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The Tonys: Six nominated powerhouse performances

June 6, 2009 | 10:15 am

Tonys

If there’s one thing that Broadway never runs short of, it’s transcendent acting. And in a year that was marred by too much commercial dross and partly redeemed by top-drawer revivals, the following Tony nominees make it easy to see the glass as half full. I mean, who could cast aspersions on a season that brought us the following six powerhouse performances?

Click through to read critic Charles McNulty's picks...

Marcia Marcia Gay Harden
‘God of Carnage’

When Marcia Gay Harden’s Veronica, the overprotective, hyper-rational Brooklyn mom, finally goes ballistic in Yasmina Reza’s savage comedy, it’s as if Western civilization itself, in all its flagrant hypocrisy, undergoes a crack-up. An African-art buff who has just completed a book on the Darfur tragedy, Harden’s oh-so-enlightened character prizes control — over herself, her elegantly appointed loft and, most important of all, others.

But if her husband, Michael (played by an increasingly unruly James Gandolfini) won’t fall into line, how does she expect Jeff Daniels’ Alan and Hope Davis’ Annette — the parents of the boy who apparently attacked their son in the playground — to cooperate in her little grown-up exercise of neighborly contrition?

Harden lends us a hilarious peek at what lies beneath Veronica’s facade of perfect order: schoolyard disdain for those not living in the same progressive postcard way, frustration with her Neanderthal husband for not putting on a better show of it and explosive anger when she feels the game of appearances has been lost.

Swooping from ingratiating superiority to guttural fury, Harden offers a full-bodied performance that is one of the comic gems of the season. In her increasingly profane exasperation, she exposes the primitive core under the glittering urbane finish.

Angela Angela Lansbury
‘Blithe Spirit’

As the medium in Michael Blakemore’s revival of Noel Coward’s delirious marital comedy, Angela Lansbury, an evergreen original at 83, never stoops to bangle-clanging clichés or hammy otherworldly accents. No theatrical fake, her character is a true bicycle-riding, dry-martini-swilling, cucumber-sandwich-chomping English eccentric.

Summoned to the gracious country home of Charles (Rupert Everett), a 40-year-old writer who’s doing research for his new mystery on a homicidal medium, Madame Arcati accidentally brings back Charles’ late wife, Elvira (a diaphanously draped Christine Ebersole), to the chagrin of his current spouse, Ruth (the excellent Jayne Atkinson), who’s as solidly earthbound as her predecessor is mischievously flighty.

But it’s not what Lansbury does, it’s the jiggly way she does it. Madame’s method for entering into a trance hints at what Cloris Leachman’s warmup must have been like when she was competing on “Dancing With the Stars.”

To the turntable strains of “Always,” Lansbury starts loosening her limbs to ready herself for the onslaught of occult vibrations. Her hands start to maneuver in a manner that can only be described as Bob Fosse meets Agatha Christie. To strike the right internal mode, she hums like a small woodland animal happily going about its natural business.

Suffice it to say that when Lansbury releases herself freely to the music, she’s like some charming UFO bobbing around the curtain rod. But this Madame is not just any flying saucer — she’s a flying saucer with English license plates and a bumper sticker from Kent. Lansbury, receptive to every hint Coward supplies her, turns cartoon into character — and her reward is yet another Tony nomination for this still astonishing four-time champ.

Karen Karen Olivo
‘West Side Story’

When Karen Olivo comes to the fore of Arthur Laurents’ new bilingual staging of the classic he wrote with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the whole production surges with Latina current. A viable substitute for Manhattan’s electrical grid, Olivo first came to notice as Vanessa, the young, snappy-mouthed hairdresser who dreams about moving downtown to Greenwich Village, in last year’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights.” And as Anita, the role that catapulted the stage career of Chita Rivera and earned Rita Moreno an Oscar, this commanding young performer earns her place in an illustrious theatrical lineage. 

The production’s Act 1 high point is the all-female rendition of “America,” in which Olivo’s Anita, an unabashed New York convert, offers her bitingly anti-nostalgic view of her former Puerto Rico homeland (“Always the hurricanes blowing/ Always the population growing”). Her rousing dance and vocal skills — emphatic yet disciplined — do more than deliver a rousing number — they concentrate the spirit of a culture that’s eager to grasp new opportunities even at the risk of unfamiliar pain.

At once lithe and muscular, sardonic and sincere, tough and tender-hearted, Olivo reveals her astonishing range and her readiness to explore psychological complexity and contradiction. Showmanship comes easy to her, but what makes it special is the way she balances candor and grit with theatrical beauty.

