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

Monday, June 5, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Actor

The 2017 Tony Awards are less than a week away, so now it's time for my annual Tony predictions to start tackling the biggest races of the night. Although a Tony win in any category is of course a monumental achievement, it is the Lead Actor/Actress and production awards that carry the most weight with ticket buyers. As always, I will be using a combination of personal opinion, critical consensus, and industry buzz to determine the person most *likely* to win, even if they aren't necessarily the most deserving.

So without further ado, let's dive into the Best Actor races!

Best Actor in a Play

Kevin Kline and Cobie Smulders in Present Laughter.

Nominees: Denis Arndt, Heisenberg; Chris Cooper, A Doll's House, Part 2; Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation; Kevin Kline, Present Laughter; Jefferson Mays, Oslo

Of the four Lead Performer races, this is probably the least interesting. While all the men in this category are undeniably talented, none of the performances have really captured the imagination of the Broadway community. Even Kevin Kline, one of the most respected stage and film stars of his generation, hasn't set tongues wagging the way he was expected too. His leading man turn in Present Laughter was universally liked by the critics, but no one is calling it a must see like they are several other high profile star turns this season. This may be partially due to audience fatigue with his chosen vehicle, as the Noel Coward comedy is currently enjoying it's sixth Broadway mounting, hot on the heels of the 2010 production starring Victor Garber.

Still, I can't reasonably envision anyone else winning this award. Denis Arndt's performance in Heisenberg was so long ago that it feels like it belongs in a different season. Chris Cooper seems to have been elevated by the love of his female costars in A Doll's House, Part 2, as his inclusion in this category raised more than a few eyebrows on Tony Tuesday. Six Degrees of Separation hasn't connected with critics or audiences the way I would have expected, which makes Corey Hawkins' path to victory that much more of an uphill battle. There's an outside chance Oslo's Jefferson Mays scores an upset, although I'm not betting on it.

Will Win: Kevin Kline, Present Laughter
Should Win: Abstain

Best Actor in a Musical

Ben Platt as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen.

Nominees: Christian Borle, Falsettos; Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812; Andy Karl, Groundhog Day; David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!; Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

No need to mince words here; this award is Ben Platt's, and has been since Dear Evan Hansen's Off-Broadway bow last spring. Platt's revelatory performance as the titular troubled teen is the stuff of theatrical legend, a searing star turn that is stunning in both it's emotional breadth and raw vulnerability. Platt has also figured out the nifty trick of singing like a dream while full-on ugly crying; his performance of "Words Fail" is Tony worthy on its own, and that is merely the culmination of a two hour acting marathon he somehow has the stamina to perform eight times a week. And on top of all that, he is also genuinely hilarious, creating a convincingly quirky character that deftly avoids the cheap laughs and occasional hamminess of his previous Broadway outing in The Book of Mormon. In short, Platt does it all over the course of Evan Hansen's runtime, and such breadth and depth will surely be rewarded by Tony voters.

It's cute that some prognosticators are pretending that Andy Karl has a chance at upsetting Platt, but I honestly think they are just trying to create drama in what is a pretty straightforward race. Karl is quite charming in Groundhog Day, but I wouldn't call it his best work, let alone the best musical performance of the year. Both Josh Groban and Christian Borle feel like they were nominated because they played roles that are supposed to be Tony-worthy rather than fully earning their nominations, and in a different season might have been left out of this race. At the same time it must be said Groban acquits himself quite well in his Broadway debut, and Borle's work in Falsettos is the least obnoxious thing he's done in a very long time. And  while David Hyde Pierce is reliably great as the well known half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!, no amount of mutton chops and curmudgeonly Yonkers attitude will let the veteran character actor unseat Platt.

Will and Should Win: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Check back throughout the week for my predictions of the Best Actress, Revival, Play, and Musical categories, and you can catch up on the rest of the my Tony coverage below:

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Featured Actress

We are fast approaching Broadway's biggest night, which means I will continue my annual tradition of predicting Tony winners! Using a combination of personal opinion, critical praise, and industry buzz, I will do my best to pick the people and productions who will be honored by the American Theatre Wing on June 11th. And if the person who *will* win doesn't match up with who I think *should* win, I will be sure to mention it in my analysis.

On to the Best Featured Actress races!

