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Critic’s Notebook: Tonys deliver an ‘Amen’ to Broadway’s bright outlook

Although the ratings of Sunday’s CBS Tony telecast might not detect a seismic shift, theater is in danger of becoming popular. Newsweek dubbed this “the Mormon moment,” but the truth is apparently a lot hammier: It looks like we’ve all succumbed to the over-the-top enthusiasm “Glee” has somehow convinced us is cool.

To no one’s surprise, the juggernaut of the season — “The Book of Mormon” — held sway. Anyone planning a trip to New York this summer is going to need some divine assistance, along with a generous credit card allowance, to score decent seats to this impudent song-and-dance farce about young missionaries bungling their African mission.

“War Horse,” which won the Tony for best play on the strength of its imaginative puppetry rather than on the sophistication of its writing, also had a big night, collecting awards for its directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris as well as for a few of its topnotch designers. The show, which was already abuzz with that special electricity of a prestige British hit, will now be given an extra boost, making this World War I equine drama almost as hot as a blockbuster musical.

Broadway had its biggest year ever, setting a box office record that was attributable not just to the usual uptick in ungodly ticket prices but also to a spike in attendance. The Great White Way, once a poor corner of showbiz, is now solidly a billion-dollar business.

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As Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number so cheekily put it, Broadway is “not just for gays anymore.” Although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise with all the wry innuendo and camp teasing. (My God, there was even one of the Weather Girls on hand singing “It’s Raining Men” amid the “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” drag fabulousness.) One satisfying development in this regard was the teary adulation for “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s brave cri de couer over the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The drama, which picked up a couple of featured acting awards for Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey, deservedly won for best revival of a play.

Not even the car accident known as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” could lower the mood of this ebullient season. Bono and the Edge, who wrote the score, were in attendance, laughing at Harris’ 30-second crush of jokes and no doubt building good will for their endlessly postponed production, which finally opens Tuesday after an overhaul conspicuously missing director Julie Taymor.

But “Mormon,” a clever pastiche musical with a naughty insouciance that wants to be loved as well as reprimanded, gave Broadway (and Jon Stewart) a show to go gaga over. It didn’t win everything (Norbert Leo Butz won the best lead actor in a musical for his performance in “Catch Me If You Can,” beating out the proselytizing duo of Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells), but it dominated the way the Lakers, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods used to dominate. When Chris Rock presented the evening’s final award for best musical, he made fun of having to go through the motions of opening the envelope. “It’s like taking a hooker to dinner,” he said, before announcing the obvious winner.

Yet “Mormon” doesn’t so much represent an artistic clearing in the woods as a bright diversion while we’re still figuring out the intensely commercialized 21st century musical theater landscape. The score for “The Scottsboro Boys” is more accomplished, but there was no stopping the creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. The good news is that their collective imagination, borne aloft by Casey Nicholaw and Parker’s vivacious staging, isn’t simply recycling the jukebox or movie-to-musical mode so prevalent these days. They’re riffing with real ingenuity and paying homage with fiendish wit.

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But this was one year in which Broadway might have done well to spread the love around a bit more. “The Scottsboro Boys” and “The Mother… With the Hat” were too good to be shut out. “The Merchant of Venice” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” shouldn’t have been forgotten. And though no one could complain about the two lead actress awards — Frances McDormand for “Good People” and Sutton Foster for “Anything Goes” — the depth of talent was greater than the results indicate.

But then awards aren’t exactly a hard science. Momentum, generated by theatergoers and confirmed by professional insiders, is everything. And there are worse things than a season in which there is more to praise than statuettes to dole out.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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