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No Tony wallflower, this 'Baby' can dance

The Baltimore Sun

For slightly less than four minutes tonight, Charm City, circa 1954, will grab the spotlight -- and possibly try to fence it.

The 2008 Tony Awards will be handed out at New York's Radio City Music Hall. In keeping with tradition, one number from each of the four shows nominated for best musical will be staged during the live, three-hour national broadcast.

Cry-Baby, the stage version of John Waters' cult 1990 film, made the cut, and the show's producers have decided to re-enact a maximum-voltage prison break sequence called "A Little Upset."

"None of the other shows, not even the revivals, have a big, high-energy dance number like this one," says Elan McAllister, one of the show's producers. "That will make us stand out."

The number is set at the fictitious Maryland Vocational Training Farm for Wayward Punks (modeled on the state prison in Jessup) and the 16 singers and dancers will be introduced by Waters, the Free State's chief delinquent.

Dancers will strap yellow license plates with black numerals onto their feet -- replicas of Maryland tags in the 1950s -- while they leap, spin and turn handsprings. As the metal rectangles strike the wooden stage floor, the rhythmic clanks and scrapes become the aural equivalent of Morse code. The effect is undeniably thrilling.

Rob Ashford, the guy who choreographed that routine, is Cry-Baby's best chance for taking home a Tony tonight, having already picked up Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for his bravura moves.

Unlike 2003, when Hairspray, another musical inspired by a Waters film, swept the awards ceremony, Cry-Baby is not expected to receive best musical honors.

This year, most observers say they believe that particular battle will come down to Passing Strange, which traces the musical odyssey of a young, black Bohemian; and In the Heights, the salsa and meringue-infused tale of a close-knit Hispanic barrio in Manhattan. Passing Strange won the Drama Desk Award for best musical, while In the Heights was nominated for a Tony in 13 categories, the most of any show this year.

Cry-Baby received four nominations. In addition to nods for best musical and best choreography, the song-writing team of Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum are up for top score for their songs, which parody musical styles ranging from Lawrence Welk to rockabilly. Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell were nominated for their pun-filled script.

An open letter

For his part, Javerbaum, head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, isn't conceding the statuette to his rivals. He wrote what he describes as "a shameless, sniveling" open letter to the 795 Tony voters in which he cheerfully maligns his competitors, urging voters to disregard baseless rumors. "The Best Score category," he writes, "isn't about how many nuclear Sidewinder missiles Stew may or may not have illicitly sold to North Korea." Javerbaum's appeal was posted on the industry Web site broadway.com:

"I'm writing to humbly request your vote in the category of Best Original Score," the letter begins. "My partner, Adam Schlesinger, and I are honored to be one of the nominated songwriting teams. Our competition is fierce. Collectively, In the Heights, The Little Mermaid and Passing Strange represent five incredible theater artists with tremendous talent and 53 felony convictions ranging from armed robbery to the unlicensed importation of baby seal meat. Against such opposition, Adam and I and our kennel of abandoned inner-city puppies may seem to have little chance."

The letter goes on, but you get the drift. Regardless of the outcome, Javerbaum can at least be proud that he kept his dignity.

Also about Baltimore

Intriguingly enough, Baltimore is also the locale of another show that could partake of Tony honors.

Lawrence Fishburne has been nominated for best actor for his masterful portrayal of the title role in Thurgood, the one-actor play based on the life of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall grew up in Bawlamer, and the city -- from the former Colored High to the haberdashery shops on Charles Street -- features prominently in his reminiscences.

But, the gold statuette is most likely to be won either by Patrick Stewart, for his testosterone-laden performance of the title role in Macbeth, or Mark Rylance, whose depiction of a shy, sexually starved air traveler in the farce Boeing-Boeing has been praised as "the comic portrayal of a lifetime."

Here's the lowdown on the other prizes:

Best Musical Revival: This, and not best new musical, is the most fiercely contested category this year, with three first-rate contenders. The favorite is director Bartlett Sher's much-lauded production of South Pacific, but either Gypsy or Sunday in the Park With George could score an upset.

Best Play: No mystery here. August: Osage County, a fierce, funny saga of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family, has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and should be a shoo-in for the Tony. Though this import from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre might not be, as one critic burbled, "the most exciting new play that Broadway has seen in years," it amply deserves best play honors.

Best Actress(es): This will be the year that Broadway remembers mommie, dearest. The winners in the two best actress categories are likely to be two performers portraying domineering, larger-than-life matriarchs: Patty LuPone and Deanna Dunagan.

LuPone, nominated for best actress in a musical for portraying the quintessential stage mother, Gypsy's Mama Rose, will have to stave off a challenge from Kelli O'Hara, who plays South Pacific's nurse ingenue, Nellie Forbush.

Similarly, Deanna Dunagan, nominated for best actress in a play for her pill-popping mama in August: Osage County, must fend off a host of worthy performances -- including that of her August co-star and stage daughter, Amy Morton.

Both O'Hara and Morton deliver revelatory performances, but their characters simply are less flashy than their competitors'. The two mothers are forces of nature, and LuPone and Dunagan exploit every manipulative, galvanizing moment.

Special Award for the Victims of Grand Theft: OK, this isn't an actual, Tony-approved category. But, since A Catered Affair was inexplicably shut out of all but a few nominations, I'm forced to give it a prize of my own choosing.

This is an intimate, exquisite show about how certain events -- in this case, a wedding -- can take on a staggering emotional weight completely out of proportion to their actual significance.

I think Tony voters might have been puzzled by Affair because it's so different from other Broadway musicals. This bittersweet tale is characterized by complicated emotions, and a score designed to amplify the plot instead of drawing attention to itself. It also lacks any of the big dance numbers that theatergoers crave; not once during the 90-minute show do Affair's stars, Faith Prince and Tom Wopat, strap on even a single pair of roller-skates.

Instead, the show's bragging rights are limited to a psychologically astute script and affecting performances. A Catered Affair might not take home any little statues tonight. But, of all the shows I've seen this year, this is the one that made the deepest lasting impression.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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