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Tony nominees: 6 featured performances that stole the spotlight, turning small roles into big memories

Tony nominees: 6 featured performances that stole the spotlight, turning small roles into big memories
Clockwise from top left: Lindsay Mendez of "Carousel," Susan Brown of "Angels in America," Grey Henson of "Mean Girls," Ashley Park of "Mean Girls," Ari'el Stachel of "The Band's Visit" and Brian Tyree Henry of "Lobby Hero." (Matthew Murphy / Brinkhoff & Mogenberg / Noam Galai / Dia Dipasupil / Angela Weiss / Kirk McKoy)

The truth of that old theatrical saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, was redeemed last season on Broadway, with a bevy of featured performances that transcended their limited stage time and reminded us that brilliance is not a function of billing.

These six standout performers, all in contention for Tony Awards on Sunday, did more than call attention to their own dazzling talents. They distilled something essential in the unique theatricality of their shows.

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There may have been more titanic supporting performances. Nathan Lane as a ferociously Trump-ed up Roy M. Cohn and Denise Gough as a desperately anguished Harper in “Angels in America” are both likely to be (deservedly) rewarded for their outsize intensity. And few of the featured nominees can compete with the star wattage of opera diva Renée Fleming, who hypnotizes the audience into a state of bliss when she sings “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in “Carousel.”

Deborah Findlay, one of the treasures of the British stage, reprised her performance on Broadway in Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” which I saw at London’s Royal Court, never wanting the veteran actress (or her equally thrilling sparring partner Francesca Annis, who also should have been nominated) to leave the stage. But this is a seasoned pro in a leading role that was miscategorized.

What’s inspiring this salute to Brian Tyree Henry in “Lobby Hero,” Susan Brown in “Angels in America,” Grey Henson and Ashley Park in “Mean Girls,” Lindsay Mendez in “Carousel” and Ari’el Stachel in “The Band’s Visit” (beyond my having been insufficiently acquainted with these gifted actors) is the way they made secondary roles seem anything but.

Brian Tyree Henry in "Lobby Hero"
Brian Tyree Henry in "Lobby Hero" (Joan Marcus)

Brian Tyree Henry, “Lobby Hero”

In Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” Henry played William, a security supervisor of New York apartment houses, with such naturalness that, not knowing the actor from his Emmy-nominated performance on FX’s “Atlanta,” I couldn’t help wondering whether director Trip Cullman actually cast the role by visiting nearby residential buildings. But the way Henry embodied the play’s ethical conflict revealed an actor of shrewd interpretive craft. In an ensemble that included Michael Cera (a quintessential Lonergan slacker, justly nominated for his performance) and a galvanic Chris Evans (who was cheated of a nomination), Henry made vividly real the dilemma of a character who’s a stickler for the rules when it comes to his subordinates but expects more leeway when a hairy situation involving a family member drops him into the gray zone.

Susan Brown in "Angels in America"
Susan Brown in "Angels in America" (Brinkhoff & Mogenburg)

Susan Brown, “Angels in America”

In a suite of roles that includes Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt, Brown sharply individualizes each and every figure she plays in “Angels in America.” Whether saying Kaddish over the corpse of Roy Cohn or lending doughty support to an eccentric stranger battling AIDS, Brown movingly communicates the moral vision of Tony Kushner’s epic masterwork. I saw the production twice, first in London and then on Broadway, and shed even more tears the second time around during Brown’s scene at the hospital with Andrew Garfield’s Prior Walter, a gravely ill young man who finds a surrogate mother in a woman whose hard exterior belies an uncommon decency.

Grey Henson as Damian with Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis in "Mean Girls"
Grey Henson as Damian with Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis in "Mean Girls" (Joan Marcus)

Grey Henson, “Mean Girls”

In “Mean Girls,” the musical adaptation of the film with a book by Tina Fey, the outcast finally gets his chance to shine. Henson exhilaratingly brings to life Damian Hubbard, who’s shunned by the conforming cool kids for being true to himself, a gay teen with a razor-sharp wit honed by years of self-defense. A good portion of the joy of Hubbard’s performance is watching a theater rat unleashed in all his frenetic tap dancing glory in “Stop,” the show’s sweatiest number — an occasion to administer wisdom to peers sorely in need of his astringent brand of common sense.

Ashley Park, second from the left, in "Mean Girls."
Ashley Park, second from the left, in "Mean Girls." (Joan Marcus)

Ashley Park, “Mean Girls”

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As Gretchen Wieners, Park delivers the most fetch performance of the season. (My definition of the word, over-the-top that works hilariously well, differs slightly from Gretchen’s usage.) Her character, a relentless gossip who dances attendance on the imperious beauty Regina George, is such a flamboyant mix of fierceness and insecurity that she transports theatergoers (whether they like it or not) to that adolescent time when it’s not clear which is funnier, our awkwardness or our arrogance.

Lindsay Mendez in "Carousel."
Lindsay Mendez in "Carousel." (Julieta Cervantes)

Lindsay Mendez, “Carousel”

Sharing the stage with some of the best theatrical singers on the planet — Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry and Renée Fleming — Mendez seizes the spotlight as Carrie Pipperidge in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Her rendition of “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” makes it seem as if the number had been written expressly for her, so humorously piquant is her interpretation. The rest of the show only confirms what’s clear from the start: This sidekick deserves her own show.

Ari'el Stachel, right, with Rachel Prather and Etai Benson in "The Band's Visit"
Ari'el Stachel, right, with Rachel Prather and Etai Benson in "The Band's Visit" (Matthew Murphy)

Ari’el Stachel, “The Band’s Visit”

Making a memorable Broadway debut in “The Band’s Visit,” the musical of the year, Stachel plays Haled, a dreamy trumpet and riq player who holds Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” as an ideal not just of jazz but also of living. Part of the Egyptian troupe of musicians who get stranded in the wrong Israeli town, Stachel’s Haled magnificently balances clumsiness with romantic smoothness. But even more impressive, he serves as a touching catalyst for Tony Shalhoub’s Tewfiq, Haled’s sternly disapproving yet sympathetic leader, who begins to see in this affectionately bumbling young man vestiges of his late son.

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