The Tony Awards are Sunday, and the nominees have been caught up in their whirlwind pre-ceremony media circuit. Now it's just the waiting game.
An early March trip to the Big Apple can prove to be a guessing game — trying to catch a show that might be a Tony contender. You may also find yourself there before the rest of the spring batch of shows opens up. At any rate, here are a few you may (or may not) be hearing about this weekend.
"Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" Boasting Josh Groban in his Broadway debut, this show leads the pack with 12 Tony nominations, including nods for Groban and best musical. It’s also been called "the greatest since 'Hamilton'" (which in itself is slightly comical as "Hamilton" barely premiered last year so it's a claim, but a small one). “Great Comet” is a musical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The musical — book and music by Dave Malloy — gets a few things right. The Imperial Theatre has been completely overhauled, for instance. Mimi Lien, nominated for her scenic design, tore out four rows of seats and built on top of what remained. An arena stage of sorts was created, with a long catwalk that winds its way through the main portion of the theater. It's beautiful and lush, with red velvet, gold and chandeliers — reminiscent of a Russian vodka house.
Aside from that, the chaos of the evening interferes with the storyline.
This is a truly immersive evening of theater. If you're not a fan of audience participation or when the cast breaks the fourth wall, this is not the show for you. The cast is everywhere. They're above and below you. They're behind and in front of you. They hand out noisemakers, they hand out dumplings, they turn to you for reactions. The characters are often so far apart physically it can be difficult to know they're in the same scene; the harmonies are often discordant and the musical jolts from one genre to another.
What's marketed as a love affair between Natasha and Pierre, really isn't that at all. It's about Natasha, who flits from one man to another, while Pierre, portly and brooding, quietly pines away until his last number when he sings — beautifully and exquisitely — about his love for Natasha.
Perhaps it's mismarketed. Perhaps it's trying to be too many things for too many people, but "Natasha and Pierre" left many in the house wondering what on earth they just sat through. That said, Tony voters (as is often the case) seem to like the unusual and sometimes absurd, so it’s a strong contender for the big prize.
"Dear Evan Hansen" This original musical features music by Ben Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo that won the Oscar for “City of Stars” from the movie “La La Land.” The buzz for this musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2016, is spot on — garnering nine Tony nominations, including best musical and best actor. "Dear Evan Hansen" is about teen angst, essentially. It's about love, loss, grief, belonging, not belonging and how humans handle that stuff. But it's Ben Platt who is the clincher. Everything about his performance was completely captivating — from his sweet, open and earnest face to the way his hands would twitch to the inflections of his voice. Platt is absolutely riveting and it would be a crime if the Tony slips through his grasp. Platt has plenty of fellow superstars who bring this partially biographical story to life: Mike Faist as Connor Murphy and Rachel Bay Jones as his mother. David Korins' set design is simple and moves quickly through rapid set changes. It also utilizes large screens on which to display images from scene-setters to social media posts. “Evan Hansen” takes place in the modern day and that's made very clear.
Pasek and Paul’s score is written very high on the scale for the singers. Every actor appears to be straining to hit those stratospheric notes. At times, it almost feels uncomfortable — like it's a tremendous amount of work to eke out those notes. In fact, Platt announced he’s been put on vocal rest heading into this weekend’s Tony performance. Possibly, the score wouldn't lose anything if it were bumped down a third. Nevertheless, the performers nail the notes and message. A national touring production has just been announced. Although it's not slated to come to Salt Lake City in the upcoming season, perhaps it'll come the following year.
