Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Theater feature: 'Fela!,' 'La Cage' lead Tony nominees in lackluster season

A scene from Fela‭!‬,‭ ‬starring Sahr Ngaujah.

By Hap Erstein

This season’s Tony Award nominations were announced this morning.‭ ‬So let the gripes and snipes begin,‭ ‬as well as the closing notices for the snubbed shows.

No one‭ ‬--‭ ‬except the consistently upbeat Tonys,‭ ‬a marketing cheerleader for New York’s commercial theater‭ ‬--‭ ‬is going to try and claim that this was a strong season on Broadway.‭ ‬But at least there were enough shows so that some worthy candidates‭ ‬did not make the nominations list.‭ ‬This was the case even if the committee had to reach back to some long-closed productions,‭ ‬to be able to leave off some fairly prominent,‭ ‬likely shoo-ins.

Unexpectedly,‭ ‬the new musical with the most nominations‭ (‬11‭) ‬was‭ ‬Fela‭!‬,‭ ‬the high-energy,‭ ‬political biography of Fela Anikulapo‭ ‬Kuti,‭ ‬the Nigerian composer-nightclub owner-rabble rouser.‭ ‬By most predictions,‭ ‬the front-runner was supposed to be‭ ‬American Idiot,‭ ‬the staged rock concert based on a pre-existing Green Day album,‭ ‬which got a paltry three nominations,‭ ‬including best musical.‭ ‬Notably snubbed was director Michael Mayer and performer John Gallagher,‭ ‬Jr.,‭ ‬probably because they were both said to be channeling their work from the earlier youth-rock phenomenon,‭ ‬Spring Awakening.

The other two best musical nominees were‭ ‬Memphis and‭ ‬Million Dollar Quartet,‭ ‬neither of which‭ ‬was well-received critically.‭ ‬They elbowed out the final opening of the season,‭ ‬Sherie Rene Scott’s‭ ‬Everyday Rapture,‭ ‬which the‭ ‬New York Times at least considered a close second to the Second Coming.‭ ‬Also coming up short was the underappreciated‭ ‬Sondheim on Sondheim and the generally reviled‭ ‬The Addams Family,‭ ‬which continues to do sell-out business despite its rotten reviews.

Among revivals of musicals,‭ ‬a cutdown,‭ ‬glitz-challenged British production of‭ ‬La Cage aux Folles walked off with‭ ‬11‭ ‬nominations,‭ ‬including nods for both of its leading men,‭ ‬Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer.‭ ‬It looks like the prohibitive favorite to win,‭ ‬even though a far lesser‭ ‬La Cage revival was victorious in this category only five years ago,‭ ‬in a woefully slow season for revivals.

The only other musical revival nominee still running is‭ ‬A Little Night Music,‭ ‬said to be a pale imitation of the Tony-winning original,‭ ‬despite the star power of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury,‭ ‬both of whom were‭ ‬nominated‭ ‬Tuesday.‭ ‬Also in the running,‭ ‬in theory,‭ ‬will be‭ ‬Finian’s Rainbow and an admired condensed version of‭ ‬Ragtime,‭ ‬which failed to find much of an audience.‭ ‬Both place-holders beat out the recently opened,‭ ‬underwhelming revival of‭ ‬Promises,‭ ‬Promises,‭ ‬even though the nominating committee is urged to favor shows that are still running.

The same snubbing could be seen in the best play category,‭ ‬which includes‭ ‬Red‭ ‬and‭ ‬Next Fall,‭ ‬both generally acclaimed and still running,‭ ‬plus two long-closed productions‭ ‬--‭ ‬In the Next Room‭ (‬or‭ ‬“the vibrator play‭”‬) and‭ ‬Time Stands Still.‭ ‬Their nominations are more startling,‭ ‬since their edge out three worthy plays that are open‭ ‬--‭ ‬Enron,‭ ‬A Behanding in Spokane and‭ ‬Race.

Enron,‭ ‬which arrived from London with‭ “‬snob hit‭” ‬written all over it,‭ ‬was not well-reviewed and had to settle for one performance nomination‭ (‬Stephen Kunken as accounting whiz Andy Fastow‭)‬,‭ ‬two in design categories and,‭ ‬strangest of all,‭ ‬a nomination for Adam Cork’s musical score.

On rare occasions,‭ ‬non-musicals have made it into the score category,‭ ‬but this year it happened twice.‭ ‬Branford Marsalis got nominated for his score to August Wilson’s‭ ‬Fences.‭ ‬In this case,‭ ‬there were no snubs involved,‭ ‬since only two new musicals had original scores,‭ ‬an eligibility requirement‭ ‬--‭ ‬not that anyone can muster much enthusiasm for the songs in‭ ‬The Addams Family or‭ ‬Memphis.

Probably the most eyebrow-raising snub was to Nathan Lane,‭ ‬who works very hard lugging‭ ‬The Addams Family on his back eight times a week.‭ ‬The two-time Tony winner and occasional host of the Tonys can take that night off now.‭ ‬Chances are he was beaten out by Grammer,‭ ‬whose performance in‭ ‬La Cage is overshadowed by his flashier co-star Hodge.

The Tonys seem to like rewarding TV and movie stars who come to Broadway.‭ ‬Among the bold-face names on this year’s Tony nominations list are:‭ ‬Jude Law‭ (‬Hamlet‭)‬,‭ ‬Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson‭ (‬A View From the Bridge‭)‬,‭ ‬Christopher Walken‭ (‬A Behanding in Spokane‭)‬,‭ ‬Alfred Molina‭ (‬Red‭)‬,‭ ‬Valerie Harper‭ (‬Looped‭)‬,‭ ‬Linda Lavin‭ (‬Collected Stories‭)‬,‭ ‬Laura Linney‭ (‬Time Stands Still‭)‬,‭ ‬Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury‭ (‬A Little Night Music‭) ‬and‭ ‬David Alan Grier‭ (‬Race‭)‬.

In local angles,‭ ‬Harper’s‭ ‬Looped‭ ‬played the now-shuttered Cuillo Centre on its way to Broadway and Marcia Milgrom Dodge,‭ ‬nominated director of‭ ‬Ragtime,‭ ‬has twice staged works at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre,‭ ‬most recently‭ ‬Anything Goes.

The Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬13.‭

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