Alice Alice Ripley
‘Next to Normal’

There’s a captivating rawness to Alice Ripley — a seductive sandpapery texture to her singing and a realness to her acting that catches you a little off-guard. To put it another way, she’s a bona fide musical-theater star without any of the usual musical-theater affectations. Imagine a rock singer who just so happens to be perfect for the stage when the role is free of the usual phony razzle-dazzle. Ripley is the Chrissie Hynde of Broadway.

In “Next to Normal,” Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s new musical (the best on Broadway this year, as far as I’m concerned), Ripley plays Diana, a mentally ill mom whose psychiatric troubles have brought turbulent emotional weather to everyone in her home. But “plays” doesn’t quite do justice to the transformation this actress undergoes. Ripley is not describing the bipolar illness of her character, she’s capturing moment by fragmented moment the struggle of a mind too grief-stricken to maintain everyday coherence.

Magnificently directed by Michael Greif, this musical drama surrounds Ripley with a cast that thrives on her verisimilitude. Especially good is Jennifer Damiano in the crucial role of Diana’s resentful, perfectionist daughter, Natalie, a young woman as fearful about her own future as she is her family’s past.

But “Next to Normal” is at its heartbreaking best when delineating the loneliness of Diana’s condition. And in “I Miss the Mountains,” a song revealing the emotional cost of years of treatment, Ripley gives full voice to the blankness of her character’s artificially induced safety and the longing to rejoin the treacherous roller coaster of life — a dangerous temptation that in her tragic case just might hasten her end.

Geoffrey Geoffrey Rush
‘Exit the King’

Full-throttle flamboyance stages a comeback: As the centerpiece of Eugene Ionesco’s metaphysical comedy, about the long and ludicrous death of a decrepit kingdom’s centuries-old monarch, Geoffrey Rush offers an unshackled performance that’s the theatrical equivalent of a royal flush in cards jazzed up by a wild joker.

Pajama-clad and running out of gas, King Berenger refuses to accept that his story is coming to a close. His body rapidly melting off the throne, he reaches out to his young wife, Queen Marie (a hilariously tearful Lauren Ambrose) as her unmoved predecessor, Queen Marguerite (a dominatrix-like Susan Sarandon), looks on with a kind of maternal impatience at this overgrown, over-aged baby, who has been so ready to do away with her. 

The kingdom is on its last legs, and romance, even with nubile replacements, inevitably gets stale. But able as he is to break the fourth wall and run up and down the aisles of the theater, why should this supreme clown of a ruler be subject to the banal constraints of mere peasants? Can’t Andrea Martin’s colorful servant die in his stead?

The play’s bouncy conceit — of human beings’ egotistical inability to comprehend their own mortality — is stretched dangerously thin over two acts. But under Neil Armfield’s direction, Rush pulls out all the rubbery stops to keep us hoping that somehow this inexhaustible id will find a way to outfox the final curtain.

Roger Roger Robinson
‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

In Bartlett Sher’s assured revival, August Wilson’s masterpiece leaps, as it should, from the hardscrabble imperfect freedom of 1911 to an unemancipated vicious past that only reluctantly — and with far too much blood — consented to give African Americans their rightful freedom. 

Roger Robinson plays Bynum, a rootworker dedicated to African rituals involving herbs and pigeon blood, who’s considered an eccentric relic in the Pittsburgh boardinghouse that serves as the play’s locale. A way station for travelers moving from the agrarian South to the industrial North, the place has just opened its doors to Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), who’s traveling with his young daughter (Amari Rose Leigh) in search of his missing wife (Danai Gurira).

Shortly after the birth of his girl, Loomis’ life took a detour when Joe Turner kidnapped and imprisoned him for seven years, a criminal extension of slavery that underscores the slow march of racial progress. Free now in body if not in mind, Loomis, a former deacon, has lost his way and his woman. A scarred survivor of American injustice, he’s literally staggering into the transitional future.

But it is Bynum, in touch with ancestral wisdom, who sees in Loomis a leader capable of carving out a radiant new path, and he challenges him to rediscover the native song that’s trapped within his crushed but still throbbing soul.

If Coleman allows us to feel the full force of pain in Wilson’s wrestling match with history, Robinson makes it possible for us to appreciate the extent of the spiritual mystery. Together, these actors expose the rawness of the play’s open wound as well as its invisible powers of inexorable healing.

-- Charles McNulty

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RELATED: The nominees

Photo montage: Top row, from left: Angela Lansbury, by Robert J. Saferstein; Roger Robinson, by T. Charles Erickson; Karen Olivo, by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Sony Masterworks. Bottom row, from left: Alice Ripley, Marcia Gay Harden and Geoffrey Rush, all by Joan Marcus.

Individual photos, from top: Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini, by Joan Marcus; Angela Lansbury, by Robert J. Saferstein; Karen Olivo, by Joan Marcus; Alice Ripley by Joan Marcus; Lauren Ambrose, Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, by Joan Marcus; Roger Robinson, by T. Charles Erickson.

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