth Malone and Andrew Garfield in Angels in America on Broadway.

Nominees: Angels in America; Lobby Hero; Three Tall Women; Travesties
Wildcard: The Iceman Cometh

This is the one category where it feels like there's a legitimate danger of a deserving show being left out of the mix. Angels in America is the clear front runner here; the play is pure Tony bait, and by all accounts the current Broadway revival is superbly done. The critics also went gaga over the Edward Albee revival Three Tall Women, and I would be shocked if the uniformly praised show was left out of the running. I also expect Second Stage to be rewarded with a Tony nod for Lobby Hero, the inaugural production of their newly renovated Broadway home, the Helen Hayes. For the final slot, I'm going with Roundabout's praised production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties, although if the heady language play proves too high brow for Tony voters the Denzel Washington fronted The Iceman Cometh could sneak in there.

Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments! Lively discussion is the best way to keep this blog fresh and exciting for everyone.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

By George, They've Got It!

Review: My Fair Lady

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in Lincoln Center's lavish My Fair Lady.

Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady has quite the conflicting reputation. On one hand, this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is almost universally agreed to be an expertly constructed Golden Age book musical, overflowing with Loewe's beautiful music and possessing an exceedingly sharp, emotionally complex book by Lerner. But with each passing year, more and more people have rightly expressed discomfort with the way the show treats its protagonist Eliza Doolittle, who many feel is made over against her will to suit the ideals of misogynistic language professor Henry Higgins. Is it even possible to stage the show in a way that honors its original intent without alienating modern audiences who are increasingly aware of the mistreatment women have endured throughout history?

The answer is a resounding "yes" thanks to the brilliant direction of Bartlett Sher, who seemingly specializes in mounting supposedly dated classics to feel as timely and relevant as the day they first premiered (see his Tony-winning revivals of South Pacific and The King & I, also for Lincoln Center). Sher has largely solved My Fair Lady's perceived problems with an approach so straightforward it feels revolutionary: he has ignored the way the show is "traditionally" performed and refocused on the text, revealing it to be much more thoughtful and equitable than originally thought. The often thrilling, always fascinating result is a triumphant production that firmly refocuses the show on Eliza and makes her a much more active participant in her own narrative without changing a single line of dialogue.

The script has always had Eliza show up at Higgins' residence asking for elocution lessons, but Sher's production is one of the first to fully emphasize that she chooses to do so without being forced. Higgins has always explicitly stated the difficulty in what Eliza is attempting, and praised her for the speed at which she picks it up, but for the first time it all feels like genuine praise rather than insincere small talk. Eliza has always called Higgins on his appalling behavior, but this is the first time it hasn't felt like she's taken her critique back by the end of the show. The only thing one can argue Sher actually changed is the show's final tableau, but again, he hasn't changed a word, and his version of the ending feels much truer to the spirit of the piece than what has traditionally been done.

To achieve such a subtle but substantial reinterpretation of the text, Sher needed actors of the highest caliber, and he has found them in this top notch cast. Lauren Ambrose provides perhaps the best acted version of Eliza to date, up to and including Audrey Hepburn's beloved performance in the film. Ambrose sparkles with intelligence and strength from the very beginning, making it clear Eliza's cockney accent by no means indicates stupidity. Her expressive face and eyes radiate warmth while conveying volumes about her complex inner life, making it difficult to take your eyes off her. Whether Ambrose is relishing the small victories Eliza finds during her arduous dictation lessons, reevaluating and adjusting her behavior during her hysterical public debut as a lady, or visibly rallying herself prior to the embassy ball, she will have you utterly captivated. It is a testament to Ambrose's sheer magnetism that even when Higgins and his servants are gallivanting about the stage during "You Did It," the audience's eyes remain fixed on Eliza in the corner, as Ambrose charts her growing disgust with her situation.

Vocally, Ambrose is not as assured a singer as someone like Julie Andrews (Broadway's original Eliza) or Marni Nixon (who dubbed Hepburn's vocals in the film). She has some lovely moments and never comes close to sounding outright bad, rather just suffers a *tad* in comparison to some of the most accomplished sopranos in musical theatre history. And Ambrose's acting is so sensational that its difficult to hold any perceived vocal shortcomings against her, as its hard to imagine a more trained singer acting the role better. Ambrose's performance is that good.

