Karen Olivo, most deserving winner of the night, for WEST SIDE STORY (Reuters)
The Liza Minnelli Show, oops, I mean the Tony Awards show this year proved to be quite entertaining. Actually, it was a lot more diverting than the Broadway season itself, which, despite all the ballyhoo about it being so exciting (i.e., profitable), consisted largely of shows which I found excruciatingly dull, obnoxious or some combination of the two.
The Tonys started off well with the three young Billy Elliots choreographically spinning their chairs, seguEing into into the gangs from WEST SIDE STORY and the underrated GUYS AND DOLLS (one of the few shows on Broadway I’d gladly see again). This felicity was then intruded upon by the crew from the abysmal ROCK OF AGES, whose presence among the Tony-nominated Best Musicals completely called into question the exact worth of the awards, themselves. SHREK, with its totally noxious pandering to the lowest common inappropriate denominator of snarky “family entertainment,” full of immediately dated topical references, fart jokes, et al., was another honored bummer. Where was TITLE OF SHOW, undoubtedly the cleverest Broadway musical of the season, or 13, a winsome, winningly authentic teen musical, with one of the best set changes in Broadway history: when the adolescent hero, used to the roiling kaleidoscope of Manhattan life, finds himself suddenly plunked into the spacious, unpopulated desolation of the Midwest? I’ll tell you where these shows went – into the oblivion of any production with the bad luck to have opened and closed earlier in the season. The Tonys hate an “old show” almost as much as a box office failure, artistic merit be damned. Later in the evening, the shamefully non-nominated Frank Langella, who gave his greatest performance to date, completely humanizing the windy pieties of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, wryly pointed these facts out while brandishing a “For your consideration” ad his producers had unsuccessfully run.
Herewith, are my impressions of the show, in order of occurrence.
A rather frowzy looking Stockard Channing from the dreary revival PAL JOEY (one more reason why Graciela Daniele should retire, following her uninspired work on Chita Rivera’s A DANCER’S LIFE), made an unlikely appearance during that opening musical montage, trying to sing “Bewitched” with no voice. In her Bob Mackie-looking gown, she rather represented everything the so-called “new audience” the Tonys are so desperately eager to attract fear and loathe about musicals.
Not helping matters, really, was Liza, in the first of several appearances, struggling through “The World Goes Round,” inserting a lot of Vegas-y “yeah-yeahs!” and such in lieu of notes she couldn’t sustain. I’d love to do a makeover on her, starting with lowering everything she sings to a lower range more comfortable with her present register and proceeding to a new wardrobe. That black sequined top has become very familiar from her numerous recent NY public appearances, like the Astaire Awards a week ago.
Liza Minnelli, at the tryouts for BATWOMAN – THE MUSICAL
The Internet sharks had their fangs bared in readiness over Neil Patrick Harris’ presumed disaster as the evening’s host, but he was charming and adept, reminding me of how Bob Hope guided all those years of Oscar telecasts, with a fetching light touch that didn’t need to rely on overblown production numbers or torturously elaborate sight gags.
Was there any particlar reason for the orchestra to play “Someone to Watch Over Me” as Jane Fonda’s entrance music to present Best Featured Actor in a Play? A reference to daddy Hank, in heaven, perhaps? It was great to hear winner Roger Robinson (for JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, an overrated play by the abysmally overrated August Wilson) thank the late, great important actress Diana Sands in his touching speech. (Catch my GAY CITY NEWS interview with Robinson’s fellow nominee, John Glover, who talks about the revolting, running mucus which somehow got him the nod for WAITING FOR GODOT. Stella Adler always said, “Your talent lies in your choice”; in this case, it was his nose.)
Mr. and Mrs. James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini (really terrific in, and the best reason to see, GOD OF CARNAGE, especially for that one brilliant moment when, utterly broken, he suddenly peeks through one face-hiding hand with piquant sexual interest at Hope Davis, who has just given him a friendly caress) looked profoundly bored sitting in the audience, with his lovely Asian wife, former model, Deborah Lin.
