Saturday, July 29, 2017

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Casting Controversy of 2017

Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

What a mess. That's about the only way to describe the brouhaha that has arisen over what initially seemed like a fairly innocuous piece of replacement casting for the Tony-nominated production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. For those who may have missed it, on Wednesday the producers of Dave Malloy's musical fantasia announced that Mandy Patinkin would step into the role of Pierre for a limited 3 week engagement starting August 15th. It was quite a get for the production, as the beloved Tony-winner hasn't been seen on Broadway since his concert evening with Patti LuPone in 2011, and hasn't tackled a role in a musical since originating Burrs in Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party all the way back in 2000.

But shortly thereafter, a vocal segment of Twitter cried foul, as Patinkin's surprise Broadway return meant that the production's current Pierre, Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan, would be cutting his run in the role short barely a month after taking over for original leading man Josh Groban. Many questioned if there was a racial motivation behind asking a black actor to step aside for a white performer, and Onaodowan for his part made it clear that he was turning down the producers' invitation to return to the show after Patinkin finished his run. Although nothing was explicitly said, one gets the impression there's some bad blood between Onaodowan and the producers over the way this was handled, and that Onaodowan's departure wasn't the mutual agreement it was made out to be in the initial press release. The famously principled Patinkin subsequently withdrew from the production on Friday, stating that he would never knowingly take a job that would harm another actor.

Now, a couple of clarifications. I don't think Onaodowan is out of line to be a bit perturbed by the way this was handled, and I admire Patinkin's integrity in withdrawing from the show as a public rebuke to the producers. But the cries of this casting being in any way racially motivated strike me as bullshit, and I think those arguing otherwise are doing a huge disservice to the important and necessary conversation around diversity in the theatre. 

Let's not forget that the producers of The Great Comet have gone out of their way to cast ethnically diverse actors from day one (they've even won awards for it). The lead role of Natasha has been very pointedly *not* white from the start, being originated by Chinese-American actress Phillipa Soo Off-Broadway before the beautifully dark-skinned Denee Benton took over for the show's Broadway transfer. The producers also had no problem casting Amber Grey to play the sister of the very Aryan Lucas Steele, and the ensemble is full wonderfully diverse performers that many casting directors would argue have no business being in a show set in 17th century Russia. These are all conscious choices that show the producers obviously care about representation; it makes no sense for them to suddenly decide ethnic performers can't lead their show.

What happened here is simply a case of needing a name to drive ticket sales. As composer Dave Malloy admitted on Twitter Friday, the show's advance sales have taken a nosedive since multiplatinum recording star Groban departed the show earlier this month. Well known singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson was brought in to play the key supporting role of Sonya the day after Groban left to help boost ticket sales, a move that seems to have worked in the short term. (It should be noted that Michaelson's casting resulting in another performer taking a leave of absence from the show and no one batted an eyelash.) Patinkin's scheduled start date the day after Michaelson's departure was an obvious attempt to keep the show running with ticket sales high.

It is a classic example of the problem with star casting, as shows built around a particular performer have difficulty sustaining interest once said performer leaves. (For an extreme example, the smash hit revival of Hello, Dolly! lost over $1 million in ticket sales when Bette Midler went on vacation earlier this month.) Great Comet was sold from day one as a Josh Groban vehicle, perhaps understandably so. Can anyone imagine the oddball, immersive show securing a prime theatre like the Imperial and running for months at near capacity without a big name to put butts in seats? The producers' gamble clearly worked. 

What they realized too late was that they had no idea how to sell the daring, somewhat divisive show without a star who has a huge, devoted fanbase willing to spend big bucks to see him or her. Patinkin's wide exposure thanks to roles on high profile television shows like Homeland and Criminal Minds - not to mention a beloved supporting turn in the movie The Princess Bride - gives him significantly box office draw than a talented but little known performer like Onaodowan. (Yes, Onaodowan was in Hamilton, but he didn't star in Hamilton, and the Pultizer Prize-winning musical's continued sold out status proves that for that production the show is the draw more than any individual actor.) A white actor with a similar resume would have found himself in the exact same position of being "asked" to step aside the moment Patinkin's schedule opened up.

