Tony Nominations

05.03.12

What the Critics Missed in the Tony Award Nominations

Was the sneered-at ‘Ghost’ better than the lauded ‘Once’? Maybe it had worse material, but the performances had more passion. From ‘Streetcar’ to Kim Cattrall, Janice Kaplan surveys the shows and actors the Tony Award nominations overlooked.

The Tony Award nominees, announced Tuesday, are a cross-section of Most Talented and Most Popular. Some familiar stars got nods, as did some extraordinarily creative shows. But the real thrill of Broadway often comes with productions and stars that take a chance and make an audience think and feel in different ways. Here are some the critics didn’t love—but which deserve a second look.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
The current production of Tennessee Williams’s classic, starring a mostly African-American cast, is a different Streetcar than most. The New York Times critic panned the show, writing, “I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green.” But at least one of the show’s producers thinks that sanctimonious perspective misses the point. “We took a different approach to Southern class distinctions,” he says. “The working-class Stanley Kowalski [Blair Underwood] is a very dark-skinned black man and Stella and Blanche are very light. That in itself sends signals which the critics either missed or didn’t dare discuss.”

So let’s discuss. Whether it’s an African-American slant or a reinterpretation of the character, Blanche, played by Nicole Ari Parker, is feistier and less vulnerable than the prototype. Parker’s style may be unexpected, but it works. Her spirited interpretation makes you wonder if her “nervous breakdown” at the end is just a figment of Stella’s imagination, a ruse to allow Stella to stay with her husband—something she can’t do if she believes he raped her sister.

A great revival should offer a new perspective on a play, not repeat what we already know. This Streetcar deserves kudos for finding a new track.

GHOST
Critics sneer at shows that pull at the heartstrings, and this musical tugs so avidly that the woman next to me sobbed loudly for the last 15 minutes of Act II. “I’m a mess!” she said during the curtain calls as her tears flowed and her mascara ran. “This never happens to me!”

But hitting the right emotional notes is a good thing, not a bad one.

Based on the 1990 movie that grossed more than $500 million, the attractive stars in the Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze roles (Caissie Levy and Richard Fleeshman) have the best chemistry on Broadway. The stars of Once have better material, but you never believe their passion quite the same way. Admittedly, this Ghost has dreary dancing, funky staging, and annoying video projections. But if you can ignore all that—yes, it’s hard—you can be moved by the pure heart of the show. The romantic duo of Levy and Fleeshman, both strong actors with great musical-theater voices, make the touching, otherworldly love story completely believable. Expect them to win Tony nominations for other shows in future years. Right now, they deserve the standing ovation they get every night.

PRIVATE LIVES
News flash: Kim Cattrall can act.

As Samantha on Sex and the City, she always seemed just to be playing herself. And when she stepped onstage for the first time in the Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives last fall wearing nothing but a towel, critics immediately assumed she could play only one character.

Wrong.

Her smart, sexy performance as Amanda (a role that Elizabeth Taylor once played) left Samantha far behind. Even when Amanda and her ex-husband (and current lover) Elyot, played by handsome Canadian star Paul Gross, downed cocktails in the second act, you never wondered if Cattrall thought they were Cosmopolitans. With a wonderful upper-crust accent, a graceful carriage, and sharp delivery of Coward’s best lines, Cattrall put her own mark on this well-worn play of manners, marriage, and sex.

How did she get overlooked for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Play? Private Lives closed back in December, and Tony nominations tend to go to shows that can still benefit at the box office. Cattrall’s Sex co-star, Cynthia Nixon, who did get a nomination in the category for Wit, is treated as the more serious Broadway actress. But it’s serious work to be funny and smart. Cattrall proved that she is both.

MOUNTAINTOP
Set in Room 306 in the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, Mountaintop won an Olivier Award in London as best new play and came to New York way back in October with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the lead roles. With all that going for it, the play was, admittedly, not as good as it should have been.

But Jackson was.

For a movie star who plays bad guys and action heroes (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?) Jackson was fully believable as one of the great public figures of the generation. He managed to embody both the power of the majestic public King and the humanity of the private man who smoked cigarettes and struggled with temptation. Bassett’s loud, flirtatious character overwhelmed the play and seemed to belong on a different stage from Jackson’s low-key, thoughtful performance. But Jackson made you feel like you had just spent an evening with the real-life King. He didn’t try to give a history lesson, but he brought new shadings and insight to one of America’s great heroes.

HUGH JACKMAN BACK ON BROADWAY
No category in the Tonys would be appropriate for Hugh Jackman’s one-man performance as...Hugh Jackman. He sang, he danced, he told stories, he entertained in Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway. He seemed to be having a great time and insisted that the audience have fun too. He brought Indigenous Australians onstage and had them play the didgeridoo just because he could. He looked so handsome and seemed to be enjoying himself so much that you could even forgive the ridiculous showgirls who joined him for several songs. Most Self-Involved Performance Ever? Possibly. But that’s entertainment—and Jackman is the epitome of the entertainer. Next year, how about a new category: “Best Performance by Hugh Jackman.”