June 09--NEW YORK -- These three sizzle with theatricality: a legendary New York columnist, a gay vaudeville entertainer and a mythically evil schoolteacher. All will figure significantly in tonight's Tony Awards (8 p.m., CBS).
Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy" is one of the chief contenders for Best Play; Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin's "Matilda" is the prohibitive favorite for Best Musical; but what unites both with Douglas Carter Beane's "The Nance" is their magnetic central roles. In "Lucky Guy," Tom Hanks makes an impressive Broadway debut. In "The Nance," Nathan Lane strengthens his position as one of Broadway's reigning kings. And in "Matilda," Bertie Carvel's deliciously evil tyrant upstages the four girls who share the title role.
Presumably you'll see a snippet of each performance on tonight's Tony telecast. Winners or not, all three are standouts among the 26 shows that received at least one nomination, chosen from the 2012-13 Tony-eligible field of 25 plays and 13 musicals.
Besides having Mr. Hanks in the title role, this new morality play about a newspaper columnist who became a media monster before dying young has the distinction of being a (more or less) true story. It is also the final play by the much-admired Ephron, who made her name for plays and movies focused on women but here shows insight into the life of men, especially Mike McAlary, the Pulitzer Prize-winning (but not-quite Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill) columnist who died in 1998, just 41 years old.
The play's chief distinction is its portrait of the life of driven newspapermen -- battling for stories and then roistering over drinks in the nearby saloon. "I loved the city room," McAlary wrote. "I loved the pack. ... I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines." And he loved New York, with all its scope and opportunity.
Along with capturing this zest, Ms. Ephron's chief contribution is her brisk and forceful mode of telling. McAlary's friends and co-workers serve as a chorus of narrators, acting out the stories that define the man who epitomizes their combative ethos.
At the center is Mr. Hanks as McAlary, shining with the love of his trade but gradually glowing also with the pleasure of its rewards -- celebrity, power and money. He switches back and forth from one newspaper to another in the heady days of New York's newspaper wars, spiraling upward through big stories and libel suits, gradually losing his ethical compass.
Mr. Hanks is commanding, gradually letting masculine grit and shine curdle into egocentricity and self-destruction. He is more than competently supported, especially by Peter Gerety and Courtney Vance as his longtime editors. The appealing Maura Tierney does what she can with the role of his wife, but there's little room for women in this love letter to combative male journalists at obsessive work and play.
"Lucky Guy" runs through July 3 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.; call 800-432-7250.
We meet Chauncey Miles in 1937, warily cruising an automat for a pickup. The vice squad is out, arresting homosexuals, but Chauncey is circumspect. (Remember automats? No? Call it a fast food diner.) He finds a quiet young man, and their relationship blossoms into something of semi-permanence.
But Chauncey's real love is vaudeville, where he brilliantly plays a "nance," an effeminate man, in short comic skits and blackouts. As seldom happens in plays about the theater, the theatrical skits are actually funny, the better to set up Chauncey's real life, where puritanical oppression and the dying of vaudeville create personal darkness verging on tragedy.
It's a tour de force role, and Mr. Lane plays both the skilled comic and the depressive homosexual with verve. (I'd give him the Tony, but I expect Mr. Hanks will win.) As a comic, he is triumphantly paired with old pro Lewis J. Stadlen as the straight man (in both senses) in one innuendo-rich skit after another; as depressive, he is matched with the sweetly supportive Jonny Orsini as the boyfriend he can't quite accept.
"The Nance" is both backstage comedy, re-creating a bygone theatrical mode, and a tragedy in a minor key, portraying a talented man unable to free himself from a legal system sniffing out "deviance." Sadly, he has internalized some of its hypocrisy.
This mix of comedy and melancholy extends to the supporting players, especially the fine trio of strippers (Cady Huffman, Jennie Barber and Andrea Burns). Jack O'Brien adds nuanced direction.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane is known for a dozen witty plays and musicals (including "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella," now on Broadway). Along with his comic chops, he is passionate about the social wrong he dramatizes. That shows up in a verbal protest by Chauncey that is close to a harangue, except for Mr. Lane's passion; it reminds me of Lenny Bruce in its mix of sharp insight and comic verve.
It doesn't quite fit Chauncey's defensive social conservatism, though. And the play wears its heart on its sleeve in portraying the red-tinged socialism of the era -- a bit too much of an intellectual agenda for a play whose real strength is personal tragedy.
"The Nance" runs through Aug. 11 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.; call 1-800-432-7250.
As I reported when I reviewed "Matilda" a year ago in London, this is a musical not just for kids but for anyone who sees meanness in the world and roots for its comeuppance. Who, child or adult, can fail to root for spunky little Matilda Wormwood, very smart and with psychokinetic powers, in her crusade against contemptible parents and the evil Miss Trunchbull?
The story, of course, comes from the acid-tinged pen of Roald Dahl, adapted by Dennis Kelly with songs by Mr. Minchin, as directed by Matthew Warchus. Four girls share the title role. (I saw Bailey Ryon, but we should see them all on the Tony show.) Mr. Carvel is comically psychotic as the demented teacher, balanced by the sweet confusion of Lauren Ward as the kindly Miss Honey. The eccentric wit is nowhere more evident than in Matilda's parents, played with outrageous comic abandon by Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita.
Above all, there's the ensemble of kids at Miss Trunchbull's horrid Crunchem Hall, ranging from very young to adolescent to adult, all frenzied with frustration. The story alternates between family and school, each more horrid than the other, until Matilda accesses her powers and breaks the spells that bind her. Meanwhile, the kids let loose in orgiastic dancing and revenge.
The power of the fantasy comes from the deep anxiety of loneliness. Ditto Matilda's fantasy of the good father and search for a mother. It's a murky, Dickensian family mystery, but comic -- "Annie" with a darker edge, but without the good magician (Warbucks) to make everything right. For that, Matilda relies on herself.
"Matilda" is at the Shubert Theatre, 222 W. 44th St.; call 1-800-432-7250.
As revivals go, this one's a three-ring circus -- in a good way. The Bob Fosse-Stephen Schwartz musical that earned a Tony for Ben Vereen as leading player in 1972 is now a star vehicle for CMU alumna Patina Miller, a leading contender for this year's Tony.
Her dynamism drives the story of young Pippin, the questing son of Charlemagne. She's the ringmaster of all action, the conscience that goads him, the thorn in his side. Oh, and she's got "Magic to Do," an opening that's worthy of its title.
Director Diane Paulus, who revived "Hair" to acclaim a few years back, has teamed Cirque du Soleil-style acts with Broadway veterans to put "Pippin" under the big top in a way that is always entertaining and sometimes riveting.
Andrea Martin as grandma Berthe gets a midshow standing ovation for her one big number as she dangles from a trapeze with the help of a muscle-bound aerialist. And there's no better match of talent to role than Terrence Mann as the clueless tyrant Charlemagne.
As Pippin, former Broadway Spider-Man Matthew James Thomas is the right combination of naivete and wariness as we follow him in his search for fulfillment. Luckily for us (and Pippin), along the way he finds Rachel Bay Jones' Catherine, who lifts the second act with humor, charm and pathos.
The Drama Desk winner for best musical revival and choreography has nine Tony nominations and should be on its way to finding fulfillment when Broadway's major awards are handed out tonight.
Music Box Theatre, 237 W. 45th St., call 1-800-432-7250.-- Sharon Eberson
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944. Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.
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