And that is the reason why this mess still feels icky, despite the lack of racial motivation. Onaodowan was only scheduled to be with the show for 2 months to begin with, and he was unceremoniously dumped the second a bigger star came along. Further, the producers clearly fudged the truth when presenting the idea to Patinkin, making it appear as if Onaodowan had agreed to take a leave of absence rather than being forced out. What they didn't count on was the true story making its way to Patinkin, and the Tony winner changing his mind when he found out his new gig was forcibly taking a job from another actor who had already been promised a set number of performances.

So feel free to condemn the producers of Great Comet for this situation, but leave the accusations of racism out of it. It is dangerous to raise the specter of racism in a case where that clearly wasn't the intent. Crying wolf on a matter as important as the treatment of black performers will make it that much more difficult to get people to pay attention when true injustices occur. It will be easier to discount complaints about mistreatment as fabrications, and it could well discourage other productions from going after diverse casts if they feel it is a "no win" situation. We need to encourage and educate our allies, not dismiss them after one unintentional misstep. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Period Costumes, Contemporary Issues, and Timeless Theatricality

Review: A Doll's House, Part 2

Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in A Doll's House, Part 2.

Do not let the somewhat intimidating title fool you. While A Doll's House, Part 2 is technically a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking 1879 drama, this razor sharp new play requires next to no knowledge of its predecessor. Nor is the play some stuffy period drama; this is a wholly contemporary work which combines both comedy and pathos in its blistering examination of the institution of marriage and a woman's place in a patriarchal society. They are the same themes Ibsen tackled in his original work over 100 years ago, and Broadway newcomer Lucas Hnath proves that there's still so much to say about them.

The setup is brilliantly simple. Nora Helmer returns home 15 years after she walked out on her husband Torvald, their kids, and their marriage at the end of A Doll's House, scandalizing much of 19th century society. But Torvald never actually filed for divorce after Nora left, and without his help ending their marriage she risks losing everything she's built for herself since. (The irony that the strong-willed and independently minded Nora needs a man's help to get what she wants doesn't escape anyone.)

Hnath's perfectly structured one act is divided into five scenes, sharply delineated by harsh lighting cues and yet seamlessly flowing into one another. In addition to Nora's point of view, we get major insight into how her leaving has affected Torvald, their daughter Emmy, and their housekeeper Anne Marie (who ended up raising the children in Nora's absence). A hyper-literate polemic, A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to expertly articulate each character's point of view so you find it difficult to disagree with any of them, even though they rarely agree on anything. It is also striking just how much the issues initially raised by Ibsen are still shockingly relevant today, particularly when it comes to the options that are and are not afforded to women.

What makes the play rise above mere intellectual discussion and become truly compelling drama are the carefully nuanced performances of the four person ensemble. Leading the charge is Laurie Metcalf in an absolutely sensational (now Tony-winning) performance as Nora, the fiercely independent woman at the center of everything. Matcalf's Nora barrels through the play like a bull in a china shop, a lifetime of frustration radiating off her in righteous anger. Her exasperation is palpable, as is her intelligence and determination.

Metcalf makes it abundantly clear that Nora was born in the wrong time, a strong and independent woman in a world that has little use for her. And while Nora makes no apologies for her decision to leave her family, Matcalf beautifully communicates just how much the decision cost her, especially during a heartbreaking monologue in which she describes what it's been like to be cut off from her children. The role allows Metcalf to showcase her full range as an actress, from the comedy chops that won her 3 consecutive Emmys on TV's Roseanne to the deeply felt emotion which has made her a favorite of the New York theatre scene.

Equally exciting work is provided by Metcalf's costars, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad. Houdyshell initially seems like comic relief as the somewhat bumbling, soft-spoken maid Anne Marie, but as the play progresses you discover she has been as shaken by Nora's decision as anyone. Anne Marie's geniality hides a deep seated resentment for the scandal Nora caused, and Houdyshell plays both sides of her character to the hilt. Rashad is thrilling as Nora's now grown daughter Emmy, who was so small when her mother left she barely remembers her. Her opinions on Nora's actions are perhaps the most surprising, and Rashad's shimmering intelligence and carefully measured line delivery make her consistently fascinating to watch.

