Tony Awards are Broadway’s night to shine

06/05/2014 1:11 PM

06/08/2014 7:15 PM

Neil Patrick Harris, I regret to report, will not be hosting Sunday’s Tony Awards.

That’s not such good news for anyone who has enjoyed his witty performances as the annual trophy hunt’s emcee and producer in the last few years. Harris brought an irreverent sense of humor to an annual event that too often has taken itself a bit too seriously.

That irreverence reached a comic high point at the 2012 Tonys. That year Harris bobbed upside down in the background on “Spider-Man” flying apparatus while Ted Chapin, then chairman of the American Theatre Wing, and Tony winner Angela Lansbury, honorary chairwoman, rattled off the obligatory spiel about all the good things the wing does, replete with punning phrases like “no strings attached” and “the wing won’t let you down.”

But the actor’s absence as emcee might be good news for Harris if he takes a Tony home with him at the end of the evening, which is a distinct possibility. Harris is up for lead actor in a musical for his magnetic performance in the revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

In his stead will be the effortlessly charming Hugh Jackman, who, let’s face it, is a splendid choice. He has hosted the Tonys three times previously, and one of the show’s memorable interludes in recent years was his satirical mock-competitive duet with Harris in 2011. (“Any show you can host, I can host better!”)

The annual gathering of Broadway glitterati at Radio City Music Hall has through the years emerged as the wry senior member of the original televised awards show club. There was a time — long before awards shows had proliferated into a distinct TV genre — when the Tonys were considered second only to the Oscars in terms of prestige.

The Academy Awards show, traditionally the Big Gorilla with its annual cavalcade of Hollywood stars, has become incoherent if not irrelevant, thanks mainly to the academy's pattern of nominating and awarding movies hardly anyone has seen. As more people opt to watch films on tablets and smartphones and stream them directly to their TV screens from the Internet, consumers are free to pick and choose virtually any title they want, whether it bears an official stamp of approval from the Oscars or not.

And then there’s the unpleasant reality nobody in the movie business wants to talk about: that cable TV series such as “Breaking Bad” represent a higher cinematic achievement than most films. Why do you think so much Oscar media coverage focuses so much on the red carpet and the one-of-a-kind designer gowns? Because what happens on the red carpet is more interesting than the show.

But back to the Tonys. This annual gala has the feel of prom night for the Broadway theater community. And that community is real.

The people who write shows, produce them, direct them and act in them know one another. In some ways Broadway is like a small town. When an outsider making his Broadway debut, such as Bryan Cranston, grabs attention for a superior performance, he’s welcomed into the fold. Competitive feelings have always seemed to take a back seat to a “we’re all in this together” vibe.

Even so, the Tony Awards are not above a bit of garish salesmanship. The roster of celebs expected to amble up to the podium this year includes many Broadway veterans as well as a number of interlopers who have never set foot on a New York stage.

Comedian Will Ferrell, who has no Broadway association we’re aware of, will be there. Clint Eastwood, director of the upcoming movie version of “Jersey Boys” (one of the biggest Broadway hits of the last 10 year hits), will be there, offering a potentially memorable moment as the iconic Hollywood conservative surrounded by theater libs.

Sting will perform a number from his upcoming musical, “The Last Ship,” yet again underscoring Broadway as perhaps the last refuge of aging rock songwriters.

On the other hand, TV viewers will have a chance to see performances from a number of current Broadway shows.

Harris, Lena Ward and an excellent rock band will perform numbers from “Hedwig.” Alan Cumming, who won a Tony in 1998 for his performance as the Emcee in a revival of “Cabaret,’ will perform a number from the current incarnation of the Kander and Ebb classic (might there someday be a category for best revival of a revival?)

A number from “Wicked” will be staged to celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary. Sutton Foster will perform a selection from the nominated “Violet.” Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Fantasia will perform material from “After Midnight,” a nominated jazz revue.

Your humble theater critic recently made a quick sweep of Tony nominees. I saw a representative cross-section of nominated shows — not enough to make authoritative predictions, but enough to mouth off about who among the shows I caught might deserve a Tony.

Best play. Of the two nominees I saw, “Act One” and “All the Way,” there’s no competition. James Lapine’s “Act One,” an adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir, is a lumbering show about the love of theater. “All the Way” is Robert Schenkkan’s ambitious, sprawling depiction of the first year of LBJ’s presidency — a time when momentous decisions were made that affected all Americans and much of the world. My vote goes to “All the Way.”

Other nominated playwrights this year include old Broadway hands Terrence McNally, Harvey Fierstein and John Patrick Shanley, so never discount the possibility of a sentimental vote.

Best musical. I saw only one nominee in this category, the crazed and thoroughly entertaining “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” It’s the first musical comedy in years that makes you laugh and makes you want to hear the songs again. That’s no small accomplishment in the age of derivative drivel.

Best musical revival. There were three nominees in this category this year and I saw two: “Violet,” a modest musical with admirable goals that didn’t quite work, and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a raucous, highly creative rock musical. If you measure a show’s success by its ability to quicken your pulse, then “Hedwig” wins hands down.

Best actor in a play. Of the two performances I saw in this category, the nod goes to Bryan Cranston for his remarkable physical and vocal transformation as LBJ in “All the Way.” This was Cranston’s Broadway debut, and I suspect it will not be his last appearance on the Great White Way.

Tony Shalhoub was wonderful as George S. Kaufman in “Act One.” He was so brilliant that I wouldn’t feel bad if takes the Tony, even if the old-school play itself was like getting an injection of Novocain in your gum.

Best actress in a play. In a category dominated by Broadway veterans, I saw only one nominee. Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” was spectacular, not because of her indisputable star quality but because of her commitment to capturing something honest about Holiday.

Best actor in a musical. It’s hard to imagine Harris not collecting the Tony, but he faces some daunting competition. Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham are up against each other for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” which usually means neither will win. But I certainly won’t be disappointed if Mays wins for his utterly unique farcical performance in eight roles.

Best actress in a musical. The nominated performance I saw, Sutton Foster in the title role of “Violet,” was an impressive departure for Foster, whose Broadway career has focused on musical comedies for the most part. Here she tackles a glamour-free dramatic role with integrity.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Where to watch

The 67th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS. Learn more at www.tonyawards.com.

Read Robert Trussell’s full reviews of “Violet,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” “All the Way” and more on KansasCity.com.

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