Angela Lansbury won Best Featured Actress in a Play, a case of sentiment and star power more than anything else. Like everyone else, I truly adore this actress (as I do Liza, really), who managed to gleam with such versatility in films starting with her Oscar-nominated 17-year-old debut in GASLIGHT, followed by THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, NATIONAL VELVET, STATE OF THE UNION, THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT and her utterly genius THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE as possibly the greatest villainess in screen history. This is not even to mention all her fine stage work of the past, but her BLITHE SPIRIT performance was to me a mere retread of her wacky, more effective turn in DEATH ON THE NILE. It was too cutes-y by half and I have to confess a momentary scary moment when, seeing her unconscious on the sofa, I couldn’t help thinking, “Please, God, don t let her be dead – or asleep.”
Lansbury seemed genuinely surprised, saying, “Who knew?” Well, everyone in the audience, as all this actress has to do is show up – as she did for Terrence McNally’s DEUCE (where she had line memory trouble) – to be nominated if not win. Broadway seems to live in constant fear that MURDER, SHE WROTE will be revived, sweeping Angie back to the Left Coast.
In lieu of “unnecessary” presentations, like Best Book of a Musical, Choreography and all the technical awards, the first of several questionable numbers from touring companies of past musicals had MAMMA MIA’s cast belting “Dancing Queen,” the most ubiquitously obnoxious song e’er written, and whoever that actress was in the terrifying red jumpsuit I once teased Judy Kaye about wearing, well, she was truly terrifying-looking.
Tepid applause followed this, as it did all the bus and truck numbers to follow. With the exception of JERSEY BOYS, the singing in all of them was noticeably flat (what WAS that note they all hit at the end of LEGALLY BLONDE?). As for JERSEY BOYS, when all the various Frankie Valli’s joined their honeyed nasal imitations of Valli’s voice together, all I could think of was Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Brevity is the soul of wit, a fact proved by Will Ferell’s appearance, in which this always too over-the-top comedian (from Robin Williams College) made me laugh for perhaps the first time ever, preening over the “grueling” 36 performances he’d struggled through in THANK YOU AMERICA.
It was downright mean to show Dolly Parton right after she lost Best Original Score for 9 TO 5 to NEXT TO NORMAL. (I mean it was Elton John’s reaction to losing for BILLY ELLIOT we really wanted to see, right?) Parton, I think, could have used a collaborator to help shape her tunes into more dynamic, show-worthy stuff, and 9 to 5 was, admittedly, a disappointment. It should have been a no-brainer fun theatrical time, but it stayed too slavishly close to the original movie (as if it was LA GRANDE ILLUSION, or something) and the book sorely could have used some sassy updating along with more real period ’70s flavor. Joe Mantello’s direction lacked spunky originality and, somehow, a real love of the material, and none of the talented cast were really able to shine.
Did she really care that she lost the Tony?
As treacly and obvious as I found John’s BILLY ELLIOT music (as I do everything he’s written since the ‘70s), at least it was real music, as opposed to NEXT TO NORMAL’s migraine inducers with catchy lyrics like
“Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?
It’s like living on a cliffside not knowing when you’ll dive.
Do you know, do you know what it’s like to die alive?”
Draws you right in, doesn’t it?
The ensuing excerpt from WEST SIDE STORY had all the electricity anyone could want, with Karen Olivo’s Anita absolutely on fire in the gym dance and Bernstein’s music like manna from heaven after everything which had preceded it out of the orchestra pit. Nerves must have caused Josefina Scaglione – the best Maria imaginable – to crack on her high note in her duet, but Matt Cavenaugh sang with melting gorgeousness.
Presenter Susan Sarandon looked terrific in her Madame X gown and fierce vintage bracelets, proving that she, unlike Jessica Lange, who came on later, can still do unforgiving bias cut satin.