Best Featured Actress in a Play


Condola Rashad (right) and Laurie Metcalf in A Doll's House, Part 2.

Nominees: Johanna Day, Sweat; Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll's House, Part 2; Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes; Condola Rashad, A Doll's House, Part 2; Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Two different productions have produced multiple nominees in this category, which if you subscribe to the idea of vote splitting means that The Little Foxes' Cynthia Nixon should be the winner by default. And while that is a possibility, it seems unlikely to me, as Nixon has far buzz than her costar Laura Linney. They may not be competing in the same category, but thanks to the production's repertory conceit they are playing the same roles, and the consensus seems to be that Linney is better at both of them.

A Doll's House, Part 2 gives us the higher profile names, as both Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad are well established in the New York theatre scene. Houdyshell just won this award last year, and while winning back to back Tonys is not unheard of (just ask Judith Light), I would be surprised to see the veteran actress take the trophy home again this year. Her costar seems a far more likely winner, having been nominated for three of her four Broadway outings without winning. Tony voters clearly like Rashad, and the fact that she's in the most nominated play of the season certainly doesn't hurt her chances. It is entirely possible Sweat's Johanna Day or Michelle Wilson pull off an upset, but this feels like Rashad's year to me.

Will Win: Condola Rashad, A Doll's House, Part 2
Should Win: Abstain

Best Featured Actress in a Musical

Stephanie J Block in Falsettos.

Nominees: Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!; Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos; Jenn Colella, Come From Away; Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen; Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

What a category! This is probably the most competitive of the musical acting races, as the nominees here gave what may be scene for scene the best performances of the season. The only scenario I simply can't envision is Mary Beth Peil winning for Anastasia, a musical that didn't really set critics or Tony voters on fire. And while it's not impossible that a swell of love for Hello, Dolly! brings Kate Baldwin to the winner's podium, it is improbably, as the awkwardly written role doesn't do the delightful soprano any favors (no matter how lovely her rendition of "Ribbons Down My Back" might be).

This is really a three way race between Stephanie J. Block, Jenn Colella, and Rachel Bay Jones, an embarrassment of riches that we are lucky to have. Block was by far the best thing about Falsettos, a fascinating portrait of a regular woman struggling to hold on to her sanity after her entire life is upended when she learns her husband is gay. A beloved member of the Broadway community who has yet to win the coveted Tony Away, Falsettos is Block's best work to date, as evidenced by the thunderous applause which greeted her big solo every evening.

Rachel Bay Jones also plays a mother struggling to keep her head above water in Dear Evan Hansen, and her layered portrayal acknowledges Heidi Hansen's flaws while also celebrating her bravery and humanity. Jones' performance of the Act II ballad "So Big/So Small" is simply devastating thanks to her emotional honesty and vulnerability, and by the end of the song you want her to be your mother as well. It's a very difficult act to compete with, which is why I think she will ultimately win over Block and the winsome, inspiring Jenn Colella, who's powerhouse performance of "Me and the Sky" in Come From Away is one of the most thrilling musical moments of the season.

Will Win: Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos (but make not mistake, Jones is phenomenal and more than earns this award)

Check back over the next week for the rest of my Tony predictions, including the Lead Actor/Actress races and the all important Best Musical category. Until then, share your own thoughts in the comments, and catch up with the rest of my 2017 Tony coverage below:

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Featured Actor

June is bustin' out all over, which means that we're getting down to the wire when it comes to this year's Tony Awards. Broadway's highest honors will be handed out on June 11th, and I'm here to predict which lucky performers and productions will receive them. As always, these predictions combine personal opinion, critical plaudits, and industry buzz to determine the most *likely* winner, not necessarily the most *deserving* one. If I personally would vote for someone else, I will make sure to point that out in my analysis.

Now let's tackle the first two of the eight acting races!

Best Featured Actor in a Play


John Douglas Thompson in Jitney.

Nominees: Michael Aronov, Oslo; Danny DeVito, The Price; Nathan Lane, The Front Page; Richard Thomas, The Little Foxes; John Douglas Thompson, Jitney

Again, I have unfortunately not seen any of the nominated performances in this category. However, the Featured Acting in a Play categories tend to be the biggest source of out of left field winners, so perhaps that isn't such a handicap. These are the races where star power and industry reputation have the least bearing on the outcome, as this is where Tony voters like to reward the hardworking journeyman actors who may not get the chance to headline a show but are supremely talented. Some years, it seems like being too big of a name can actively hurt a performer's chances in this category.

