Donald Munro

Tony category for best musical: food for thought

— If the four Tony Award-nominated shows for best musical were friends you could invite over for a meal, you’d end up with quite a dinner party.

“An American in Paris” would be the carefree, sophisticated one. He’d arrive fashionably late looking all dolled up but not too stuffy, know exactly which fork to use, offer pointed but witty banter, compliment the other guests graciously, and float through the meal with an effortless grace and style.

“Fun Home” would start off the evening on the shy side. She’d feel underdressed and look a little bored during the small talk but would perk up when the discussion shifted to art and politics. Eventually she’d open up, steering the conversation to more personal topics, slowly revealing a well of emotion and self-reflection within.

“The Visit” would arrive impeccably dressed and radiating an icy charm. With exquisite manners and a formal speech and style, she would fix an unblinking gaze on her dinner companions as she conversed, slightly unnerving them with her enigmatic confidence. When she rose to leave, no one would feel as if they really got to know her.

“Something Rotten!” would be the resident goofball. He’d tear his jacket on the front door coming in, talk a few decibels louder than anyone else, put the moves on the hostess and laugh so loud that one time he’d snort. Entertaining the table with amusing puns and one or two naughty stories, he’d admit that the only thing he loves more than “Romeo and Juliet” is making fun of it.

And who would emerge as the “winner” as best guest?

I can’t tell you that. Yet.

I could pretend to be able to gaze into the collective hearts and brains of this year’s Tony voters and divine their intentions when it comes to the best musical category, which will be announced Sunday, June 7, as part of the 69th annual Tony Awards. Plenty of people do it: There’s a New York cottage industry devoted to the whims, predilections and biases of those entrusted to bestow the theater industry’s biggest awards of the year. I can tell you the best musical contest seems to be a two-show race, according to Broadway pundits, with “Fun Home” emerging as a slight favorite over “An American in Paris.”

But in the end, such reasoned speculation isn’t all that fun. The horse-race approach makes the whole thing just seem like a business transaction.

I’d much rather share moments of the theatrical magic I experienced with each of the four shows, all of which I saw just after the Tony nominations were announced. (This is the first time I’ve ever managed to see all four nominated shows before the awards.) Here’s a roundup, in descending order of what I think should win.

‘FUN HOME’

Some shows grab you, hug you, squeeze you. Others play it cool, self-aware and all-knowing, almost daring you to join the club. “Fun Home,” a beguiling and intensely emotional experience, does neither. Instead it treats you as if you’re so much part of a familiar landscape that it forgets you’re there.

It’s like when you were little and spent so much time at a best friend’s house that you become part of the fabric of the family’s backstage life, from dysfunction to joy, almost as if you were an honorary member. Ah, the things you could learn just by keeping quiet.

In “Fun Home,” composer Jeanine Tesori and writer-lyricist Lisa Kron transform the cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s popular graphic-novel memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” into a spare and beautiful musical. Bechdel’s adult self (Beth Malone) is narrator, looking back at herself as a 9-year-old (Sydney Lucas) navigating through childhood and as a 19-year-old college freshman (Emily Skeggs) embracing the fact she’s gay.

Alison grew up in a funeral home, the family business. Staged in the smaller Circle in the Square theater, in which the audience surrounds the stage, director Sam Gold crafts a finely honed intimacy that gives us a constantly shifting perspective of the living room, with the same set pieces rising up out of the floor in different configurations.

It is ensconced within this snug space that we follow not only Alison’s empowering journey of self-discovery but the angst of her closeted father (Michael Cerveris) as he moves toward a darker destiny.

The music is tender, the book witty and knowing, the design superb. But the exquisite acting and direction is what gives Fun Home an aching brilliance.

In the first song, the adult Alison says: “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

The music is tender, the book witty and knowing, the design superb. But the exquisite acting and direction is what gives “Fun Home” an aching brilliance. A terrific Cerveris portrays a warts-and-all father whose grudging attempts at parenthood add an unsympathetic sheen to his character, even considering his own personal demons. The three incarnations of Alison are so much on the same wavelength that it’s as if you’re watching the same person on a continuum. (All four actors are nominated for Tonys.)