If there is one weak link in the cast, it is Chris Cooper's understated portrayal of Torvald. The Oscar winner isn't so much bad as he is underwhelming, delivering a characterization that is clearly calibrated for film while the rest of the cast is giving overtly theatrical performances. One wishes director Sam Gold had been able to bring Cooper up to the level of his costars, but otherwise the evening is flawlessly directed. Gold's subdued staging, combined with the low key but well executed costumes and lights, allows the focus to remain where it should, on the excellent writing and acting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to accomplish just about everything you could want during its lean, brutally effective 90 minute runtime. An intelligent drama that tackles big ideas, Hnath's script allows ample opportunity for both comedy and drama, which the gifted ensemble seizes upon and fully exploits. Who would have imagined that a play which on paper sounds like an overly pretentious writing exercise would turn out to be one of the freshest, most engaging new works of the year? Those with even the slightest interest should make it a point to see A Doll's House, Part 2; you are guaranteed to leave the Helmer household much more satisfied than Nora ever was.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Lush Historical Fairy Tale

Review: Anastasia

Derek Klena as Dimitri and Christy Altomare as Anya in Anastasia.

As someone who has never seen the 1997 animated feature film Anastasia, I bring no preexisting expectations to the musical version currently playing the Broadhurst Theatre. Which is perhaps for the best, as the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have been very upfront about the massive amount of changes their work has undergone in the transition from screen to stage. Entire characters have been jettisoned (no villainous Rasputin and his anthropomorphic bat sidekick), many of the songs have been reordered and/or recontextualized, and the tone of the piece has been shifted towards something more complex than the typically black and white morality tale of a Disney-esque animated film.

Whether this "maturing" of the story amounts to actual and improvement is open for interpretation. There is no denying the Flaherty and Ahrens' score (which includes the Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past," here relocated to the end of the first act) is a work of beauty, a grand collection of both old and new songs that have a sweeping melodic artistry. This beauty is occasionally betrayed by the relatively modest ensemble size, which doesn't always have the vocal heft the music seems to call for. This is no fault of the very talented performers, just a result of the economic reality that paying for dozens of chorus members is a luxury most shows cannot afford. 

And while Terrance McNally's book does a fine job of weaving the various songs together, the more adult tone invites a more critical look at the narrative than it can quite sustain. In telling the story of the lost heir to the last Russian czar, Anastasia attempts to milk a lot of drama from the question of whether the amnesiac Anya is actually the presumed dead title character. But a show called Anastasia with no Anastasia wouldn't make much sense, and the repeated flashbacks Anya has of her slain relatives leave little doubt she is in fact the missing Grand Duchess. (This narrative issue is successful solved in the second act, when the question becomes not "Is Anya Anastasia?" but "Will her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, recognize her?") It also feels odd that a show which puts so much effort into at least the semblance of historical accuracy leaves the issue of why the Russians killed Anastasia's family almost wholly unexplored.

Thankfully, the gorgeous physical production and fine collection of performances makes it easier to look past these logical issues. Alexander Dodge's physical set is perhaps a tad shallow, but it is brought to vivid life by Aaron Rhyne's stunning projections. Rhyne's work adds depth and detail to the show's many physical locations, finding stage equivalents to cinematic techniques like pans and dissolves which look like nothing else on Broadway. And Linda Cho's stunningly ornate costumes are showstoppers in and of themselves, glittering ensembles of saturated color that grant the entire affair an air of wonderfully grandiose fantasy. 

In the title role, Christy Altomare is excellent as a thoroughly modern Broadway heroine. Her utter commitment to the role brings a level of authenticity and dramatic stakes to the character that frankly isn't there in the writing, and even though it's obvious she's the missing Grand Duchess, Altomare's palpable doubt almost makes you question that assumption. And while her voice is quite lovely, the true secret to her success with Anya's many songs is her ability to convey every nuance contained within Ahrens' words and Flaherty's music. 

As Dimitri, a street hustler initially wanting to pass Anya off as Anastasia for the reward money, Derek Klena has a dashingly chiseled visage that looks as if it jumped out of an animated storybook. Dimitri begins the show as a bit of a jerk, but Klena slowly wins you over as his character becomes less interested in money and more invested in helping Anya realize her destiny. Klena also possesses a soaring tenor the score doesn't utilize right way, but really springs to the fore by the time of his rousing solo "My Petersburg" in the middle of the first act. And John Bolton is a delightfully endearing clown as Dimitri's partner in crime Vlad, whose past connections with the Russian royal family are key to helping our leads meet their goals.

