All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The Tonys are my Super Bowl. Say what you want about Broadway, it remains the pinnacle of American theater quality and proves over and over again to be the place where the best, most assured, and most consistent theater is done. (Well you don’t see Frank Langella and Audra McDonald trooping out to regionals, do you?)
Usually, I have seen 85 to 90 percent of the theater year’s Broadway fare. This year, unaccustomedly rigid cash flow put me at a handicap. Frankly, if it wasn’t for my friend Eileen and TDF, I’d have seen very little. Many New York press agents will give me comps, but I am reluctant to ask unless I can provide bang for their buck, and resources for publishing are dwindling. (This blog has decent readership and, I hope, has serious and useful content, but blogs are proliferating, and, even if I’m being too modest or considerate, I’d like NealsPaper to have more verified reach to Broadway theatergoers before I pester p.r. people to put me on their regular rosters.)
Instead of seeing 85 percent of this season’s productions, I’ve seen about 30 percent. Ironically, my choices, and Eileen’s, have been good. In the play categories, behind though I am, I have seen most of the nominees. For some reason, dramas interested me more than musicals, and I’m in about that 85 percent ranges in the number of 2016 Tony nominees I’ve seen. (Huzzah!).
Musicals are a different story. I saw only “Amazing Grace,” which counts for nothing except experience and seeing the leading-man potential of Philadelphia’s Josh Young and the ability of Stanley Bahorek to play a staid, unflashy role, “She Loves Me,” my favorite of all musicals, and “Shuffle Along.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter much about missing many musicals, including the revivals of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Color Purple,” both of which I hope to catch up in the next two weeks via TDF, since “Hamilton” is going to glom so many of the awards.
I’d like to be able to add “justifiably” to that last sentence, and I suspect the word is warranted. I can’t say for sure because the show that keeps eluding me in “Hamilton.” I asked early on and periodically to buy a house seat to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster, which happens to be about one of my favorite founding fathers — I read Ron Chernow’s book two years before the musical surfaced — and anyone who knows me knows I am a constant scholar of the American Revolution, but I received no answer to any of my requests. Not even a ‘no.’ Just ignored. I realize the press agent, Sam Rudy, was inundated with telephone calls and e-mails, but given the money “Hamilton” must be making him, you’d think someone on his staff would get back to a known member of the press. In recent months, Rudy has changed his telephone number and e-address, so only the late J. Edgar Hoover knows it, and he ain’t talkin’.
Oh, the lottery? No luck there. After a few dozen goes at it. And the last time I could find a stray single at the box office — for Sunday, July 3 — the price was $544, three times the cost advertised on the theater’s price chart and way out of my current financial comfort zone.
I cannot neither endorse nor denigrate “Hamilton.” I remain eager to see it, although my eagerness wanes, and my patience for the touring company to come to Philadelphia increases, as original cast members leave the show, including the marvelous Mr. Miranda, who I met during previews in his “In the Heights” dressing room while his mother was serving him dinner following a matinee. (He was nice and so apprehensive about whether people would like “In the Heights.” Well, Lin, you’re no one-hit wonder now. You are “It” — I – T — “It!”)
Time to move on to the meat of this piece, some analysis, preferences, and predictions. A greater proportion of those predictions will be based on buzz rather than having seen productions firsthand. Even with my limited attendance, I can’t figure out how Billy Porter, with a spectacularly placed, choreographed, and performed number in “Shuffle Along” was ignored by Tony nominators, why the Roundabout’s wonderful production of Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin” was overlooked, and why, of the all the supporting actresses in “Eclipsed,” the one left out for nomination was Zainab Jah, who gives the single best and most powerful performance in the entire show.
As is my custom I will go category by category offering what insight I can. Or, as I always says NealsPaper is designed to do, contribute to the dialogue.
