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And the Tony Award nominees will be …

When nominations for the 61st annual Tony Awards are announced on Tuesday, there won't be as many glittery Hollywood names on the list as in seasons past. The close-knit theater community's frostiness last year toward Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington kept other A-listers from making the move east.

This year star Julianne Moore is the Broadway baby most likely to be crying over her absence from the nominee list, due to poor reviews for "The Vertical Hour."

Instead, lots of theater veterans will be battling it out, a few even of the superstar kind. The awards fate of one of the biggest celeb names -- Angela Lansbury ("Deuce") -- and a Broadway insider not known well beyond the Rialto (Audra MacDonald of "110 in the Shade") comprises the biggest cliffhanger looming over this year's Tonys drama. Can those four-time past champs win one more trophy to tie the record held by Julie Harris?

Predicting front-runners is a challenge since nominees in 26 categories are decided by a select committee of 25, which includes Tony-winning actors Joanna Gleason and Brian Stokes Mitchell and playwright David Henry Hwang.

Winners, who will be announced on CBS on June 10, will be chosen by 750 voters drawn from the American Theatre Wing (which manages the Tonys), crafts unions, the press, and Broadway's almighty producers. Voters are expected to attend all nominated productions and, as with the Oscars, refrain from casting ballots in any category in which they have not seen all of the nominees.

Little hint of what will be included in the awards race can be gleaned from nominations already announced by the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Awards. Unlike their film counterparts, theater folk are not so swayed by rival awards.

Also, the Tonys honor the best of Broadway; the Drama Desk and Outer Critics kudos include off-Broadway, too. Furthermore, the rival awards are so intent to get a jump on the Tonys that they unveil nominees before the official end of the Broadway season. This year that meant they couldn't consider Angela Lansbury and "Deuce."

But the precursor awards do have some inevitable influence. When a show dominates a nominations list, as "LoveMusik" did in nabbing 12 Drama Desk nods, it cannot help but give permission to the Tony nominators to reward it, too. No doubt producers of "Legally Blonde" hope that there's minimal influence in their case. Their show got blanked by the Outer Critics.

The New York Drama Critics Circle has considerable influence, but it only bestows awards for productions (performers need not apply). This year's top winners: "Spring Awakening" (best musical), "The Coast of Utopia" (best play) and "Radio Golf" (best American play).

While acting categories usually have five nominees, production awards, including best play and musical, have at most four contenders, to be drawn from the 16 musicals and 19 plays that opened this year.

Musicals

Considering "Avenue Q" (2004 winner) is the only show based on original material to be named best musical in the last decade, it is not surprising that the four front-runners this year are all adaptations.

"Grey Gardens" opened to glowing notices for star Christine Ebersole, but reviews were mixed for the overall production, which was inspired by the acclaimed 1975 documentary about the real-life aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The show was substantially revised since its off-Broadway run last spring.

Critics of the overhauled show were wowed by the past Tony champ in dual roles of the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little" Edie, but less enthusiastic about the story (set in 1941, when their Hamptons estate was at its prime, and in 1973, when it was reduced to squalor). But Ebersole remains the one to beat for best actress and Mary Louise Wilson, as the aged Edith, could win supporting actress.

"Spring Awakening," another transfer from off-Broadway, may have opened in the dead of winter, but it lived up to its title with a frank depiction of teenage sexuality in a musicalized version of Frank Wedekind's century-old play. Look for Broadway newcomers Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele to score lead nominations. There also will probably be nods for several of the supporting cast, none of whom is over age 25.

If "Spring Awakening" is this year's "Rent" (1996 winner), then "LoveMusik," a look at the relationship between Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, is akin to the more serious-minded "Passion" (1993 winner), which also starred Donna Murphy. With Tony-winners Murphy and Michael Cerveris singing the songs of Weill and Brecht under the direction of Hal Prince (previous winner of 21 Tonys), expect a slew of nominations.

"Mary Poppins" may suffer by comparison with the movie classic, but Ashley Brown as the practically perfect nanny, Gavin Lee as the chimney sweep, and a supporting cast of 30 work their magic on audiences at the New Amsterdam Theatre (once home to 1998 winner "The Lion King").

This elaborate production could dominate the technical categories and get nods for the leads, as well as for Rebecca Luker and Daniel Jenkins as the beleaguered parents. "Poppins" should beat out that other movie-come-to-life, "Legally Blonde," for the fourth slot. Blonde belter Laura Bell Bundy, who got better reviews than her show, should make the cut, in addition to supporting players Christian Borle and Orfeh.

Two legendary musical teams returned to the Rialto with less-than-stellar productions. "Curtains," a backstage murder mystery musical that was the last collaboration of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb ("Cabaret"), will have to settle for nominations, if not wins, for Emmy champ David Hyde Pierce and Tony-winners Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba.

