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Tony Awards Review: The Highlights, Some Lowlights & All Praise For The Unstoppable Ariana DeBose

The Lehman Trilogy, Company, A Strange Loop, MJ and Sweet Charity were among the big winners at tonight’s Tony Awards. And Sweet Charity wasn’t even staged this season.

Credit Ariana DeBose for the blink-and-miss-it shout-out to the Bob Fosse classic — and for much else that went right with tonight’s fast-moving ceremony broadcast on CBS. When DeBose, who has mentioned Sweet Charity as being on her Broadway wish list, pulled American Buffalo nominee Sam Rockwell from the audience to do a quick bit of “Rich Man’s Frug” from the great 1966 musical, she made a case both for a revival and for her stake as one of the Tonys’ great hosts.

75th Annual Tony Awards: Deadline’s Full Coverage

DeBose will crop up more than once on this list of highlights from tonight’s broadcast. So will MJ, Patti LuPone’s salary and that “big, Black and queer-ass musical” (in RuPaul’s memorable description) A Strange Loop.

Here, then, the best of the 75th Annual Tony Awards (and a few of the not-so-best):

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  • Ariana DeBose got things off to a quick and enjoyable start with an opening musical number that paid tribute to Broadway classics including Cabaret, Pippin, The Wiz, The Sound of Music, Hamilton, Rent, A Chorus Line and West Side Story, among many, many others. The segment even included some nice clips of old acceptance speeches — how great to see Michael Bennett and Daisy Eagan again? If anything, the number was a bit too crammed with good stuff and requires at least one replay to catch all the references. Another quibble: Where was the reaction shot of LuPone when DeBose did Evita?

  • Debose also struck on some of the evening’s important themes in her opening monologue, paying tribute to the understudies, standbys and swings who kept Broadway moving this season, and to the contributions made by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities this year. “Theater,” she said, “is becoming more reflective of the community who adores it.” As if to prove her point, the Tony Award for Best Musical went to A Strange Loop.

Tony Awards Host Ariana DeBose Hails Broadway Diversity In High-Energy Show Opening: “‘The Great White Way’ Is Becoming More Of A Nickname Than A How-To Guide”

  • MJ, Paradise Square and A Strange Loop were the clear winners when it came to tonight’s performances. With Myles Frost leading the charge of MJ‘s “Smooth Criminal” and Joaquina Kalukango setting the stage afire with her searing “Let It Burn” from Paradise Square, both productions should see some action at the box office this week. And the performance of “Intermission Song” by Jaquel Spivey and the cast of A Strange Loop was a fine introduction to a hard-to-encapsulate musical that deserves all the love and attention it gets.

  • Other numbers from the Best Musical nominees were less impressive on the small screen. Both Company and Girl from the North Country might have been better served by songs that highlighted specific performances — LuPone’s “Ladies Who Lunch,” for example, or ‘I Want You” from the Dylan musical — than the busier ensemble numbers chosen tonight. The over-the-top marching band shtick of The Music Man showed that revival in all its creakiness, and Billy Crystal did Mr. Saturday Night no favors with the tired Borscht Belt scat-singing that doesn’t begin to capture the charm of that musical.
  • LuPone’s now-classic “Chris Harper pays my salary” line from her take-down of a maskless audience member was resurrected to fine effect several times tonight, most notably by LuPone and Harper themselves.
  • In an evening that offered next-to-no political grandstanding — for better or worse — the most powerful such moment came from The Minutes playwright Tracy Letts. During a clever taped segment in which nominated playwrights offered, among other observations, what they hope audiences take from their nominated plays, Letts said bluntly, “I hope the audience comes away with the burning desire to stop the rise of fascism in this country.”
  • Frost’s acceptance speech, in which he movingly thanked his supportive mother and then said directly to “little Black kids who may not have a good relationship with their fathers — you can do it.” Frost then said, “Also, Dad, I love you,” and slipping into his spot-on Michael Jackson whisper to say, “With love, with love, heal the world.”
  • Deirdre O’Connell, who won the Lead Actress in a Play Tony for her brilliant, lip-synced performance in Dana H., delivered an acceptance speech for the ages: “I would love for this little prize to be a token for every person who is wondering should I be trying to make something that could work on Broadway and could win me a Tony Award, or should I make the weird art that is haunting me, that frightens me, that I don’t know how to make, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand, please let me standing her be a little sign from the universe to make the weird art.”

  • The In Memoriam segment was especially moving and elegant, with Billy Porter singing “On the Street Where You Live” while the photo roster of those lost this season rolled by, and included big names (Stephen Sondheim, William Hurt, Peter Scolari, Robert Morse, among others) and beloved figures perhaps known mostly to the theater community but no less worthy of public remembrance (ad exec Vinny Sainato, conductor Donald Pippin, vocal coach Barbara Maier Gustern).

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  • Kalukango followed up her amazing performance of “Let It Burn” from Paradise Square with an equally moving acceptance speech for the Lead Actress in a Musical Tony. The musical, centered around the New York City Civil War-era draft riots, “gives power” to “the nameless ancestors who have suffered. … I honor them every day,” Kalukango said tearfully.
  • The Spring Awakening reunion — with the entire original cast including Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick, Skylar Astin and others — didn’t really make a case for its inclusion tonight (other than to plug the recent HBO documentary about the show), but the performance of the musical’s “Touch Me” was, if nothing else, a nice little gift to the diehard fans, and harmless enough for the rest of us.

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