BEST PLAY — Eclipsed by Danai Gurira; The Father by Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton; The Humans by Stephen Karam; King Charles III by Mike Bartlett; 3 or 4 seen — The three of these I saw (all but “King Charles III”) form a stellar group, but one stands out among its competitors, and that’s “The Humans.” Karam is precise, funny, observant, and perceptive by using a Thanksgiving dinner to dissect the dynamics of an American family that may be tearing apart as its seams but will put on the right faces and show the right soldierly resolve to look as if it is able to overcome the disheartening and the overwhelming. “The Humans” is a marvelously crafted slice of life. It unfolds organically. Of course, it has dramatic high points and a series of accusations, revelations, and calamities, but Karam presents them in a manner that is in keeping with the way a Thanksgiving supper among a nuclear family may look and sound. The two hours we spend in a Manhattan fixer-upper apartment with the Scranton-based Blakes show so much in terms of relationships, loyalties, repercussions, recrimination, love, and mild enmity while telling a loose story that shows every family member having to adapt to a new circumstance ranging from recent marriage to job loss. Karam endows his work with a core of reality, and director Joe Mantello knows just how to stage it is with humor, pathos, sentiment, and sentimentality. The ensemble is terrific, with Jane Houdyshell giving another memorable performance as Cassie Beck subtly steals the show. “Eclipsed” has more built-in drama and is about a continent, Africa, and a situation, the enslavement of women by rebel warlords in 2003 Liberia, that is more fraught with tension and discomfort than “The Humans,” but it never takes off as a story. It remains an intense, involving look at a culture and circumstance that is as foreign to us as American culture and life is to Gurira’s Liberians. It is a play, not a documentary or lecture, but for all of Gurira’s writing ability and plotting, it doesn’t go past being an introductory course in the horrors people face in many regions of the world. The roughness of the situations seem real, but the toughness within the play seems more contrived to elicit audience response, and to shock, that “The Humans’ does. No matter how powerful the play or Liesl Tommy’s direction is, you’re always a little removed from the stage, taking in the subjugation Gurira’s characters face, and the survival techniques they devise, instead of being immersed in them. The horror is more intellectual than visceral, although the play aims to emphasize the latter. You are always engaged but you often have the impression something is missing. “The Father” is a more daring work. It shows the onset and arrival of dementia from the point of view of the person being affected. Florian Zeller is quite perceptive. Dementia is a subject of great interest to me, having taken care of my father, who was afflicted by it, at home for several years — By my sheer determination and stubbornness, he spent all but the last week of his life in his own house being cared for by a godsend of a nurse and me — so I am critical of plays, movies, and books that address the subject. None cover it fully. Dementia is so much more than can be depicted. Zeller’s play is no exception. It makes the vestiges of dementia plainer by putting us in the mind of the person suffering them, yet it misses the full complexity of the disease, even as enacted by the English speaking world’s finest actor of this day, Frank Langella. Incomplete and complicated as it is, “The Father” is moving and perceptive enough to bring home the surface of dementia. Langella and company are a tight ensemble. I fear for Zeller’s play in lesser hands. I did not see “King Charles III,” but perhaps I can catch up with it some day in London. Prediction: THE HUMANS; Preference: THE HUMANS.
BEST MUSICAL — Bright Star; Hamilton; The School of Rock; Shuffle Along; Waitress; 1 out of 5 seen) — The odds are with me in predicting “Hamilton” as this year’s Tony recipient even though I didn’t see it and only viewed one if its competitors. I have to take people’s word that “Hamilton” is the phenomenon it is. Whether in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s piece of lesser works such as Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” or Welsh writer (as opposed to the famous lyricist) Tim Rice’s “The Radicalization of Bradley Manning,” I don’t care about racial or sexual musical chairs, considering it usually so much folderol and fake texture. It’s the characters and story that count, and the storytelling, and by all accounts, “Hamilton” delivers the goods in terms of presenting the most prescient crafter of the United States and entertaining a Broadway house. I long to see “Waitress” because I want to see how Jessie Mueller follows up her success in “Beautiful,” and I so much enjoy the choreography of Lorin Latarro. “The School of Rock” and “Bright Star” are of marginal interest to me. I’d just like to know what they are. I saw “Shuffle Along” is an early preview, and it was a mess. About nine performances before opening, George C. Wolfe was mistaking bellyaching and cries for pity with genuine pathos. He wasn’t content to tell a story in a way that would let the audience realize its importance. He put anger on stage in ways that were unpalatable and easy to resist or disdain. The great Brian Stokes Mitchell was wasted, and Audra McDonald’s character had no definition. Billy Porter was magnificent in a major production number, but Brandon Victor Dixon, as Eubie Blake, had the only part that seemed finished and ready for opening night. Dixon is terrific in it. Savion Glover’s choreography was exciting but of one limited piece. Ugliness reigned in the show’s attitude, which seemed to aim for guilt and pity rather than understanding and empathy, and Wolfe’s show was unenjoyable in spite of its historical and better theatrical elements. I need to see “Shuffle Along” again to see if it improved. Remember, it had more than a week to get better, and on Broadway, that’s an eternity. Purely out of following the herd and loathing with profound disrespect the “Shuffle Along” I saw, I have to go with the “Hamilton” flow. Prediction: HAMILTON; Preference: N/A.