Which makes me think a 3rd trophy for Nathan Lane is unlikely, despite his performance being the most lauded and best remembered aspect of the starry Front Page revival. However, I don't think name recognition will hurt Danny DeVito's chances, as despite a decades-long career in TV and film The Price marked the veteran character actor's Broadway debut. DeVito is certainly a contender, as is Richard Thomas, given that The Little Foxes is one of the buzziest plays of the season. And with a history of unexpected winners in this category, I wouldn't be at all surprised if either Oslo's Michael Aronov or Jitney's John Douglas Thompson manages a win despite being on very few people's radar. In fact, in a somewhat daring move, I'm actually going to predict a win for Thompson, as I think critical appreciation for Jitney will prove surprisingly strong at the Tonys.

Will win: John Douglas Thompson, Jitney
Should win: Abstain

Best Featured Actor in a Musical


Gavin Creel (right) and Beanie Feldstein, Taylor Trensch, and Kate Baldwin in Hello, Dolly!

Nominees: Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!; Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen; Andrew Rannells, Falsettos; Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

I have to say, I truly loved Mike Faist's performance in Dear Evan Hansen, especially upon second viewing. The way he subtly shifts Connor Murphy's persona in front of your eyes to match the evolving backstory Evan creates during the song "Sincerely Me" is truly something to behold, a complex bit of stage magic that appears effortless. That said, I think Faist has about zero chance of actually winning this award given his more high profile competition.

While I was absolutely blown away by Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon (I think he deserved the Best Actor Tony that year), I don't think his role in Falsettos showcased him to the best of his ability. Whizzer is more of a plot device than a character, and the lack of much emotional depth to play probably torpedoes any real chance Rannells has at winning. I was far more impressed with Brandon Uranowitz's work in the same show, which felt the most authentic to the period and character while also being delightfully nuanced. Unfortunately, Falsettos is long closed and while I typically don't believe vote splitting is as big an issue as some make it out to be, having two nominees from a closed show could well cancel one another out.

The true competition is between Gavin Creel and Lucas Steele. Not necessarily for me, as Lucas Steele has long been my least favorite performer in the quite good cast of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. But I seem to be in the minority, as Steele already won a Lucille Lortel Award for playing the same role in the show's original Off-Broadway incarnation. That said, Gavin Creel is a beloved member of the Broadway community who at this point feels overdue for a Tony Award. (His *stellar* work in last season's She Loves Me went criminally unrecognized by the nominations committee.) And Creel is quite good in Hello, Dolly!, combining a boyish innocence with great comic timing and a glorious tenor to bring hapless shop clerk Cornelius Hackl to vivid life. I'm predicting this is Creel's year, although Steele could still score an upset.

Will and Should Win: Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!

Those are my predictions; feel free to share yours in the comments section! Check back soon for my Featured Actress predictions, and in the meantime you can catch up on the rest of my 2017 Tony Awards coverage below.

Nominations React
Best Book and Score
Best Direction and Choreography

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

2017 Tony Awards Predictions: Direction and Choreography

With the Tony Awards less than 2 weeks away, it's time to really dig in and start making predictions about the people and productions who will receive Broadway's highest honor on June 11th. As always, I will be using a combination of personal opinion, critical acclaim, and industry buzz to determine who I think is most likely to win each of the major races. As these are predictions about who will win rather than who I think should win, sometimes my personal favorite will be the underdog. If so, I'll be sure to point that out in my analysis.

On with the predictions!

Best Direction of a Play

Tony nominees Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes.

Nominees: Sam Gold, A Doll's House: Part 2; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jitney; Bartlett Sher, Oslo; Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes; Rebecca Taichman, Indecent

I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in this category, as I have shamefully not seen any of the nominated productions. That said, all of these nominees are very well regarded, which makes for a race that could go any number of ways. Personally, I think Bartlett Sher is the least likely winner, as Oslo seems to lack the momentum that some of the other big plays have. I think Rebecca Taichman may run into a similar obstacle with Indecent, a play many people greatly admire but that doesn't seem to be anyone's favorite, a major problem when Tony votes are often emotional as much as they are analytical.

