Root­ing is com­pli­cated when shows like “Dear Evan Hansen” face wor­thy oth­ers.

This year’s Tony Awards are just about im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict be­cause there’s been such a sur­feit of great work.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty@la­times.com Twit­ter: @charlesm­c­nulty

You know it’s an in­ter­est­ing year for the Tony Awards when a critic is still ar­gu­ing with him­self in June over what should win best mu­si­cal and best play.

I’m di­vided be­tween “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Natasha, Pierre and & the Great Comet of 1812,” the two lead­ing contenders in a mu­si­cal cat­e­gory that also in­cludes “Ground­hog Day” and “Come From Away.” As for best play, I’m down to flip­ping a coin be­tween “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Oslo,” though just ad­mit­ting that brings a twinge of re­gret for “Sweat” and “In­de­cent,” the other wor­thy plays in con­tention.

My in­de­ci­sion shouldn’t be mis­taken for half­heart­ed­ness. I ad­mire th­ese works, but they suc­ceed and stum­ble on their own terms. Sin­gling out a win­ner seems in­de­fen­si­bly capri­cious, like de­cid­ing a pet beauty con­test that in­cludes dogs, cats, birds, ham­sters and gold­fish.

The Tony Awards this year don’t have the same buzz as that of last year’s “Hamil­ton” coro­na­tion. How could they? But Sun­day’s cer­e­mony (broad­cast as usual on old re­li­able CBS) prom­ises to com­pen­sate with some gen­uine com­pe­ti­tion.

Cer­tain awards are in the bag. Bette Mi­dler will be tak­ing home the prize for lead ac­tress in a mu­si­cal for her ec­static turn in “Hello, Dolly!,” which will cer­tainly win for best mu­si­cal re­vival. And Ben Platt, the emo­tion­ally sear­ing star of the new mu­si­cal “Dear Evan Hansen,” is pretty much a sure bet now that he’s be­come a bona fide Broad­way phe­nom­e­non.

Other likely win­ners in­clude Lau­rie Met­calf for her sen­sa­tional turn as Nora in Lu­cas Hnath’s se­quel to Ib­sen’s “A Doll’s House,” and Kevin Kline for his comic aplomb as rak­ish ac­tor Garry Essendine in Noël Coward’s “Present Laugh­ter.” I might pre­fer to see the prize for lead ac­tor in a play go to Jef­fer­son Mays. His dis­creetly mov­ing per­for­mance in J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo” as the Nor­we­gian so­cial sci­en­tist who im­prob­a­bly fa­cil­i­tated back-chan­nel talks that led to the 1993 Oslo Ac­cord be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion is par­tic­u­larly stir­ring in th­ese undiplo­matic times. But “Oslo” is truly an en­sem­ble piece, while “Present Laugh­ter” af­fords Kline a de­lec­ta­ble star turn.

Laura Lin­ney won the Drama Desk for her per­for­mance as Regina in Lil­lian Hell­man’s “The Lit­tle Foxes.” The pro­duc­tion is no­table for the way Lin­ney and her cos­tar, Cyn­thia Nixon, swap roles. Nixon was nom­i­nated in the fea­tured ac­tress cat­e­gory for her por­trayal of kindly, meek, al­co­holic Birdie, and it’s heart­en­ing to see th­ese two pros given the op­por­tu­nity to chal­lenge their act­ing prow­ess in the way of their am­bi­tious male peers, such as Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man and John C. Reilly, who mem­o­rably al­ter­nated the brother roles in Sam Shep­ard’s “True West” in 2000.

But Met­calf, re­deem­ing a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence in ad­ven­tur­ous new plays, is putting on a Broad­way mas­ter class. And in a pro­duc­tion in which every cast mem­ber was nom­i­nated, it would be grat­i­fy­ing if she and Con­dola Rashad (who plays Nora’s daugh­ter with a mag­nif­i­cently am­biva­lent grace) would be re­warded for their su­perla­tive work.

Not that I’d mind if Met­calf and Rashad’s fel­low cast mem­ber Jayne Houdyshell (who won a fea­tured Tony last year for her per­for­mance in “The Hu­mans”) or Nixon in “The Lit­tle Foxes” or ei­ther Jo­hanna Day or Michelle Wil­son in Lynn Not­tage’s “Sweat” should hear their name called. Draw­ing straws might be the fairest way to de­cide the fea­tured ac­tress in a play award.

My im­par­tial­ity, how­ever, aban­dons me in the fea­tured ac­tor in a play race. Michael Aronov’s ki­netic per­for­mance in “Oslo” as an Is­raeli power bro­ker given to stomp­ing on ta­bles to make a ne­go­ti­at­ing point in­fuses this three-hour his­tor­i­cal drama with the elec­tric­ity it needs. I’d hate to see such fear­less the­atri­cal­ity passed over, but the inim­itable Danny DeVito, who made his Broad­way de­but in a re­vival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” play­ing an el­derly an­tique ap­praiser called in to set­tle a fam­ily es­tate with a ton of bag­gage, seems to have the in­side track that fame be­stows on tal­ent.

