Monday was the first time in years that I was out of town for the announcement of the Tony Award nominations. I was in Las Vegas for my older brother's wedding, but thanks to the internet and Playbill On-Line, of course, I checked out this year's nominations as soon as I could Monday morning.
There are always a few surprises and disappointments each year, but overall I was quite happy with the nominating committee's decisions for the season just ended. If I could make one change, I would add Ann Harada to the list of Best Featured Actress in a Musical candidates, which includes The Boy From Oz's Beth Fowler and Isabel Keating, Caroline, or Change's Anika Noni Rose, Wonderful Town's Jennifer Westfeldt and Never Gonna Dance's Karen Ziemba. Not only a strong singer with a piercing belt, Harada is also a gifted comedic actress, drawing laugh after laugh as Avenue Q's Christmas Eve. That said, I'm positive Harada, who dazzled at her recent Ars Nova concert, will have her day in the Tony spotlight in a forthcoming season.
For this week's column I thought I would examine the work of the five nominees in the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical category. As announced May 10, those actresses include Wicked's Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Wonderful Town's Donna Murphy and Caroline, or Change's Tonya Pinkins. It's one of the most exciting categories of the season, and a case could easily be made for each of the women on the list.
I've long admired the work of Kristin Chenoweth, who I thought was a standout in her 1997 Broadway debut Steel Pier. I still remember thinking, "Who is this woman?" as Chenoweth effortlessly displayed her coloratura in that short-lived Kander and Ebb musical. She later made a somewhat disappointing production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown come to life, providing the musical's showstopper with her Tony winning rendition of Andrew Lippa's "My New Philosophy." Chenoweth also scored in the City Center Encores! production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and now she's back on Broadway in the season's biggest hit, Wicked. If Chenoweth doesn't conquer any new territory in her performance, her work as Glinda confirms her place as one of the finest comedic actresses in musical theatre today. And, that glorious rangy voice sounds perfect singing such Stephen Schwartz tunes as "No One Mourns the Wicked," "Popular," "Thank Goodness" and "For Good." Idina Menzel:
If Chenoweth garners more laughs in Wicked, it's Idina Menzel who warms the heart. Menzel and Adam Pascal were the two who most impressed me in the original company of Jonathan Larson's Rent: When Menzel burst onto the stage in that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, she completely captivated the audience's attention and dazzled with her strong high belt. Who will ever forget her high-voltage duet with Fredi Walker on Larson's "Take Me or Leave Me"? If I found Menzel's work in the Off-Broadway The Wild Party a bit over-the-top, Wicked director Joe Mantello has brought out the fine actress that has been lurking inside the performer for years. Menzel offers her most subtle and nuanced performance to date, and her singing is still tremendous. She thrills with "The Wizard and I," pulls at your heart strings with "I'm Not That Girl" and joins co-star Chenoweth for the Act II duet, "For Good."
In her Broadway debut, Stephanie D'Abruzzo proves that she is not only a gifted puppeteer but a wonderful actress and singer as well. In fact, she brings two characters to full life in my favorite musical of the season, Avenue Q. D'Abruzzo is both charming and moving as the boyfriend searching Kate Monster, and hilariously seductive as the man-stealing Lucy T. Slut. She also provides one of the most touching moments of the season, performing what may be my favorite song of the year, Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez's ballad, "There's a Fine, Fine Line." Whether you're watching D'Abruzzo or the puppets she skillfully handles, it's a terrific performance.
After triumphing (and nabbing two Tonys) for her dramatic work in Passion and The King and I, Donna Murphy is currently demonstrating her comedic prowess in the revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. I had first seen Murphy perform in the City Center Encores! mounting of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, so I knew what a perfect fit Murphy and Ruth Sherwood made, but it was still a thrill earlier this season to see the actress again step into the shoes of the unglamorous aspiring writer who must contend with the harsh realities of being out of work in New York City and a sister who attracts all the male attention. But fear not for Ruth Sherwood (or Donna Murphy). After two hours of acting, singing (solos, duets, Broadway ballads and even some jazz riffs), and drawing laughs from nearly every line she utters, Ruth gets her man. Who could resist Murphy's show-stopping "One Hundred Easy Ways," her physicality in "Conga!" or her terrific, jazzed-up "Swing"? She's also brilliant reenacting the characters in the three laughably terrible manuscripts she submits to Greg Edelman's Robert Baker.