As the Dowager Empress, Mary Beth Peil initially seems underused, with a brief appearance in the show's prologue her only stage time in Act I. But once the action moves to Paris, and convincing the Dowager Empress that Anya is her long lost granddaughter becomes the main plot, Peil comes alive, packing an enormous amount of emotional variety into her scenes (which happen to feature some of McNally's best writing). Watching the range of emotions that wash over Peil's face in the climatic scene, from bitter rage to stubborn disbelief to overwhelming joy, is one of the highlights of the evening.

There's a lot to like about Anastasia, especially if one can get past the fact that this stage adaptation uses the animated film as more of a jumping off point than an actual blueprint. The writing ranges from good to excellent, even if the direction by Tony winner Darko Tresnjak allows the show to drag more than it needs to. The upside of this sometimes slower pace is you have ample time to appreciate the opulence of the physical production, the lush melodies, and the winsome performances of the cast. It's refreshing to see a family show that is willing to trust in its audience's appreciation of stagecraft rather than beat them over the head with spectacle, even if a tad more flash would be appreciated.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

2017 Tony Awards Final Thoughts

Tony host Kevin Spacey in Sunday night's opening number.

And that's a wrap! With Sunday night's Tony telecast, the curtain has officially fallen on the 2016-2017 Broadway season, bringing with it a freshly minted crop of Tony winners. And while I have plenty of thoughts on the ceremony as a whole, let's start by looking at how well I did during my annual predictions. Here are this year's actual winners, with the asterisk denoting races I correctly predicted:

Best Musical: Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Play: Oslo*
Best Revival of a Musical: Hello, Dolly!*
Best Revival of a Play: Jitney*
Best Actress in a Musical: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!*
Best Actress in a Play: Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Best Actor in a Musical: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Actor in a Play: Kevin Kline, Present Laughter*
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!*
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Michael Aronov, Oslo
Best Direction of a Musical: Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
Best Direction of a Play: Rebecca Taichman, Indecent
Best Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand
Best Book of a Musical: Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen
Best Score: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen*

For those who aren't great at math, that's 10 out of 17 correct, or a fairly unimpressive 59% success rate. The creative categories are where I struggled the most, as they were the source of the night's biggest surprises. I don't think anyone, including Christopher Ashley and Rebecca Taichman, expected their wins in the direction categories, which made for two of the most entertaining speeches of the night thanks to their genuine shock and happiness.

By contrast, the acting races all went down pretty much as expected, and as a result we didn't see anyone truly lose it the way some of the most memorable Tony winners do (no Nikki M. James style "butterfly" moments here). Don't get me wrong, I liked all of the speeches, and I truly don't have a problem with any of the winners; no one was robbed of their Tony this year, although there are a couple of races I was hoping might go a different way. (We love you, Stephanie J. Block, and you will get your Tony someday!)

The most memorable speech of the night was hands down Bette Midler's. In what may be a Tony record, Midler spoke for nearly 5 minutes as she thanked everyone from her cast, producers, and designers on down to her teachers. The orchestra eventually gave up trying to play her off and just let her speak, and while some people might have a problem with Midler taking so much more than her allotted time it's clear the audience was eating it up. It also helps that Midler was genuinely thrilled to win, and had nothing but effusive praise for her cast and crew. Thanks to a ridiculous behind the scenes feud between Hello, Dolly's lead producer and the Tony telecast, we did not get to see any of Midler's already legendary performance as Dolly Levi, so I'm fine with giving the star as much stage time as possible.

Speaking of the performances, I have to say the individual show producers by and large bungled their song selections. Almost all were poor representations of the show that were incredibly difficult to process out of contest, and I don't think the majority of shows were shown to their full advantage. Miss Saigon made the incredibly off-putting decision to open with an onstage murder and crying mother, although thankfully Tony nominee Eva Noblezada's incredible voice and performance salvaged things (they should have just started with her singing). Groundhog Day picked the sappiest song in its repertoire, and the Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was just plain chaotic.

And God bless David Hyde Pierce, but nobody was interested in seeing a cut song from Hello, Dolly! when that score is literally brimming with standards. It's not Pierce's fault that producer Scott Rudin decreed Bette Midler wouldn't perform unless they could do the performance from the Shubert Theatre, and he did an admirable job with a number that in the context of the show is actually quite charming. But there are three *obvious* choices in that score for Tony performances ("Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Before the Parade Passes By," and the title song, which would have been my preference), and Rudin should have sucked it up, paid for the duplicate set, and given the people what they wanted, which was Midler front and center.

