Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Extremely Early 2017 Tony Predictions: Part II

As January turns to February, we are experiencing the proverbial calm before the storm. The spring Broadway season swings into gear next month, before the floodgates truly open in March and April. There are a mind boggling 22 productions slated to open between now and the Tony eligibility cutoff date, featuring a proliferation of both known and up and coming talent which makes my yearly tradition of assessing which fall performers are well-positioned for Tony recognition that much harder.

As history has repeatedly shown, the Tony Awards tend to favor currently running and recently premiered productions (hence the glut of scheduled spring openings). While a decent performance in a well-reviewed spring show can be enough to snag a nomination, actors must truly impress critics and Tony voters if they hope to be remembered for their work in a fall show. On the other hand, should the spring shows prove disappointing, a solid performance in a fondly remembered fall production suddenly looks very strong by comparison. It's all a carefully weighted guessing game, so read on of my extremely early - and subject to change - predictions for the major acting races. (You can catch up on my predictions about potential Tony-nominated productions here).

Best Actor in a Play

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Heisenberg.

While there are clear critical favorites among the fall musicals (Falsettos, Dear Evan Hansen, and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), the already opened plays are more evenly matched with no obvious frontrunners. For Best Actor in a Play, I think the three gentlemen to keep your eye on are Heisenberg's Denis Arndt, The Encounter's Simon McBurney, and The Present's Richard Roxburgh. Arndt's performance seems like the safest bet given the actor driven nature of Heisenberg, but a nod for McBurney would be a way to honor the entirety of his work on the well-reviewed The Encounter (he also wrote and directed the piece) which seems unlikely to be remembered elsewhere. And Roxburgh can't be ruled out for his excellent work in a play that has been marketed on Cate Blanchett's appeal but ultimately centers around Roxburgh's rakish intellectual.

And then there's John Slattery, whose performance in The Front Page is a bit of a wildcard. Slattery is the only member of the starry ensemble comedy deemed eligible in the Lead Actor category, and the play was certainly well liked, ending up on several Best of 2016 lists. But Slattery was essentially overshadowed in the press by his costar Nathan Lane, despite Lane not making his first appearance until almost an hour into the show (Lane seems like an almost guaranteed Featured Actor nominee). I would expect two of these four men to make the cut, but Slattery feels like the longest shot at the moment.

Best Actor in a Musical

Ben Platt as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen.

There is a clear frontrunner in this category, not just for a nomination but for the eventual trophy. Ben Platt's turn as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen has been the talk of the fall season, a hugely admired performance anchoring a hugely admired show. The buzz surrounding him feels very similar to the buzz which greeted Cynthia Erivo upon her Broadway debut last season, and that worked out very well for the Color Purple star. There's definitely competition on the horizon - Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park with George and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day immediately spring to mind, and as much as I'm not looking forward to his performance in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory one cannot deny the Tony's love of Christian Borle - but as of this moment, the Best Actor statue is Platt's to lose.

A case can definitely be made for Josh Groban to work his way into this category, with the recording star doing a very admirable job of embodying the withdrawn Pierre in The Great Comet. Holiday Inn's Bryce Pinkham had more to do in his show than Groban, and one should never underestimate how difficult it is to anchor one of those old-fashioned song and dance spectacles, but Pinkham's inclusion here feels like a long shot. And there's always the possibility Tony voters will decide they like Christian Borle's more measured work in Falsettos than his presumed scenery chewing in Charlie and nominated the former performance instead. Groban still feels like the most likely to be in consideration though, after the surefire Platt.

Best Actress in a Play

Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in The Present.

Of the fall actresses, the one I'd most expect to see remembered with a Tony nomination is Mary-Louise Parker for Heisenberg. The Tony-winning actress received across the board raves for her complex, nuanced performance in the two character drama, and there aren't enough female-driven plays on the horizon to put her nomination in jeopardy (unless the shows without name stars over deliver on the acting front). I also think the committee will reward Cate Blanchett's long awaited Broadway debut with a Tony nomination as a way to encourage the actress to come back sooner rather than later, hopefully in a show that makes better use of her talent than the occasionally obtuse The Present. That said, even though she has been deemed a lead you could convincingly argue that Blanchett's character is really a supporting one, which could hurt her chances. An unexpectedly weak showing from the spring actresses could also open up a slot for Janet McTeer's scheming Marquis de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although it is a long shot.

