Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tony Watch: Assessing the 2011-2012 Broadway Season Part 6

I'm sure the play is very good, but if that's what the house in Clybourne Park looks like, I'm not sure why anyone would want to move into it.

From the same team behind last year’s Lombardi, this play about the rivalry between NBA stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird seems destined to be an also-ran in a season so packed with new works.  With less enthusiastic reviews than Lombardi (which wasn’t exactly embraced by critics to begin with) and lacking a critical darling like Judith Light to raise its profile, Magic/Bird simply won’t be among this year’s Tony nominees.

Peter and the Starcatcher
Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to Peter Pan, is the essence of an Off-Broadway show.  Relying more on a gifted ensemble and strong script than grand spectacle, this play is by all accounts quirky, inventive, and creatively staged in a way that emphasizes old-fashioned stagecraft over flashy technology.  Like last season’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Starcatcher was well reviewed Off-Broadway and similarly praised after its move uptown.  I also predict that it will be similarly ignored by the Tony voters, with the exception of one or two acting nominations.
This has less to do with quality and is more a reflection of Tony politics and preferences.  The voters tend to prefer their plays be high-minded adult dramas rather than family shows, and with so many of the former on the boards this season I don’t see Starcatcher cracking the more competitive categories like Best Play or Best Direction.  I do think Christian Borle’s scene-stealing turn as Black Stache makes him a definite contender for some Best Supporting Actor love, and in such a crowded season for new plays even one Tony nomination is a definite accomplishment.

One Man, Two Guvnors
Quite honestly, I am over the recent trend of West End transfers coming to Broadway and sweeping the Tony Awards.  While there is definitely quality in the execution of these productions, I have found many of them to be overrated, as if the New York theatrical community has so deeply absorbed the idea that the English are better actors than we are that they blindly endorse anything with a British pedigree.
But with so many strong American productions on Broadway this year, I think that trend will finally be broken.  While this farce it could find itself the token British Best Play nominee (there’s always at least one), it is by no means assured a place at the table, given the already mentioned Tony preference for drama over farce.  All that said, even the most jaded theatregoer would have trouble justifying the exclusion of leading man James Corden from the Best Actor category, thanks to his virtuosic performance in such a physically demanding role.

Clybourne Park
This play has Tony bait written all over it.  It is a contemporary drama (or dark comedy, depending on who you ask) that tackles a serious issue (race) with intelligence and a roundly praised acting ensemble, Clybourne Park also has the distinction of being last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In a tough category, that makes the show as close to a guaranteed Best Play nominee as there is this year.
The quality of the acting ensemble will either net the show a boatload of nominations or cancel one another out.  Of all the Tony categories, the acting nominations tend to be the most merit based, but it still helps if a performer is one of the best parts of their respected show.  When everyone is amazing, it sometimes results in no one getting nominated due to vote splitting.  The Best Direction of a Play category is so ridiculously competitive that I’ve given up trying to predict it, although anyone who can coax this many stellar performances out of a group of actors is certainly in the running.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Working on this iconic Tennessee Williams play is both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, the script is widely recognized as one of the greatest American plays ever written, with such layered characterizations and universal themes that it’s a veritable gold mine for serious dramatic actors.  However, the play is so well known that most critics have very specific ideas on how it should be handled, and the iconic characters have been played by some of the greatest actors who have ever lived, which makes living up to audience expectations for the work almost impossible.
It seems that this production, like most Streetcar revivals, didn’t fully satisfy critics.  Its inclusion among any of the Tony categories is a complete toss-up.  The strength of the material may get it included among the Best Revival nominees, but the apparent mishandling of that material could also keep it out of contention.  The lead actors all have roles that Tony voters gravitate toward, but it doesn’t sound like any of them have earned the right to join the prestigious company of confirmed greats like Jessica Tandy or Marlon Brando.  And who knows how Tony voters will react to director Emily Mann’s vision of an ethnically diverse production, given how much Williams’ plays rely on their Old South milieu for their themes and characterizations.  Some may feel casting black actors revealed new shades of meaning in this oft-studied work, but others may decide that race has little bearing on the material and is in essence stunt casting (this latter sentiment kept the recent all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from being more of an awards contender).

Ghost the Musical
In a normal season, the critically lambasted Ghost would be such a long shot at any kind of award nominations that discussing it would be a waste of time.  But this is not a normal season, and given the lack of a Book of Mormon-esque critical and commercial success, anything could happen.  I personally don’t think Ghost can secure a Best Musical slot, but then again, I am predicting the absolutely atrocious Spider-Man (which I named the Worst Show of 2011) will be nominated in that very category due to weak competition and Tony politics.  Since the chances of Ghost actually being worse than that train wreck are infinitesimally small, perhaps Ghost stands a chance.
Which also means it could wind up among the Best Book and Score nominees, although I again doubt this will actually happen.  Ghost has not accumulated the industry clout that Spider-Man somehow has, and seemingly lacks the latter show’s mass commercial appeal.  The bland lead actors are also out of luck, as looking pretty and singing well thankfully isn’t quite enough to earn someone a Tony nomination.  Depending on how well Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays up the Sassy Black Woman archetype, she may find herself among the Best Supporting Actress nominees, although her chances of winning are currently next to nothing.  And even though it broke down on the night most critics reviewed the show, Ghost’s set could prove dazzling enough from a technical standpoint to get nominated.

Just one more article to go and we’ll have officially touched on every Broadway production that has opened during this busy season.  Look for it to go live soon!
To read my previous Tony Watch articles, look here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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