Sunday, April 30, 2017

2017 Tony Nomination Predictions: Part II

With the industry anxiously awaiting the announcement of this year's Tony nominees on Tuesday, it is once again time for me to put on my prognosticator's hat and predict who will be among the lucky crop of nominees. I've already weighed in on the production categories, so now it's time to look at individual performances.

As always, these predictions represent my best synthesis of personal opinion, critical acclaim, and Tony trends. There is always the possibility an extremely close vote could cause certain categories to expand beyond the traditional 5 nominees, and although I don't expect that to happen I will still be picking a Wildcard performer in each race. The Wildcard is the person I think the most likely to force a category expansion, or unseat one of my official picks. Now on with the show!

Best Actor in a Musical

Ben Platt as the title character in Dear Evan Hansen.

Unlike the wide open production races, there is a definite front runner in this race, and his name is Ben Platt. Best Actor in a Musical has been Platt's award to lose ever since Dear Evan Hansen burst onto the scene last fall, and the young actor deserves every bit of praise he has received. His performance as the awkward, depressed title character is revelatory, a perfect mixture of comedy and pathos that is gorgeously sung and heartrendingly acted.

The only person who offers any kind of threat to Platt is Groundhog Day's Andy Karl, fresh off an Olivier Award win for the same role and much in the news of late due to an unfortunate onstage injury. Karl is quite good as the acerbic Phil Connors, his innate likability helping get the audience on Phil's side long before the events of the show turn him into a decent human being. The performance isn't quite in the same league as Platt's (no leading man is this year), but it is more than enough to ensure the beloved Broadway stalwart a nomination.

The performers rounding out this category aren't as obvious, but I'm reasonably confident Josh Groban will find himself Tony-nominated for his Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I also think Jon Jon Briones will be nominated for his seductively charismatic work as Miss Saigon's Engineer; if a whitewashing controversy couldn't stop original Engineer Jonathan Pryce from winning a Tony, having an equally good and ethnically appropriate actor has to be good for at least a nomination. And as much as I personally dislike Christian Borle's acting, the two-time Tony-winner will probably be nominated for one of his two qualifying roles this year, hopefully the more subdued and less hammy Falsettos

As for dark horses, I would keep my eye on A Bronx Tale's Nick Cordero, a previous nominee for his work in the short lived Bullets Over Broadway, and one should never rule out David Hyde Pierce, who is playing opposite Bette Midler in one of the buzziest shows of the season. (Remember, Jake Gyllenhaal is not eligible as the producers of Sunday in the Park with George withdrew the show from Tony consideration.)

Nominees: Christian Borle, Falsettos; Jon Jon Briones, Miss Saigon; Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Andy Karl, Groundhog Day; Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Wildcard: Nick Cordero, A Bronx Tale

Best Actor in a Play

Kevin Kline in Present Laughter.

This category is almost completely wide open, as no play's leading actor has broken out in the way that nets you awards consideration. The one exception is Kevin Kline, who is a lock for his expert comedic skills in the latest revival of Present Laughter. The question is who will join him.

Significant Other provided quite the meaty role for Gideon Glick as a gay millennial struggling with existential angst as he loses his best friends to their romantic partners. Despite the play's premature closing, I suspect Glick will be remembered by the nominating committee. I also have to imagine that Academy Award-nominee Mark Ruffalo will be nominated for his work in Roundabout Theatre Company's well-liked revival of Arthur Miller's The Price. And while some found The Present off-putting, its leading man Richard Roxburgh did fine work in a very tricky part.

Rounding out the category is most likely Denis Arndt, the septuagenarian actor who made his Broadway debut this past fall opposite Mary-Louise Parker in Heisenberg. But at the same time, I have to believe past Tony-winner Jefferson Mays is at least in contention for his work in Oslo, although that show has struggled to build much awards momentum despite a clutch of positive reviews. And a nomination for Simon McBurney would be a way for Tony voters to recognize the actor/director/writer for his unique (and well reviewed) solo show The Encounter without having to nominate the play itself.

