Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2014 Tony Awards Predictions: Best Lead Actress in a Musical

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.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

one-night-in-memphis-violet-sutton-foster-gets-to-know-92168

1. SUTTON FOSTER
Violet

2. KELLI O’HARA
The Bridges of Madison County

3. IDINA MENZEL
If/Then

4. JESSIE MUELLER
Beautiful — The  Carole King Musical

5. MARY BRIDGET DAVIES
A Night with Janis Joplin

This is by far the most exciting category of the night, because we have no idea who is going to win. All that’s certain is that it won’t be Mary Bridget Davies for her straight-up impersonation of the first queen of rock ‘n’ roll. In A Night with Janis Joplin, Davies sings her face off as Joplin as she recounts the rocker’s various musical inspirations. But there was little depth there — in either the script (if you can call it that) or Davies’ portrayal — and the show closed long ago, while three of the nominees’ productions are still running (with the fourth’s closing recently). As uncanny of an impersonation as it was — and it should be, since Davies has been performing as Joplin since 2005 — there’s another, stronger, nominee portraying an icon.

Jessie Mueller doesn’t impersonate Carole King, she evokes her, as King journeys from commissioned songwriting to performer her own material. In Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, Mueller keenly conveys King’s struggle juggling her artistic career with her duty as wife and mother. She’s endearingly aspirational while maintaining a warm, down-to-earth quality, and her vocals are sublime. She manages to capture the essence and energy of King, without mimicking her, while giving her own slight spin to beloved songs like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Considering the show’s lack of any real dramatic conflict, the fact that two-time nominee’s magnetic performance keeps you engaged throughout demonstrates her worthiness here — and her likely win.

Mueller’s got some major competition, however. First up is Idina Menzel, who makes her first Broadway appearance in nearly a decade in Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s If/Then. Considered Broadway royalty (though this marks only her fourth appearance on the Great White Way), Menzel carries the mediocre show and somehow makes us care about Elizabeth, though Yorkey’s book never gives us reason to. Playing two sides of the same character, Menzel handles the switches between Beth and Liz with ease, ingraining them with moxie and vulnerability,  and, of course, making the most of that famed belt that lands somewhere between nasal and breathy. It’s a triumphant return to the stage for Menzel, but considering the competition, she’s unlikely to add another Tony to her shelf.

When The Bridges of Madison County opened, everyone declared that it would finally be Kelli O’Hara‘s year. For her fifth nomination — previous noms include South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza — O’Hara plays the Italian war-bride-cum-Iowa-farm-wife who has a brief affair with a hot vegetarian photographer (the Tony-snubbed Steven Pasquale). Her accent might’ve been a little shaky at times, but her singing — that glorious, ravishing soprano — never was, and she and Pasquale had a serious spark of erotic chemistry. An emotionally vivid portrayal of a lonely woman who feels like an outsider in her own home, O’Hara brought the bodice ripper to a higher level of sophistication. Unfortunately, the production, which wasn’t nearly as well-loved as Beautiful and Violet, closed early, which won’t help O’Hara’s cause, though she certainly has major potential to spoil.

But my vote would go to Sutton Foster to take home the big prize. The wide-eyed grin and pluckiness of previous roles (Anything Goes, The Drowsy Chaperone) have disappeared, to be replaced by the close-lipped smile and defiance of the titular character of Violet. As the young woman scarred by her father’s ax when she was 12, Foster, with pale face, lanky hair, and an unflattering dress that hangs on her, embodies the Plain Jane role of a woman who’s felt invisible and treated like an outcast her entire life. Foster physically shrinks whenever an insensitive onlooker stares, and draws further into herself when strangers try to engage; her defensive armor is in place at all times. But there’s a sparkle to her eye and a sharpness to her wit that are revealed in moments of trust and defiance, and Foster is careful to never condescend to her country character who fiercely believes an evangelical preacher can heal her scars, both physical and emotional. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted performance that buoys and builds the rest of an excellent production.

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