As host, I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Spacey's easygoing vibe, which provided a nice contrast from James Corden's overly labored hosting gig last year (I know I'm in the minority, but I thought the late night host and Tony winner was trying way too hard). I think the opening number was a bit too "inside baseball" for the telecast, as you can only really appreciate it by having seen all of the parodied shows, which the majority of people watching have not. But Spacey sold it, and his repeated impersonations of other celebrities throughout the telecast were some of the evening's highlights. They also reminded anyone who may have forgotten that Spacey is an actor's actor, and he will hopefully be back on Broadway sooner rather than later. Finally, Spacey's repeated references to the fact that he was nobody's first choice for this gig were genius, as making fun of himself allowed him to make fun of others without seeming mean spirited ("Let's go before Bette Midler thanks anyone else").

Overall, I thought this year's Tonys were fine, although disappointing considering the strength of this Broadway season. The one area the Tonys usually excel at, the musical numbers, was marred by poor song choices that didn't do a good job of introducing the shows to people who didn't already know them. And oddly enough, the announcement of winners this year was somehow less interesting than last year even though last year we all knew Hamilton would dominate. But the most important aspect of the Tonys is celebrating the year's best and brightest, and this year I thought voters did an excellent job of rewarding those who truly deserved it.

Friday, June 9, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Play and Musical

The 2017 Tony Awards are this Sunday, and so we end my annual Tony predictions by tackling the two most important and prestigious races of the night, Best Play and Best Musical. A win in either of these categories has the most demonstrable and immediate effect on a show's box office, and virtually guarantees a nice, multi-year run on Broadway (especially for musicals). Which also increases the show's chances of turning a profit, going on tour, and being produced regionally, all of which allow the talented writers behind these shows to continue doing what they do best: make theatre.

As always, I will use a combination of personal opinion, critical consensus, and industry buzz to determine the most *likely* winner. This is not necessarily the most deserving winner, and should I disagree with the way Tony voters are leaning I will be certain to point it out in my analysis. Now let's get started!

Best Play

The Broadway cast of Oslo at Lincoln Center.

Nominees: A Doll's House, Part 2; Indecent; Oslo; Sweat

The Best Play Tony is a tricky one, as it functions as both a writing award and an acknowledgement of the production as a whole. Which raises the question of what Tony voters should be considering when casting their ballot; is the quality of the script the most important factor, or do they allow exceedingly well executed staging and performances lift a script that maybe isn't as strong into the top position?

This year sees two Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights make their Broadway debuts after decades of writing for the theatre. Both Lynn Nottage's Sweat and Paula Vogel's Indecent have been universally praised, with Sweat having the added benefit of winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (making Nottage the only woman to ever win the award multiple times). But the Pulitzer doesn't guarantee a Tony win, as shown by the Broadway production of Disgraced losing to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in 2015. I don't expect either show to win, but Sweat could possibly score an upset.

Considering Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 is the most nominated play of the season, it seems likely that the Ibsen inspired work will ultimately be crowned the winner. But J.T. Roger's historical thriller Oslo just scored the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, while Doll's House wasn't even nominated. Given Oslo's strong performance in the guild awards, I will hesitantly select it as my official pick to win, but I won't be surprised to see a different name called Sunday night.

Will Win: Oslo

Best Musical

Tony nominee Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

At the risk of sounding snarky, I cannot understand how Groundhog Day found itself included in this year's Best Musical race. This season saw 13 new musicals open on Broadway, and while I have not seen them all I can definitively say that Groundhog Day wouldn't place in my Top 4 (I vastly preferred the underrepresented War Paint). Perhaps Tony voters took West End critics at their word, since the London production was recently awarded the Olivier for Best Musical despite the show's many structural issues and overall lack of focus. On the bright side, I don't know anyone who expects Groundhog Day to win big on Tony night.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 has the most nominations of any show this season with 12, but despite strong work in so many areas the show doesn't quite gel the way it did Off-Broadway. Something was lost in the transfer from an intimate Off-Broadway venue to the cavernous Imperial Theatre, and while many Tony voters appreciate Great Comet's bold invention and pushing of theatrical boundaries, I don't foresee it winning Best Musical on Sunday. I applaud the producers for taking the chance to bring such a risky show to a wider audience, and I'm genuinely glad for all of it's success, even if it wasn't my favorite show of the season.

