With the Tony Award nominations being announced May 3, there is no way they can suffer the same fate as #OscarsSoWhite as almost half of every show that is in consideration has an ethnically diverse cast and creative team. So the color purple shouldn’t be the only color sparkling come Tony time.
The likely leader of nominations of course will be “Hamilton,” which is rich with African American and Latino talent. Latinos are also well represented with “On Your Feet” and Asians have a definite shot at nominations with the excellent “Allegiance,” which only will be hurt by its early closure as it’s truly one of the best shows of the year.
Aside from that, here’s a recap of the best musicals currently on Broadway – excluding “Hamilton,” in which tickets are near impossible to get at a reasonable price.
“Shuffle Along” has Broadway’s most acclaimed cast with four Tony winners: Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and Brandon Victor Dixon as well as nominees Joshua Henry and Brooks Ashmanskas. Part revival and part original story, the production instead of recreating one of the first black musicals ever to hit a mainstream stage, they show the backstory of bringing the production to the stage. While this elevates the story and adds an interesting dimension, the show could benefit from a few cuts as it sometimes goes into too many directions. So instead of a great show, we’ve got a very good one. Still, the cast with everyone’s favorite actors does not disappoint with Dixon and Ashmanskas giving nomination worthy performances.
“The Color Purple” completely surpasses its original with a strong, magnificent ensemble lead by Cynthia Erivo making the part of Celie her own and she brings down the house with her powerhouse vocals. She is well supported by Jennifer Hudson and, from “Orange is the New Black,” Danielle Brooks – both are strong and memorable in their roles as is Isaiah Johnson as Mister. Fans of director John Doyle will continue to enjoy his stark sets as he did with “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” However, for those who do like a more extensive production, they might feel this pales, set-wise, in comparison to the more elaborate original.
“Waitress” is getting a lot of attention not only because of its all female – still considered a minority – creative team but it’s the first production with Jessie Mueller since winning the Tony for “Beautiful.” Mueller comes on strong with a terrific Sara Bareilles songbook and creative source material from Adrienne Shelly’s story of a small town waitress who manages to escape her mundane life with a creative way of turning her emotions into tasty pies. Mueller once again gives an award caliber performance and is well supported by Keala Settle and, another from “Orange is the New Black,” Kamiko Glenn, who is winning in her Broadway debut and keeping a little Asian influence among the best of this year’s best productions. Supporting actor Christopher Fitzgerald also is memorable in a small scene stealing part.
“School of Rock” returns Andrew Lloyd Webber to top form. Like “Waitress,” it’s based upon a popular movie and features a star making performance from Alex Brightman in the role originated by Jack Black in the movie. This show completely reminds us that Webber can be relevant and can do more than the lush, pop score of “Phantom of the Opera.” Like “Opera,” “Rock” is filled with many standout songs. If that’s not enough, there’s a theme going on here because, although as white as he can be, Brightman’s students are mostly of different ethnic backgrounds and they actually often steal the show in particular Bobbie MacKenzie.
For shows with big casts, “Disaster! The Musical” challenges “Shuffle Along” with the most lauded cast. It includes Tony nominees and winners Faith Prince, Roger Bart, Adam Pascal, Kerry Butler and Kevin Chamberlin. This spoof of 1970s disaster movies, which includes a clever use of songs from the era, is a side-splitting riot and, in all honesty, really didn’t need to be transferred from off-Broadway to the big stage. However, whether it’s played to a large or intimate audience, one thing is for sure: now on Broadway it is eligible for Tony nominations, and it would be a crime not to take notice of the sublime Jennifer Simard, as the nun with a few secrets.
While the Tony cast is universally wonderful, it’s Simard who will be long be remembered after the show ends its brief run.
“American Psycho” stars the wonderful Benjamin Walker in the bloody role of Patrick Bateman, who takes pride in his superficiality and his disdain for other people to a bloody level, much like demonstrated in the Bret Easton Ellis graphic novel and Christian Bale movie. With its cult following, Walker has some big shoes to fill – and he does so masterfully.
With that being said, “Psycho” as a musical is somewhat uneven and could benefit from a bit of tightening. Yet the show also succeeds thanks to the great songs of Duncan Sheik, beautiful and creative sets of Es Devlin, flawless costumes of Katrina Lindsay and clever lighting of Justin Townsend.
The sleeper of the season may just be “Bright Star,” which quietly shines above many of the other bigger shows. Considering the book of the show is by comedian Steve Martin, this story is definitely more a family drama instead of something that showcases Martin’s wild and crazy side.
But it’s an actual surprise how much heart and depth he displays in this story of a modern-minded woman of a 1940s era, whose life is turned upside down when the baby she had out of wedlock is yanked from her arms.
Many aspects of the show are predictable, but in her Broadway debut Carmen Cusack makes the journey worthwhile and rewarding. Martin can’t take all the credit for the book and songs as he collaborated with Edie Brickell, who also is branching out of her comfort zone as a folk rock singer/songwriter and creating this heartfelt tale of love, loss, anguish and redemption.
Whether it’s in black and white or color, there’s a lot of diverse and exciting options on the Broadway stage as well as some great successes from different and surprising sources.