In live theater, a performer has to know how to make an entrance, and television critics reviewing Sunday's CBS telecast of the Tony Awards from Radio City Music Hall in New York City applauded its host, Neil Patrick Harris, for making a memorable one.
The number began more or less where last year's Tonys had left off, with "Once," the unpretentious, decidedly non-glitzy 2012 winner for best new musical. Harris appeared as a novice folk-pop guitar strummer in a "Once"-like Irish pub. But within moments he was declaring, "It's bigger ... tonight it's bigger!" and he was off to the races, joined by a thespian multitude from an assortment of Broadway shows.
As Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times put it, the "opening number had him leaping acrobatically through a hoop, avoiding an effort by Mike Tyson [who made his first theatrical bow this year with a one-man autobiographical show] to chomp his ear and pulling a vanishing act that was as impressive on television as it must have been in the theater. (He disappeared from a box onstage, only to reappear moments later at the back of the hall)."
"As often happens," Genzlinger continued, "the subsequent show rose to those heights only a few times. One of them came just minutes after Mr. Harris left the stage and the cast of “Matilda the Musical” took it over. If that show’s number didn’t produce an instant spike in ticket sales, there’s no hope for the theater."
Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd was similarly knocked out by the "invaluable, unshakable Harris.... Harris was never too long out of view, and when he was around, he was put to good use," with partners who included Sandy, the cute dog from the musical "Annie," with whom Harris exchanged repeated kisses on the lips before quipping, "You do know I'm in a relationship, right?"
The host wound up working overtime — his last joke was that the Tonys would have to skip the planned finale because the telecast was running late. Instead, Harris started rapping, and was soon joined by past multi-Tony winner Audra McDonald in a duet that reworked Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" to include rhyming shout-outs to many of the night's major winners.
In Genzlinger's view, "it wasn't as funny as last year's" finale, and he wished that the acceptance speeches had been curtailed to keep the evening more brisk. When victors grasp their coveted medallions, he wrote, "what they actually have in their hands is the power to kill the momentum of the broadcast."
Lloyd, to the contrary, was touched by Cicely Tyson, who went overtime while thanking Broadway for welcoming her back after a 30-year absence, and by acceptance speeches in which "Kinky Boots" star Billy Porter and composer Cindy Lauper recalled how Broadway musicals reached them when they were very young, via a Tony telecast (Porter) or, for Lauper, her mother's collection of cast albums.
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press noted two other memorable moments: Lauper singing her 1980s pop hit "True Colors" while an "in memoriam" sequence of photographs of theater eminences who'd died since last year's Tonys was displayed behind her. and a satirical number in which Harris, who shot to stardom via television, teamed with a less fortunate trio of theater folk whose TV shows had bombed. He got to gloat a bit, while Andrew Rannells, Laura Benanti and Megan Hilty sang laments.
Hilty's show, "Smash," took its final bow a few weeks ago on NBC after two years of dismal ratings. The final hour was the show's own fictional Tony Awards — making 2013 the year in which truly committed theater buffs could watch two Tony Awards on two networks.
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