All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In a nutshell, I enjoyed the performances on last night’s Tony broadcast, especially the chance to see the “It’s a Musical” number from “Something Rotten!” and Chita Rivera proving there’s no pro like an old pro.
My prediction ratio was the worst in my history (20%). My preference ratio was actually better (50%).
Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming were wanting hosts. They were trying self-consciously — with their abysmal writers — to knock off socks instead of being casual and effortless like Neil Patrick Harris or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. They never found the real, human humor in the Tony proceedings, and the set pieces provided from them were beneath Tony broadcast standards. Because you have people who deal each day with live entertainment doing a live show, Tony programs tend to be better than other award shows. That was true when casts were presenting scenes from the musicals, but at most other times, I wanted the second-rate nonsense to end and for the next production number to begin. NPH should be signed to a lifetime Tony night contract. Or Larry David and Jason Alexander!!! And who is Larry to knock Jason’s “Seinfeld” nomination when he and Fish in the Dark received none?
One more comment about CBS’s broadcast, which shamefully put the network’s name in the Chenoweth and Cumming’s alleged parodies of show tunes: Who thought of letting Josh Groban, pretty though he is, sing an entire rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before showing one slide of Broadway’s deceased during the memorial segment? Who then kept the camera squarely on Groban while pictures of the departed were displayed at odd angles at a distance? Is this “artistry” trouncing common sense? It was hard to see and read the memorial slides. A tribute to genuine artists — Elaine Stritch, Joan Rivers, Elizabeth Wilson, Rosemary Murphy, Julie Wilson, etc. — was minimalized by inept television production. Theater folks should know better, especially in regard to how to thank excellent practitioners for their glorious, uplifting years in the show biz. Groban and the costumed choruses from nominated shows sang well, if Groban got a tad ragged in lower registers, but the CBS director made the sequence antithetical to its purpose. It was the wrongest of wrong notes.
Cheers were rife at my friend Linda’s house, where I watched the awards. I was thrilled Richard McCabe was recognized for his delicious portrayal of Harold Wilson — tax man, Mr. Wilson, tax man, Mr. Heath — in “The Audience,” not to mention the bow to Helen Mirren as the Queen, and reveled in Kelli O’Hara being finally recognized for her work. Kelli has been the prima diva of the American musical theater, more than Peters, LuPone, Chita, Liza, Sutton Foster, Christine Ebersole, or Kristin for the last 12 seasons. She certainly should have been chosen over La Chanze in 2006. How wonderful to see her chosen in a category in which any of the five nominees could win without stirring a complaint.
My two disappointments — I had to be asked to stop booing one of them, the one for Best Musical — were the Tonys to Christian Borle and to “Fun Home,” in each case the least deserving of the award in their categories, and for “Fun Home,” I extend that disapproval to book and score of a musical. Don’t get me too wrong. Both Borle and “Fun Home” are praiseworthy. They are among the best, well Borle is, but they are not the best, no argument accepted.
Borle is surpassed in the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category by Brad Oscar, the most worthy 2015 nominee, John Cariani, Gerry Vichi, and Brooks Ashmanskas is his own show, “Something Rotten!” (Cariani, Vichi, and Ashmanskas were not nominated.) His Shakespeare is a flashy part that Borle walks through, giving it no special touches or stunning moments that any other actor could not do. He’s terrific, but he isn’t even fooling us with the ease in which he carries off his role. This is a cruise, lazy work that does well with what costumer Gregg Barnes, the writers, and director Casey Nicholaw provide but which lacks the inspiration Oscar and Cariani bring to their roles and can’t hold a candle to Max von Essen in “An American in Paris” or Andy Karl in “On the Twentieth Century.” Borle coasts through the role. He doesn’t give it the zing and wit he brought to the Encores staging of “Little Me” in 2014. He doesn’t show the style that allowed him to triumph over his castmates in NBC’s “The Sound of Music.” His the weakest performance in “Something Rotten!” Brad Oscar or Max von Essen would have been so much more deserving of the recognition and place in theater history.
