PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 25-31: The Tony Race

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, May 25-31: The Tony Race If the Tony Awards didn't want people to offer predictions about the ceremony's outcome, they shouldn't divide the categories of competition into lists of nominees. So, here are this columnist's guesses, divided into four sections: The Sure Things; the Tight Races; The Big Prizes; and the Rest. The 2002 Tonys air on TV 8-11 PM (ET) June 2.

If the Tony Awards didn't want people to offer predictions about the ceremony's outcome, they shouldn't divide the categories of competition into lists of nominees. So, here are this columnist's guesses, divided into four sections: The Sure Things; the Tight Races; The Big Prizes; and the Rest. The 2002 Tonys air on TV 8-11 PM (ET) June 2.

The Sure Things

These are contests you can more or less set your clock by, like The Producers winning Best Musical last year. (OK: Not quite that definite.)

Think what you like about Thoroughly Modern Millie, it's hard to deny that breakout performer Sutton Foster is giving a classic trouper's performance, the kind the wins the hearts of theatregoers and the respect of the industry. Despite Vanessa Williams' glamour appeal in Into the Woods, the Best Leading Actress in a Musical award will go to Foster.

Best Leading Actor in a Musical is also a cinch: John Lithgow. Though his show, Sweet Smell of Success, was all but drawn and quartered by most critics, Lithgow's magnetism and professionalism was duly acknowledged. Plus, Tony likes to honor returning stars, and there is no bigger name in this category. Frank Langella has already won a Tony Award (for Seascape), but his flamboyant turn as an "infamous fatuous fop" in Fortune's Fool is hard to ignore. Most critics called it hammy, but it is a choice bit of ham of which few actors are capable anymore. He will be rewarded for it with the Best Featured Actor in a Play crown.

Another bit of bravura performing—Katie Finneran's delirious portrayal of a ditz in Noises Off—will claim the trophy for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Finneran's hardly a newcomer, but she's being treated by the press as a discovery in this role, thus lending a bit of romance to the prospect of her winning. Her main competition is Elizabeth Franz of Morning's at Seven, but Franz recently won for Death of a Salesman and will be canceled out by her fellow Seven nominees, Estelle Parsons and Frances Sternhagen.

Shuler Hensley's dark Jud Fry was the one roundly praised performance in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, and Tony voters will choose to honor the production by giving him the prize for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Likewise, in the Featured Actress in a Musical contest, Laura Benanti got the lion's share of the acting notices in Into the Woods for her performance as an ambivalent Cinderella. It helps that she's been nominated once before, is well liked by the theatre community and, at the ripe age of 22, a Broadway veteran who's apt to return to the stage many times. One proviso in this category: a surge of feeling for Millie could sweep Harriet Harris onto the Radio City stage.

The competition for Best Direction of a Play may not present a clear-cut winner at first glance. But start thinking politically and the victor is obvious. Dan Sullivan (Morning's at Seven) won last year for Proof, so he's out of luck. The British Howard Davies (Private Lives) and Richard Eyre (The Crucible) are not native sons and did merely excellent work, as opposed to outstanding work. That leaves Mary Zimmerman for Metamorphoses. An American. Innovative to boot. And the show basically is all her doing. Also, Tony voters have no precise idea who will win Best Play, so this will be their way to make certain they praised Metamorphoses is recognized.

By this time, Tony voters reflexively check any box with the name Susan Stroman next to it. They'll do so again this year for Best Choreography. It doesn't hurt that Stroman truly deserves the win for her work on Oklahoma!.

Lastly, Special Theatrical Event. What, are you kidding? Elaine Stritch, or there'll be a Senate investigation.

The Tight Races

The most talent-laden race this year, most agree, is Best Leading Actor in a Play. The category features five deserving performances: Alan Bates in Fortune's Fool; Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man; Liam Neeson in The Crucible; Alan Rickman in Private Lives; and Jeffrey Wright in Topdog/Underdog (and doesn't include at least one performer, Bill Pullman in The Goat, who arguably could have won). The man of this quintet who will assuredly not win the prize is Crudup, whose production was not a commercial success. Wright has already won a Tony and stars in a play which has split audiences and Tony voters. As for Rickman, awards organizations such as Drama Desk, for whatever reason, have leaned toward rewarding his stage partner, Lindsay Duncan, rather than him. The contest is between Neeson and Bates, with the latter holding an edge.

The distaff version of the above category is also close, though not so close as the male contest. Mercedes Ruehl in The Goat, Helen Mirren in Dance of Death, Laura Linney in The Crucible and Kate Burton in Hedda Gabler all gave award-worthy performances. Each of those shows, however, had its detractors. Private Lives was loved by one and all. Duncan, the stylish English veteran, will be the choice.