BEST REVIVAL OF A PLAY — Blackbird by David Harrower; The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill’ A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller; Noises Off by Michael Frayn; 3 of 5 seen — If I had my life to live over, one thing I’d be sure to do is to see Ivo van Hove’s production of “The View From the Bridge,” which by all reports was sensational. How can I not believe that when van Hove had proven so deft, creative, and immediate in presenting two Ingmar Bergman pieces. “After the Rehearsal” and “Persona,” in Philadelphia this year and so brilliant in his piercing production of another Miller play, “The Crucible?” This is a director who uses simplicity and intense human confrontation to elicit the dramatic. And the truthful. His “Crucible” is a revelation because it goes so distantly beyond American McCarthyism to the blight with which the self-righteous and Puritanical of all places and all times pollute the happiness and civilization of the world. Van Hove and a company that includes an affecting Ben Whishaw and arresting Sophie Okonedo show the plague the politically correct, and politically powerful, bring to common houses. His production is monumental. It isn’t only the stars, Saoirse Ronan and Ciarán Hinds with Whishaw and Okonedo, but integral players such as Tavi Gevisnon, Bill Camp, and Brenda Wehle that make this show such a success. The two van Hove productions of Miller certainly loom over this category, but they have heady competition in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Jonathan Kent takes O’Neill’s action slowly. His production mirrors the title of the play. Yet, it is never boring or tedious. You see the Tyrone family as individuals and glean their affinities and dynamics so that all that happens has a constant dramatic, portentous tint to it, a tint that makes it affecting and compelling. You could not ask for a better cast. Jessica Lange is intelligently luminous, Gabriel Byrne a man of temperament and understanding, and Michael Shannon a marvelous James. John Gallagher, Jr. is not quite as commanding as Edmund, but he makes you like the character and wish the best for him. I did not see “Blackbird” but would guess it to be an also-ran. “Noises Off” was hilariously well-timed and a true treat, but it isn’t in the league of Miller’s and O’Neill’s heavy hitters. Prediction: A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE; Preference: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL — The Color Purple; Fiddler on the Roof; She Loves Me; Spring Awakening; 1 of 4 seen — Everyone I know whose seen the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” tells me how new and original it feels and how vibrant the choreography is. Danny Burstein’s turn as Tevye also receives praise. I also hear wonderful things about “The Color Purple,” a musical I always found incomplete and mediocrely composed. Cynthia Erivo receives raves, and two friends who have seen Heather Headley says she is phenomenal. ‘Spring Awakening” was also greeted enthusiastically. Alas, my only reason for wanting to see Deaf West’s revival of “Awakening” was to catch Marlee Matlin on stage. I intend to go at some point over the next two weeks to see Headley and Erivo and Burstein. So, I’ll be better informed then. For now, I’ve only seen “She Loves Me,” and I adored it. It captured the charm and elegance of a bygone Budapest while being vibrant in characterization and smart and witty about storytelling. This production eclipses Scott Ellis’s staging of 1994 which earned a Tony for Boyd Gaines. “She Loves Me” is my favorite musical of any, and it was blissful to see it done with so much care and theatrical savvy. Prediction: THE COLOR PURPLE; Preference: SHE LOVES ME
BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY — Gabriel Byrne in Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Jeff Daniels in Blackbird; Frank Langella in The Father; Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III ; Mark Strong in A View From the Bridge; 2 of 5 seen– Talk about a strong field! (No pun intended, Mark!). The actors I saw, Byrne and Langella, were extraordinary. Each had a difficult character to play. Langella must internalize and convey the confusion of man who is not certain about where he lives, which woman is his daughter, whether or not he trusts his son-in-law, and various other conundrums, losses, and indignities than come with progressively severe dementia. He does so beautifully and touchingly in accord with the master actor he is. Byrne’s character may be more straightforward, but James Tyrone, Sr. is a man of many facets and shades within each facet. Byrne can play bluster, but he can also show warmth. You can see why his sons are disdainful of this James, but you can also see the love he has for his boys and the toll his dissolving family is taking on him. Byrne’s is a complete, human scale turn and cannot be dismissed. Daniels has received high marks as the molester who seeks forgiveness from the woman he hurt 20 years earlier. Strong is reported to have frighteningly breathtaking in “A View from the Bridge,” a play that has earned a Tony for Anthony LaPaglia and brought a nomination to Tony Musante. Pigott-Smith was also hailed for his turned as Britain’s Prince Charles in “King Charles III.” Prediction: FRANK LANGELLA (for what will be his fourth Tony)l Preference: GABRIEL BYRNE
BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY — Jessica Lange in Long Day’s Journey Into Night[ Laurie Metcalf in Misery; Lupita Nyong’o in Eclipsed; Sophie Okonedo in The Crucible; Michelle Williams in Blackbird ; 3 of 5 seen– The choice here is also difficult but not as close as in the Best Actor category. Metcalf, always reliable, can probably be eliminated, as can Williams, although I hear her performance in “Blackbird” redeems her wretched 2014 turn as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” Nyong’o is good as the young woman who must make decisions about whether she is to be a slavish concubine or a soldier who determines more of her own destiny in “Eclipsed,” but she does not show the luminosity she conveyed in her Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” In Danai Gurira’s play, she is overshadowed, eclipsed if you will, by the actresses around her, two of whom are nominated for Tonys, Okonedo is the luminous one. She exudes goodness and probity as Elizabeth Proctor and is brilliantly giving in the scene in which John Proctor must decide whether to spare his life by confessing to calumny or go to the gallows, innocent but unblemished by the dishonesty he sees in the Massachusetts government and Puritan church. I can vouch for Nyong’o’s sincerity and Okonedo’s moving work. It would, nonetheless, be impossible to deny Jessica Lange the Tony for her outstanding, landmark work in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Mary Tyrone is there with “The Little Foxes’s” Regina Giddens and “Gypsy’s” Rose Hovick as the ultimate test for American actresses. Mary is a woman’s Hamlet, and Lange plays her with elegant, nerve-gnawing completeness. You ache at the diminishment of Mary as she succumbs to narcotics addiction. You see Lange’s own beauty, made up to be faded and know what a treasure the young Mary Tyrone was in all ways, including as someone whose face could cause people to turn and look at her. Whether carping, reminiscing, scolding, or expressing love and concern, Lange is both real and ethereally distance simultaneously. Hers is an enlightening, illuminating performance that rank among the best of all time. I’ve seen Mary played marvelously by Zoe Caldwell and Martha Henry on stage and by Katharine Hepburn on film, but Lange’s is the best, even better than Henry’s, and it is the duty of the American Theatre Wing to see her name ensconced among the greats for this role. Prediction: JESSICA LANGE; Preference: JESSICA LANGE
BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL — Alex Brightman in The School of Rock; Danny Burstein in Fiddler on the Roof; Zachary Levi for She Loves Me; Lin-Manuel Miranda for Hamilton; Leslie Odom, Jr. for Hamilton; 1 of 5 seen — Is there any doubt? Sentimentally, I would adore seeing Leslie Odom receive this award. He cut his acting teeth at Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, and I am always eager to see testaments to the magnificent work John Allen, Robert Leslie, and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr, and two of their wives, Patricia Hobbs and Gail Leslie, wrought there, continued by Walter Dallas and now by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. I would also like to see the always-beyond brilliant Danny Burstein shed his Susan Lucci status among Tony nominees and glom an award many say would easily be his if it wasn’t for the looming presence of you know whom. Lin-Manuel Miranda, besides being a truly fine person, conceived “Hamilton” after reading Ron Chernow’s marvelous and not totally laudatory biography. He decided to play a founding father and express his thoughts in 21st century idioms, musical and literary. He crafted a piece that shows his “in the Heights” was not he sweet fluke of someone expressing his neighborhood and personality. And to a person, everyone says Lin is towering in this part. My biggest regret in not having seen “Hamilton” to date and being unsuccessful with the harried Mr. Rudy and the lottery, is worry that I will never see Lin-Manuel Miranda in this part he created. Lin is the toast of Broadway, and deservedly so. As a creator, writer, and performer, opportunity looms ahead of him. 2008 was the year for his show. 2016 is the year for everything about Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve heard little about Alex Brightman in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The School for Rock,” and know that Zachary Levi is charming, romantic, and as perfect as a 20th century Hungarian café in “She Loves Me.” But if Miranda did not eclipse him Odom, as Aaron Burr, would. Prediction: LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA; Preference: N/A
BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL — Laura Benanti in She Loves Me; Carmen Cusack in Bright Star; Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple; Jessie Mueller in Waitress; Phillipa Soo in Hamilton; 1 of 5 seen — This category is the one about which I feel the most hobbled. I enjoy all of these actresses. Phillipa Soo was marvelous as the female lead opposite Lucas Steele in “Natasha and Pierre at the Great Comet of 1812.” She added to the piece’s sweep and romance, and I have been watching for her ever since. Playing Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, she is bound to be in the competition for the Tony, and I have little doubt she would deserve to be. Laura Benanti find the prickliness and softness of Amalia in “She Loves Me.” Benanti is a bona fide leading lady of today’s musical theater, and a second Tony would not be out of order. Word is positive also about Jessie Mueller, who I’m sure would like to cement her “Beautiful” success with a second Tony. “Bright Star” gets generally kind comments but no one raves. Then there’s Cynthia Erivo. No one who has seen her does anything but rave. Celie is the kind of part that bring out the best in an actress. La Chanze earned a 2006 Tony for the role. Ervio may be in line to echo her fate, although the “Hamilton” juggernaut may be too strong to break. Prediction: CYNTHIA ERIVO; Preference: N/A
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY — Reed Birney in The Humans; Bill Camp in The Crucible; David Furr in Noises Off; Richard Goulding in King Charles III; Michael Shannon in Long Day’s Journey Into Night; 4 of 5 seen — The roles these gentlemen played are varied beyond points of comparison. Furr was hilarious in “Noises Off,” but does comedy ever soar above intense drama when awards are at stake? The answer is no, but even if the response was positive, Furr would have a hard time meeting the performances of Camp, Birney, and Shannon. Camp is frightening in his certainty as Rev. Hale in “The Crucible” and equally empathetic as his strict Puritan minister begins to see an entire picture and changes his opinion. Birney, who from “Gemini” to “The Humans” matures as a man and an actor before our appreciative eyes, finds the many facets in normality as the patriarch of the Blake clan. Those two will contend for this year’s Tony, but I think it has to go to Shannon for his clear-eyed, unapologetically forthright portrayal of Jamie Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Shannon is the one who rivets you to stage with Jamie’s candor and plain speaking. He is both direct and nuanced in his approach to the part. Being the most dissolute and corrupt of the Tyrones, Shannon’s Jamie is many ways becomes the family’s moral compass. Prediction: MICHAEL SHANNON; Preference: MICHAEL SHANNON
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY — Pascale Armand in Eclipsed; Megan Hilty in Noises Off; Jane Houdyshell in The Humans; Andrea Martin in Noises Off; Saycon Sengbloh in Eclipsed; 5 seen of 5 — I like Megan Hilty, but I might be the only one thinks her turn in Noises Off was mannered, self-conscious, and more of a performance than a portrayal. I would easily hand her nomination to Zainab Jah as a third contender for “Eclipsed.” Comedy does have some sway in this category because Andrea Martin was such a funny and illuminating Dolly Otley in “Noises Off.” Martin made the role her own with sharp, smartly timed, hilarious line readings and sure-handed physical comedy. There has never been a better Dolly, not even Patti LuPone in 2002. Houdyshell, though, is more subtle in her approach. She is so untheatrically natural as the mother of the Blake family, You feels as if you know her Deirdre, sorrows and rationalizations and all. For years, Houdyshell has given these stand-out performances, so this may be her year to be rewarded. The women from “Eclipsed” will make that more difficult. Saycon Sengbloh in marvelous as the pragmatic, instructive first wife of a Liberian warlord. Pascale Armand is more scattered, more a girl who just wants to have fun but is caught in politics and relegated to be a sex slave. Both women are deserving of recognition, as are Zah and Akosua Busia, who were unfavored by Tony nominators; Prediction: JANE HOUDYSHELL; Preference: SAYCON SENGBLOH
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL — Daveed Diggs in Hamilton; Brandon Victor Dixon in Shuffle Along; Christopher Fitzgerald in Waitress; Jonathan Groff for Hamilton; Christopher Jackson for Hamilton; 1 of 5 seen — I’m at a total loss here. Christopher Fitzgerald is always reliable, and the buzz is positive for him in “Waitress.” I’ve heard little about the three nominees for “Hamilton,” but Groff is popular among Broadway followers, so he may have an advantage. Dixon’s performance was a highlight of “Shuffle Along.” His character was the best fleshed-out and had the most to do. Prediction: CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD; Preference: BRANDON VICTOR DIXON
BEST SUPPORTING ACTREESS IN A MUSICAL — Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple; Renée Elise Goldsberry in Hamilton; Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me; Jennifer Simard in Disaster; Adrienne Warren for Shuffle Along ; 2 of 5 seen– Another category in which I’m flying blind. From the time I saw “She Loves Me,” I though Krakowski’s crackling Ilona could break through any “Hamilton” sweep. At the same time, I missed Adrienne Warren when her character disappeared for long patches of “Shuffle Along.” Sophia is always a formidable character in “The Color Purple,” and I’ve heard good buzz about Brooks. Not one “Hamilton” aficionado has mentioned Goldsberry to me, and Simard and “Disaster” are lucky for consideration let alone nomination: Prediction: JANE KRAKOWSKI; Preference: JANE KRAKOWSKI
For best director of a play, I predict Ivo van Hove for his marvelous year and think he’ll receive the accolade for “A View From the Bridge.” “Hamilton’s” Thomas Kail should break dance home with the award for best director of a musical.