Seen on Broadway, the Season Enders and Award Nominees Edition: No sooner had the 2009-2010 season concluded than awards season began, with the Drama Desks and Tonys having their say. One unloved show, the British import Enron, quickly posted a closing notice. But its sound designer, Adam Cork, made out like one of its robber barons, received accolades for his work on the show from both organizations and a second Tony nomination for a more successful London transplant, Red.
What follows is a snapshot look at the close of the Broadway season, one that plays off the award nominations where applicable. The Drama Desks consider Off and Off Off Broadway productions as well, and the nominators are to be commended for going deep in their selections. On the surface, however, there were a few shows whose achievements went largely unrecognized by either group, and I’ll give special attention to those.
Two shows are in the running for a “Robert” for Best Integrated Design (End of Season), and as there are no other voters (and, also, no prize) they both win. American Idiot, at the St. James, received Tony nominations for scenic design (Christine Jones) and lighting design (Kevin Adams), as did their prior show with director Michael Mayer, Spring Awakening. Without the aggressive, in-your-face aesthetic (with luminaires shooting into your eyes) the show would be inconceivable, as the book wrapped around Green Day’s classic 2004 album is a slender recounting of the misfortunes (drugs, Iraq, etc.) befalling disaffected twentysomethings, costumed as starkly as possible by Andrea Lauer. The design, however, makes the most of the atmosphere, with Jones hanging punk posters floor to ceiling and conjuring a few simple environment, and also dangling a car from the rafters. Adams’ beams slice angrily through the air as Brian Ronan’s sound design approximates the fullness and dynamism of a concert performance. Complementing these contributions is a big, brash barrage of video screens and overlays of projections by Darrel Maloney, which add to the general frenzy. The controlled chaos onstage packs tremendous force.
Garnering a well-earned sound design Tony nomination for Dan Moses Schreier is Sondheim on Sondheim, a Roundabout production at Studio 54 conceived and directed by the composer’s frequent collaborator James Lapine. Then again, everything about the show is exquisitely turned out, not least its set, by Beowulf Boritt—a cube of video monitors that is always, to paraphrase the song, “putting itself together,” as the 80-year-old Sondheim talks us through the highlights of his life and art onscreen and an onstage ensemble including Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat performs a smartly chosen selection of hits, rarities, and misses. I can only assume award nominators found this technology a little cold, though it is used elegantly, and amusingly, with the video Sondheim interacting with the performers and the cube transforming into playing areas, for a mini-staging of Merrily We Roll Along for example. Peter Flaherty’s video and projection design is remarkably fluid and not at all sterile, and Ken Billington’s fine-honed lighting keeps everything in proper balance, including stylish outfits by Susan Hilferty. The show proves that innovation in the arena of high-tech staging didn’t end with the knockout Sunday in the Park With George in the same venue, and the benchmarks are worthy of greater recognition. The show runs through June 27.
Critics and Tony awards nominators were dead to The Addams Family musical, at the Lunt-Fontanne. Wisely, however, the Drama Desk nominated the sets, by co-directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, and Natasha Katz’s multifaceted lighting. (Basil Twist’s puppets, including a scene-devouring giant squid, were nominated on the same line as the sets—something that should be done with projections if that particular category is to go unused, as it has the past two seasons since it was inaugurated.) While the show is weighed down by a series of interchangeable live-for-the-moment songs that pass for a score and a humdrum book an expensive, money-on-the-stage musical is practically a novelty in these recessionary times. Big isn’t always bad; besides the squid, there’s a gorgeous moving staircase and other spooky settings to gawk at, Katz’s many lights to enjoy, and a funny-shivery audio design by Acme Sound Partners to boot. McDermott and Crouch have also dressed Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, along with the rest of the mysterious and spooky cast, to the nines as Gomez and Morticia, even if the material is at best a five.
Getting a bear hug from both organizations is a frugal London import of La Cage aux Folles, revived at the Longacre with its acclaimed Albin, Douglas Hodge, joined by the urbane Georges of Kelsey Grammer. Director Terry Johnson has pared the show to its essentials, to the point where I can’t remember much about Tim Shortall’s sets, except that their tackiness is intentional in this glitzed-down production. Nor is Nick Richings’ lighting exceptional—though it may be a case of their doing their jobs so well, and so discreetly, that I did what I was supposed to and concentrated on the winning performers and score. Tony nominators saw more in it than I did and gave Shortall and Richings the nod. More immediately understandable are the Tony and Drama Desk nominations given to Matthew Wright for his delicious costumes (no holding back here) and to Jonathan Deans for his crystalline sound.
Another revival, Promises, Promises at the Broadway, eked out a Drama Desk sound nomination for Brian Ronan. The 1968 musicalization of Billy Wilder’s hard-edged 1960 comedy The Apartment has trouble crossing the time barrier; Kristin Chenoweth, the kewpie doll actress with the Transformers-sized voice, can’t make sense of a culturally unintelligible part as a kept woman, even with a couple of Burt Bacharach-Hal David hits that weren’t part of their hummable score added to the production. Sean Hayes, however, is quite amusing as the office drone, valued by senior staffers for his one-bedroom love nest, who comes to her aid. Design-wise the show, directed and spryly choreographed by Rob Ashford, capitalizes on the intrinsic appeal of its Mad Men-era setting. Scott Pask’s gorgeous sets, very handsomely lit by Donald Holder, and Bruce Pask’s costumes capture both the sleek line of mid-century modernism and the workaday flavor of underling life in the Big Apple. The production alone makes this somewhat frayed time capsule worth cracking open.
Two play revivals, of August Wilson’s Fences (at the Cort) and Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories (a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman) have Santo Loquasto sets. The baseball-themed Fences hit a home run at the Tonys, with Loquasto, LD Brian MacDevitt, Acme Sound Partners, and costume designer Costanza Romero (Wilson’s widow) all receiving nominations for their prosaic work. What I think it comes down to is that critics, audiences, and awards nominators enjoy looking at houses onstage, particularly ones where actors of the caliber of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis live. Directed by Kenny Leon, the show has all the gritty ambiance of Pittsburgh in 1957, with grace notes provided by MacDevitt’s lighting and a bluesy score by Branford Marsalis. The show runs through July 11.
Making its Broadway debut in a Lynne Meadow-directed production is Margulies’ 1996 play, which comes to pit an aging short story writer (Linda Lavin) against her ambitious assistant (Sarah Paulson). Loquasto’s set takes us inside the writer’s somewhat woebegone apartment, which seems to get more pinched as the melodrama increases, thanks to subtle gradations in the lighting (Natasha Katz) and sound design (Obadiah Eaves). The writer’s decline (and her assistant’s ascent) is measured more dramatically in Jane Greenwood’s costumes, which gain in confidence for Paulson and plummet for Lavin.
The Drama Desks will be held May 23. The Tonys will be telecast on June 13, though as usual you’ll have to look fast to see your favorite designers as the categories are relegated to backstage status. The 2010-2011 Broadway season begins with an award-nominated returnee from this season, Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which opens Sept. 23. —Robert CashillEquipment Vendors