NEW YORK — The strange case of the triumphant star-driven theater season continues to grip Broadway with all the twisty surprise of a really satisfying thriller. Even as the commercial theater rehearses for the national ad campaign known as the Tony Awards (Sunday night at 8 EDT on CBS), box-office grosses continue to confound the world’s financial realities. The season’s final tally is $943.3 million, which the Broadway League is calling its best ever.
Despite the teensiest bit of number-fudging (Variety notes this year’s grosses include credit-card fees), there is no denying both the counterintuitive quantity and the serious quality of the season.
Yes, the 43 shows (the most since 50 in 1982-83) have been depressingly short on important new American plays and innovative musicals. But the year has been galvanized by impeccable dramatic revivals and astonishing performances — many more than are reflected in the nominations.
Oddly enough, considering the season’s mysterious and unpredictable variety, the conclusion doesn’t promise much suspense. “God of Carnage” and “Billy Elliot” — both immensely popular and critical successes — are likely to sweep the big categories. They deserve it. Before the riches get flattened into a few winners and more losers, however, I offer 10 personal favorite moments from a remarkably rewarding year:
1. After such a lofty buildup, it may seem strange to begin with the very best scene of projectile vomit I’ve ever seen onstage. But, really. This extremely special effect in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” would be impossible without the daring precision of director Matthew Warchus and the brutally entertaining virtuosity of his four-star ensemble — that is, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and Marcia Gay Harden. I usually prefer my comedy verbal, but this physicality is as funny as it is flawless.
2. Like Warchus, director Anthony Page has reined in four huge and idiosyncratic talents in the stunning revival of “Waiting for Godot.” But it takes nothing away from Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane and John Glover to cherish John Goodman as slave-master Pozzo, rolling on his bully-boy belly and bleating like an unmoored Macy’s balloon in the wind. How could this performance not get a Tony nomination?
3. As the rain drowns royal propriety in Phyllida Lloyd’s riveting production of “Mary Stuart,” a clump of courtiers sweeps past Mary, the condemned Catholic queen of Scotland, delivering the Protestant Elizabeth I for a monumentally entertaining regina smackdown. With Janet McTeer as the lusty Mary and Harriet Walter as England’s Virgin Queen, the collision reveals the warrior and the girlish insecurity in both formidable females.
4. The cops, the miners and the ballet fade in and out of one another’s contrasting realities in the cinematically powerful “Solidarity” number of “Billy Elliot.” Elton John’s underrated score, with its character-revealing melodies, is altogether satisfying and grown-up. How smart that Peter Darling’s choreography infuses everyone in the big, blazing cast with a personal story. We all know about the three brilliant Billys, but even the strike-crushing police suggest their vulnerability in a fidgety dance for their own conflicted hands.
5. I could easily pick 10 memorable moments from any scene in Geoffrey Rush’s exquisitely unhinged evening-long death scene in the outrageous and profoundly moving revival of Eugene Ionesco’s seldom-seen absurdist tragicomedy, “Exit the King.” But if I could play one moment over again, I’d try to figure out how the 400-year-old king’s hair turns white without our noticing. Oh, and I’d savor again the rhapsodic soul of Lauren Ambrose as his young queen, who clings to the idea that she can love the life back into him.
6. Speaking of rhapsodic souls, I’m not going to forget Daniel Radcliffe — even if the Tony nominators did — as he quietly transfigured himself from the boy wizard named Harry Potter to the horrifically unstable stable boy who finds psychosexual religiosity atop a beautiful man-horse in “Equus.” Radcliffe, 19, appeared supremely comfortable in his own skin — and yes, we saw all of it — in his daring, intensely serious Broadway debut. And, in a more imaginative world, the dancers who played horses would be nominated in a musical category.
7. Not to beat another dead subject, but how could the Tonys overlook all the moments when Kristin Scott Thomas calibrated layers of tissue-thin nuance as the vain, flamboyant, manipulative actress-mother in Ian Rickson’s emotionally luscious revival of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”? Much about this ignored production deserves to be part of Broadway history. But it is unthinkable to forget the way Thomas observes herself observing her needy son with a combination of acute awareness, great distance and thoughtless cruelty.
8. Diane Paulus’ exuberant and tender revival of “Hair” craftily lets us have all the wild fun that came with the marvels and burdens of ‘60s social change. True, more often than I’d like to admit, the show looks like a flower-power commercial for air freshener. But the book and the songs prove to be far more shrewd than they seemed through the years. And Paulus never flinches from the moment when innocence must crash in the aching timeliness of war.
9. Although Will Ferrell is getting all the credit for his surprisingly dark solo comedy, “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush,” let’s not forget the launch of dancer Pia Glenn, who slithers in a disco fog and a tiny red business suit as Condoleezza Rice in a deliciously cheesy wordless seduction. For those few moments, she was just given the Astaire Award for best female dancer.
10. Finally — but definitely not last — imagine Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit.” Enough said.
63rd ANNUAL TONY AWARDS
Sunday from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT on CBS
Neil Patrick Harris hosts at Radio City Music Hall. Dolly Parton will perform with the cast of “9 to 5” and Elton John will appear with “Billy Elliot.”
Presenters include Jane Fonda, James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Will Ferrell, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Lange, Angela Lansbury, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Spacey, Lauren Graham, Anne Hathaway and Carrie Fisher.
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