Nominees: Denis Arndt, Heisenberge; Gideon Glick, Significant Other; Kevin Kline, Present Laughter; Richard Roxburgh, The Present; Mark Ruffalo, The Price
Wildcard: Simon McBurney, The Encounter

Best Actress in a Musical

Bette Midler as the title character in Hello, Dolly!

Yet again, this season brought us some sensational leading lady performances in an eclectic array of musicals. The name currently on everyone's lips is Bette Midler for headlining the smash hit revival of Hello, Dolly! Composer Jerry Herman reportedly turned down multiple offers to revive the show due to his dissatisfaction with the actresses under consideration for the title role, but was instantly sold when the Divine Miss M was mentioned. As Midler's sensational star turn has been greeted with ecstatic reviews, including a rave in The New York Times the likes of which head critic Ben Brantley rarely gives, it appears Herman's instincts were correct. Midler is a guaranteed nominee and probable winner, although she does face some stiff competition.

While War Paint's chances of being nominated in the production and writing categories are shaky, there's absolutely no way Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole miss out on Best Actress nods. Excluding either would be the very definition of a snub. And Anastasia's leading lady Christy Altomare has received both an Outer Critic's Circle and Drama Desk nomination this week, making it extremely likely that Tony voters will follow suit. And while she has failed to make an appearance among the nominees in any of the guild awards, I really have trouble imagining Miss Saigon's extraordinary Eva Noblezada being left out on Tony Tuesday.

Luckily for all of the above performers, Glenn Close is not eligible for a Tony this year, as she already won one for her absolutely transcendent Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard when the show originally premiered. And Stephanie J. Block (Falsettos), Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen), and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Dear Evan Hansen) have all been deemed supporting actresses, so look for them to make an appearance in that category. If anyone is going to unseat one of the above performers, it's going to be two-time nominee Laura Osnes for the late season entry Bandstand.

Nominees: Christy Altomare, Anastasia; Christine Ebersole, War Paint; Patti LuPone, War Paint; Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!; Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon
Wildcard: Laura Osnes, Bandstand

Best Actress in a Play

Laura Linney (left) and Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes.

This category is the most exciting it's been in years, thanks to a welcome increase in female fronted plays. The always excellent Allison Janney seems like a shoe-in for her work in Six Degrees of Separation. Similarly, it appears A Doll's House: Part 2 will give Tony favorite Laurie Metcalf another chance to win the elusive statuette, even as it struggles to catch on at the box office. And let's not forget Heisenberg's Mary-Louise Parker, who scored across the board raves for her complex portrayal of a possibly unstable woman in Simon Stephens' two-hander.

After that, the rest of the nominations could go several ways. Laura Linney has received both Drama Desk and Outer Critic's Circle nods for her dual roles in Manhattan Theatre Club's The Little Foxes, which makes a Tony nod feel almost inevitable (her costar Cynthia Nixon, who alternates in the same roles as Linney, has oddly been ruled a supporting actress). Cate Blanchett and Sally Field are also in the mix, as even though their respective vehicles The Present and The Glass Menagerie proved to be divisive productions, both actresses scored strong reviews for their individual contributions. While Field did well with the guilds, I actually think Blanchett has the better chance at a Tony nod, as she is not competing against the memory of a very recent, well loved production of the same play the way Field is.

Nominees: Cate Blanchett, The Present; Allison Janney, Six Degrees of Separation; Laura Linney, The Little Foxes; Laurie Metcalf, A Doll's House: Part 2; Mary-Louise Parker, Heisenberg
Wildcard: Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie

And there you have my 2017 Tony nominee predictions. Due to a lack of time and overwhelming number of options I will not be predicting the supporting actor and actress nominees this year, but will predict the winners once we know who the contenders are. Until Tuesday, feel free to leave any thoughts you might have in the comments, and check back once the nominees are announced to find out my thoughts!