But it’s the mother, played by the amazing Judy Kuhn (also nominated), with a sad, brittle acceptance of a less-than-perfect life, who emerges as the true wonder. In the song “Days and Days,” we see for a moment through the eyes of someone astonished at the way that small compromises can accumulate and build ever so slowly into large ones. She helps make this the kind of show that leaves you reeling — and yet also sure in the knowledge that the human spirit, no matter how bruised, can endure.

‘AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’

The beloved 1951 movie gets a makeover — and a happy lineup of more songs by George Gershwin that weren’t in the film — in a charming, light-on-its-feet production that brings serious dancing back to Broadway.

Christopher Wheeldon, who directs and choreographs the show, created a ballet to Gershwin’s “American in Paris” in 2005. In this incarnation, the movie and ballet happily collide. The result is by turns sumptuous, deft, gorgeous and grounded in what feels like a much classier time.

It helps that Robert Fairchild, who plays Jerry Mulligan (the Gene Kelly role from the film), and Leanne Cope, as Lise (the Leslie Caron role) aren’t just ballet dancers but also fine singers and actors. The love triangle — or actually love “square” — that they form with two other characters is a key part of the storyline, but the chemistry between Fairchild and Cope is so fetching, and the elegance and extended lines of their dancing together so graceful, that the love outcome seems predestined.

Sure, the plot can seem a little underdeveloped at times. My biggest takeaway from “An American in Paris,” however, is the glorious visuals. Bob Crowley’s scenic design is a shimmering blend of low- and high-tech, from actors maneuvering wheeled panels by hand to sophisticated projections in which the skies of Paris swirl through various moods.

At one point we jump from a ballet rehearsal space to art museum to rehearsal space to jazz club and then back to the rehearsal space, this time from a different perspective, all within a few minutes.

Humans aren’t the only ones who dance in the show; the scenic and lighting design is a choreographed flurry of movement and light. I’ve seen a lot of ambitiously designed shows on Broadway anxious to use technology to the fullest effect, but I feel this show is groundbreaking in terms of how effortlessly the visuals glide by.

The show culminates in an eye-popping extended ballet of the title song, in which the vivid colors and emphatic shapes of modern art seem to melt into a world in which Fairchild and Cope frolic. You leave the show with an optimistic bounce to your own step.

‘SOMETHING ROTTEN!’

And now for something completely different. “Something Rotten!” wiggles its way into your heart — or at least your funny bone — with unabashed buffoonery, unrelenting mockery (of both William Shakespeare and Broadway in general) and a sturdy sweetness. Director Casey Nicholaw, who helped bring “Spamalot” and “The Book of Mormon” to the stage, has a delayed-gratification knack for keeping an audience on the edge as it anticipates total hilarity.

A frisky and first-rate cast buoys the effort, led by Brian D’Arcy James as the hapless Nick Bottom. In an Elizabethan England of cute thatched cottages, Nick is the fierce rival of Shakespeare (the happily outrageous Christian Borle, who plays the Bard as a swaggering rock star, complete with oversized codpiece).

The comic core of the show, really, is a simple game of ‘Telephone,’ this time with garbled transmissions across a few centuries.

Nick and his goofy brother and playwriting partner, Nigel (John Cariani), are desperate to beat the plagiarizing Shakespeare at his own game.

The comic core of the show, really, is a simple game of “Telephone,” this time with garbled transmissions across a few centuries. Brad Oscar plays an off-kilter psychic who agrees to read the future for Nick and divine the most popular playwriting trends. He’s able to figure out that musicals will fetch a top ticket price, but the rest of the message gets a little scrambled.

Hence, Nick’s troupe sets about to perform “Omelette: The Musical” — instead of “Hamlet,” but, hey, they’re both breakfast foods — and crams in every theatrical cliche in the book.

Is “Something Rotten!” destined to become a long-running comedy uber hit like “The Producers” or “The Book of Mormon”? Probably not. For one thing, the poking-fun-at-Broadway thing has been done plenty of times before.

While I think the show has some interesting textures, including a feminist thread (thanks to Fresno hometown favorite Heidi Blickenstaff, who plays Nick’s equality-seeking wife with pleasing gusto), the show also has a skittish and slightly overstuffed feel, with perhaps one too many boisterous production numbers and not enough heart in the two love stories.