The question of whether Dear Evan Hansen or Come From Away is more deserving of the Best Musical trophy is difficult. Evan Hansen is a fascinating examination of how social media has complicated the primal human need for connection and belonging, at once timely and timeless as many of the emotional stakes stem from issues that existed long before Facebook and Twitter. It has also obviously struck a chord with audiences, as evidenced by its extremely vocal fan base. But the less showy Come From Away is an equally accomplished work, an inspirational example of the boundless possibilities of human kindness in the wake of extreme tragedy. Come From Away has been honed to perfection, to the point where I'm not sure I would change a single word of the book or lyrics.

Both shows are deserving, and I would honestly support either one as this year's Best Musical winner. Ultimately, I suspect Tony voters will go with Dear Evan Hansen, which is what I would vote for if forced to choose. Both the writing and the performances stay with you long after the show ends, and despite seeing Evan Hansen back in January I find myself thinking back on that show more often than Come From Away. The mark of truly great theatre is that it affects you, however incidentally, and stays with you long after the final curtain, and while both Evan Hansen and Come From Away fulfill these requirements, Evan Hansen does so a bit more.

Will and Should Win: Dear Evan Hansen

And that brings us to the end of our 2017 Tony Award predictions! We'll know the victors by the end of Sunday night, and be sure to check back early next week for my final thoughts on this year's winners and the Tony telecast in general. In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments and catch up on the rest of my coverage below.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Revival

The 71st annual Tony Awards are this Sunday, and my annual predictions keep rolling right along. It's now time to discuss the prestigious production awards, those which honor an entire show rather than an individual part of it. Of all the award categories, a win here has the most noticeable impact on a show's box office, as well as its future prospects when it comes to potential tours and regional productions. 

As always, I will use a combination of personal opinion, critical consensus, and industry buzz to determine the most likely winner. So on to the Best Revival categories!

Best Revival of a Play

The cast of Jitney on Broadway.

Nominees: Jitney; The Little Foxes; Present Laughter; Six Degrees of Separation

Manhattan Theatre Club, one of the biggest not-for-profit players on the New York theatre scene, has a hit or miss track record when it comes to their Broadway seasons. But this year has been nothing but hits, with all three of their Broadway productions (Heisenberg, Jitney, and The Little Foxes) earning both critical acclaim and fairly healthy box office. Which is why it seems inevitable that MTC will take home the Tony for Best Play Revival this year, with the only question being which production it will win for.

The Little Foxes has all the elements that add up to Tony gold. It is currently running, features a much praised cast (several of whom are up for individual awards), and plenty of buzz thanks to the fact that stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon play the two primary roles in repertory. But my gut tells me it will be MTC's other revival, the long-awaited Broadway bow of August Wilson's Jitney, that actually brings home the prize on Sunday night. Despite being the only nominee not currently running, Jitney was universally beloved by critics as serious art, and it's recent Drama Desk win only increases the production's profile and chances of winning. Six Degrees of Separation and Present Laughter will have to settle for just being nominated, as neither piece has inspired the kind of passion that makes people vote for you over other worthy options.

Will Win: Jitney

Best Revival of a Musical

Tony-nominee Kate Baldwin, Tony-nominee Bette Midler, Beanie Feldstein, and Taylor Trensch in Hello, Dolly!

This award is currently Hello, Dolly's to lose, and not just because of the sensational performance of Bette Midler in the title role. From top to bottom, this is one of the best realized productions of the season, and arguably the best Dolly we're likely to see in our lifetime. Composer Jerry Herman reportedly turned down multiple offers to revive this Golden Age classic over the years, waiting for just the right cast and director to make the show sing. He has found it in Jerry Zaks' sumptuous staging, which honors the show's old school roots while simultaneously making it feel fresh and new again. The sets, costumes, lights, choreography, and performances all add up to pure theatrical magic that will win over even those who aren't especially enamored with Hello, Dolly! as a show (as structurally, it admittedly has some faults).

The only thing that could spoil Dolly's victory lap would be a late in the game surge for Lincoln Center's Falsettos. The toast of the town when it opened this fall, the Broadway return of William Finn's signature work at one point appeared to be the show to beat, but the long months between its early January closing and now make it difficult to envision an actual win. Working in the show's favor is its incredibly appealing quartet of leads, who have been dutifully making the press rounds throughout Tony season professing their love for the show and one another. Their charm and innate likability could help remind voters what they liked so much about the show to begin with, but overcoming Dolly is a major uphill battle. And compared to its two competitors, Miss Saigon just doesn't have the acclaim or buzz to pull off an upset.