Best Actress in a Musical

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

I've saved this category for last because it is by far the most competitive; in fact, this is shaping up to be a Tony race for the record books. Among the major names starring in spring musicals: Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in War Paint; Bette Midler in arguably the most anticipated musical of the season, Hello, Dolly!; Phillipa Soo in the musical adaptation of Amelie; and Annaleigh Ashford in Sunday in the Park with George. (Glenn Close is not eligible for her starring role in Sunset Boulevard, having previously won the Tony for the same role in 1995.) There's also two-time nominee Laura Osnes in the new musical Bandstand, newcomer Eva Noblezada in Miss Saigon (the role which made Lea Salonga a star), and rumblings of a very strong performance from Jenn Colella in the new musical Come From Away (assuming she is deemed a lead actress and not supporting).

In short, there's a lot of competition out there, and if it is as strong as everyone assumes that doesn't bode well for the fall performers. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812's Denee Benton seems the most likely to break into the race, assuming support for the boundary pushing musical remains as strong as when it initially premiered. Benton is also one of the only women currently eligible for this award; Stephanie J Block's showstopping performance in Falsettos has been deemed a supporting turn, as has Rachel Bay Jones' heartbreaking work in Dear Evan Hansen (I expect both to be nominated for Best Featured Actress). Which leaves Benton as the sole woman standing, and even her position is precarious barring a category expansion.

And those are my current predictions for the 2017 Tony Award nominees! This is obviously all subject to change based on the spring season, and I will certainly be revisiting this topic prior to the official nominations being announced on May 2nd. In the meantime, let me know what you think in the comments!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Extremely Early 2017 Tony Predictions: Part I

January and February are traditionally slow months for Broadway, both in terms of show openings and ticket sales. They are also times of changeover, as older shows close up shop to make way for the incoming crop of spring production. A whopping 23 shows will open between now and April 27th, the cutoff for Tony Award eligibility, which means only the most well received fall productions even have a chance of cutting through the spring buzz to secure nomination slots in May. And as I do every year at this time, it's time to discuss which shows are in the best position to do just that!

This fall produced a lot of work critics deemed good but not great, which leaves plenty of room for things to change depending on the strength of the spring shows. With few critical or commercial hits among the fall shows, all these predictions should be taken with a grain of salt, with many vulnerable to missing out on nominations should the spring prove especially fruitful artistically.

Best Musical

Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

While it seems a tad early to make this prediction, my gut tells me we have already seen the 2017 Tony winner for Best Musical. Both Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened to excellent reviews and robust box office, putting them in excellent position to be remembered with nominations. The boundary pushing productions are also the kind of inventive work the Tony committee has increasingly favored in the past few years, making it even more difficult to imagine either show being shut out of the highest profile awards race.

If the spring shows prove to be unexpectedly weak (unlikely, but possible), then there's a possibility for Holiday Inn or A Bronx Tale to sneak into contention. A Bronx Tale is the more likely of the two to break out, as Holiday Inn seems to have been too slight for most critics and will be long closed by the time nominations are handed out. And while I found aspects to appreciate in both In Transit and Paramour, neither is really Best Musical material, making their nominations extremely unlikely.

Best Play

Mary-Louis Parker and Denis Arndt in Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway production of Heisenberg.

Currently, the only shows that quality for this category are The Encounter; Heisenberg; Oh, Hello on Broadway; and The Present. With a robust slate of new plays coming this spring, including Broadway transfers of the incredibly well received Sweat, Oslo, and Indecent, I expect only one fall play to make it into Tony consideration. I'm split on whether to call things for The Encounter or Heisenberg, but I lean toward the latter due to it being the most "play-like" (although the increasingly progressive Tony voters could well opt for the experimental but well received The Encounter instead). Should the spring shows disappoint there's even an outside chance the partly scripted, partly improvised Oh, Hello makes the cut, although as this is both a playwriting and production award the improvised segments could hurt the comedy's chances.

Best Musical Revival

Lincoln Center's much heralded revival of William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos.

This fall only saw two musical revivals, the much anticipated Falsettos and the are-they-really-bringing-that-back Cats. Personally, I don't understand how the awkwardly constructed Falsettos is so beloved by the theatrical community, and I say that as a gay man. Based on my personal observations, one's enjoyment of this revival was directly tied to one's familiarity with the show beforehand; if you already knew Falsettos, the revival was practically perfect, whereas if you were unfamiliar with the show the flaws in the writing were more apparent (I fall into the second category). That said, I cannot imagine a scenario in which Falsettos doesn't get nominated for Best Revival, even if there are a lot of spring shows to fend off on the way to actually winning this category. The chances of Cats fending off Hello, Dolly; Sunset Boulevard; Miss Saigon; and Sunday in the Park with George for a nomination seem laughable.

Best Play Revival

The cast of the Broadway premiere of August Wilson's Jitney.