A Doll's House: Part 2 is the most nominated new play of the season, which puts director Sam Gold in a very strong position. However, he is also the most recent Tony winner of the bunch, having just won in 2015 for Fun Home. I suspect most Tony voters would prefer to spread the love, and the fact Gold also helmed the highly divisive, stripped down, modern dress revival of The Glass Menagerie this spring doesn't help matters.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson has made a name for himself as one of the top interpreters of August Wilson's work, a cannon that has enjoyed renewed admiration thanks to the Oscar-nominated film version of Fences and the highly lauded Broadway premiere of Jitney, which Santiago-Hudson is nominated for. Helming the one production not currently running is generally a Tony handicap, but this might be a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. Then again, Santiago-Hudson is just as likely to be undone by Daniel Sullivan's work on the buzzy revival of The Little Foxes, the fifth Broadway production of Lillian Helman's drama which turned out far better than anyone expected it to. There's also the fact that Sullivan is one of the most respected directors in the industry, but has curiously only won the Tony once, all the way back in 2001 for Proof. Sullivan seems overdue for a second Tony win, and I think The Little Foxes is the show that will bring it to him.

Will win: Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes
Should win: Abstain

Best Direction of a Musical

Tony nominees Mike Faist and Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen.

Nominees: Christopher Ashley, Come From Away; Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen; Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day; Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

I *have* seen all the nominees for Best Direction of a Musical, and with the exception of Matthew Warchus' overly busy, unfocused take on Groundhog Day I can easily make a case for any one of them. I have long admired Michael Greif's steady directorial hand in contemporary musicals, but despite helming some of the most influential shows of the past 20 years (including Rent and Next to Normal), Greif remains Tony-less. He really feels overdue for a win, and with Dear Evan Hansen he has once again taken a show that tackles big concepts and made it feel intensely personal.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, no one can argue four-time winner Jerry Zaks is overdue for a Tony, which I suspect will cause Tony voters to lean towards one of the other contenders. But one must also consider that Zaks has given us what may well be a perfect production Hello, Dolly!; it certainly feels like a definitive rendition of the old war horse, one that honors the iconic original production while also injecting new life into a show that was in very real danger of feeling dated. And with over 20 years between now and his last Tony win (for the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival), Zaks could prove to be a dark horse contender.

But ultimately, I think Tony voters will go with Rachel Chavkin's exhilarating, immersive staging of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a show many doubted would survive the move from an intimate site-specific Off-Broadway production into a more traditional Broadway house. I'm not entirely sure the move was successful, but one can't deny that Chavkin is largely responsible for the most memorable aspects of the transfer, utilizing the cavernous Imperial Theatre to great effect. I personally am more impressed with Christopher Ashley's subtly brilliant work on Come From Away, but it probably isn't showy enough to beat out Chavkin.

Will Win: Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Should Win: Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen

Best Choreography

Corey Cott, Laura Osnes, and the cast of the Bandstand.

Nominees: Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand; Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day; Kelly Devine, Come From Away; Denis Jones, Holiday Inn; Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

This is something of an odd category, as only two of the five nominated productions are what I would consider dance shows. The rest are more movement based, which is by no means a knock against them but does make it harder for me (and Tony voters) to justify giving them what is clearly a dance award.

Honestly, Andy Blankenbuehler probably deserves this award the most, as his shows are always kinetic masterpieces that are propelled by dance as much as anything else. But he just won for Hamilton, and without work that in inarguably better than everyone else's I have trouble imagining voters bestowing this award on him twice in a row. The only other show that is a clear dance show is Holiday Inn, which closed so long ago I feel like most people have forgotten about it (although Denis Jones' high energy work on "Shakin' the Blues Away" is the most memorable dance sequence of the season).

For me, Sam Pinkleton's work on Great Comet is trying way too hard, and the least successful segment of the show is also the one that most heavily features Pinkleton's work, the unnecessarily long "Balaga" number. Similarly, Peter Darling and Ellen Kane's work on Groundhog Day feels forced rather than growing naturally out of the narrative. I'm not sure anyone expects the tap number that appears late in Act II, and it isn't good enough to make you forget that it doesn't really belong. Which almost makes Kelly Devine's work on Come From Away the winner by default, as her choreography at least seamlessly blends with the staging and storytelling rather than being awkwardly inserted into it.