Will and Should Win: Hello, Dolly!

Check back soon for my predictions in the all important Best Play and Musical races, and catch up on the rest of my 2017 Tony coverage below!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Actress

The march towards the 2017 Tony Awards continues, and so do my annual predictions! As always, I will be using a combination of personal opinion, critical consensus, and industry buzz to determine the most likely winners, which don't necessarily line up with the most deserving winners. Should the two diverge, I will make sure to point that out in my analysis.

Now that we've tackled the Lead Actors, let's move on to Broadway's leading ladies!

Best Actress in a Play

Laura Linney and Darren Goldstein in Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Little Foxes.

Nominees: Cate Blanchett, The Present; Jennifer Ehle, Oslo; Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie; Laura Linney, The Little Foxes; Laurie Metcalf, A Doll's House, Part 2

Both Cate Blanchett and Sally Field are the recipients of not one but two Academy Awards each, which will surely ease the sting of not winning the Best Actress in a Play Tony this year. Blanchett's work in The Present was phenomenal, but the play itself proved off-putting to a large segment of the theatre community; combine that with the fact it closed several months ago and Blanchett is an extreme long shot. Sally Field's work in The Glass Menagerie is much more recent, but Sam Gold's divisive, stripped down approach to the Tennessee Williams classic did her no favors, handicapping Field to the point where I can't imagine her winning.

Jennifer Ehle doesn't often perform on Broadway, but when she does she has an excellent Tony track record. Prior to Oslo, Ehle had just three Broadway credits to her name, and two Tony wins to go with them, so counting her out of the race would be foolish. But her remaining two competitors, The Little Foxes' Laura Linney and A Doll's House, Part 2's Laurie Metcalf, are both overdue for Tony glory, as despite multiple nominations neither has ever won. Linney's recent win at the Drama Desk Awards along with the higher level of buzz for Manhattan Theatre Club's starry revival give her the edge, and I expect her name to be called on Sunday night. But one cannot rule out Metcalf, especially considering the high level of love the Tony nominators showed for A Doll's House, Part 2.

Will and Should Win: Laura Linney, The Little Foxes

Best Actress in a Musical

Bette Midler in the title role of Hello, Dolly!

Nominees: Denee Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Christine Ebersole, War Paint; Patti LuPone, War Paint; Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!; Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Let us stop and take a moment to appreciate the embarrassment of riches that is this year's Best Actress in a Musical category. This season brought us two-time Tony-winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole at the top of their respective games, and yet both seem like long shots to win the award! Either performance would be worth the price of admission to War Paint; the fact that you get both makes it true must see theatre for any musical aficionado, a thrilling night of two titans doing what they do best.  Newcomer Eva Noblezada is also sensational in Miss Saigon, a worthy successor to Lea Salonga in the role of Kim and someone I hope we will be seeing much more of in the coming years. (I am less enthralled with The Great Comet's Denee Benton, but am glad to see Broadway continuing to embrace diverse casting options.)

However, this award is destined to go to Bette Midler, whose performance in Hello, Dolly! is truly one for the record books. I have seen quite of bit of theatre in my eight years living in New York, including industry stalwarts like Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Sutton Foster, Bernadette Peters, and the aforementioned LuPone and Ebersole. And I have *never* seen a star turn quite like Midler's, who exceeds any and all expectations you might have for her to deliver a transcendent, triumphant Dolly Levi that feels every bit as definitive as Carol Channing's. There is no learning the kind of star quality Midler has - you're either born with it, or you aren't - but it is coupled with a supreme talent and precise deployment of her many skills that appears effortless. It may be 50 years since her last Broadway musical (as a replacement in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof), but it was worth the wait, and will be rightly rewarded with every Best Actress award around, including the Tony.

Will and Should Win: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Special Mention: Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, who is ineligible for this year's Tonys (having already won for the same role) but is giving a whole new generation the chance to see her breathtaking Norma Desmond

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, and keep checking back throughout the week for more Tony coverage from Broadway, Etc. You can catch up on anything you may have missed below:

Nominations React
Best Book and Score
Best Direction and Choreography
Best Featured Actor
Best Featured Actress
Best Actor