What our critic thinks the Tony Awards noms got right – and what they missed

I've been following the Tony Awards for many years now. I always have strong opinions and this year is no exception.

Matthew Murphy/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via AP
Some 2018 shows – including 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' – have casts that are so strong that some observers think the Tony awards should add a category for 'Ensemble Performance.'

The Tony Awards, created 71 years ago, are considered the highest award in American theater. They have a stated aim of “recognizing excellence in live Broadway theater.”

So one would imagine that most of the shows nominated for 2018 Tony Awards would be dazzling demonstrations of the craft of theater, whether musicals or plays. And many of them are, from the stellar revivals of musicals “My Fair Lady” and “Carousel” to the critically-acclaimed new musical “The Band’s Visit” to London transplant “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

But some others, like the good-natured “SpongeBob SquarePants,” a clamorous and madcap song-and-dance show based on the Nickelodeon TV series, and Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls,” both of which tied for the most Tony nominations (12 each) are commercial hits without, at least in my view, similar artistic merit.

I've been a professional theater columnist and sometime critic for nearly 40 years and while I wrote for the New York Post I was also a Tony voter. So each year I greet the list of nominees with some strong opinions of my own. 

Here are some of my thoughts for 2018:

– I am disappointed that one of my favorite shows this year, John Lithgow’s sentimental, semi-autographical play “Stories by Heart,” was sadly overlooked by the Tony nominators. It is now closed.

– Film and stage star Denzel Washington was rightfully nominated for a Tony for Best Actor in a Play in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” But his performance failed to live up to that of others who have played that role in the past, including Jason Robards. “You can never learn enough from O’Neill’s plays,” Mr. Robards once said. “You can do them forever ...” and still learn something.

But one thing I personally loved about Mr. Washington’s performance was his projection: one could clearly hear every word compared to some of his fellow cast members whose words were at times muffled. This was especially true when Hickey, the character Mr. Washington plays, speaks directly to the audience in his chilling last act speech.  Yet I wanted to see more dramatic nuances from Hickey in this and other parts of the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

– Like many, I was enthralled with Lauren Ambrose’s performance as Eliza Doolittle in the stellar revival of “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center. She has a glorious singing voice and embodies a strength that was a welcome foil to the verbal bullying by Professor Higgins, who helps transform her into a refined lady to the amazement even of himself. But relative newcomer Hailey Kilgore in “Once on this Island” may get the Tony for Leading Actress in a Musical for her extremely moving performance of a native island girl who nurses a rich man back to heath only to be rebuffed by him.

– Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Eliza’s scalawag father Alfred P. Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" is nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Musical and that is well deserved. Just when you thought the musical revival couldn’t get better the rendition of “Get Me to the Church on Time” Mr. Butz pushes the show into the stratosphere. Harry Hadden-Paton’s Broadway debut as Henry Higgins also gets my nod for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his charismatic and consistently strong performance.

– In the Tony category of Best Scenic Design of a Musical two leading contenders are Dane Laffrey for “Once on this Island” and Michael Yeargan for “My Fair Lady.” I applaud both nominations.  But my figurative money is on Mr. Laffrey who uses much of the in-the-round Circle in the Square stage to portray the Island setting, complete with a lagoon filled with water.

– Only Mr. Washington and David Morse were nominated for Tonys for their performances in "The Iceman Cometh." Yet the entire cast of this show is so splendid that I join the chorus of theater pundits who say there should be a new Tony Award category called “Ensemble Performance.”  In my view, both “Angels in America” and “Once on this Island” would have been strong contenders for this category. This is also true of the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and the critically-heralded “The Band’s Visit” with Tony Shaloub, who is perhaps best know these days by TV audiences for his recurring role in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

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