There are currently for productions eligible in this category: The Cherry Orchard, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Front Page, and Jitney. With a similar number of play revivals opening in the spring, I'm fairly confident in predicting a 50/50 spread between fall and spring nominees, which would allow for two of the above plays to make the cut. The Cherry Orchard was met with some of the harshest reviews of the season, while Les Liaisons sparked at best muted admiration, which leaves The Front Page and Jitney as the presumptive nominees. The very well reviewed Jitney is probably the most competitive, as most reviews for The Front Page agreed the play was starting to show its age despite tremendous work from an all-star cast (the routine complaints about a slow first act will also hold the show back).

And those are my current predictions; let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments! And check back soon for early assessments of the Leading Actor/Actress races.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Cate is Great, but "The Present" is Average

Review: The Present

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in Andrew Upton's The Present.

In her long awaited Broadway debut, Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett proves every bit as formidable and entrancing onstage as she is onscreen. Able to tap into coquettish charm and window rattling fury with equal authority, Blanchett possesses such a magnetic stage presence you can scarcely take your eyes off her, even when she sits silently fuming at a table in the background. Without trying, the actress absolutely dominates any scene she's in while remaining fully in service of both character and story. Unfortunately, the role of Anna Petrovna in Andrew Upton's new work The Present doesn't quite demand or deserve an actress of Blanchett's stature, which undermines Blanchett's Broadway bow despite her undeniable talent.

The play is loosely adapted from Anton Chekhov's Platonov, chronologically the first play written by the celebrated dramatist but not produced until well after his death. The fact that Platonov is rarely performed is the first indication of underlying issues with the material, as is the fact the author himself considered the play unfinished. The basic outline involves Russian widow Anna Petrovna gathering friends and acquaintances at a dilapidated country estate to celebrate her birthday, most notably the sardonic tutor Mikhail Platonov. Over the course of the long weekend various inner demons and repressed romantic feelings come to the fore, ultimately upending everyone's lives. Upton's adaptation, which moves the action forward a century to 1990s Russia, makes a decent attempt at unifying the narrative's disparate threads, but ultimately feels confused and conflicted in both tone and style.

The first act hews most closely to what classic Chekhov, in that it introduces a bevy of well-to-do members of Russian society obsessing over the past and the unerring progression of time. Act II takes a hard left turn into completely unexpected territory involving shotguns and dynamite, making it the play's most memorable but also the most bizarre. This darkly comic act heavily centers on Blanchett's character, showcasing the actress' many gifts and the manic energy provided by the script's comedic impulses; if the whole show maintained the tone and pace of Act II, it would be often insane but also compulsively watchable. Unfortunately, Act III changes tones once again to become a dreamlike succession of two and three character scenes, before the play returns to something more recognizably Chekhovian in the final act (along with paying off the literal Chekhov's gun introduced in the show's opening moments).

As mentioned, Blanchett is superb throughout, although those buying a ticket primarily for her may be disappointed to learn the real protagonist is Richard Roxburgh's Platonov. And while The Present would definitely benefit from featuring Blanchett more prominently, Roxburgh is quite a treat in his own right. His rakish performance perfectly highlights why the other characters find Platonov both intoxicating and infuriating, and yet Roxburgh is also capable of portraying deep anguish and regret. His Platonov emerges as a deeply conflicted man, a passionate soul stymied by his quiet country lifestyle whilst simultaneously drawing great comfort from said lifestyle. The most interesting scenes highlight the complex interplay between Blanchett and Roxburgh, who share excellent chemistry and a high mastery of their craft.

The rest of the cast provides fine support in roles with murkier character arcs than Anna and Platonov, often giving performances far better than what is on the page. Particularly strong are Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz as Platanov's former students Sergei and Nikolai, both on the verge of settling into midlife with partners who may or may not be right for them. And in the pivotal role of Sophia - Sergei's wife and a past lover of Platanov - Jacqueline McKenzie makes such seamless sense of her character's abrupt shifts in affection you almost don't notice how poorly they're integrated into the plot (Sophia's actions seem primarily dictated by story needs, rather than character motivations).

Director John Crowley mostly stays out of the way of his actor's performances, which keeps the staging from feeling unnecessarily flashy but occasionally leaves the action feeling unfocused. Alice Babidge's scenic design isn't particularly impressive, except for how quickly it manages to transition from act to act. Similarly, the costumes (also by Babidge) and lighting (be Nick Schlieper) avoid calling attention to themselves in favor of letting the performances and script do the heavy lifting.

For gifting Broadway with the immense talent that is Cate Blanchett, The Present is to be commended, even if it is an imperfect vehicle for such an accomplished performer. Hopefully Blanchett will find the time in her busy film schedule to return to the New York stage in one of the truly great theatrical roles; she has tackled both A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler in her native Australia, either of which would offer her far more material to work with should she choose to reprise them. Until then, The Present will have to do, even if Blanchett's star presence isn't quite enough to make you forget you're watching an awkwardly formed but well-acted play.