Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Tony picks - the musicals

I haven't seen many of the new musicals and revivals that opened this season on Broadway, including 9 to 5, Next to Normal and West Side Story. And I never made it to [title of show] or White Christmas. So these aren't exactly the most knowledgeable picks but they are some of my favorite musical performances of the year.

Best Musical
Billy Elliot, The Musical
Next to Normal
Rock of Ages
Shrek The Musical

Of the three nominated musicals I saw, Billy Elliot is simply the one that touched me the most, that I thought was the most captivating and thrilling to watch. It has memorable characters and dramatic tension and moments of poignancy and humor and makes the story of striking British coal miners seem universal.

Best Book of a Musical
*Billy Elliot, The Musical - Lee Hall
Next to Normal - Brian Yorkey
Shrek The Musical - David Lindsay-Abaire
[title of Show] - Hunter Bell

Lee Hall wrote the original screenplay for the 2000 movie Billy Elliot and then adapted it for the stage. And it's a great story - about a young boy discovering a talent and how, in a time of great stress, a community rallies around him.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
*Billy Elliot, The Musical - Music: Elton John; Lyrics: Lee Hall
Next to Normal - Music: Tom Kitt; Lyrics: Brian Yorkey
9 to 5: The Musical - Music & Lyrics: Dolly Parton
Shrek The Musical - Music: Jeanine Tesori; Lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire

This is Billy Elliot versus Shrek for me, since I haven't seen the other two. I didn't exactly leave the theatre humming the songs from either one. But I think Billy Elliot's score works well in the context of the story.

Best Revival of a Musical
Guys and Dolls
Pal Joey
West Side Story

Okay, Pal Joey and Hair were the only ones I saw in this category. Hair is a 40-year-old show, tied to a particular time in American history. But instead of coming off like a relic, it seems so fresh and vibrant and thought-provoking. Unlike so many recent musicals, the songs are catchy and memorable. And I never get tired of listening to them.

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish ‚ Billy Elliot, The Musical
*Gavin Creel, Hair
Brian d'Arcy James, Shrek The Musical
Constantine Maroulis, Rock of Ages
J. Robert Spencer, Next to Normal

Here's where I get off the Billy Elliot bandwagon. I saw Trent Kowalik as Billy and he was a great dancer. But his performance as an actor didn't move me as much as Gavin Creel's in Hair. Creel just made me feel the conflict that his character was going through. He's also an adult and a more accomplished actor so it's not a fair comparison. But he gets my imaginary vote.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
David Bologna, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Gregory Jbara, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Marc Kudisch, 9 to 5: The Musical
Christopher Sieber, Shrek The Musical
*Will Swenson, Hair

I thought Christopher Sieber and Gregory Jbara were both great and I'd be happy to see either of them win. But Will Swenson as Berger, the leader of the hippie tribe, was so charismatic and fun to watch in a role that requires a lot of physical stamina.

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
Jennifer Damiano, Next to Normal
*Haydn Gwynne, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Karen Olivo, West Side Story
Martha Plimpton, Pal Joey
Carole Shelley, Billy Elliot, The Musical

I liked Martha Plimpton and Carole Shelley but I absolutely adored Haydn Gwynne as Mrs. Wilkinson. She was so hilarious and unforgettable as the demanding teacher who becomes Billy's champion. I even thought the musical lost a bit of its spark when she was offstage.

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Robert Brill, Guys and Dolls
Ian MacNeil, Billy Elliot, The Musical
*Scott Pask, Pal Joey
Mark Wendland, Next to Normal

Ian MacNeil has designed a great set for Billy Elliot - it rises like a corkscrew from the Imperial Theatre stage and reminds me a bit of the game Mousetrap. But I really liked the way Scott Pask's dark set for Pal Joey evokes a seedy 1930s nightclub in Chicago. It helps sets the mood of the show and fits well with this rather dark story.

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregory Gale, Rock of Ages
Nicky Gillibrand, Billy Elliot, The Musical
*Tim Hatley, Shrek The Musical
Michael McDonald, Hair

For me, one of the best things about Shrek were the costumes. They made me smile for the way they evoked a classic children's storybook come to life.

Best Direction of a Musical
Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Michael Greif, Next to Normal
Kristin Hanggi, Rock of Ages
*Diane Paulus, Hair

I think Stephen Daldry, who also directed the movie, does a good job with Billy Elliot. But the choices Diane Paulus makes in Hair are a big part of the reason why it's so alive, so relevant. It evokes the spirit of the 1960s in a fun way but never lets the audience forget some of the sadder and more brutal events of that tumultuous decade.

Best Choreography
Karole Armitage, Hair
Andy Blankenbuehler, 9 to 5: The Musical
*Peter Darling, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Randy Skinner, Irving Berlin's White Christmas

I loved the choreography in Hair and I'd be thrilled to see Armitage win. But Billy Elliot above all is a wonderful testament to the absolute joy of movement, to the artistry and exuberance and sheer athleticism of dance. It's the dancing I remember more than the score, so Peter Darling gets my vote.

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