I recently spent a week in New York cramming in as much theater as I could. While time constraints meant it was impossible for me to see all the Tony-nominated shows — and I couldn’t get my hands on a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” ticket without having to sell my car — I managed to see a heck of a lot. (Nine shows total, seven on Broadway and two off-Broadway). Just in time for Sunday’s Tony Awards, here’s my recap:
‘LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL’
If, like me, you’re from Fresno and are into Broadway, THIS was the must-see event of the trip. Audra McDonald is nominated for best leading actress in a play in this acclaimed production, and if she wins her sixth award on Sunday, she’ll set a record as the most Tony-winning performer ever. Plus: She’ll be the first performer to win a Tony in all four acting categories (leading actress in a play, featured actress in a play, leading actress in a musical, featured actress in a musical). So you can be sure that people from Fresno will be rooting hard for her.
It’s an incredible, indelible performance.
McDonald, to me, has one of the most instantly recognizable voices I’ve ever heard. Give me two seconds of her with almost any song and I’ll snap: “Audra.” Yet in Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play, which recounts a night of the life of Billie Holiday near the end of her life, McDonald burrows into her character with such intense authenticity (and does crazy-screwy things with her voice that completely tamps down her operatic tendencies into a bluesy twang) that I simply forgot I wasn’t in the presence of Billie Holiday herself. (I never did forget, however, that I sat directly behind Oprah Winfrey, whose own star wattage kept distracting some members of the audience. One woman on the way to the restroom in the middle of the show even leaned in from the aisle, stuck her hand in front of Winfrey’s face and waved.)
“Lady Day” turns out to be one of those experiences in which the performance far outshines the material. In lesser hands, the sad spectacle of Holiday boozing it up and crumbling before our eyes could have been tawdry and cheap, even eye-rolling. But McDonald sails clear of such travails so smoothly that it makes the characterization that much more impressive.
At one point she tells how Holiday used to share a bed with her grandmother, recalling: “An’ she’d wrap her skinny old arms around me so tight like she was scared of sleepin’ by herself or of the dark or something.” The way that McDonald delivers that line — so genuinely, with such earnest exactitude — made me shiver.
All of which seems like a pretty good reason for a sixth Tony award. And making history.
‘A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER’
Nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, this ingenious romp follows a down-on-his-luck Englishman who learns that he’s a distant heir to a family fortune. So he does the obvious thing, of course: He plots to bump off all eight of the heirs in front of him.
Directed with comic precision by Darko Tresnjak (a Tony nominee), the show is buoyed by two fiercely good leading performances: Bryce Pinkham as the underhanded conniver; and Jefferson Mays as all eight of the intended victims.
Furiously paced and defiantly silly, the show is hard to imagine without Mays’ sputtering, spittle-driven intensity. He’s up against Pinkham for a leading actor Tony, and I’m betting he’ll get the nod — as well as the show itself for best musical.
What really makes this show, beyond the sparkling comic performances, is the pitch-perfect staging — you never forget you’re in a blustery lark of a show — and design. The stagecraft isn’t high-tech, but it’s exceedingly clever. (My favorite: when one of the heirs is killed in an ice-skating “accident.”) Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman’s original score and lyrics are bouncy fun. And the scale of the show is pleasingly small, making the hilarity seem that much more intimate.
This exquisite revival of the musical by Jeanine Tesori shimmers with hope and life. Sutton Foster, nominated for leading actress, plays the title role of a young woman who hopes a distant faith healer can remove a hideous scar she received in a childhood accident. Director Leigh Silverman (a Tony nominee) finds the hardscrabble warmth in the score that this show needs, and the unlikely love triangle that develops between Violet and two of the men she meets on her journey (including Joshua Henry, a Tony nominee, who gives a terrific performance) feels true and pure.
Foster is known for her bouncy personality and vocal belt on Broadway, but in this show she goes against type. It’s beautiful. She gives a subdued and deeply affecting performance. When she sings the lullaby “Lay Down Your Head,” it’s with such tenderness that I heard someone gasp in the audience. I’m hoping “Violet” pulls off a win as best musical revival, but it will be tough going against the “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” onslaught.
‘BULLETS OVER BROADWAY’
I wanted to see this musical adaptation of the Woody Allen movie for a couple of reasons: It’s staged by acclaimed director/choreographer Susan Stroman; and Visalia’s Betsy Wolfe has a featured role. Wolfe is strong in a thankless role and didn’t get a Tony nomination, and even Stroman walked away empty handed. I can see why: The show is just a little too relentless and pushy, and Zach Braff’s hammy performance in the leading role doesn’t help matters. I just don’t associate Woody Allen’s comedy with a shout-it-to-the-balcony approach.
