Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Friday, June 1, 2018

Ranking the 2018 Tony Nominated Musicals

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:12

With the 2018 Tony Awards just around the corner (the show airs next Sunday on CBS), it’s time to rank the nominees for the coveted prize for Best Musical:

#4: SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical

How exactly this musical made it as a nominee is a bit perplexing. The show itself isn’t very good. The book is overall thin; and the production is largely completely stripped of the veiled mature humor that makes the cartoon so incredibly loved by adults. What’s left is a mess of a score, which is reflected by the show’s myriad of composers and lyricists, embedded in what amounts to a tedious and unenjoyable theatrical experience. What makes this nomination even more puzzling is the fact that the show has really struggled at the box office, dipping as low as almost 50% capacity in its cavernous home at the Palace Theatre during multiple weeks of its run. The performances are quite good, especially Ethan Slater, who is rightly nominated for the Tony for his portrayal of the title character. But overall, the show is a sluggish and boring journey that is devoid of so many of the elements that makes its source material so incredibly fun and good. I’ll be scratching my head long and hard to determine what appeal this show has to critics (it received mostly positive reviews) and the nominating committee for the Tonys.

#3: Frozen

Like it not (mostly not), Disney has had a stranglehold on Broadway for quite some time now. And while some of their shows have truly broken ground in musical theater (the innovative puppetry in The Lion King, for example) and have been translated exquisitely from screen to stage (Beauty and the Beast, AIDA), others have been downright horrendous (Aladdin). Frozen falls somewhere in the middle. The production itself is at times breath-taking. It is laden with special effects and lighting designs that weave a wonderful and magical tapestry that bedazzle the audience with delight. And the lead (Cassie Levy as Elsa) is just as powerful in her role here as she was as Molly in GHOST. The first act is also strong and well developed. But as the show enters its second phase, it begins to turn to slush. The book unravels into a repetitious mess, with a handful of numbers added in simply as filler and fluff. Even still, unlike SpongeBobFrozen remains quite fun. And the costumes (I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Sven every time he was on stage), lighting, and special effects make it a respectable, albeit undeserving, nominee.

#2: The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit is more than likely the frontrunner for the Tony Award for Best Musical this year. It is incredibly unique, employing the whole “musicians as performing actors on the stage” made famous by Tony-winner Once. Based off a film of the same title, The Band’s Visit tells the true story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra’s accidental stop in the wrong town and the ensuing connection the band members make with the town’s residents. The music is rich and unmistakably Arabic.  The main actors, who give downright incredible performances, are light in their non-singing musicianship, surrounded by lesser characters who make-up the show’s orchestra. Tony Shalhoub will undoubtedly take home the Tony for his Broadway debut (and rightly so) while Katrina Lenk is the favorite for Best Actress in a Musical (again, deservedly so). The story is spectacularly moving; and the show leaves the audience with a rather heavy impact. Unfortunately, that impact isn’t quite what it could’ve been. In what I believe was a major misstep, the creative team followed the trend of some recent productions (The Visit, Boys in the Band, for example) and narrowed the show’s incredibly thick, engaging, and gripping plot to a one act wonder. Expanding the show over a traditional Act I and Act II with a standard intermission would’ve justified the complex character development that was really necessary to bridge the gaps that limit the production.

#1: Mean Girls

Not since my initial viewing of The Book of Mormon (okay, Something Rotten! too) have I left a theater with such a sore face from laughing like I recently  did with Mean Girls. This fantastic new musical is based on the film that starred Tina Fey, who here, alongside with her composer husband, makes her first (and monumentally successful) stab at bringing a stage musical to life. Although I never saw the movie on which it is based, Mean Girls is filled from start to finish with hilarious quips, bitterness, and bitchiness intertwined with a pop score that soars and showcases the chops of its stars, several of which are also Tony nominated. Ultimately, the laughter culminates in to plot elements that are strongly relevant today and that teach the moral that bullying behaviors and reliance on superficiality rarely result in happiness. And the ride leading up to that point is so delicious and enjoyable. Every character, with his or her every flaw, is lovable and fabulous. The sets, which rely on changing digital projections (originated with Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark) are joined by traditional staging elements to create what feels like am immersive atmosphere that punctuates each setting. Mean Girls is by far the most deserving of all the Tony nominees. It will more than likely lose to The Band’s Visit. But if somehow, it’s able to pull off the impossible, you’ll hear a cry of joy all the way from Florida for this top-notch show that is so irresistible that even the most hardened theater critic will leave with a laugh-scarred face and a warm heart from the show’s sweeter and more familiar elements that leave an enduring impression.

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