As I wrote last week, Tonya Pinkins, who stars in Caroline, or Change, is offering a not-to-be-missed performance as the down-on-her-luck Caroline, an African-American maid for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana who must feed, house and clothe her children on $30 a week. From the moment she steps onto the stage, Pinkins is never less than captivating in the musical, which explores Caroline's humble existence against a backdrop of social change prior to and following the assassination of President Kennedy. Pinkins completely inhabits the role of the dispirited and physically and emotionally exhausted Caroline; the anger she feels about her lot in life is palpable, and Pinkins explodes with rage several times during the through sung musical. Possessing a thrilling, rich belt that she pours out repeatedly in the poignant production, Pinkins literally stops the show with her second act tour de force, "Lot's Wife." It's an often grim, devastatingly real performance, and Pinkins is consistently moving, whether she's letting her anger spew at her college-attending-friend Dotty or her employer's son Noah; hugging her daughter Emmie; or opening her soul and battlefield-of-a-heart in the aforementioned "Wife."
Patti LuPone, who recently triumphed in the New York Philharmonic's Candide concerts, will offer a limited tour of her critically acclaimed Matters of the Heart program this fall. Produced by Clear Channel Entertainment, the tour will kick off Sept. 28 at the Palace Theatre in Columbus, OH. Backed by Dick Gallagher and a string quartet, the tour will feature the program LuPone presented at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2000. Conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, Matters of the Heart — which is available on CD — features such tunes as "A Wonderful Guy," "Unexpressed," "Not a Day Goes By," "Real Emotional Girl," "Back to Before" and "Hello, Young Lovers."
As of press time, the tour schedule for Matters of the Heart follows:
Sept. 28-Oct. 3 at the Palace Theatre in Columbus, OH
Oct. 5-10 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN
Oct. 19-31 at the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts in Cincinnati, OH
April 5-10, 2005 at the Keller Auditorium in Portland, OR
April 12-17 at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, WA
May 10-15 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, GA
LuPone fans can currently catch the Olivier Award-winning actress at the Plush Room, performing her newest show, The Lady with the Torch, through May 30.
QUOTABLE QUOTE Elaine Paige, who recently received a Drama Desk nomination for her magnificent performance in Sweeney Todd, discusses her battle with cancer eight years ago (Daily Mail):
"I was lying in bed on a Sunday, after a week having done eight performances as Norma Desmond at the Adelphi Theatre. The show was coming to the end of a nine-month run and I was absolutely knackered. I was in bed, reading the papers with a glass of champagne — which is what I often do on my day off during a long run — when the phone rang . . . [The doctor] repeated everything again. I said, 'Are you telling me I've got cancer?' It was a moment I'll never forget — complete and utter shock. It was horrid . . . The only time I could go into hospital was the following Sunday because of my commitments to the theatre. I never for a moment considered not doing the show. When I did the show I became very emotional. Some of the lyrics suddenly took on an entirely different meaning. Words like, 'as if we never said goodbye' became more real . . . The hardest part after they'd removed the lump — which was cancerous — was waiting for the tests to see if it had gone to my lymph glands or anywhere else. I was fortunate in that, although it was the size of half a crown, it was slow growing. I was on medication for five years and went through a radiation programme. I couldn't tell anyone about it. I didn't want anyone to know. It's only now that I've survived, I'm able to speak about it. As far as I know I'm clear and completely well — but it never leaves you completely. It's made me learn a lot about myself. When you're on your own, you've just got to get on with it, grit your teeth and think, 'Right, I'm going to beat this.' I did have my dear friend and, without him, I don't know what I would have done. Everybody's got to have somebody. I don't believe anybody can go through life as an island, completely and utterly alone. I wouldn't want to have to do that."
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK The York Theatre Company will present Carol Channing with its annual Oscar Hammerstein Award next month. Composer Jerry Herman and gossip columnist Liz Smith are the honorary chairpersons for the June 7 event. The evening will begin at 6 PM with cocktails, followed by the 7 PM performance at the Citigroup Executive Auditorium (399 Park Avenue). The 8:30 PM champagne dinner will be held at the University Club. For tickets, call (212) 935-5824, ext. 25. . . . As the annual Tony Awards approach — June 6 at Radio City Music Hall — the first few guest artists have been announced. Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman, who made her Broadway debut in The Blue Room, will be among the presenters for the theatre's biggest night. And, singers Mary J. Blige and Tony Bennett will also be on hand to sing tunes from the musical theatre. Let's hope the rest of the evening's singers are from the theatre world.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!