AND THE WIN­NER SHOULD BE…

Our the­ater writer dishes on who is re­ally Tony-wor­thy this year.

Where New York - - Contents - By Fran­cis Lewis

FOR 10 OR SO YEARS, I was a Tony Award voter—a priv­i­lege that I took se­ri­ously. Very se­ri­ously. My choices weren’t al­ways in sync with those of my fel­low vot­ers (mem­bers of the press, pro­duc­ers and in­dus­try in­sid­ers), but that was OK: I voted as I saw fit. Now, as an in­ter­ested the­ater­goer free of all Tony obli­ga­tions, I judge a Broad­way play or musical not only on the ba­sis of its artis­tic mer­its but also on how much bang for the buck it de­liv­ers. So, as the awards gala on June 11 at Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall nears, let me put on my Tony voter hat again. These are the shows and artists that, I be­lieve, should win a Tony. More im­por­tantly, these are the shows and artists from the 2016–17 sea­son that—win, lose or draw—de­serve your time and dime.

But first, an ob­ser­va­tion. When the Tony nom­i­na­tions were an­nounced on May 2, shock waves of dis­ap­point­ment could be felt from one end of the The­ater District to the other. My main beefs? The to­tal ab­sence of recog­ni­tion for “A Bronx Tale” and the dis­missal of “Anas­ta­sia” and “Band­stand” with only two nods each. These are mu­si­cals with proven crowd ap­peal (stand­ing ova­tions at ev­ery per­for­mance) and songs that, in a melod­i­cally un­mem­o­rable sea­son, au­di­ences walk out hum­ming. They should have been con­tenders.

Those shows that are in the run­ning for Best Musical—“Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Ground­hog Day” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (with the sea­son’s long­est ti­tle and most nom­i­na­tions, 12)—are a mixed bag. This cat­e­gory usu­ally draws the great­est at­ten­tion, and cer­tainly there is some­thing for ev­ery the­ater­goer in this year’s nom­i­nees.

“The Great Comet,” a sweep­ing, ro­man­tic spec­ta­cle de­rived from Tol­stoy’s “War and Peace,” makes cap­i­tal of its lit­er­ary cre­den­tials. “Ground­hog Day” is a clever, fast-paced adap­ta­tion of a pop­u­lar movie, fea­tur­ing a mag­netic per­for­mance by Andy Karl that puts him in the first rank of lead­ing men. Karl should take home the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Mil­len­ni­als, if not al­ways their el­ders (like me), en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­brace “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Great White Way’s first so­cial-me­dia musical.

As to “Come From Away,” it is the sleeper hit of the sea­son. Flu­idly staged, eco­nomic in its con­struc­tion and con­sum­mately per­formed, the show is an un­likely musical. The plot fol­lows planeloads of trav­el­ers, who are rerouted on 9/11 to a re­mote part of Canada, where they pick up the pieces of their lives with the help of sym­pa­thetic and gen­er­ous lo­cals. The au­thors have based their char­ac­ters on real-life peo­ple, fo­cus­ing the nar­ra­tive per­haps too nar­rowly on ob­vi­ous stereo­types among the stranded pas­sen­gers—the bick­er­ing gay cou­ple, the rabbi, the Mus­lim, the ro­man­tic mid­dle-aged two­some, the first fe­male cap­tain of a U. S. air­line. But the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is a re­sound­ing and joy­ous af­fir­ma­tion of the re­silience of the hu­man spirit. By the fi­nale, the the­ater is awash in feel-good tears. This show gets my vote.

So does Lynn Not­tage’s “Sweat,” in spite of fierce com­pe­ti­tion from “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “In­de­cent” and “Oslo” in the Best Play cat­e­gory. Rarely does elit­ist Broad­way hold the mir­ror up to how the other half— Amer­ica’s work­ing class—lives. “Sweat” is that wake-up call: a re­al­is­tic, gut-wrench­ing, no-holds-barred, com­pas­sion­ate look at how Penn­syl­va­nia fac­tory work­ers fall vic­tim to cir­cum­stances be­yond their con­trol. Not­tage’s di­a­logue crack­les as de­liv­ered by an ex­em­plary cast, whose work proves that the time is long over­due for the Tonys to ini­ti­ate an award for Best Ensemble. Un­til then, Michelle Wil­son and Jo­hanna Day have been sin­gled out from the cast and are up against each other for Best Fea­tured Ac­tress in a Play hon­ors. If it were up to me, they would share the award. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, Kate Who­riskey, the play’s peer­less co­or­di­na­tor, has been de­nied a Best Direc­tor nom. Shame on the nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee.

In life, two things are cer­tain: death and taxes. On Broad­way, there is a third cer­tainty: Bette Mi­dler. The Divine Miss M is a shoo-in to win the 2017 Tony as Best Ac­tress in a Musical for her turn in “Hello, Dolly!” Thanks to reams of crit­i­cal ac­claim, an out­pour­ing of pub­lic af­fec­tion and mil­lions of dol­lars gen­er­ated in ticket sales, the wind is be­neath her wings. She will as­cend to Mount Olym­pus on Tony night.

(From top) Jenn Colella and the cast of “Come From Away;” Andy Karl in “Ground­hog Day;” Michelle Wil­son (stand­ing) and Jo­hanna Day in “Sweat.”

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