Will Win: Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Should Win: Andy Blankebeuhler, Bandstand

Be sure to check back soon for my predictions on the first of this year's acting categories. In the meantime, share your own thoughts in the comments, and don't forget to check out my previous 2017 Tony coverage.

Nominations React
Best Book and Score

Saturday, May 27, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Book and Score

In just a few short weeks, the American Theatre Wing will hand out the 71st Annual Tony Awards, celebrating the best of Broadway this past season. As is tradition, I will once again use my unique combination of personal opinion, critical analysis, and industry buzz to try and predict the winners of this year's awards!

2017 is going to be a lot trickier to predict than 2016, since we aren't able to vote Hamilton down the line. While nothing has been the game changing, record setting blockbuster that Hamilton was (and continues to be), there are multiple excellent productions vying for Broadway's top prize this year, and no clear front runner among them. Many of the big races could go a multitude of ways, particularly among the new musicals, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Also remember that I am predicting who I think will win, not necessarily who I think deserves to win; if I personally disagree with the way things seem to be going, I will be sure to point it out in my analysis.

So let's start this year's Tony predictions off with two of the tightest races of the night, Best Book and Best Score!

Best Book of a Musical

The company of Come From Away.

Nominees: Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away; Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen; Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day; Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

This year's Tony nominees showed a clear consensus among the nominating committee regarding the strongest new musicals; the nominated shows for this, Best Score, and the coveted Best Musical trophy are identical. Even more interesting/exciting is the fact that an argument could be made for any of these shows in any of the categories (well, except for Groundhog Day). I honestly don't know which way the Tony voters will swing.

Since Great Comet received the most total nominations this year, it should always be considered in contention for a win. However, I think Best Book is a long shot for the little Off-Broadway musical that could, as Dave Malloy's through composed work lacks any traditional book scenes. This is *not* meant in any way to disparage the structural bones Malloy has hung his mesmerizingly eclectic score on, but I don't know if enough people grasp how a musical without dialogue still has a book for him to win. 

Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen are neck and neck here, and both are incredibly deserving. Conventional wisdom would have Tony voters rewarding Steven Levenson's more easily noticed work on Evan Hansen, which has both depth and cultural relevancy while expertly balancing comedy and pathos. But the way married writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein seamlessly weave in and out of song and dialogue in Come From Away is truly a marvel, and their years of workshopping have resulted in a show where I honestly wouldn't change one word. They could easily score an upset over Levenson, and the more I think about it, the more I think they will.

Will and Should Win: Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away

Best Score

Lucas Steele and Denee Benton in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Nominees: Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away; Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen; Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day; Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Once again, I think we can rule out Groundhog Day (this will be a recurring theme in my predictions). In this case, Tim Minchin's music seems to actively work against the storytelling, with roughly half the musical numbers eliciting a response of "Why is there a song here?" His overly verbose compositions are also difficult to decipher in the theatre, and in general this is one nomination I don't feel is deserved (I would have picked War Paint's Scott Frankel and Michael Korie instead). And while I won't completely rule out Come From Away's Irene Sankoff and David Hein, especially if the show ends up having a strong night, I think a win for score is a long shot for the Canadian duo. Their folk-influenced songs are lovely, but not as memorable as the remaining two nominees. 

Dear Evan Hansen and Great Comet represent two very different compositional philosophies, so the ultimate winner is largely up to Tony voters' sensibilities. For all the pop leanings of Dear Evan Hansen's contemporary score, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have ultimately written recognizable, hummable showtunes. These are narrative driven songs of the highest quality, ones that strike a fine balance between melodic invention and accessibility, and their haunting "For Forever" is probably my favorite new song of the season. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dave Malloy's incredibly adventurous fusion of such disparate genres as Russian folk music, electronica, and even opera into the dizzying symphony of Great Comet's auditory landscape. It isn't for everyone and rubs certain audience members the wrong way, but others (myself among them) find its unconventional nature to be its strongest asset.