Just askin’: Does that singer’s protracted singling out of Liza during the ROCK OF AGES number constitute elder abuse? Even she seemed a little loss for words in the spotlight, for once.
One nominee for Best Theatrical Event begged more questions: Doesn’t SLAVA’S SNOW SHOW run every year? Was this award created merely to bestow another Tony on Liza? SOUL OF SHAOLIN??? (Well, my civilian lawyer date at least enjoyed this hopelessly cornball, cheaply produced excuse for kung fu pyrotechnics.)
Liza won, of course, and it was rather a shock to see her, tall, bald and besuited running up the aisle to collect her award. No, wait, that was her producer, John Shear, whom the cameras caught immediately after the announcement.
I couldn’t help noticing that she got a more gracious nudge from the orchestra when her speech ran long: melting violins, instead of the brassy sound-obliterating noise which abruptly cut the NEXT TO NORMAL composers off short.
Marcia Gay Harden in Herve Leger
Marcia Gay Harden – and no, we won’t tackily refer to her this time as Marcia’s Gay Hard-on, oops we just did – has great taste and was the most elegant woman there in her emerald Herve Leger gown and delicate chandelier earrings, but the unfortunate juxtaposition of her standing next to fellow presenter and Best Actress nominee Hope Davis in her too-youthful bouffant short skirt had a risible near-Laurel and Hardy effect. Or was it some talk show episode of “My Mom Dresses Like a Slut?”
The musical numbers suffered from myriad sound problems and it’s a tribute to Titus Burgess’ trouping skills that, after the mic caught him asking “Am I going on? I’m going on!,” he effortlessly sailed right into a blisteringly soulful reinvention of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” culminating in Mary Testa’s hilarious Salvation Army booty-spanking (“I’m a bad, bad girl”) which should send ticket buyers hopefully rushing to GUYS AND DOLLS’ boxoffice.
More bad sartorial juxtaposition: the nepotistically advantaged pair of Kate Burton, in her matronly black mother-of-the-corpse gown, with Lucie Arnaz’s utterly wack MY FAIR LADY striped bow-bedecked column.
I was sorry to see Gregory Jbara, who I usually enjoy, win Featured Actor in a Musical for his overdone, bathetic turn, as Billy Elliot’s papa, over David Bologna’s delightful cross-dressing performance from the same show, and Will Swenson’s HAIR, in which he provides the fearless, sexy soul of the show. And how the hell is he considered a Featured Actor when he opens the show and is in so much of it, at least as much if not more than Gavin Creel, who got the Best Actor nom nod? Marc Kudisch was also up, for 9 TO 5, but so suffocatingly synthetic is that show’s entire concept and execution that even this theatrical treasure, who has singlehandedly saved more nights than I can recall, was smothered in the lastic morass.
Jbara’s dragging his wife up on stage to receive the award with him is something which I hope doesn’t start a trend, like thanking God.
I may be the only person who considered Best Featured Actress in a Musical to be the evening’s one really exciting category, as Karen Olivo, Hayden Gwynne who brilliantly provided Billy Elliot with some much-needed real vinegar, and the extraordinarily versatile Martha Plimpton who, in her scenes, lifted PAL JOEY into musical heaven, all equally deserved to win. (Plimpton, no doubt feeling the effects of the recent death of her uncle, David Carradine, mouthed “Hello Mom and Dad” to parents, actress Shelley Plimpton, who raised her as a single Mom, and Keith Carradine.) At the Astaire Awards last week, we were all lucky enough to see Plimpton joyously reprise her “Rainbow” number from PAL JOEY backed up by a Sapphic chorus line of cross-dressing femmes.
