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Entertainment & Arts

Tony Award nominations reflect an anemic year for original ideas. Here’s a critic’s take on the bright spots

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“The Band’s Visit,” with 11 nominations including best musical and lead actor (Tony Shalhoub), is one of the few bright spots in a season dominated by recognizable brands, pop culture musicals and revivals of classics.
(Matthew Murphy)
Theater Critic

Tony Award nominations can be read as Broadway’s lab results, and it’s clear from the slate announced Tuesday that the patient’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

The two big categories, best play and best musical, are not exactly throbbing with competition. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” the two-part juggernaut from London, appears to have inhibited the field.

This towering epic, written by Jack Thorne from an original story by J.K. Rowling, Thorne and director John Tiffany, is the only new play that has opened on Broadway since “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” in January. And I’m not completely convinced that “Stories,” a showcase for Lithgow that played at the Mark Taper Forum in 2011, even qualifies as a proper drama.

A scene on Platform 9ae in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”(Manuel Harlan ) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG
"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" is the only new play to open on Broadway since January.
(Manuel Harlan / TNS )
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“Stories” wasn’t nominated, but “Farinelli and the King,” another limited-run acting vehicle, this one for the great Shakespearean player Mark Rylance, managed to sneak in. I stand in awe of Rylance’s genius, but the play, written by his wife, Claire van Kampen, struck me as a mercurial diversion for the world’s supplest barnstormer.

John Leguizamo, who will be receiving a special Tony for his body of solo performance work, received a best play nomination for “Latin History for Morons.” The show, which I saw at Berkeley Rep in 2016, didn’t strike me as top-drawer Leguizamo, but Broadway’s affection for this artist is well earned.

The two other plays in contention — “Junk,” Ayad Akhtar’s scintillating smart exposé on a tectonic shift in American finance that reshaped the values of our world, and “The Children,” Lucy Kirkwood’s apocalyptic drama — are valuable new works by any measure. But what does it say about a season that offered little chance that these plays, both now closed, wouldn’t be nominated? (Had Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower” been included, the Tony nominators would have been accused of scrounging for choices between the couch cushions.)

The situation for new musicals has been busier though not much brighter. Happily, there’s “The Band’s Visit,” this year’s critical success, making a respectable showing at the box office. A music drama with more integrity than flash, this magnificently original show is based on the screenplay for the Israeli film that not many would have imagined could be transformed into a season-salvaging Broadway musical. I don’t want to jinx the show that represents the life-support system of the American musical theater, but it’s a shoo-in for the top Tony prize.

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Mean Girls August Wilson Theater
The Plastics are back in "Mean Girls," but at what cost?
(Joan Marcus )

The only threat of an upset here comes from “Mean Girls,” which sprung from the film with a fetch screenplay by Tina Fey, who wrote the book and whose husband, Jeff Richmond, received a nomination with Nell Benjamin for the show’s score. The other nominated productions, “Frozen” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” assure us that the Broadway theme park is open for tourist business.

Producers still seem to be having a hard time trusting the message sent by the last three best musical winners — “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” — that prestige and profitability work best together.

La Jolla Playhouse, where “Junk” had its impressive world premiere, has been the launching pad for two of this season’s junkiest musicals, “Escape to Margaritaville,” the escapist Jimmy Buffett musical, and “Summer,” the roundly derided Donna Summer disco ride. Artistic director Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony last year for his direction of “Come From Away,” is a showman of considerable talent. But he could be more discriminating in the commercial relationships he pursues at his Southern California home. Broadway has come to rely on subsidized testing grounds, but nonprofit theaters ought to be raising the bar.

It’s a pity that “Springsteen on Broadway,” which will be receiving a special award, didn’t elect to run in the competitive categories. (The cost of eligibility, a king’s ransom in theater tickets for Tony voters, may have proved too high for a show pulling in roughly $2 million a week.) Admittedly more of an intimate concert by New Jersey’s favorite blue-collar half-a-billionaire (known adoringly as Bruuuce!) , the show might have made a case for itself as a soul-baring revue by one of rock’s introspective masters.