We don't have the other theatre awards to give us any indication of how people are leaning, as the shows had their Off-Broadway premieres in different seasons and so have never been nominated against one another. I think Tony voters will ultimately go with Pasek and Paul, two incredibly talented up and comers who are still riding high on their Oscar win for La La Land. And I will be thrilled for them. But in my heart of heart, if forced to vote, I personally would choose Great Comet, and wouldn't be at all surprised or angry if Malloy wins instead.

Will Win: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Please continue to check back throughout the next two weeks for more Tony predictions, and share your own thoughts in the comments below!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Small Show with a Big Heart

Review: Come From Away

Tony-nominee Jenn Colella (left) and the cast of Come From Away.

There are essentially two routes Broadway shows can go these days to justify their ever-growing price tags: elaborate spectacle that puts the money onstage, or theatrical craft so elevated its clearly the result of years of skill sharpening. Come From Away, the deeply moving and gloriously uplifting new musical now playing Broadway, thankfully opts for the latter, arriving in New York as a highly polished gem of a musical with the added bonus of not being based on any preexisting source material.

Written by Broadway newcomers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away is inspired by the amazing true story of Gander, Newfoundland, which saw 38 planes and their accompanying 7000 passengers diverted to the small Canadian town when US airspace closed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. And while this ensemble driven show doesn't shy away from the horrific aftereffects of that fateful day, it is also overflowing with inspiring stories of human kindness and mankind's capacity for love. The residents of Gander welcomed 7000 strangers into their homes without a moment's hesitation, feeding and clothing their multicultural visitors for 5 days until the planes were cleared to fly again. Yes, you will probably shed a few tears of sadness, but you will shed just as many at the sheer beauty of the simple human kindness on display.

What Sankoff and Hein manage to do so successfully is juxtapose moments of darkness with ones of hope. A particularly moving passage halfway through the intermissionless show illustrates how the many different faiths of the travelers allow them to cope with their grief, just after a Muslim traveler has been harassed during his midday prayers. The scenes seamlessly transition from spoken dialogue to the folk-influenced score and back again, balancing the specificity of the individual characters' journeys with the narrative's overarching themes. Sankoff and Hein have spent years honing the show prior to its New York debut, resulting in a work with nary a word out of place and a single story beat that feels forced or rushed. This is a musical that earns the emotions it elicits rather than manipulating them out of you.

The town of Gander is brought to life by an amazing ensemble of twelve actors, each playing multiple characters with little to distinguish them except changes in accent and some relatively minor costume pieces. So great is the entire cast's skill that not once during the show do you wonder who is playing who, even when they adopt a new persona onstage in front of your eyes. (Dialect coach Joel Goldes deserves special mention for guiding the cast to spot on Newfoundlander and multinational accents.)

While the entire cast is outstanding, Jenn Colella is particularly memorable as Beverley, the first female American Airlines captain and our window into the airlines' perspective on the entire ordeal (her rendition of "Me and the Sky" is a genuinely inspiring girl power anthem and one of the production's highlights). Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall are adorable as a Texas divorcee and English businessman who find love amidst their awful circumstances, and Q. Smith is quietly heartbreaking as a mother waiting to hear from her first responder son. Although they are sometimes only given a line or two of dialogue to establish a character, each actor makes sure you know and care about everyone in the tale, to the point where you are genuinely curious about their fates after the final curtain.

Director Christopher Ashley is the assured captain of this streamlined ship, deftly guiding cast and audience through the show's many emotional highs and lows. With little more than some tables and chairs, Ashley takes us from a plane's cramped interior to a small town recreational center to the crowded confines of the airport's customs office. His directorial approach to the show is minimalist but far from simplistic, as the staging never fails to hold visual and emotional interest (greatly aided by Howell Binkley's outstanding lighting design). There is a kinetic energy that flows throughout the piece even when the characters are standing still, which makes the evening fly by.

Come From Away is a perfect example of the healing power of theatre, a cathartic and uplifting show centered around one of the darkest days in modern US history. Polished to a high sheen by a team of theatrical artisans working at the top of their game, this is must see theatre at its most pure. Do not let the 9/11 ties scare you away; you will cry, yes, but you will also laugh, cheer, and find yourself moved by humanity's ability to lift one another up when we truly need it. Given the dark and sometimes defeated political climate we find ourselves, Come From Away is just the sort of inspiring show Broadway needs right now.