Friday, June 6, 2008

My Tony picks - the musicals

This year, I'll have seen more Tony-nominated performances than ever before. (Ok, more than last year, which was my first year of going to Broadway). There were two categories in which I saw every performance - Featured Actor in a Musical and Featured Actress in a Musical - so I'm especially excited about those. While I think I picked the two standouts, I really enjoyed all of the nominees.

An asterisk denotes a show I didn't see.

Best Musical
Passing Strange

In the Heights

There's just something about In the Heights that really got to me. Maybe it was the energetic choreography or the set that really evokes New York City, or the way it depicts a close-knit immigrant neighborhood with warmth and humor, or the way the music soars in the big ensemble numbers, but this is the one I most want to see again. While I liked Passing Strange a lot, and I think it has the more interesting, inventive book and score, I didn't have that immediate, emotional connection to it the way I did with In the Heights. Maybe I just like to see my money up on stage, in the form of an elaborate set and show-stopping choreography. I guess it's a guilty pleasure, but I just had more fun watching In the Heights. Cry-Baby was bland, not very funny, not very witty, not very memorable. (If there's one thing this year of theatergoing has taught me, it's that comedy is hard.) I wish I'd seen Xanadu, though. It sounds like a blast!

Best Book of a Musical
In the Heights
Passing Strange

I'll admit that the book of In the Heights is weak. I think Passing Strange does tell its story in a much more inspired, inventive way. I like the way Stew, who acts as kind of a narrator, uses elements from The Wizard of Oz to depict Youth's journey of self-discovery. Passing Strange is an examination of race and identity, it's about family and growing up and finding your own way in the world and the dialog is very witty. It's the kind of show where you remember the best lines long afterward.

Best Original Score
In the Heights
*The Little Mermaid
Passing Strange

Initially, the songs from Passing Strange were the ones that stuck in my head. The lyrics and imagery in songs like "Amsterdam" and "Baptist Fashion Show" and "Keys" are witty and clever and poignant. Then, I got the cast recording of In the Heights this week, and you know what, it's fun and fresh. Listening to the music reminded me again of why I loved this show so much. But in the end, I have to admit that the songs all sounded a bit similar, with the same pulsating beat. While I like to watch the songs from In the Heights performed, I think Passing Strange is a more interesting listen on its own.

Best Choreography
Rob Ashford Cry-Baby
Andy Blankenbuehler In the Heights
Christopher Gattelli South Pacific
*Dan Knechtges Xanadu

In the Heights was just so bouncy and energetic from start to finish. The opening dance number really set the tone for the show, and the choreography is one of the major reasons why I want to see In the Heights again. I also loved the choreography in South Pacific, especially in "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair." It was such fun to watch, and Kelli O'Hara was a delight. I normally love Rob Ashford's work, but this time, it didn't hit me with the same intensity, maybe because I didn't enjoy Cry-Baby as much.

Best Revival of a Musical
South Pacific
*Sunday in the Park with George

South Pacific totally captivated me. From the opening strains of the overture to the coda that appears on a screen at the end, so much care has been taken with this revival. I just think it's gorgeous. Everything came together so well for me - the performances, the set design, the costumes, the way the musical numbers were staged. This was my first time seeing a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on stage, and it was a wonderful, memorable experience.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
*Daniel Evans, Sunday in the Park with George
Lin-Manuel Miranda In the Heights
Stew, Passing Strange
Paulo Szot, South Pacific
Tom Wopat, A Catered Affair

Maybe it's because I saw A Catered Affair more recently, but Wopat's performance is the one that's lingered. He's great as a working class father and husband who feels unappreciated, and his song, "I stayed," is so powerful. Plus, I'd like to see this small gem of a show go home with something on Tony night. But I loved Paulo Szot, and I'd be very happy if he won. My one beef with this category is Stew's nomination. Was Stew really acting? Doesn't "acting" mean playing a part, and wasn't Stew simply being himself?