Friday, April 28, 2017

2017 Tony Nominee Predictions: Part I

Although Mother Nature can't quite decide what season it is, the calendar and abundance of Broadway openings these past few weeks have made it abundantly clear it is in fact late April. Which also means that the Tony  Awards are right around the corner, and as we do every year at Broadway, Etc., it's time to start predicting the nominees!

As always, these predictions represent my best attempt at synthesizing critical consensus, audience response, personal opinion, and past Tony trends to determine which shows are most likely to be singled out on May 2nd. This has proven to be a particularly engaging season with many strong contenders but few clear frontrunners; a strong case can be made for many of the productions and performances that have graced the Broadway boards this season. To acknowledge this competitiveness and the sometimes unpredictable Tony nominators, I will be choosing a Wildcard pick in addition to my official predictions for each of the races discussed. The Wildcard represents the person or production I think is most likely to unseat one of the presumed nominees, or prompt a category expansion where Tony rules allow for it.

So without further ado, here are my first round of picks!

Best Musical

The cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

In a welcome change of pace from last year, there is no preordained winner among this season's new musicals. I absolutely adore Hamilton, but its presence last year made for a very predictable ceremony. This year there are a whopping 13 possible contenders for Best Musical, proving that the Great White Way remains a healthy breeding ground for new works.

I think there are 2 virtual locks for nominations: Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away. Both shows received across the board raves and have many passionate fans, and it would be shocking to see either excluded from contention. At one point, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 also appeared to be a lock for a nomination, but industry excitement for the genre-busting show has cooled considerably since its fall premiere. I still think a nomination is *likely* for Great Comet, but it is no longer guaranteed thanks to the strength of the spring musicals.

Specifically, I think both War Paint and Groundhog Day stand a strong chance of being nominated. Both shows come from respected creative teams and feature some of the buzziest performances of the season. I personally adored War Paint, and despite criticism of its structure being two predictable - the show continually cross cuts between the lives of main characters Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden - I have trouble imagining it being left off the list Tony Tuesday. Groundhog Day just won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, bolstering the awards prospects of Tim Minchin's follow-up to the beloved Matilda, although success in London no longer automatically translate to success with Tony voters the way it once did. However, Anastasia has done incredibly well with both the Drama Desk and Outer Critic's Circle nods and will give one of these shows a run for their money.

Nominees: Come From Away; Dear Evan Hansen; Groundhog Day; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; War Paint
Wildcard: Anastasia

Best Play

The company of Sweat.
This category is more robust than usual, and in a heartening trend most of the major contenders are new American plays (in the past, British imports have dominated this category). Between its strong reviews, current relevance, and recent Pulitzer Prize win, I have to imagine Lynne Nottage's Sweat is all but guaranteed a nomination. I also can't imagine Tony voters passing up the chance to nominate the Broadway debut of fellow Pulitzer-winning playwright and industry stalwart Paula Vogel for her provocative Indecent. And the fact based political thriller Oslo seems practically designed to court Tony voters, which coupled with great reviews makes it a virtual lock as well.

That leaves 1-2 slots open depending on how close the vote tallies are; category expansions are caused by mathematically close races as opposed to a conscious decision by Tony nominators. I actually think the premature closing of Joshua Harmon's Significant Other may help its chances. As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Tony voters might realize they liked the well-realized contemporary drama more than critical notices would lead you to believe. There is also some good early buzz on A Doll's House: Part 2, though one could argue that the latter is opening too late in the season to really establish itself in the minds of voters. Then again Heisenberg, its most likely competition, has the exact opposite problem, as the two-hander opened and closed ages ago. I'm also not ready to completely rule out a surprise showing by dark horse candidate The Play That Goes Wrong, as it would be very out of character for the typically anglophile Tony voters to only nominate American plays.

