Curtain Calls

With no single play or musical considered a shoo-in, this year's Tony Awards should make great theater.

May 07, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Capping a Broadway season without a clear front-runner, this year's Tony Award nominations produced some highly unusual competitors.

Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, a play so of-the-moment that it stars a hip-hop artist, will go head-to-head with Fortune's Fool, an adaptation of an 1848 play by Ivan Turgenev. (The 154-year-old Russian drama was deemed eligible for consideration as a "new" play because it had never before been produced on Broadway.)

And though this was, at best, a mediocre season for new musicals, it's hard to turn up your nose at a race that pits a show called Urinetown the Musical against The Sweet Smell of Success.

Like Sweet Smell, which is a musicalization of a movie about a venomous gossip columnist, Thoroughly Modern Millie, the show that garnered the most nominations (11), is also adapted from a film (about a 1920s Kansas farm girl turned New York flapper).

The nominations, announced in New York yesterday, produced few major oversights. The sole Broadway show to try out in Baltimore this year, the stage adaptation of The Graduate, failed to receive any nominations. But considering the negative tenor of its New York reviews, that wasn't surprising.

What is surprising is the nominees' broad range of subject matter. Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog is about a power struggle between a pair of black brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Fortune's Fool, adapted by Mike Poulton, focuses on 19th-century Russian aristocracy.

The other two plays in the category are Edward Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, in which a successful architect falls in love with a goat, and Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's mythology, set in and around a large pool of water.

And while two of the musical nominees are film adaptations, the others have far less conventional backgrounds. Mamma Mia! uses a newly crafted story about the uncertain paternity of a bride-to-be as an excuse to reprise two dozen golden oldies by the Swedish pop group ABBA.

Far more bizarre is the audaciously titled Urinetown, a post-modern Brechtian musical spoof, which began at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival and is about a time in the not-too-distant future when the right to use the toilet not only costs money, but is regulated by corrupt big business.

The lack of a front-runner should make for more suspense, and one of the most heated contests will be for best musical revival. In a further indication of a disappointing season for musicals, however, the category includes only two nominees - Into the Woods and Oklahoma!, which were the only possible contenders.

The season, as a whole, was stronger for plays than musicals, particularly in terms of revivals - the category in which the nominating committee had to do the most winnowing. The four that made the cut are Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven, Michael Frayn's Noises Off and Noel Coward's Private Lives. Though Private Lives has had a half-dozen previous Broadway revivals, this is the first to be nominated; a previous revival of Morning's at Seven, on the other hand, was named best revival in 1980.

There was also a bumper crop of one-person shows this season. Four will compete in the year-old category of best special theatrical event. Three of these have played or are about to play Washington - Bea Arthur on Broadway, Just Between Friends; Mostly Sondheim, starring Barbara Cook; and John Leguizamo's Sexaholix ... a love story. The fourth, and probable winner, is Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

One of this year's nominees, choreographer John Carrafa, will compete against himself; he's nominated for both Into the Woods and Urinetown. And Kate Burton is nominated in two separate categories - lead actress for her portrayal of the title role in Hedda Gabler, and featured actress for portraying an actress in The Elephant Man.

James Lapine, nominated for directing the revival of Into the Woods, is the first person ever nominated twice for directing the same show; he also received a nomination in 1988 for staging the original production of the musical.

Several acting categories will pit fellow cast members against each other. This year's record goes to Morning's at Seven, which has three nominees in contention for best featured actress: Elizabeth Franz, Estelle Parsons and Frances Sternhagen, who play sisters in the 1939 drama.

Three honorary Tonys were also announced yesterday. Lifetime achievement awards will go to producer Robert Whitehead and actress Julie Harris, who already holds a record number of Tonys (5) for acting.

The winner of the regional theater award is the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. This award was another boon for the Burton family since Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Williamstown, is her husband.

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