NEW YORK – If Jefferson Mays does not win the Tony for best actor in a musical this year, it will be because his main competition is Neil Patrick Harris, the exceedingly charismatic and charming star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
In a dizzying tour de force, Mays plays the entire D’Ysquith clan in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” this year’s most-nominated show (it has 10).
Jessie Mueller, a relative unknown who is a knockout as Carole King in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” also is in a Tony race with high-wattage stars. She is nominated in the same category as Tony winners Idina Menzel (“If/Then”) and Sutton Foster, who is the toast of the town for her star turn in “Violet.”
Stars are a major ticket- selling draw on Broadway these days, and they also loom large during awards season. Bryan Cranston was nominated for a Tony for playing Lyndon Johnson in “All the Way,” while Tyne Daly was noticed for her performance in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons.”
Nearly as many stars were passed over by the Tony nominators, including Denzel Washington, 59, who plays thirty-something Walter Lee in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Tony winners Ethan Hawke and Alan Cumming (both in “Macbeth”), Bette Midler (“I’ll Eat You Last”) and Kristin Chenoweth (“The Apple Tree”) all were blanked by the Tonys, which would seem to improve the chances of theater actors like Mays and Mueller.
The thrilling “Gentleman’s Guide” is one of four shows I saw recently. Mays is not yet a household name, but should be, for his quick-change turns in a production that combines elements of Monty Python’s wit with the patter songs of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. It’s based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” Upon the death of his mother, young Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham, who is nominated in the same category as Mays) learns that he is descended from minor royals who disinherited his mum. After wheedling his way back into the family, Monty learns that there are many relatives ahead of him for the title to the family’s Highhurst Castle. He decides to expedite the process.
What follows is a study in various methods of murder. Sadly, for Monty, he keeps a diary. The thing to which he tells his secrets ultimately tells on him.
“Beautiful” is true to its name. The snazzy production, seamlessly directed by Marc Bruni, is a cleanly told stage biography of the pioneering singer/composer. At 16, the gutsy, curly haired Brooklyn girl (Mueller) persuades music-industry bigwig Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) to give her an audition. She meets lyricist Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), who becomes her lover. She gets pregnant unexpectedly. The two marry and have a daughter, even as her career is being launched. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” their collaboration, becomes a No. 1 hit for the Shirelles.
A jukebox musical, “Beautiful” weaves King’s music-making with her personal life, showing the emotional and real-life contexts for such hits as “Up on the Roof,” which she composed for the Drifters; “One Fine Day” (the Chiffons); “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a chart-topper for Aretha Franklin, and “You’ve Got a Friend.”
What makes “Beautiful” special is not just its book (by Douglas McGrath) or its songs, all of which mark memories for large swaths of America. Mueller is a knockout in the lead role. Vocally and in mannerisms, she displays more than a passing resemblance to King. The singing actor channels King’s doubts and genius with aplomb, and she is well-matched by Epstein, whose morally flawed character seems on a self-made trajectory of doom.
Tony-nominated actors Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector, who play an opposite songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, also turn in flawless performances in a show with a large, dynamic cast.
Musicals dominate Broadway, whose early history goes back to vaudeville revues. “After Midnight” is a revue rooted in the Jazz Age. Actor/dancer Dulé Hill, best known from TV’s “The West Wing,” plays the emcee of what looks like a precursor to today’s spoken-word jam. His poetic renditions introduce dance segments that are as entertaining and thrilling as it gets. This show, too, uses stars as headliners. Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams and k.d. lang all have been booked.
On the week I saw it, the prodigiously gifted Fantasia, who shot to stardom as winner of the 2004 season of “American Idol,” was the marquee name. Vocally, her performance was dreamy, even as she channeled the raspy weariness of Billie Holiday more than the soft hurt of Lena Horne on “Stormy Weather.” But she made the 90-minute show a winner.
“Casa Valentina,” Harvey Fierstein’s play about transvestites who had their own secret resort in the Catskills, is surprisingly static. Fierstein is a consummate theater artist, having won Tonys for both writing and acting in “Torch Song Trilogy” and for performing in “Hairspray.” But “Casa Valentina” relies too much on the news that this sanctuary existed for married men, including a judge and various officials. One of these cross-dressers is surprisingly homophobic, which sets up the play’s tension.
And the play could use some juice, with more active dialogue and fewer monologues. That the ending is predictable is too bad, because it has the potential to be so much more in a season of hits that will be celebrated by the Tonys.