BRUUUUCE! Springsteen wins a special Tony Award »

I’m not even sure how much I buy that argument, but it definitely would have added some excitement, as well as gravitas, to the musical race. “Springsteen on Broadway” and “The Band’s Visit” are redemptive counterpoints to all the commercial clutter.

One quirk of the year has been the proliferation of adventurous revivals. No one could fault the producers for playing it safe with dramatic offerings as epic as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” as grueling as Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” as intellectually rambunctious as Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” and as structurally daring as Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.”

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The other nominated play revival, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” was chosen to inaugurate Second Stage’s new Broadway home at the historic Hayes Theater (a cheering development for those of us worried about the fate of American drama on our most prominent stages). The production, directed by Trip Cullman and featuring nominated performances by Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry, is topnotch, leaving some to wonder why this 2001 play (never before seen on Broadway) can’t be classified as an original drama.

But then if “Lobby Hero” makes the cut, why not Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winner? How new is new for work making its Broadway debut? Common sense has determined that these play are revivals, but given the dearth of new drama on Broadway, the temptation to fudge the best play category is understandable.

THE COMPLETE NOMINATIONS: Tony contenders in all categories »

Of course there’s never any shortage of memorable acting on Broadway, but the shortage of high-quality new plays has exacted a toll. Glenda Jackson is a lock for the lead actress award for her scorching grandeur in “Three Tall Women.” But what does it say about a category that makes room for Amy Schumer’s Broadway debut in “Meteor Shower”? (I love Schumer’s comedy, don’t get me wrong, but Antoinette Perry, the actress for whom the Tony Awards are named, is rolling in her grave right now.)

“Angels in America” is loaded with acting nominations, and I look forward to Nathan Lane and Denise Gough picking up the featured acting prizes for their indelible performances. Andrew Garfield, the production’s searing star, faces stiff competition from Denzel Washington in “The Iceman Cometh,” ensuring that there will be some suspense when the Tonys are doled out on June 10.

But this a Broadway year in which the most seismic performance happened about a mile or so northeast of the theater district at the Park Avenue Armory, where Billie Piper unleashed the fiery duende in Simon Stone’s reworking of Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma.” The production, a laureled British import, viscerally reinvented a seldom revived 20th century tragedy for our time.

Broadway’s monopoly on the media spotlight seems to be operating largely on credit at the moment. Last year, playwriting made such a strong showing on the Great White Way with J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning “Oslo” enjoying the excellent company of Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”

This year the story is less sanguine. Neither the 2018 Pulitzer winner for drama (Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living”) nor the two finalists (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody” and Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes”) were plucked from Broadway. The only surprise is that no one can any longer feign surprise that juries are looking elsewhere for artistic merit.

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Angels in America Millennium Approaches
Andrew Garfield as Prior, at the edge of the bed, and James McArdle as Louis in "Angels in America." Garfield will square off with Denzel Washington, nominated for "The Iceman Cometh."
(Brinkhoff & Mogenburg )

New York’s commercial theater hub will always be a coveted place for playwrights seeking to advance their fortunes. But right now it’s looking pretty dismal as a platform for artists to shock us with the new.

On the plus side, there are subsidized theaters with Broadway venues, such as Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company and now Second Stage, that can shield new work from some of the financial risks. There are also commercial producers with discerning taste and bold instincts, such as Scott Rudin, who are committed to smartening up the Broadway landscape.

But the economic model more than ever favors recognizable brands (“Harry Potter,” musicals spun from pop cultural pabulum) and celebrity-packaged revivals. Newness is a fearsome gamble for producers, who love nothing more than vying for awards but can’t ignore balance sheets.

In a year in which the two marquee Tony categories resemble each other in the paltriness of their competition, a critic is permitted to do some hand-wringing. Yet “The Band’s Visit” will be a noble musical winner, and “Harry Potter,” a dramatic epic full of enchantment and moral fervor, is a defensible choice if one keeps in mind that the best play award honors the production as much as the script.

The richness of the season, however, comes courtesy of the past. “Angels in America,” “Three Tall Women” and “The Iceman Cometh” prove there’s still an appetite for serious drama. And with two Golden Age musical classics, “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel,” in competition with a terrific revival of “Once on This Island,” a new generation of theater artists and audiences will be salubriously exposed to Broadway in its heyday.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty


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