Tony Picks #4 & 5: Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones

Pippin Rachel Bay Jones Matthew James Thomas

Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin

Ok, ok, they’re not actually nominated, but whatever: Rachel Bay Jones and Matthew James Thomas are wonderful in Pippin, and gosh darnit, they should be among the officially honored. Why? Because both manage to delivery thoroughly quirky, individual performances in the mega-watt machinery of a big Broadway musical—no small feat, indeed! For Thomas, this means his giggly sense of fun never gets lost; for Jones, it’s all about her particular, indescribable MO (you know what I’m taking about if you’ve seen the show). Their way with the material is unrepeatable and—in the very best sense—totally whimsical. I’m reminded of Jones’s wonderfully strange delivery of the line, “I was putting on my eyelash.” Pretty straightforward on the page, but fabulously odd as said by Jones. Thomas, too, is magnetic for how completely he does “his thing,” especially in his sweet interactions with his grandmother. These wonderful actors remind us that it is performers’ particularities rather than their “regularities” that make them most interesting.

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Tony Pick #3: Tony Shalhoub

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Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
As a distraught, immigrant Italian father in this Odets oldie, Tony Shalhoub used a pitch-perfect accent as a direct channel to the pathos of his character. Shalhoub’s way around extended vowels and clattering consonants somehow make the role emotionally true; he used every Italian cadence and lifted phrase as another display of his character’s psychology, and the collective thrust was beautiful. If there’s any justice on Broadway, it’s Tony time for this real-life Tony!

Tony Pick #2: Lauren Ward

Matilda Broadway

Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward

The second act of Matilda reduced me to a blubbering snot-mess, in large part because of the title character’s touching relationship with her teacher, Miss Honey. The cross-generational bond is the heart of the show, and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey makes it work perfectly with easygoing, beautifully sung soul. The way she charts her symbiotic relationship with Matilda is expert and sensitive: Frightened, she and Matilda look to each other for strength, and in so doing receive it. It’s crazy moving, as is Ward’s simple and perfect delivery of my new favorite show tune, “My House,” itself a perfect pean to being satisfied with simple things. To boot, the show’s final sight—Ward cartwheeling into the sunset with Matilda—crystallizes all that is good about Ward and this production: their sincerity, their whimsy, and their sense of heart.

Photo by Sara Krulwich

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen

Maybe I’m just on an end-of-season, Matilda-inspired high, but Broadway seemed particularly smoosh-smashed with some truly noteworthy performances this year. As Tonys are approaching, it’s time to write about them! Let’s get started with the ultimate highlight…

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Kristine Nielsen

“Brilliant! Heartbreaking! Genius!” Critics like to throw these words around, even if they’re not always appropriate. But when the actress is Kristin Nielsen and the play is Vanya and Sonia, such distinctions are actually accurate: She is brilliant; she is heartbreaking; she is a genius. A great synthesizer of the tragic and the comic, Nielsen uses her extraordinary vocal and physical technique in the service of something almost frighteningly, hilariously real in this beautiful, funny play. Tony folk, I beg of you: Vote early and vote often for what is unquestionably the performance of the year.

Read more about Nielsen in Vanya here.

Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Tony Awards Dress Rehearsal

Tony Awards

Early Sunday morning, I experienced one of the cooler and more bizarre events in town: the Tonys dress rehearsal. On the one hand, it was mostly what you’d expect—a fun, backstage-ish peek at a major (?), live awards show.

But at the same time, it was also a hilariously and insanely awkward masquerade. During the rehearsal, the real nominees aren’t present, so stand-ins are hired to play their parts. In an effort to help make everything as real as possible, these “nominees” actually go onstage to accept a “Tony” when, at random, their names are drawn.

Simple enough, right? Wrong! Instead of making quick dummy speeches, almost all of these “winners” delivered heartfelt, emotional, and passionate monologues, never once winking at the audience or acknowledging they weren’t actually the winners. These “victors” gave shoutouts to castmates, thanked their playwrights, and sometimes spoke for so long they had to be drowned out by the (canned) orchestra. I cannot begin to communicate to you how uncomfortable and hilarious it is to watch people take such a silly job so seriously.

“Andrew Garfield,” for example, waxed poetic about how amazing it is to “get out and put all my baggage onstage every night.” The sound designer from End of the Rainbow mused, “I feel like this is the gold at the end of one rainbow, and the beginning of another!” “Judith Light” felt “such light and warmth from her Broadway community,” and “Elizabeth A. Davis” eloquently reminded us that “Everyone on Broadway is one of the most talented people.” One stand-in who played a multi-Tony-winner ended up onstage several times, so when he seriously pontificated that he’d “had the honor of being on this stage before, and it gets better every time,” the audience laughed uproariously—and not with him, but at him!

The word for all this self-seriousness, really, is “kitsch,” the great German term for “an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art,” the real actors being the originals, the stand-ins the tasteless copies.

Awkward!!!

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