Craig Bierko, in The Music Man
Although the Westchester, NY, native grew up around a community theatre (his folks ran one), and performed at Northwestern University, he is new to the Broadway environment. A handful of film parts ("The Thirteenth Floor," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") and TV roles ("Ally McBeal") did not prepare audiences for the confident, quirky, big-voiced performance he gives in Susan Stroman's bright revival of the Meredith Willson favorite. Critics and audience alike have noted that although the performance is rich, Bierko sounds and acts a lot like Robert Preston, who created the role. Even so, there is freshness: Preston was more like your confident Uncle Ed, while Bierko is a touch sexier -- the sort of salesman you might run away with.
George Hearn, in Putting It Together
Hearn sang the "husband" role in the conceptual "review" (the producer's term) of songs by Stephen Sondheim, and the result was like aged brandy. Smooth, unaffected, unpretentious. Hearn, who took home a Tony Award for playing Max in Sunset Boulevard, is no stranger to the world of Sondheim, having performed in Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury on Broadway and the road (he's in the famous video staging with Angela Lansbury) and in the 1980s concert version of Follies. To see his restraint and intelligence singing such rueful Sondheim songs as "A Country House" or "The Road You Didn't Take" is to witness a true mating of actor and text.
Brian Stokes Mitchell, in Kiss Me, Kate
Mitchell, fresh from playing gloomy, angry Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime, unbuckles and has fun as the egomaniacal impresario actor starring in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. With a resume that also includes the dour revolutionary in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Stokes displays his versatility in Kate, tackling comic-operetta, Shakespeare, patter songs, romantic ballads -- and rasslin' with Ragtime co-star Marin Mazzie.
Mandy Patinkin, in The Wild Party
There is nothing equivocal about Patinkin: He always makes fearless acting choices and pushes the envelope of intensity. At The Wild Party, his fans are eating up his performance as Burrs, a violent vaudeville clown who performs as a "coon singer," in blackface, a la Al Jolson. Patinkin, remembered as Che in Evita, Uncle Archie in The Secret Garden and George in Sunday in the Park With George, delivers the vocal fireworks, and his get-out-of-the-way showing (true to the source material) articulates how utterly menacing the character is. Without menace, there is no Wild Party.
Christopher Walken, in James Joyce's The Dead
Walken is best known for such movies as "The Deer Hunter" and "Pulp Fiction," and his odd characters and idiosyncratic performances have been parodied by other actors and even himself (on "Saturday Night Live"). As the plain, dull Irish husband who discovers his wife's buried passion at a Christmas party, he showed a character with limitations and regrets. Analysis: Patinkin (for his history and his passion) and 2000 Drama Desk Award-winner Mitchell (for his ability to break out of musical drama and cross into musical comedy) are considered the favorites here, although Tony voters tend to like it when movie stars such as Walken bring attention to Broadway (his limited singing voice may be a handicap). Bierko is appealing, but seen as a longshot due to his lack of Broadway history and the fact that some perceive his role as forever belonging to Preston, whose soundalike performance is captured on film. Don't count out Hearn, a dark horse whose performance was viewed as masterful, sophisticated and dignified.
-- By Kenneth Jones