Nominees: Indecent, Oslo, Significant Other, Sweat
Wildcard: Heisenberg

Best Musical Revival

Bette Midler leads the cast of Hello, Dolly!
Unlike last year's stellar crop of musical revivals, this season's contenders are a lot less artistically interesting. Not only are the revivals primarily of 80s and 90s megamusicals, which have their guilty pleasures but are hardly the pinnacle of the musical form, but both Cats and Miss Saigon remain so married to their spectacle-oriented original concepts that it can sometimes feel like Broadway is caught in a time warp. Alternatively, Sunset Boulevard has ditched the lavish physical production but retained Tony-winning star Glenn Close, again keeping the ties to the original Broadway mounting front and center.

All of that said, it must also be acknowledged that Close is absolutely sensational, both justifying Sunset's return and ensuring its inclusion among this year's Best Musical Revival nominees. The show will surely be joined by Lincoln Center's much lauded (although not by me) fall mounting of William Finn's Falsettos. And while Bette Midler's mere presence was enough to make Hello, Dolly a smash hit before the first preview, let's not forget that both the production and its star received across the board raves, making its nomination all but assured. And since the producers of the Jake Gyllenhall-led Sunday in the Park with George removed their revival from Tony consideration, that leaves one open slot which will almost certainly go to Miss Saigon, which at least pretends to be more than a direct remounting of the original.

Nominees: Falsettos; Hello, Dolly!; Miss Saigon; Sunset Boulevard
Wildcard: Cats

Best Play Revival

The cast of the Broadway revival of August Wilson's Jitney.
In most seasons, the fall produces the brunt of play revivals, presumably because that's when the movie stars needed to guarantee financing/ticket sales are usually free. But in a surprising change of pace, it looks like the majority of nominees in this category will come from the second half of the season. Manhattan Theatre Club is looking likely to be double nominated this year thanks to its critically acclaimed productions of August Wilson's Jitney and Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes; I challenge anyone to find a negative word written about either show. The Kevin Kline led Present Laughter also seems well positioned for a nomination, as does the Allison Janney fronted Six Degrees of Separation. That's technically a full category right there, although the much-lauded Front Page from the fall seems destined to make the cut as well. The only show that seems at all likely to disrupt this quintet is Roundabout's starry mounting of The Price, which could take the place of the oft-revived Present Laughter if enough Tony nominators have tired of seeing Noel Coward's comedy trotted out every decade or so.

Nominees: The Front Page, Jitney, The Little Foxes, Present Laughter, Six Degrees of Separation
Wildcard: The Price

Agree with my predictions? Think I'm wildly off base? Let me know in the comments, and check back Sunday for my predictions for the major acting races!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Twin Powerhouses Making Beautiful Music Together

Review: War Paint

Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden in War Paint.

It is a well documented problem that outside of Rose in Gypsy, there are few meaty musical theatre roles for women over the age of 40. The sensational new musical War Paint, about the lifelong rivalry between cosmetics giants Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, aims to fix that by creating not one but two gargantuan roles rife with possibilities for nuance. Creators Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright have expertly crafted these roles around the enormous talents of stage royalty Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, resulting in a true must see musical event that is as thrillingly entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating. This transcendent piece of theatre deftly explores themes of power and beauty through the story of two real life titans who paved the way for women in the upper echelons of big business, all while providing both LuPone and Ebersole with some of the juiciest material of their careers.

War Paint begins in the mid-1930s, after Rubinstein and Arden have become two of the wealthiest women in the world through their determination and business acumen. The cosmetics companies that bear their founders' names have successfully moved makeup from the realm of prostitutes and dance hall girls into acceptable everyday use, but neither CEO is content to rest on her laurels. While Arden seeks to corner the market on high end luxury products with her signature pink packaging and spa-like full body treatments, Rubinstein promotes her products as scientifically superior formulas guaranteed to make her clients more beautiful. The show follows their professional and personal rivalry over the next 30 years, which sees more than a few scandals and market shifts while both women fight to be taken seriously even after their unprecedented success.

