The cast of the Kennedy Center production of "Follies" on Broadway. (Joan Marcus )
The Academy Awards telecast has been such a snooze in recent years. By the time the ceremony rolls around, the winners are completely predictable.
What was the big surprise last year? That Meryl Streep, the most decorated actress alive, won over Viola Davis. Not even the master of impersonation herself could feign being all that shocked.
For those who like their awards shows with a modicum of suspense, Sunday's Tony Awards ceremony, otherwise known as prom night for glee club geeks, should provide a refreshing change. In several categories, including the all-important best musical and best play, it's a toss-up between two spirited contenders. And for best lead actress in a play and best lead actor in a musical, the races are so wide open that Broadway pundits might as well draw straws.
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Of course, one has one's favorites. I'd like to see Audra McDonald finally pick up a lead actress Tony. (Her four wins have all been in the featured actress categories.) But happily, she's the odd-on favorite to win for her sublimely gritty portrayal of Bess in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," so she'd better make room on a mantelpiece that will only grow more crowded as this living legend settles into her prime.
Andrew Garfield should win for his shattering portrayal of Biff in Mike Nichols' lavishly nominated revival of "Death of a Salesman." But some insiders are predicting that Christian Borle of "Peter and the Starcatcher" might wrest the featured actor award from the new big-screen Spider-Man. Apparently Borle is cresting the wave of NBC's "Smash" — no big ratings juggernaut, I'll grant you, but the TV equivalent of death by chocolate for Tony voters.
Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie is sure to be smiling on Sunday night. Both "Follies," which closes Saturday at the Ahmanson Theatre, and "Clybourne Park," which had a critically acclaimed run earlier this year at the Mark Taper Forum before moving to Broadway, are favorites in their categories.
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"Follies" faces stiff competition for best musical revival and "Clybourne Park" has one formidable challenger for best play. But the safe money is on the shows with CTG connections. (It certainly doesn't hurt that L.A. is rife with Tony voters, as the New York Post's theater gadfly Michael Riedel recently pointed out.)
Like it or not, the Tony Awards have a huge effect on our local theater scene — and not just at the Ahmanson and Taper. Plays and musicals that are nominated become part of the repertoire. In short, the awards are a commercial filter that allows art from time to time to get through.
Of course it's important to maintain perspective on the meaning of these accolades. "A Raisin in the Sun," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "West Side Story" all failed to take home the big prizes in their respective years. And neither Kim Stanley nor Geraldine Page, probably the two greatest stage actors of the second half of the 20th century, is a Tony winner. Awards validate memorable talent, but they're also the product of good luck and impeccable timing. Pure meritocracies are as fictional as pure democracies.
Still, those of us who care (sorry, CBS, that we aren't larger in number!) will be avidly watching. And no matter how the awards turn out, the following tight races will at least provide some edge-of-your-seat drama:
Musical: "Newsies," the feel-good offering from Disney Theatrical Productions, is the front-runner, but "Once" seems to be the pick of most critics (including me). Can the Irish barroom musical with the indie Irish vibe notch a victory over its more mainstream rival?
Play: "Clybourne Park" is likely to add a Tony to an awards haul that includes a Pulitzer Prize, though "Other Desert Cities" has its share of partisans who relish the play's champagne wit and verbal sparkle.
Musical revival: "Follies" appears to have a lock on the award, but "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" has been winning over audiences despite all the controversy engendered by a Broadway version that has had purists like Stephen Sondheim up in arms.
Lead actor in a play: Tragedy trumps comedy come awards time, so Philip Seymour Hoffman, a younger-than-usual Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," should get the nod over James Corden, the British funnyman who is giving a clowning master class in "One Man, Two Guvnors." It's a pity though. This is a case where laughter should prevail over tears.