"A Bronx Tale" This is the musical adaptation of the movie of the same name starring Robert De Niro, who also directs this production. De Niro also directed the movie in 1993, making his directorial debut. The story is autobiographical, written by actor Chazz Palminteri, who also starred in the movie, originally as a one-man play. Alan Menken added some tunes (Glenn Slater did the lyrics), many of them doo-woppy in feel. It's true what you've likely read: This is part "Jersey Boys" (yes, they even open with four men standing under a street light singing), part "West Side Story." It takes place in the Bronx (obviously) in the 1960s where a young boy’s soul is on the line. There are mobs. There are interracial relationships. There are young kids who see things they shouldn't. There are tough guys, sweet moms and all the requisite tough neighborhood issues. A few of the songs are catchy and some of the performances are as well. It is not the strongest offering on Broadway currently, but it's an easily digestible evening of theater. It was completely snubbed by Tony voters so it will be absent this Sunday. But they do have a cast recording and it’s still running at the Longacre Theatre.
"Cagney" Sadly, this gem of an off-Broadway musical has closed, but there is talk that it will make its way to Los Angeles for a limited engagement, then will come back to the Big Apple for a Broadway run — which is great news. “Cagney,” without a doubt, showcased some of the most impressive talent on stage. Based on the life and times of Hollywood superstar James Cagney, the musical is biographical with music from the good ol' days of George M. Cohan — "Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” — plus original music added for the show, with the show's star Robert Creighton as a contributor. Creighton wrote plenty of catchy tunes (he did the lyrics too with the help of Christopher McGovern) but it's his portrayal of the Hollywood tough guy turned song-and-dance man that is truly captivating. “Cagney” played to a full house of varying ages during a spring matinee. Clearly, the older patrons, especially, recognized the Cagney-isms included in the performance. And the tap dancing, by the entire ensemble, was some of the best on or off Broadway. The cast was small, only nine members, but they played multiple characters and they appeared to have a wonderful time doing it. Whether you're familiar with Cagney and his career or have never heard of the guy but you love a good musical, this is a great feel-good musical worth seeing. Keep your eyes out for upcoming productions.
"In Transit" This musical played its last performance in April, sadly. But they released a Broadway cast album so it’s worth mentioning. This musical was a delightful surprise. As it's the first all a capella musical on Broadway, and starred "American Idol" first runner-up Justin Guarini, there was plenty to be skeptical about. But this musical was a lighthearted and, at times even heartfelt, surprise. If you’ve spent any amount of time navigating the New York subways, it will resonate even more.
"In Transit" poses the simple questions: If the average person spends 42 hours a year commuting from point A to point B, that's a lot of time; you're not here, but you're not there. You're in between. So what happens to you during all that time?
With music by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“Frozen”) everything in the musical is done with the human voice — that's everything from instruments to rhythms to screeching Subway doors. The musical is fast-paced, the tunes are catchy and the characters are appealing. And, for anyone who has ever heard "stand clear of the closing door" or struggled with the metro card vending machine or had a life-changing conversation while in public — anywhere — there is likely something for you in this new offering. The Broadway cast recording was released this weekend, just in time for the Tony Awards.
"The Phantom of the Opera" Obviously, this old war horse is not up for the Tony — it’s the longest-running musical on Broadway. Believe it or not, some people still haven’t seen the old Andrew Lloyd Webber tale about a ghost who haunts a Paris opera house. So 29 years after it opened, and 26 years and numerous viewings after I first saw the show, I revisited the old classic. "Phantom" holds up pretty well, and that is great because it will be in Salt Lake City with the Broadway touring season in 2018-19. The music brings back many great theater memories, such as the iconic chord progressions played on the pipe organ; the chandelier as it shakes and rises above the orchestra's head; and the masquerade staircase and scene. It's easy to forget what a massive show "Phantom" is, both in scope and sheer cast size. That's also where one will likely notice its age. All those big set pieces make for slower, more plodding set changes than the slick fast-paced modern-day musicals. The cast starring James Barbour as Phantom and Ali Ewoldt as Christine did a great job singing the old favorites. There is a reason "Phantom" is the longest-running show on Broadway and seeing the full house (during a Thursday matinee, likely a wise marketing move as most theaters are dark on Thursday afternoons) is a reminder that it's likely not going anywhere anytime soon.
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."