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THE TONY AWARDS / CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Highs, if not heights

A spirited race for best musical brings a season of progress -- and backward glances -- to a close. Which way now?

June 16, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

First THE good news: Compared to our debt-roiled, war-mired nation, Broadway had a lot to celebrate this year. In addition to luminously acted new dramas and shimmeringly staged revivals, there was something approximating a genuine horse race for best musical -- a godsend for everyone who religiously sits through the normally suspense-bereft Tony telecast.

The competition Sunday night between "In the Heights," the genial Latino block party with a vernacular beat (which won), and "Passing Strange," the coming-of-age saga of a young, boho and black musician named Stew (which should have won), was not just a victory for diversity on New York's premium stages but also a generational turning of the page of talent.

And let's not leave out mentioning the bottom line, which left many investors smiling for a change about something other than huge tax write-offs. Yes, despite the crippling November stagehand strike, Broadway still raked in almost $1 billion -- underscoring to the producers of such critically panned moneymakers as "Grease" and "The Little Mermaid" that nothing in America succeeds like commercial success.

So why not go over the top and give this now-closed Broadway chapter some blurb-able love? "One for the Record Books!" "A Year to End All Years!" "AD's Best!"

That would certainly be in the spirit of a season in which reviewers seemed to love or hate with a curious proselytizing passion. Did "August: Osage County," the Tony winner for best play, really spell the second coming of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams rolled into one? Or was it just a big old dramatic banquet of overheated domestic themes by a talented writer who has more original plays ahead of him?

Was "In the Heights" worthy of being placed in the history books alongside "Kiss Me, Kate," "My Fair Lady," "Sweeney Todd" and last year's best musical winner, "Spring Awakening"? Or was the show -- which began its long gestation when lyricist, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail were students at Wesleyan University -- more of a gawky if appealing apprenticeship effort that deserved to be encouraged rather than enshrined?

Of course, winning is sometimes a matter of how the competition crumbles. And as the Great White Way continues to be outsourced to the Brits, there were quite a number of plummy accents in contention for acting awards.

Laurence Fishburne found himself surrounded entirely by Englishmen in the best actor category for drama, which turned into a runoff between Patrick Stewart, who had been roundly hailed for his chilling performance in "Macbeth," and Mark Rylance, who starred in the swinging-'60s farce "Boeing-Boeing."

How refreshing that the Tony more often than not went to the lesser-known name -- Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London and a classical stage stalwart, after all, has no "Star Trek" or "X-Men" on his resume. (He also, it should be said, didn't have to contend with the curse of the "Scottish play," which came up empty-handed last night.)

Even more obscure on these shores, Jim Norton, the brilliant Irish actor who could probably dine out anywhere in America unrecognized, won for his featured performance in "The Seafarer" -- a genuine instance of revelatory light radiating out of theatrical darkness.

No theater lover could be disappointed with Steppenwolf Theatre Company's cargo of wins.

In the best actress category, the contest largely turned into a wrestling match between mother and daughter from "August," with Deanna Dunagan's pill-zonked matriarch Violet maintaining the upper hand over Amy Morton's hijacking adult-child Barbara. And Rondi Reed, a Steppenwolf member since 1979 who won for playing the role of Violet's salty sister, demonstrated the unparalleled seasoning that comes with steady ensemble practice.

Americans tend to dominate the musical category, but it was the Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot who was sent home humming "Some Enchanted Evening" after winning for his cosmopolitan turn as Emile de Becque in Lincoln Center's majestic staging of "South Pacific," which earned Bartlett Sher a directing award.

The adulation surrounding Sher, which began even before "South Pacific" opened, has had a coronation ring to it. And now that his show has raked in a slew of Tonys -- including best musical revival -- it will be interesting to see if he'll wear his crown with a difference and lead the contemporary American musical in a direction worthy of its still rapturous "South Pacific" and "Gypsy" precedents, which seemed to excite aging baby boomers a good deal more than the new offerings.

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