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Entertainment & Arts

Column: A critic’s take on the Tony nominations: Kudos for rewarding inventive shows that take risks

Theater Critic

What a difference a year makes.

When the 2016 Tony nominations were announced, the suspense was over how many “Hamilton” would get. The show was a lock in most of the major categories, shifting our interest from competition to coronation.

There is a good deal more uncertainty this year. Yes, you can bet the house on Bette Midler taking the lead actress in a musical prize for her delicious performance in Jerry Zaks’ ecstatic revival of “Hello, Dolly!” And I’m willing to wager the car on Ben Platt winning for lead actor in a musical for his emotionally volcanic performance in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

But the musical and play categories are difficult, if not downright impossible, to call. I was pleased to see the year’s most enjoyably inventive production of a new musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” leading the way with 12 nominations.

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THE COMPLETE LIST: Tony Award nominees for 2017 »

The other new musicals in the category, however, can’t be counted out. “Dear Evan Hansen” had emerged as the prohibitive favorite before the Tony nominations were announced and is still looking strong with nine nominations. “Come From Away,” the 9/11-themed musical that had its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, has become the season’s sleeper. And “Groundhog Day,” though it divided critics (count me among the naysayers), recently won the Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent to the Tony).

“Dear Evan Hansen” probably has the inside track, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see “The Great Comet,” a musicalized slice of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” staged with bracing originality, soar to victory. And “Come From Away,” which has won tourists’ hearts as well as the attention of Tony voters with a stake in touring profits, could realistically pull off an upset.

The play category is even harder to call. Lynn Nottage’s politically prescient “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year. Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” another Tony contender that passed through La Jolla Playhouse, represents the Broadway debut for a veteran playwright who is also a master teacher of her craft. J.T. Rogers’ “Oslo,” a slow-simmering drama about the unlikely backchannel that led to the 1993 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was staged with supple perfection by Bartlett Sher. And Lucas Hnath’s surprising and sharp “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was the last show to open in the 2016-17 Broadway season and one of most acclaimed.

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It could be seen as a weakness that no new musical or play has sensationally broken away from the pack. The only show to rival “Hamilton” in terms of audience desperation for tickets is “Hello, Dolly!” (I’m still getting email from friends and family members wondering if I can pull any strings so that they can “please, please!” see Bette.)

More worrying, Broadway hasn’t yet figured out whether there’s a viable economic model for new drama that isn’t serving as a vehicle for visiting Hollywood royals. And new musicals are still a terrifying gamble. The list of shows that didn’t make the best musical cut (a glittering parade of disappointed hopefuls that includes “Amélie,” “War Paint,” “Anastasia,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Bandstand”) reveals just how expensively elusive success can be for even the most experienced teams.

As this season bears out with ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ ‘The Great Comet’ and ‘Come From Away,’ the most memorable work springs from unpredictable places.

But I’m encouraged by the risks producers seem willing to take these days. It’s encouraging that Nottage (“Ruined”) and Vogel (“How I Learned to Drive”), two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists, are finally on Broadway after years of being bypassed for the latest David Mamet doodle. When I was at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater for “Oslo” I felt both relief and pride that such a space still exists in our culture of frivolous distraction for a demanding three-hour drama about the intricacies of the diplomatic process.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” is the kind of play (an Ibsen sequel, for crying out loud!) that in years past would have been relegated to off-Broadway and the regional theaters. To see this bright comedy of ideas in a high-profile production directed by Sam Gold (the hottest American director at the moment) and starring Laurie Metcalf in a performance that should earn her a long overdue Tony is a sign that we’ve entered a new era.

The “Hamilton” effect hasn’t transformed Broadway into a multicultural model kingdom, but there does seem to be more of a sense after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s improbable hip-hop juggernaut about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton that long shots with creative ingenuity and passionate conviction are worth the investment. Popular movies will continue to be converted into easily marketable musicals, but as this season bears out with “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Great Comet” and “Come From Away,” the most memorable work springs from unpredictable places and fresh imaginations.

Meanwhile, the acting categories, which are always full to bursting with established brilliance, are also crammed with bright newcomers. In the lead actress in a musical race, Midler and the divine divas of “War Paint,” Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, are joined by two luminous performers making their Broadway debuts, Denée Benton from “The Great Comet” and Eva Noblezada for “Miss Saigon.”

The lead actress in a play race is an embarrassment of riches. (How could you go wrong with Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Ehle, Sally Field, Laura Linney and Metcalf?) But I’m equally impressed by the selection of candidates for actresses in a featured role in a play, a discerning list that includes both Condola Rashad and Jayne Houdyshell from “A Doll’s House, Part 2” along with Cynthia Nixon for “Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes” and both Michelle Wilson and Johanna Day from “Sweat.”

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The lead actor in a play race is anyone’s call. (How do you decide between Kevin Kline’s sublime comic smoothness in Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter” and Jefferson Mays’ soul-baring idiosyncrasy in “Oslo”?) The 23-year-old Platt may be tipped to win for lead actor in a musical, but only a knucklehead would complain if Christian Borle, Josh Groban, Andy Karl or David Hyde Pierce were called to the podium.

While normal viewers will be anxiously waiting for the big prizes at the end of the Tony telecast, I’ll be on tenterhooks until the featured actor in a play is announced. Michael Aronov delivered in “Oslo” one of the year’s most kinetic performances as a mover-and-shaker in the Israeli foreign ministry, and I’d like to see his sensational work honored, though his fellow nominees, Nathan Lane, Danny DeVito, Richard Thomas and John Douglas Thompson, reveal just how deep (and accommodating) the bench on Broadway has become.

There’s bound to be a letdown after “Hamilton,” which is a once in a generation show. But these Tony nominations provide hope that, even with all the worrisome economic signs, Broadway is moving in the right artistic direction.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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