Olivo dressed with elegant understatement and gave an affecting speech – citing the angelic Scaglione and how “a lot of people said I couldn’t do this” (WHO? I want names: after her blazingly sexy appearance in IN THE HEIGHTS, this was a total no-brainer) – before she was completely overcome by emotion. What is there about the role of Anita which so slays any actress who wins an award for playing it? When Rita Moreno got the 1961 Oscar for the movie of WEST SIDE STORY, all she could say was the briefest, gob-smacked “Thank you,” surely the shortest speech in Academy history.
Then Carrie Fisher came out in her admittedly singular idea of formal attire (a friend said, “She’s studying to play Hope Emerson”) and made me laugh more than anyone else, introducing NEXT TO NORMAL’s number, with her self-referencing description of “a woman struggling with mental depression and the toll it takes on her family.”
The number ensued, in all of its screeching indulgence, reminding me of exactly why wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back to catch it on Broadway, despite whatever changes everyone assured me were wrought in the transfer.
Jessica Lange, in the aforementioned unflattering satin gown, presented Best Actor in a Play which went, as everyone predicted, to Geoffrey Rush for EXIT THE KING, a play which merely proved that absurdist theater is largely for the birds. (How much booze did Ionesco and Beckett consumer before scribbling any old shit which got praised for its revolutionary quality back in the “well-made” play-dominated 1950s; in certain ways theater has aped the worse excesses of the art world’s conceptualism.) Rush’s final, quiet moments were indeed impressive and expressive of his actorly savvy, but what a lot of self-indulgent, unfunny mugging and excess one had to endure before that. Susan Sarandon and Lauren Ambrose cluelessly played their roles sans a single vestige of wit, while Andrea Martin did her familiar antic, hammy thing. The only freshness in the whole production came from Brian Hutchison who, as The Guard, invested his largely silent, mimed background performance with more creativity and charisma than all the braying and cavorting going on downstage.
Gandolfini, as mentioned, was the best thing about GOD OF CARNAGE, while Thomas Sadoski actually managed to humanize Neil LaBute’s hateful, tiresome REASONS TO BE PRETTY. God, I wish LaBute would get over being the ugly kid in school once and for all: his themes inevitably smack of unresolved adolescent issues, playground anger issues he forces audiences to endure.
Rush’s acceptance speech was a tad self-serving, and his translations of his competitors’ plays into French I don’t think helped take the sting out of losing for them, when a simple, graceful acknowledgment of them would have more than sufficed.
Hallie Foote! I adore you and think you deserved to win Featured Actress in a Play over Lansbury for your funny, acerbic work in your late ther, Horton Foote’s DIVIDING THE ESTATE (I have greedy aunts just like you in Hawaii). But please, let me take you shopping for your next Awards experience! You have a lovely figure and can do “serious actress” a lot more imaginatively.
Bebe Neuwirth introduced the Death Montage of all those the theater community has lost in the past year. Here, the Tonys stupidly aped the Oscar telecast by having showy camerawork totally obliterate the sequence. With all the tricky angles and neurotic movement,it was at times hard to make out who exactly was in the various photos projected onscreen and did we really need to see the orchestra and the choir bleating out a sappy version of “What I Did fo Love”?
During the announcement of Best Actress in a Play, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer, both up for MARY STUART, were misidentified, a lapse graciously corrected by winner Marcia Gay Harden, whose GOD OF CARNAGE performance I would have enjoyed more had she not overdone the pouting six-year-old aspects of the character at moments.
MARY STUART was a grave disappointment for me, suffering from Phyllida Lloyd’s wrongheaded trendoid direction, replete with bad ideas, like having all the men in modern dress (they’re anonymous enough to begin with), the bare brick-walled stage to represent royal courts (who out there isn’t sick to fucking death of minimalism at $125 a seat?), the clichéd, clangorous sound effects to evoke “DRAMA,” all that fake rain which soaks Mary, unnecessarily underlining her martyrdom, while Elizabeth I stays dry and protected (oo, deep!). McTeer overacted throughout and I hated the shorn hair she wears from the first scenes, as if already preparing for execution. Walter, who somehow was given Frida Kahlo’s coiffure, gave the far superior, more nuanced performance, her Elizabeth somehow emerging as gentler, more ambivalent and less overweaningly dominating than Mary. John Benjamin Hickey was woefully lacking in magnetism as an unlikely Earl of Leicester, the object of both ladies’ affection.