Gavin Creel in “Hello, Dolly!” and Rachel Bay Jones in “Dear Evan Hansen” would be my picks for fea­tured ac­tors in a mu­si­cal. But th­ese cat­e­gories are once again so crowded with tal­ent that there can be no wrong choice.

Few women have won Tonys for di­rec­tion be­cause his­tor­i­cally too few women have been given the op­por­tu­nity to di­rect on Broad­way. But this year Re­becca Taich­man has a solid shot for her darkly lyri­cal stag­ing of Paula Vo­gel’s “In­de­cent.” In a cat­e­gory that also in­cludes Ruben San­ti­ago-Hudson’s highly praised stag­ing of Au­gust Wil­son’s “Jit­ney,” the award for play di­rec­tion could very well go to Tony-win­ning vet­eran Bartlett Sher for his per­fect stag­ing of “Oslo.” Re­gard­less of the out­come, let’s hope this will be the first of many di­rect­ing nom­i­na­tions for Taich­man as well as for San­ti­ago-Hudson, who, hav­ing won a Tony for his per­for­mance in “Seven Gui­tars,” has be­come one of Wil­son’s most dis­tin­guished in­ter­preters.

The most in­ven­tive stag­ing of a mu­si­cal by far was Rachel Chavkin’s pro­duc­tion of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” I ex­pe­ri­enced the en­chant­ing postmodern swirl of this mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of part of Leo Tol­stoy’s novel “War and Peace” from one of the on­stage café ta­bles at the Im­pe­rial Theatre. The ex­hil­a­ra­tion was dizzy­ing. But Chavkin faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion from Jerry Zaks, whose stag­ing of “Hello, Dolly!” is the most po­tent an­tide­pres­sant in the Broad­way phar­macy, and Michael Greif, who could be part of a “Dear Evan Hansen” sweep, which some are pre­dict­ing.

“The Great Comet” re­ceived the most nom­i­na­tions of any pro­duc­tion, but the mo­men­tum this spring has clearly shifted to “Dear Evan Hansen.” Some read­ers of the Broad­way tea leaves, how­ever, are cau­tion­ing, that “Come From Away,” the stir­ring 9/11themed mu­si­cal that had its world pre­miere at La Jolla Play­house, could steal the best mu­si­cal prize in a coup that would be as shock­ing as the “Av­enue Q” up­set win over “Wicked” in 2004. I doubt that will hap­pen, but “Come From Away” ad­min­is­ters a heal­ing dose of mu­si­cal theater up­lift that in th­ese po­lit­i­cally frac­tious times has found a grate­ful au­di­ence.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” which tells the emo­tion­ally com­pli­cated tale of a vul­ner­a­ble high school se­nior who gets caught up in a lie that turns him into a so­cial me­dia hero, doesn’t traf­fic in the usual Broad­way sen­ti­ment. But Steven Leven­son should win for his book, which trusts that an au­di­ence will be open to an un­ortho­dox jour­ney if the ex­pe­ri­ence is au­then­tic and han­dled with deep sen­si­tiv­ity.

As for orig­i­nal score, I would be de­lighted if Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of “Dear Evan Hansen” were to win a Tony the same year they won an Os­car for “La La Land.” But I’d be just as pleased if Dave Mal­loy, the mas­ter­mind of “The Great Comet,” were to re­ceive his due for an off-Broad­way ex­per­i­ment that has proved that Broad­way can ac­com­mo­date new forms. The songs from “Dear Evan Hansen” have stayed with me longer, but the in­ge­nious way in which Mal­loy’s mu­sic is in­te­grated into the sto­ry­telling of his book is noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. “Dear Evan Hansen” is ul­ti­mately a more en­dur­ing mu­si­cal, but “The Great Comet” is for me the more thrilling mu­si­cal pro­duc­tion.

So how about we call that race a tie? And while we’re be­ing gen­er­ous, would any­one would ob­ject if the best play award were shared by “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Oslo”? Th­ese works are so dis­sim­i­lar that they might as well be in dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories.

Not that I’m com­plain­ing. It’s a good year when the ar­bi­trari­ness of artis­tic awards is thrown into re­lief. I’m still de­lib­er­at­ing, which is a sign that no one has a mo­nop­oly on all this glory.

Matthew Mur­phy

Chad Batka

DE­NEE BEN­TON, left, and Brit­tain Ash­ford in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” an in­ven­tive mu­si­cal lead­ing in Tony nom­i­na­tions.

T. Charles Erick­son

TONY NOM­I­NEES Jennifer Ehle and Jef­fer­son Mays per­form in the stir­ring play “Oslo.”

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