Still, it’s very much a hoot. As for Shakespeare himself: Well, he’s probably the only one who could call it rotten.

‘THE VISIT’

From her initial frosty entrance to the last, chilling glimpse of her stately octogenerian figure, Chita Rivera dominates this dark and mysterious musical from moment to end.

“The Visit” is very much a star vehicle for the 82-year-old Broadway veteran. She might not attempt a high kick, but you can sense that the idea of dance in the broadest sense — the way she lifts an arm, the sureness of her gait, even the steely fixedness of her gaze — still permeates her entire person. It’s hypnotic to watch.

Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 satirical play “Der Besuch der alten Dame,” about the world’s wealthiest woman and her return to her bleak hometown for the first time, “The Visit” is the last collaboration between Fred Kander, John Ebb and Terrence McNally. It took nearly 15 years to reach Broadway.

Rivera’s Claire Zachanassian arrives home with a searing proposal for the bedraggled residents of the town: She will heap riches upon them in exchange for one simple act: the murder of one of them, a man named Anton Schell (played by the sterling Roger Rees), who wronged her in the past.

To watch Rivera is to study a master: She grabs the audience, clutches it close and bends it to her will. She purrs. She flirts. She cajoles. A few times, she comes close to terrorizing. Her character doesn’t seem to care about justifying her heinous proposal; she’s too rich for that. Instead she puts it on the table and lets us know that’s just the way things work in her world.

Kander and Ebb’s songs, while dark themselves, never seem to quite fit the bleakness of the material. (The single set, a decrepit train station whose broken windows are choked with twisted vines, sets a mood of memory and menace.)

It isn’t the darkness of the show that bothered me. I strained to get a fix on the character of Claire. She inhabits a moral universe that is never explained. By killing the man who wronged her as a young woman, will that somehow reunite them? Even in the darkly satirical world of the play, the enigmatic ending seems somehow miscalibrated.

But to be able to see Rivera on the stage at such a late stage in her career is entrancing. One moment stands out above all others: Claire “meets” her younger self in the play, and they do a subtle dance. Youth puts her arms around the older woman, and there’s a look on Rivera’s face of total transcendence. For a moment, we’re seeing two halves of a whole. Those are the Broadway moments I’ll never forget.

‘The 69th Annual Tony Awards’

TV preview

  • 8-11 p.m. Sunday, June 7, KGPE Channel 47

‘Live’ Tweeting

Join Donald Munro on Twitter (@donaldbeearts) during the West Coast feed of the Tony telecast. (If you’re worried about spoilers, read social media or news sites at your peril during the live East Coast presentation, which is three hours before.)

More online

For Donald Munro’s review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” nominated for best play, and to watch Heidi Blickenstaff say hi to Fresno, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.

FUN HOME

  • Nominated for: 12 Tony Awards, including musical, direction, leading actor, leading actress, featured actress
  • Three words to describe: memoir, family, emotional
  • Memorable for: exquisite acting and staging, piercing music and lyrics, a storyline in which a well-adjusted lesbian daughter aches in the memories of her conflicted gay father

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

  • Nominated for: 12 Tony Awards, including musical, direction, leading actor, leading actress, featured actor
  • Three words to describe: ballet, elegant, Gershwin
  • Memorable for: superb dancing, amazing visuals, a sure-footed sense of an optimistic post-World War II Paris celebrating a new beginning

SOMETHING ROTTEN!

  • Nominated for: 10 Tony Awards, including musical, direction, leading actor, featured actor
  • Three words to describe: outlandish, anti-Shakespeare
  • Memorable for: ragingly bad jokes, clever jabs at literary stuffiness and Broadway, a 16th Century feminist role for Fresno’s Heidi Blickenstaff, rhyming the word “penis” with “genius”

THE VISIT

  • Nominated for: 5 Tony Awards, including musical, leading actress
  • Three words to describe: icy, troubling, metaphorical
  • Best known for: a bravura performance by Chita Rivera, who at 82 blazes through this last musical from Fred Kander and John Ebb like a raging comet
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