A number from BILLY ELLIOT followed, which confirmed my feeling that the solo choreography by winner Peter Darling was hopelessly banal, filled with strenuous isolated movements jarringly paired with sudden flights of clichéd balletic lyricism. And then there was the wholly unnecessary, cheeseball device of having Billy fly with the use of an all-too visible harness. Much better were the exciting ensemble pieces, like “Solidarity,” Grandma’s reminiscence of the men in her life and all those vividly awkward girls in ballet school.
Presenter Gina Gershon’s Mickey Mouse hairdo was strange.
During Lifetime Achievement winner Jerry Herman’s tribute sequence, those clips of Angela Lansbury in MAME were mouthwatering, a tantalizing souvenir of a time when Broadway had real class and glamour, no special FX, grotesque cartoonishness or pandering to children or die-hard rock fans in a misguided effort to dumb down the genre for mass consumption.
Along with all of her other considerable talents, Kristin Chenoweth is the best-dressed actress in the theater – look her up if you don’t believe me. She never makes a wrong move and always does designer to perfection, whether on the red carpet or at a post-show Q & A.
The HAIR number suffered a bit, I thought, from the faulty sound, but it certainly was a crowd pleaser, with the cast working the audience six ways from Sunday. That interaction is a huge part of the show’s undeniable appeal – I got a fun hair muss from Gavin Creel at the performance I attended and he later told me that on critics’ night he unknowingly terrorized, of all, people, Times critic Ben Brantley. Some of the ‘60s spirit of generosity was lost on this one Bergdorf Blonde woman audience member at the performance I attended, who, instead of passing the flowers handed out by the cast to the rest of the people in her row, merely took the whole bunch and stuck them into her designer purse.
I found the male actors in the cast far more effective that night than the women. Caissie Levy as Sheila, lacked an essential innocence, belting out her numbers with a self-conscious, self-serving fervor I felt more appropriate to AMERICAN IDOL than the peace and love generation. The Tribe, however, provides believably youthful energy – their pure joy onstage is irresistibly contagious, as it was on Tony night. You had to love tousle-haired Public Theater producer Oskar Eustis citing Marriage Equality in his acceptance speech for Best Musical Revival, juxtaposed against the totally open emotions running across the face of Tribe member Anthony Hollock, who really epitomizes the spirit of this revival. (Hollock was the recent winner of the Mr. Broadway title at the Broadway Beauty Pageant for his incredibly original presentation. His hilarious choice: Irene Cara in FAME, complete with stick on black bangs, warbling “Out Here on My Own,” followed by that humiliating scene in which she/he is made to remove her/his top by an insensitive, rapacious photographer (played by Seth Rudetsky). Side-splitting!)
Mr. Broadway: Anthony Hollock, who paid tribute to
Irene Cara in FAME
(PHOTO BY PETER FOLEY)
I think the Billy Elliot boys should have been given a special award rather than been nominated for a single. They are, after all, three different actors who do give different performances, albeit in the same role. Kiril Kulish, for example, is a demonically good dancer, but a stiff actor, while Trent Kowalik completely outshone him in the dramatic moments. (And, for consistency’s sake if nothing more, why wasn’t Frank Dolce, who adorably alternates in the role of Michael, also nominated for Featured Actor along with David Bologna?) The boys also don’t put in that full eight performances a week schedule which grown-up actors have to give.