Doug Wright's book seamlessly merges with Frankel and Korie's score to create an endlessly fascinating study of two strong women who are underestimated at every turn. Equal time is spent on the women's personal lives (or lack thereof, as their success requires constant sacrifice) and their business dealings, exploring what it means to be a powerful woman in a society dominated by men. As War Paint clearly illustrates, this has long been an issue in America, but the show feels particularly timely given the increased attention paid to these inequalities over the past few years, to say nothing of the nation's current political climate. War Paint manages to be insightful without feeling preachy, also finding time to address how Rubinstein and Arden's male second-in-commands deal with the reversal of roles. The fact that the show manages to acknowledge the inherent contradiction in Rubinstein and Arden's accomplishments - they paved the way for women in business by creating an industry that thrives on women's sense of inadequacy about their appearance - proves to be a nice bow on the entire evening.

Anchoring this production are the two knockout star turns from LuPone and Ebersole, who play Rubinstein and Arden respectively. Both women are absolutely sensational from beginning to end, with the writing team creating two multilayered roles that expertly cater to the women's strengths. LuPone is a force of nature as the fiery immigrant Rubinstein, portraying the cosmetics giant with equal parts grit and tenderness while also mining every ounce of comedy from the character's many caustic one liners. Her first big number, "Back on Top," is everything you'd want from a LuPone song, a big, brassy, belty showcase that distills all of the actress' most distinctive skills down to an absolutely thrilling four minutes. And while LuPone's voice is perhaps unequaled in its sheer power, she also displays deep wells of tenderness and sorrow, breaking your heart with the more introspective "Now You Know" and especially her eleven o'clock number "Forever Beautiful."

Ebersole beautifully contrasts LuPone's ferocity with a more nuanced portrayal of Elizabeth Arden, with Frankel and Korie once again crafting a score that showcases the actress' mercurial voice with the same level of invention as Grey Gardens did. Ebersole's performance is more of a slow burn, her character's perfectly mannered exterior slowly fading away over the course of the evening as she lets the audience and those closest to her into her world. She is positively inspiring during "Better Yourself," where Arden (unsuccessfully) tries to take a young woman under her wing, and agonizingly poignant during her Act II showstopper "Pink," which finds Arden confronted with the possibility of being forced out of her company.

And while two great things are not always great together, the many numbers which showcase both LuPone and Ebersole are easily the highlights of the evening. "If I'd Been a Man" takes the fairly straightforward idea that Rubinstein and Arden's work struggles stem largely from their gender and puts two deeply affecting human faces on it. They thrillingly conclude the first act by singing "Face to Face," something of a misnomer as they share the stage but don't interact in a song that is nonetheless entrancing. And when the pair finally meet in person at an awards banquet near the end of the show, the ensuing scene and song are nothing short of magical.

The two stars are ably supported by the rest of the cast, particularly John Dossett as Arden's husband/vice president Tommy Lewis and Douglas Sills as Rubinstein's second-in-command Harry Fleming. Both make excellent scene partners for LuPone and Ebersole while also sharing fine chemistry on their own, although their second act duet "Dinosaurs" is the show's only tonal misstep (and a minor one at that). The deceptively small ensemble knows exactly when to pop and when to fade into the background while the stars do their thing, and the staging is kept moving at an exciting clip by director Michael Greif and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. Special mention must be made of Catherine Zuber's gorgeous, period-perfect costumes, which are works of art in and of themselves while also going a long way towards making the 11 person ensemble look at least twice as large thanks to creative doubling of roles.

If the preceding review has not yet convinced you, allow me to state in no uncertain terms that you must see this show. War Paint takes everything that was exciting about Frankel and Korie's Grey Gardens and ups the accessibility and entertainment factors without sacrificing any of the depth. Both LuPone and Ebersole give sensational performances that could net either woman a third Best Actress Tony, and the show furthers the incredibly important national conversation regarding women's struggles in the workplace. It is both highbrow and immensely appealing, and one of the highlights of what is shaping up to be a very strong season for new musicals.