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical
Patti LuPone, Gypsy
Kelli O'Hara, South Pacific
Faith Prince, A Catered Affair
*Jenna Russell, Sunday in the Park with George
*Kerry Butler, Xanadu

I loved Faith Prince, I loved Kelli O'Hara, but wow, Patti LuPone was amazing. That woman can act out a song like no one else. Rose is a terrific role for an actress and she just played it to the hilt, without overplaying it. LuPone is so skillful that she makes Rose a tragic, yet sympathetic character. Last summer, when I saw Gypsy at Encores, people were on their feet cheering after "Everything's Coming Up Roses." It was an absolutely thrilling moment for me to be a part of that wild ovation. I turned to the person next to me and said "That was amazing." He smiled and said, "Just wait." And he was right. If anything, I think LuPone's performance as Mama Rose on Broadway has gotten even better.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange
Danny Burstein, South Pacific
Boyd Gaines, Gypsy
Robin de Jesus, In the Heights
Christopher Fitzgerald, Young Frankenstein

Daniel Breaker was an absolute joy to watch. He was so expressive when he wasn't even saying a word, just slouching in a chair. I still smile when I remember his leap across the stage in imitation of a big Broadway dance number. It's like the essence of acting - no elaborate sets or costumes or props, just one person on stage using his body and his voice to create a memorable character. To me, he was the lead in Passing Strange.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
deAdre D'Aziza, Passing Strange
Laura Benanti, Gypsy
Andrea Martin, Young Frankenstein
Olga Merediz, In the Heights
Loretta Ables Sayre, South Pacific

Last summer, Laura Benanti gave an amazing performance as Louise in Gypsy, and this spring I saw her do it again. It was still amazing. I can't believe she does it eight times a week, she makes it look so effortless. Benanti's transformation from a shy, awkward girl into a glamorous, confident stripper was breathtaking. It's like she's a different person at the end. In my short theatergoing career, this is one of the best performances I've ever seen.

Best Direction of a Musical
*Sam Buntrock, Sunday in the Park with George
Thomas Kail, In the Heights
Bartlett Sher, South Pacific
Arthur Laurents, Gypsy

I was so impressed with the look of South Pacific, and I have to give ultimate credit to its director, Bartlett Sher. Yes, other people were responsible for the sets and the costumes and the orchestrations, but he had the overall vision of how this work should be presented, and I just think he did a terrific job.

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Anna Louizos In the Heights
Robin Wagner Young Frankenstein
*David Farley, Timothy Bird, Knifedge Creative Network Sunday in the Park with George
Michael Yeargan South Pacific

I loved the set of In the Heights, and when I first saw it, I thought nothing would be better than that New York City neighborhood scene. But South Pacific is pretty special. I even loved the giant map of the South Pacific that dropped down when the action switched to the commander's office. I do wish I'd seen the animation in Sunday in the Park with George, though.

Best Costume Design of a Musical
*David Farley Sunday in the Park with George
Martin Pakiedinaz Gypsy
Paul Tazewell In the Heights
Catherine Zuber South Pacific

When I think back to Laura Benanti's performance in Gypsy, some of the credit does belong to Martin Pakiedinaz's costumes. They really set the tone for each half of Louise's life, the young girl and the glamorous stripper. They helped the audience see her character in two very different ways, and because of that, I thought they were so important in telling the story.


Vance said...

I haven't seen ACA so can't comment about Tom Wopat, nor South Pacific (but i've seen a lot of clips) but I think I have very similar picks.

Though I though Passing Strange SHOULD win Best Musical, I wouldn't mind at ALL if ITH won (which i think it will).

I've got my predictions and picks written now but waiting to post next week (uh, Im away for work so spreading out the posts).

Esther said...

Hey Vance,
I'll be looking forward to your picks.

I loved so many of these shows and performances, it's tough to have to choose just one. For example, the scenic design and choreography of South Pacific and In the Heights were so different, yet they were each so effective in telling their story. Even the featured actor category - Daniel Breaker was great, but I enjoyed them all!