That said, their win certainly made for great TV, and their genuine shock and awe at their moment of triumph was especially moving. I predict a huge enrollment in dance school among little boys, not seen since maybe that moment of Baryshnikov’s film, THE TURNING POINT back in 1977
GOD OF CARNAGE won best play and the whole crew and cast trouped onstage to accept. Playwright Yasmina Reza thanked everyone profusely and you could never tell that there had ever been a problem with her criticizing that the cast was “too American,” her objections only ending when, as a cast member put it, she happily went back to Paris. The play is an undeniable audience pleaser and actor’s field day with a great initial premise. However, it degenerates into sub-sitcom obviousness, with poor, nauseous Hope Davis having to vomit repeatedly onstage while you think “Anyone in her situation would just stay in the damned bathroom,” and everything devolving into sandbox tantrums. Director Matthew Warchus’ decision to have the actors stop at regular intervals to strike silent tableaux of hopelessness and dejection also has the subtlety of a hatchet.
The doubly nominated Warchus won Best Director of a Play not for this, but for the unbearable, unfunny, protracted NORMAN CONQUESTS, this year’s winner for the COAST OF UTOPIA Audience Torture prize. And, as with that play, the NORMAN audiences, abject Anglophiles all, roar with laughter at the slightest prompting to prove just how with it they are, in terms of Brit wit, even for a thing like this written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn, a playwright – the Neil Simon of the UK – I have suffered through previously and will avoid in future like the plague. Most of the actors did what they could with the shallow, obnoxious characters they were required to play, but Jessica Hynes, nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Play, gave the year’s single most gratingly annoying performance, filled with twitches and mannerisms, her hand always fiddling around her mouth, indicating, indicating, indicating in a way to make Strasberg spin in his grave.
Alice Ripley seemed to bear more than a passing resemblance to her NEXT TO NORMAL Tony-winning character in her Best Actress in a Musical aceptance speech, shrieking those inspirational JFK lines she found at the Kennedy Center, and this award was, I think, also sentimentally given to her for her long up-and-down career. I would have preferred the more quiet yet intensely believable power of Scaglione in WEST SIDE STORY, but here you have the difference between simply being the character, and, like Ripley, giving one of those Gena Rowlands WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE virtuoso, look at me-damn you! performances. It would have been a more interesting race had the Tonys seen fit to nominate Lauren Graham, who was able to make the hoary role of Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS completely her own, touching and funny with killer, slightly delayed comic timing. Surely she was superior to Allison Janney in 9 TO 5, who cannot sing and offered few surprises, acting-wise. I would have gone with Megan HIlty from that show, instead, who actually managed to fill formidable Dolly Parton’s bra – oops, shoes – with a sweetness and impressive set of pipes all her own. Surely, both Graham and Hilty were superior to Sutton Foster’s shallow, campy SHREK turn – she’s become the new Angela Lansbury, nominated for everything she does, regardless.
Lauren Graham with the beautifully dressed Piper Perabo
I was relieved to see David Furnish sitting with husband Elton John in the audience, as there had been someone else in his seat earlier in the telecast. I want them to stay together and keep shopping, especially, because at that huge fire sale of all their cast-offs at Radio City a few years ago, I replenished my wardrobe for the next decade with Furnish’s Chalayan, Yohji, Miyake and Versace – we wear the identical size in everything!
The Liza – I mean Tony – Show came to an end with BILLY ELLIOT’s win as Best Musical, presented by Minnelli who made sure she was all over the Radio City stage, where her daddy, Vincente, once designed the holiday extravaganzas which brought him to Hollywood. Elton mentioned the NEXT TO NORMAL composers, exhorting them to be loyal and true to each other. The name “Bernie Taupin” irresistibly flashed across my mind.
Doogie Houser finally got a chance to charmingly sing at the very end, a clever song which must have been whipped up fast backstage, as its lyrics managed to take in all the evening’s highlights while mentioning all of its inescapable, myriad gay aspects.
Final mystery: who were those two bored kids sprawled in the front row? What a waste of precious real estate!