Ambrose is excellently matched by Harry Hadden-Paton making an absolutely thrilling Broadway debut in a role virtually synonymous with Rex Harrison (who won both the Tony and the Oscar for his Higgins). It must be noted that casting Higgins as closer in age to Eliza goes a long way towards putting the characters on more equal footing, but the rest of the gap is closed by Hadden-Paton as perhaps the most compassionate Higgins in history. That's not to say the tart tongued linguist has lost any of his bite; Hadden-Paton can unleash a stream of insults with the best of them, with a natural charisma and intelligence that will have you laughing so hard you almost forget how thoroughly he's eviscerated his target. But this Higgins actually does care for Eliza, and Hadden-Paton makes it clear that for all his bluster he is genuinely horrified by the idea that he may have unknowingly mistreated her. You won't necessarily like this Higgins, but you will have far more understanding of him and his childish outbursts than you've likely ever had, all thanks to Hadden-Paton's excellent scene work.

The supporting cast is every bit as enchanting as the leads. Allan Corduner is outstanding as Colonel Pickering, an excellent foil for Hadden-Paton and a fascinating actor in his own right. Dame Diana Rigg makes the most of her relatively small role as Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mother), effortlessly cutting her misbehaving son down to size with little more than a look and a quick word. Jordan Donica offers up a beautiful sung, endearingly goofy Freddy, forever smitten with Eliza and waiting for her "On the Street Where You Live." And two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz takes the primarily comic role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, and turns him into one of the most fully realized humans in the entire piece. The fact that he also leads the sensational chorus of 25 in a showstopping rendition of "Get Me to the Church on Time" is just an added bonus.

At this point, it is practically a given that Lincoln Center's revivals of these Golden Age classics will be visually sumptuous affairs, and My Fair Lady continues that proud tradition. Catherine Zuber's costumes continually astound, especially her lavender-tinted finery for the "Ascot Gavotte" and her breathtaking version of Eliza's iconic hat. Michael Yeargan's scenic design for Higgins' study is impressively grand on its own, but when the house begins to revolve and expose the residence's other rooms you may just let out a gasp of delight. Everything is beautifully lit by Donald Holder, and Marc Salzberg's sound design ensures you can hear every wonderful note of the score played by the massive orchestra under the baton of Ted Sperling. Describing the physical production as lavish almost feels like an understatement.

In the end, you'd be hard pressed to find much to fault in this production of My Fair Lady. Impeccably acted and gorgeously staged, it feels as fresh and relevant as the day the show first premiered, if not more so. Higgins is still undeniably a misogynist, but he no longer has tyrannical control over Eliza, and she has far more agency in her own story than one might expect. Popular opinion will ultimately decide if the show is too unsavory for modern audiences, but Sher and company have made a compelling argument for this classic to maintain its status as one of the crown jewels of the musical theatre cannon. Its examination of class and gender politics has plenty to teach us even today, all while entertaining us with one of the most glorious scores of the Golden Age.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Julie Jordan?

Review: Carousel

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

It is said that of all Richard Rodger's collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein, Carousel contained the composer's favorite score. The classic musical certainly has an abundance of soaring melodies, and it greatly develops the now ubiquitous concept of the extended musical scene, something that didn't really exist prior to the famed duo's groundbreaking work. And while the show certainly has artistic and historical merit, the extremely well done revival now on Broadway also fully unmasks the inherent problems in the script, the most glaring of which is the domestic violence issue embedded in the central romance.

*Note: If you aren't familiar with Carousel - I'd never seen it prior to this production - there are spoilers coming. There's no way to discuss the show in the context of 2018 without getting into them.*

There's no way around it: Carousel as written is inherently problematic. Carnival barker Billy Bigelow falls in love with and marries a young mill worker named Julie Jordan, who abandons her job just to get the chance to know Billy better (the mill Julie works at insists their workers maintain a "good girl" image which doesn't allow for late night talks with strange men). Then, in a scene we never see, Billy hits Julie; the town characterizes it as continual abuse, although Billy insists that it was just one time. But the frequency of the abuse doesn't really matter, because either way Julie insists there's nothing wrong with it despite the protestations of literally everyone she knows.

Note Julie never *denies* being hit. She claims people don't know Billy like she does, and that she understands why he hit her. But Julie - and by extension, Rodgers and Hammerstein - never verbalizes those reasons to the other characters or to the audience. In fact, her second act solo "What's the Use of Wond'rin," the song specifically designed to address this concern, essentially boils down to Julie saying she loves him, so what else can she do but accept the situation? And late in the show, when a now dead Billy is asked by a heavenly character called The Starkeeper if he regrets hitting Julie, Billy defiantly responds, "I regret nothing."

