a theatre, film & pop culture review
Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners will be in orange.
Should be here: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro; Matilda The Musical
I’ve already had my moment about the Matilda girls injustice, but suffice it to say if they were nominated, they would not be near the bottom of my list. Certainly they’d be ahead of Valisia LeKae, who does her best Diana Ross impression in Motown The Musical. You’ve got to hand it to her, the girl can belt those classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and she possesses a fascinating stage presence that allows her to seem genuine and conniving simultaneously as she ingratiates herself with Berry Gordy; it’s quite endearing, actually. But she also boasts some weird posture (was I really the only one distracted by her hunched shoulders?), and the super-soft voice simply came off as affected, rather than accurate. But heck, don’t listen to me: The critics loved her.
Bertie Carvel’s cross-dressing genius in Matilda may be garnering the lion’s share of the pantomiming praise now, but earlier this season Stephanie J. Block wasn’t doing such a shabby job herself. As Alice Nutting, London’s so-called top male impersonator, she portrays both Edwin Drood and “Man of Mystery” Dick Datchery. In full pompous peacock mode, Block puffed out her chest and swaggered as Drood, and brought down the house with her divalicious meltdown in Act II. Clever and entertaining, but not as cutting as some of her more capricious co-stars, this will not be Block’s first Tony Award-winning performance.
The only individual to come out of the Kathie Lee Gifford debacle, otherwise known as Scandalous, largely unscathed was leading lady Carolee Carmello who gave an extraordinarily dedicated and vigorous performance as the super-ambitious and intensely compelling Aimee Semple McPherson, 1920s celebrity Evangelist. The under-appreciated singer-actress has spent most of her career replacing leads mid-run (Sister Act, Mamma Mia!, Urinetown) with only a handful of originating turns (Parade) — with most being ludicrously unworthy of her talent (Lestat). As McPherson, she was on stage for all but 11 of 150 minutes, and in rich, gorgeous voice, she threw herself full throttle into the unworthy material– so much so that she intensely “on” from scene one, with little room for growth (to be fair, Ms. Gifford didn’t give her much to work with). The energy of her portrayal was simultaneously exhausting and thrilling, and it’s enough reward that the committee recognized her despite the unholy work she was confined to. Now let’s get this woman a show better suited to her talent.
Nominated two years ago for her brassy and sassy take on the big-voiced Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act, Patina Miller transforms Pippin‘s Leading Player, originally portrayed by the incomparable Ben Vereen in the 1972 premiere, with a feline femininity. As the M.C.-like character, Miller runs the show, at first sinewy and sleek, agreeably guiding Pippin away from under his father’s thumb. But ever so slowly, her smile becomes strained, and the encouragement evolves into a militant forcefulness as her Fosse-ish movement becomes more stringent. It’s obvious Miller’s loving every minute of it, and we love her loving it. But still, her performance, like the character, feels a bit empty, emotionless. Like the production itself, the performance is clever, and has a shiny, glittering surface for us to marvel at, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of substance underneath. But I’m in the minority, as Miller’s won the hearts of critics and audiences alike, and will inevitably win a Tony for her effort as well.
As Cinderella, Laura Osnes is pure Rodgers & Hammerstein with her sparkling soprano and endearing sweetness, but she also manages to color the traditional role with some spunky assertiveness that empowers, rather than works against, the story’s inherent sincerity and romanticism. It’s a beautiful, effortless portrayal that’s graceful simplicity (read: lack of edge) hinders her chances here, though if anyone spoils Patina’s night, it will be Osnes. Beloved by both the Broadway community and audiences, she’ll surely have many more chances at an award after this one (Hell, if she can bounce back even stronger — and get a Tony nom for– a Wildhorn flop, she’s damn near invincible).