But this tale — which is about a struggling playwright who gets a chance to have his play produced on Broadway, but only with the producer’s talentless girlfriend in a major role — does have some great dancing, and despite Marin Mazzie having to go along with the too-broad comedy, there are moments when she really shines as the egotistic diva. And Nick Cordero, nominated for featured actor in a musical, helps pep up the show as the dour Mafia underling who discovers he has a knack for playwriting. Interestingly, Cordero is one of the few characters in the show who isn’t required to ham it up. If only the rest of the show could have showed a similar restraint.
‘THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN’
Daniel Radcliffe didn’t get an acting nomination for this revival of Martin McDonagh’s comic gem, but the show itself is up for an award in the play revival category. Radcliffe is fine in the leading role of Billy, the crippled Irish boy who hopes to land a Hollywood career, but it’s the supporting cast that truly shines. Darkly comic and laced with the melancholy beauty of so much Irish drama, the Broadway production includes a sumptuous scenic design by Christopher Oram, who I’m hoping will pick up a Tony.
Jessie Mueller portrays Carole King with the same kind of lyric intensity that Audra McDonald gives in her performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Just hearing her voice change in terms of timbre and emotional depth as she portrays her character over the years is entrancing. (Mueller is often mentioned as a possible Tony winner, but the competition is fierce in the leading actress-musical category.)
Deftly staged, the show’s robust storyline includes two standout (and Tony nominated) performances: Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector as fellow songwriters with King. Both are terrific. The show is in many ways a standard biographical jukebox-style musical, but Douglas McGrath’s superb book (also Tony nominated) elevates the material to impressive heights.
‘THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY’
I saw this production two days before it closed for good, much to the chagrin of those who love traditional Broadway musical scores. Kelli O’Hara, another strong contender for a leading actress-musical Tony, gave a searing performance, adding an operatic weight to what could have been the pedestrian retelling of a popular movie. (Her rendition of “To Build a Home” is riveting.) My prediction: The Tony voters will reward composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown for best original score — a nod to the show’s sumptuous, passionate music.
‘HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL’
Definitely my guilty pleasure of my trip. This exuberant Off-Broadway musical adaptation of the cult movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater might be a little bit more bubblegum in tone than I was expecting, considering that the subject matter involves murdering the popular kids at high school and covering up the deaths as teen suicides. But I respect the fealty that the creative team has to the source material — and, besides, getting the right take on black comedy is a really delicate (and highly personal) endeavor. For me, “Heathers” is a snapshot in time chock full of period attitude (sample quotable line: “Grow up, Heather, bulimia is so ’87″), and the decision to cast the action in a kind of timeless, setless void — relying instead on an explosively colored and throbbing lighting design for the visual flair — takes away a little of the storyline’s sharp, sassy swagger.
But … I think it’s very cleverly done, and I’m a fan of Barrett Wilbert Weed’s leading performance as Veronica. (Not so much of Ryan McCartan’s turn as JD — a little bland for me.) Kevin Murphy’s book, music and lyrics are fun. I got the sense that most of the people in the audience hadn’t seen the movie. (The woman sitting next to me didn’t even know there was a movie.) If I were going in cold to “Heathers: The Musical,” I think I’d be a little mystified. But the movie and musical together make an appealing pair.
‘RED-EYE TO HAVRE DE GRACE’
Every time I’m in New York I try to see theater that is off the beaten track. This small and brilliantly conceived show, which recounts the last grim days of Edgar Allan Poe, is one of the most original and appealing productions I’ve seen in a long while. (I saw it at the New York Theater Workshop.) Director Thaddeus Phillips crafts a show that is hard to pigeon-hole: It’s part musical, part experimental dance, part stream-of-consciousness literary reading.
One of the joys is the clever staging. As we follow Poe (a strong Ean Sheehy) on a speaking tour during his last days, a simple door becomes a chair, a railway compartment, a chicken coop. A patch of grass takes becomes a portal from our world to Poe’s dark imagination. (At one point a vision of Poe’s dead wife, portrayed by a luminous Alessandra L. Larson, crawls up out of that grass and tries to take him back down.) It’s all very eerie and dire, but a gentle, deadpan humor diminishes the gallows feel. Instead we get a turbulent look at a turbulent man — and a feeling that theater has taken us to a place that no other art form can.