"The Pirate Queen," an Irish epic from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg ( "Les Miserables"), is likely to be overlooked entirely.

Of the four musicals that have been and gone, the most ambitious was " Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," described by its star as "a one-man show with a cast!" With music and lyrics by the Tony Award-winning team from "Hairspray," Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, this satire of self-confessional shows never quite worked, but not for lack of trying by Short, a past Tony recipient and likely nominee this year.

Musical Revivals

The five revivals of classic musicals were a mixed bunch. In the just-opened "110 in the Shade," Tony darling Audra MacDonald scored as a love-starved farm girl who falls for a rainmaker. "A Chorus Line" was dismissed as a carbon copy of the original that swept the 1975 Tonys and ran for a then-record-breaking 15 years. Many critics wondered why "Les Miserables," the best musical of 1987, returned only four years after closing.

"Company," the best musical of 1971, hopes the third time is still the charm, but while the 1995 Roundabout revival was a faithful reproduction, this time around director John Doyle repeats the conceit of last season's "Sweeney Todd" and has the actors playing the musical instruments. Several members of the hard-working cast, led by Raul Esparza, should be nominated.

Finally, "The Apple Tree," a charming 1966 show that launched the career of Alan Alda, became a showcase for Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth, a certain nominee, who shone in four very different roles in a trio of one acts.

Plays

Most Tony-watchers believe that none of the other eight new plays in competition can beat "The Coast of Utopia" for the top prize. It's not only penned by a scribe who's won best play three times in the past, Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "Travesties," "The Real Thing"), but it's actually three plays.

This epic trilogy, set in mid-19th century Russia, tells the panoramic story of a group of writers swept up in a revolution. Expect a slew of acting nods for an ensemble that includes Tony-winners Brían F. O'Byrne and Jennifer Ehle, as well as Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke.

Even though members of the New York Drama Critics Circle voted "Radio Golf" best American play, their actual reviews were mixed. Apparently, the prize was a sentimental salute to the late August Wilson in appreciation for his conclusion of a 10-play cycle spanning the African American experience across the 20th century.

Past Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins could be nominated considering that this is considered to be a weak year for strong actress performances, but Harry Lennix is unlikely to make the cut in the competitive lead-actor category.

The front-runner to win for best actress is Vanessa Redgrave, who portrays Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking," adapted by the acclaimed writer from her best-selling memoir about grief. While critics were disappointed with the one-woman play, they raved about Redgrave, who already has a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy on her mantle.

The critics were also kind to Angela Lansbury upon her return to Broadway after 25 years, albeit in a dud of a play, "Deuce." While Lansbury and her co-star, theater vet Marian Seldes, redeemed themselves, the critics chastised playwright Terrence McNally ("Love, Valour, Compassion") for not penning a better vehicle for these legends.

Critics cheered playwright Douglas Carter Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed" and lead star Julie White as an acting agent determined to keep her Hollywood hunk of a client in the closet, but Tom Everett Scott was panned in the latter role. Miscasting also hurt David Hare's "The Vertical Hour," featuring Julianne Moore as an American war reporter-turned-academic who travels abroad and gets caught in a most surprising romantic triangle.

The lavish production of Brit hit "Coram Boy" was a miss for most critics, but "Frost/Nixon" by Peter Morgan (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Queen") scored a bull's-eye. Two-time past Tony champ Frank Langella is considered to be a good bet to win one more for his characterization of the disgraced former president.

Play revivals

The rest of the best-actor (play) nominees may well come from revivals. In an acclaimed production of Shaw's "Heartbreak House," Tony-winner Philip Bosco stood out as the patriarch of a family beset by war (he was nominated for a featured role in the lauded 1984 version headlined by Rex Harrison).

Another Tony winner, Liev Schreiber, rules the roost in "Talk Radio," a 20-year-old play about a very timely topic.

Two-time musical Tony winner Nathan Lane was well received for his straight turn as an alcoholic academic in "Butley," which won Alan Bates a Tony in 1972. If Lane prevails again, he would join an elite group of actors who have Tonys for performances in both musicals and plays.

One such actor is the urbane Christopher Plummer ("Cyrano," "Barrymore") who got great reviews for a change-of-pace role as a country lawyer defending a Darwinist in "Inherit the Wind." Indeed, he even outshone his co-star, two-time Tony-winner Brian Dennehy, who had the showier role of a fiery preacher railing against evolution.

Tony and Oscar champ Kevin Spacey was also overshadowed by his co-star, British newcomer Eve Best, in "A Moon for the Misbegotten." Another British import, Hugh Dancy, acquitted himself in a role originally played by Laurence Olivier in the first Broadway revival of the World War I drama "Journey's End," which got some of the best reviews of the season.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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