A: We all had COVID. And none of us received Tony Award nominations.
We’re fine. (Hey, I got to isolate and watch Barry.) Simply surviving a season that saw 15 openings in April before the awards cutoff and a wave of infections and reinfections is enough to qualify as good news. After a few months of enforcement vaccine cards and ID checks are so 2021 on Broadway, though you will have to mask up through June, or Patti LuPone will kill you. (Even if you’re not seeing her in Company. I don’t know how she pulls off all these homicides.)
Anyway…awards. Tony Awards for Broadway. Drama Desk Awards for Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway. (I vote on the latter.) There are no certainties in life but I’m almost 100 percent sure that A Strange Loop, a Drama Desk winner when it played Off Broadway, will claim top honors at the Tonys as well. Michael R. Jackson’s “Big, Black, and Queer-Ass American Musical” is the angriest, funniest, and most jaw-droppingly daring show that the Main Stem has presented in quite some time, and a star is born in Jaquel Spivey, a cinch to win awards from both organizations. (He burst onto the scene and into this show after the Off Broadway run, and was thus eligible for Drama Desk acknowledgement.) As Usher, a woebegone Lion King usher creating a musical of his life right before our eyes, surrounded by the literalized anxieties and insecurities that plague him at every step, Spivey gives a tremendous performance, and the ensemble (recalling Inside Out, but rated a hard R) never falters in support. (L Morgan Lee made history as the first openly trans nominee in a Tonys performance category, but this show, Six, and The Lehman Trilogy, among others, argue for an ensemble honor.) It’s hard to describe the impact this has–it walks up to some very sensitive topics about the big, black, and queer-ass American experience and goes there, gleefully, purposefully taking down a few sacred cows, notably but not limited to the minstrelsy of Tyler Perry. A number of Black-themed plays last season trafficked in obscure metaphors–A Strange Loop tells it (yells it) like it is, and it’s like having your senses cleansed and refreshed.
The latest from August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts, The Minutes ticks by in about 90, as a city council meeting in the midwestern hamlet of Big Cherry goes from mundane to…not mundane, as the newest member, the wide-eyed Mr. Peel (Noah Reid), attempts to peel back (the character names aren’t subtle) what happened at the prior gathering, which he missed. (Missing under mysteriously undefined circumstances is a fellow member.) Procedure is weaponized as factions within the council dig in, and the show moves from satire to Expressionist drama to a kind of horror bound up in today’s headlines about heritage and school board elections. (I think Letts took another, more topical pass at this once COVID postponed its opening by about two years, making The Minutes more of our moment.) This is a smart if somewhat insubstantial show, with a nice mix of talent from Chicago’s Steppenwolf (Letts himself as “Mayor Superba,” Ian Barford, and Jeff Still) and New York’s stages (Blair Brown, Austin Pendleton, and in a curt dramatic role musical performer Jessie Mueller) playing types familiar to anyone who’s sat on a considerably duller council and taken minutes (raises hand).
Star turns aren’t what they used to be. Ruth Negga’s award-nominated Lady, forceful and frail in equal measure, is the one and only highlight of a disappointingly sluggish and obtuse Macbeth. Daniel Craig was an excellent Iago in director Sam Gold’s Off Broadway Othello a few seasons back but here, neither the young Macbeth of Roman Polanski’s 1971 film or the AARP one of Denzel Washington last year he’s kind of the mid-life crisis one, frazzled and shouty. This is a laboriously busy modern-rags production of what’s usually one of the Bard’s quickest plays, that slows every time Gold adds another “touch,” which includes the static doubling and tripling of roles taken by usually standout performers like Maria Dizzia and Asia Kate Dillon. Complete the quote: all sound and fury, signifying…
The talented Jared Grimes is an award nominee this season. Alas the show isn’t Funny Tap Dancer, which he is, but Funny Girl, which Beanie Feldstein isn’t. She tries very hard and occasionally hits the mark, mostly recreating subject Fanny Brice’s comedy routines, but if The Music Man suffers from the Robert Preston curse than Barbra Streisand is the eclipse that’s stalled over this one for about sixty years. The difference between these two revivals is that even with a not-quite-right Harold Hill and Marian you still have a great show; Funny Girl, front-loaded with its best-known numbers (“People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”), is dreary (and wholly fictional) romantic melodrama, which the classic 1968 film version finessed. (Gambler Nick Arnstein was still alive and threatened to sue when the show originally bowed; why Harvey Fierstein, engaged to rewrite, didn’t pare all this slop back is a mystery.) Funny Girl needs a singer to put it across, and Feldstein, with every amplification trick employed to assist her, just isn’t that. She (as second banana Minnie Fay) and much the same production team made magic with the Hello, Dolly! revival a few seasons back; lightning didn’t strike twice but I wish a stray bolt had demolished the set, a fortified grain silo plunked down in period Brooklyn that opens and closes with every new number awkwardly tucked away within.
Take Mr. Saturday Night–please. You see what I did there? But seriously–musicalizing his own 1992 film about a standup comic who’s his own and his family’s worst enemy Billy Crystal has comic charisma to spare, spritzing Catskills-era jokes good, bad, and worse and digging more deeply into his self-admitted “pain in the ass” character. (In the movie he wore froggy old age makeup; at 74 he lets his own features do the work, with wigs de-aging him for flashbacks.) He’s here all night, folks, and he’s been doing funny Q&As after each performance. Can he and David Paymer, recreating his Oscar-nominated film role as Crystal’s put-upon manager brother, sing? Every so often they pluck a few stray notes out of thin air but it’s not crucial–they sing like their broken-down characters might sing and let actual musical performers like Randy Graff and Shoshana Bean do the heavy lifting, with the strongest songs concocted by Jason Robert Brown and lyricist Amanda Green, old hands at movies-into-musicals. Billy’s back and Broadway’s got him, and eight shows a week Mr. Saturday Night does everything musical dramedy is supposed to do, which is especially welcome in a plague season.
(The 2022-2023 season begins in July with a “play with music” derived from the grim bestseller The Kite Runner, which I suspect will be a little bald on jokes. Until then come to NYC and enjoy a show…but be like the Phantom and don’t show your face in the theater. You see what I did there…?)