Now, obviously Carousel was written during a different time that had different attitudes about what was and wasn't acceptable behavior in a marriage. So while it is disappointing that the fairly progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein - who wrote the anti-racism creed "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" for South Pacific and centered The King & I around a strong, capable female protagonist - created such a problematic portrayal of the abused-but-we-don't-know-how-much Julie, it isn't entirely surprising.

What is surprising is that Tony-winner Jessie Mueller, who can pack a wealth of conflicting emotions into the space between her lines, isn't able to find some way to give more insight or depth to Julie and help us better understand her actions. Given that her last Broadway outing Waitress focused on a character in a similar situation, but with much more complexity and agency, it is downright baffling that Mueller chose this as her immediate follow-up.

Perhaps this disconnect explains why Mueller, normally a firebrand who you cannot take your eyes off of, feels oddly subdued throughout. She sings the role beautifully - is there nothing her mercurial voice cannot do? - and acts it as well as anyone can be expected to, which leaves no choice but to conclude the problem is with the material and not the performer. Put bluntly, Julie just isn't a very compelling character, especially contrasted with the other women in the show.

Julie's best friend Carrie Pipperidge manages to do what society expects of her in a way that makes it clear she's making a choice and not just resigned to whatever comes her way, and she is the first to express concern about Julie's home life. Lindsey Mendez is a delight in the role, beautifully adapting her vocal pyrotechnics to the more legit stylings of Carousel's score and landing the evening's biggest laughs. And opera superstar Renee Fleming is a revelation as the matronly Nettie Fowler; her rendition of the show's big anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a masterclass in dramatic song interpretation, musically impeccable while still feeling spontaneous and unforced.

And despite the problems with his character, it's undeniable that two-time Tony-nominee Joshua Henry has never been better than as carnival barker Billy Bigelow. His natural charisma makes it easy to see why Julie or anyone else would be drawn to him, and his performance makes it clear that his gruff exterior is masking a deep seated inner pain and self loathing. He also sings like a dream, making a famously taxing role seem easy and imbuing every song with a freshness that makes the show's well worn ballads sound new. His "Soliloquy," the seven minute monologue in song that ends the first act, is positively thrilling, his rendition easily among the best there's ever been. Henry's performance is the stuff Tony wins are made of, and a strong argument for the merits of color conscious casting. (The production never overtly references Henry's race, but it subtly informs his interactions.)

Director Jack O'Brien's thoughtful staging and direction is exactly what you hope for when one of these Golden Age musicals is revived. The show feels fresh and alive, almost like new, honoring the material without ever holding it so sacred that it feels like a museum piece. O'Brien wisely avoids any impulse to dress the material up with modern bells and whistles, letting the actors and musicians carry the day. The producers have also wisely employed NY City Ballet choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck to handle the musical's abundant dance numbers, including the patented Rodgers and Hammerstein dream ballet in the second act. Peck's choreography has a complexity and artistic maturity rarely seen on the Broadway stage, and is danced to perfection by the nimble men and women of the ensemble (who also sound fantastic during the group choral numbers).

From a physical standpoint, this Carousel is often breathtaking thanks to the lavish yet unfussy design work. Ann Roth's costumes have an attention to detail and carefully considered color palette that make them look like a million bucks, even though they are largely everyday casual wear. Santo Loquasto's stunning set wonderfully evokes a sleepy seaside town, with his stellar backdrops and multilayered sets giving the production an astonishing amount of visual depth. His take on the titular carousel is particularly striking, an image that will stay with you long after the final curtain falls. Both sets and costumes are gorgeously lit by Brian MacDevitt, whose sophisticated work greatly helps in the evocation of the story's many different moods.

All of the talent and care that has gone into this Carousel makes the show's dubious worldview that much more upsetting. These are clearly smart artists who are doing their absolute best to do justice to this show, but they have not been able to solve the central conundrum of getting us to understand and empathize with such a problematic relationship. The lead female role is basically a doormat, accepting and excusing any negative behavior that comes her way in the name of love, and putting that kind of message into the world in 2018 seems questionable at best. Rather than "fixing" Carousel for future generations, this production may have killed it once and for all by exposing it as inexorably linked to a bygone and now unacceptable social attitude. If O'Brien and company aren't able to satisfactorily address Carousel's problems, then who can?