“Fun Home” is overrated to the point the unwarranted enthusiasm goes off the scale of a pig’s ear, OK, a lamb’s ear, being taken for a silk purse. Downright dull in some sections, as its competitors never are, “Fun Home” tells a mundane story. Neither Alison Bechdel nor Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori have much to illuminate in this piece that is being vaunted for sensitivity and courage it never shows. It’s barely creative! You don’t, for instance, care one jot for the oldest, current-day Alison, played by Beth Malone. She’s a bland byproduct of a chaotic upbringing she’s attempting to examine, her younger personae being far more engaging. The only thing that rivets you is the magnificently subtle and complex work by Michael Cerveris as a truly fascinating figure, a father who dabbles in pedophilia (and other male relationships) and has a push-me, pull-you temperament by which he embraces and instructs his children one minute and angrily, perhaps irrationally, criticizes and embarrasses them intentionally the next. Cerveris and his character are the reason for giving any attention to “Fun House.” Alison’s journey, in the long run, is no more telling or dramatic that anyone else’s, and Bechdel, Kron, and Tesori can’t make it so, no matter how much the politically correct embrace them. Woe betide regional theaters who try to produce “Fun Home” sans Cerveris. Can you say, “Flat on its face.” Of course, dread is limited. Unlike “An American in Paris,” “The Visit,” and especially “Something Rotten!,” no one will be doing “Fun Home” after 2020. It will be the “Redhead” of early 21st century Best Musicals, except “Redhead” deserves a better fate.
Emily Skeggs as the middle Alison, age 18 or 19, is also quite wonderful. The rest of the show is old hat. Alison Bechdel’s coming out is no more interesting that anyone else’s and far less interesting that others we’ve seen staged in legions for the past 25 years. Lisa Kron’s lyrics border on the shallow. You heard the dreadful song Sydney Lucas, as the youngest Alison, sang on the Tonys. Yes, it shows recognition and revelation as experienced by a child, just as I should have realized I was gay when Jimmie Dodd was my favorite Mouseketeer and John Brown as Rip Master made me want to sleep with him like Lee Aaker did on Rin Tin Tin,” but Kron’s repetition in the lyrics is trite. Her vocabulary in the song Lucas sings — I would mention the title, but in their infinite wisdom the folks who put together “Fun Home’s” Playbill neglected to included a song list. — is interesting, but her overuse of the best phrases and her failure to move her song from its original idea to some new one reveal what’s the matter with Kron as a songwriter.
Except for one number in which Skeggs’s Alisons sings about her discovery of her first partner, Joan, and Judy Kuhn’s stunner of a late-scene recitation about all she’s been through as a wife and mother, no music or lyric in “Fun Home” displays the wit, care, and artistry found in “The Visit” or even “Something Rotten,” which is always lyrically clever and should have taken the prize for best score. Kron has the 21st century penchant for ranting repetition. That’s not art. It might be emotion and it might be theater, but Kron should be haunted by Fred Ebb and the Kirkpatrick Brothers for daring to touch her Tony, let alone to accept it, for her drivelish contribution to “Fun Home.” I don’t hate “Fun Home.” Far from it. It moved me many times, and I was amazed at the skill of Michael Cerveris to create such a multi-faceted character, the father. But I’m a meritocratist at heart. I always and only want the best to win, and when I see an underling, Cassius, triumph over three works that are in all ways superior, it triggers a contempt it will take me a couple of days to bring back to objective perspective. Even then, “Fun Home” can join “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1972) and “The Will Rogers Follies” (1991) among travesties foisting on the theatergoing public by Tony voters. They are not yet as bad as Pulitzer Prize voters for literature and theater, but they border on it.
That said, I liked the awards to Alex Sharp, Annaleigh Ashford, Ruthie Ann Miles (even thought I would have chosen Skeggs), and to Cerveris.
Lots to cheer for. Lots to grouse over. I said “nutshell.” Welcome to my macadamia.