Best Direction of a Musical offers four commendable candidates: James Lapine for Into the Woods; Michael Mayer for Thoroughly Modern Millie; Trevor Nunn for Oklahoma!; and John Rando for Urinetown. American critics have tended to commend Stroman's work on the UK import more than Nunn's, so he probably won't prevail. As for the rest, a Millie sweep could help the chances of Mayer, a dependable Broadway talent who has yet to win a Tony. Lapine was nominated for the original production of Into the Woods but failed to win; voters might give it to him this year. And many think Rando's inventive and witty work is the best of the bunch. A tough call, though Mayer is probably the best bet.

The Rest

Whether or not Urinetown wins Best Musical, the voters will most likely recognize the skill that went into creating the show (or, depending on your point of view, wish to award the musical a consolation prize). Thus, the Best Book award will likely go to Greg Kotis and the Best Score award to Kotis and Mark Hollmann. (Again, as with many of these competitions, an party-line vote for Millie could rob Urinetown of these laurels.)

As for the design and orchestration contests—which few bother to predict out of apathy or ignorance of the competitors—Into the Woods has the best shot at Best Scenic Design (Douglas W. Schmidt) and Best Lighting Design (Brian MacDevitt), as the design of the revival is one of the things all viewers admired. Still, the set award could easily go to Tim Hatley for the swanky period work in Private Lives or Metamorphoses' Daniel Ostling, simply because of that swimming pool.

As for Best Costume Design, if voters are aware that Morning's at Seven's Jane Greenwood has never won a Tony in 12 tries, they may vote for her just to square that record. If they don't know that, or don't care, Martin Pakledinaz will win for Millie. Pakledinaz's colleagues, Douglas Besterman and the late Ralph Burns (who died in 2001), will win the Best Orchestrations prize.

The Big Prizes

It bodes well for Tony broadcast ratings that the four most important contests are among the most difficult to predict. Oklahoma! had the Best Musical Revival category sewn up until a surprisingly well received Into the Woods came to town. The latter might have a slight lead in this race, but the former has the Richard Rodgers centennial going for it. Either title could take it.

Best Revival of a Play presents four strong contenders, all well-reviewed: The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Morning's at Seven by Paul Osborn; Noises Off by Michael Frayn; and Private Lives by Noel Coward. A win by any of them wouldn't altogether surprise, but the contest is probably between the highly lauded, classy British show, Private Lives, and Richard Eyre's towering The Crucible, in part because the other two plays were seen on Broadway so recently (Noises Off in its original form, Seven in an exalted rediscovery of the neglected script). Miller revivals have a knack for winning this category (A View from the Bridge, Death of a Salesman), but then, so do UK productions (An Inspector Calls, A Doll's House). Your guess is as good as mine. But I'd guess The Crucible. Award-giving bodies like their winners to be serious minded.

The buzz surrounding Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog has subsided since the play won the Pulitzer, and Turgenev's Fortune's Fool, however enjoyable and thoroughly and skillfully adapted by Michael Poulton, is still a play more by a dead master than a living writer. (That Langella and Bates will likely be honored will dismiss any misgivings voters feel in not voting for Fool as Best Play.)

So it's Albee vs. Ovid. The fortunes of Metamorphoses and The Goat have shifted dramatically in the last month. Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of classic myths burst out of the gate last fall to critical cheers and continued to be admired throughout much of its run. The Goat confused many viewers, though Albee's writing and the toughness of the subject matter was generally accorded respect. Lately, however, there's been a subtle backlash against Metamorphoses, with folks arguing that its a "college production" and "not a real play." Sour opinions may have been fueled by the fact that Zimmerman, busy with a new show in Chicago, hasn't been around to accept the many awards she's won.

Meanwhile, something truly astounding has happened to Albee: he's become nice. The notoriously cantankerous man, who has expressed disdain for critics and awards on many occasions, has shown his face as nearly every social event this awards season (appearing to enjoy himself all the while). That, combined with the fact that Grand Old Edward hasn't won a Tony since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, should send the award home to the arms (legs?) of Sylvia.

Finally, every producer's favorite two words: Best Musical. It's long been assumed that this race is between the folks who created a musical like they used to make 'em (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and the group that created a musical that makes fun of the way they used to make 'em (Urinetown). It's nice to say the fight could go either way, but, truthfully, Millie will win, because most Tony voters like the way they used to make musicals, and even if the show is a flawed version of that model, they're going to stand by it. Also, the paraphrase George S. Kaufman, satire is what closes on Saturday and doesn't win on Sunday.

However, if the votership is suddenly stricken with a fit of self consciousness, and worries a Millie win will cause outside observers to (once again) dismiss the musical theatre as an ossified and irrelevant art form, they may rashly vote for Urinetown—just to prove the naysayers wrong.

Other predictions: Elaine Stritch's speech will be too long and she'll shout down the orchestra a couple times; network ratings will be better than last year, much better if there is not a basketball game on Sunday; Whoopi Goldberg will tell several unfunny jokes; and Mos Def's version of "My Favorite Things" will be a highlight.