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Critic's Notebook: Tony nominations for a spotty season

May 4, 2010 | 12:35 pm

Fela 1
The Broadway season has officially drawn to a close, and now the Tony Awards must try to sort out a mixed-bag year in which even shows that received largely favorable reviews have been subject to quibbles, quarrels and qualifications. 

To go by the tea leaves left by the Tony nominating committee (a more respectable lot than the motley army of Tony voters, typically dominated by self-interested blocs of producers), the race for best musical has tilted in favor of “Fela!” — which tied the revival of “La Cage Aux Folles” for most nominations with 11 — and away from the hard-charging “American Idiot,” which received only three.

“Memphis,” which was produced at La Jolla Playhouse before heading East, and “Million Dollar Quartet” round out the best musical category. It’s a foursome that no one could call traditional. The only score in this group that met the eligibility requirements for "original" was “Memphis,” which was duly nominated along with “The Addams Family” (driveling cacophony) and, most curious of all, two dramas, “Fences” and “Enron,” the latter one admittedly more of a theatrical collage.

Fences 11 Books may soon be going the way of freshly composed songs. “American Idiot,” the Green Day jukebox vehicle that struck me as a vibrantly staged live performance video when I caught the show’s world premiere at Berkeley Rep last fall, failed to earn a nomination for the narrative wisps bundled by the band’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer. Instead, Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott’s book for “Everyday Rapture” will compete against the nominated books from the other three shows contending for best musical. (The only real excitement here will be  experienced by the mothers of those in contention.)

The stock for writers is generally down. There is no front-runner among the best play nominees — Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play,” Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall,” John Logan’s “Red,” and Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still.” One simply will have to elude defeat.
Ruhl’s drama, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, has the disadvantage of having closed in  January. The other three nominated plays boast strong casts that go a long way toward covering up dramatic weaknesses.

“Red,” the two-hander featuring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his young apprentice, is perhaps the most dynamically performed. But the solid ensemble work of “Next Fall” and the characteristically terrific work of Laura Linney in “Time Stands Still” turn this contest, an acting square-off masquerading as a playwriting one, into a toss-up.

The most egregious oversights are directorial. How the nominating committee could have left out Michael Mayer, whose propulsive staging of “American Idiot” was every bit as important as Green Day’s tracks (superbly orchestrated by Tom Kitt, who was also oddly overlooked) is a mystery. Just as bizarre is the absence of Rupert Goold, the director of “Enron,” whose hybrid status (part performance piece, part documentary drama) obviously impeded its Tony chances.

I can understand why Lucy Prebble’s play wasn’t nominated. The strength of “Enron” doesn’t lie in its writing, but in its total stage vision,  materialized with fertile inventiveness by Goold, who is aided and abetted by scenic and costume designer Anthony Ward, also inexplicably overlooked.
One wonders whether Tony nominators weren’t trying to send a message that bold and brash shouldn't be allowed to bully soft and subtle. Unfortunately, they missed an opportunity to honor two intrepid auteurs at the top of their game.

The robust acting nominations are, as usual, a source of consolation. Denzel Washington (“Fences”) seems to have the upper hand for best leading actor in a play, but Alfred Molina (“Red”) and Liev Schreiber ("A View From the Bridge" could (and should) give him a run for his money. Also in the mix are Jude Law (for his lucidly drawn Hamlet) and Christopher Walken (“A Behanding in Spokane”) -- two actors who only raise the stakes.

Best leading actress in a play is just as competitive. Viola Davis' emotional thunderstorm blew me away in “Fences,” but Valerie Harper (“Looped”), Linda Lavin (“Collected Stories”) and Jan Maxwell (“Royal Family”) represent a field with no bad choices. 

The musical acting awards feature some tough competition between Douglas Hodge (who’s up against his costar Kelsey Grammer in “La Cage”) and Sahr Ngaujah (“Fela”). Underdog Sherie Rene Scott, whose show  “Everyday Rapture” only made it to Broadway as a last-minute replacement for the canceled production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” could very well decimate any slim chance Catherine Zeta-Jones (“A Little Night Music”) has of walking off with the award for best leading actress in a musical.

But the category with the most vintage talent has to be the one for best featured actress in a musical. Two eternally young octogenarians, Barbara Cook (“Sondheim on Sondheim”) and Angela Lansbury (“A Little Night Music”) will vie for the prize, but something tells me these two generous veterans won’t mind seeing Katie Finneran (“Promises, Promises”) deliver the acceptance speech. It's just a hunch, but as Cook and Lansbury belong to a generation that doesn’t mind seeing awards bestowed purely on merit, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet.

-- Charles McNulty

Follow McNulty on Twitter @charlesmcnulty

Photos: At top, Sahr Ngaujah stars as Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti in "Fela!" Credit: Monique Carbon / Associated Press. At bottom, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences."  Credit: Joan Marcus / Associated Press