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Review: A Sleepy 2022 Tony Awards With Few Moments of Razzle-Dazzle

Our critic reviews the Tony telecast on Paramount Plus and CBS.

Jaquel Spivey leads the cast of A Strange Loop in that musical's opening number during the 75th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
(© Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

The Tony Awards are Broadway's infomercial. For four hours in prime time, the most spectacular shows of the season have an opportunity to sell themselves to a television audience, and maybe even convince home viewers to book a trip to New York. Growing up in Ohio in an age before YouTube, the Tonys represented one of two venues in which I could glimpse what was happening on the New York stage (The Rosie O'Donnell Show was the other). But now that shows can post video of their production numbers online, bootlegs are abundant, and some producers have even taken to selling professional recordings of their shows to streaming platforms, we must ask: Are the Tony Awards useful anymore?

This question ought to be posed about every televised awards show, all of which are hemorrhaging viewers. Is the only solution to turn these events into a form of celebrity professional wrestling, as happened with this year's Oscars? It's unlikely that we'll ever witness a smackdown between Nathan Lane and Bernadette Peters, so this is a nonstarter. No, if this year's awards are any indication, the Tonys are destined to play before an ever-diminishing audience of old-timers dozing in their armchairs until someone at CBS mercifully pulls the plug.

The evening got off to a promising start: As with the previous Tony Awards (which were just nine months ago, if you can believe it) the first part was available only on Paramount Plus. In just under an hour, the producers managed to reveal the winners of Best Score, Orchestrations, Choreography, and all eight design awards. There was even time for a tribute from the Gay Men's Chorus to Lifetime Achievement winner Angela Lansbury. Darren Criss and Julianne Hough hosted with charm and wit (the soul of which is brevity), sending us off to the CBS broadcast with eight minutes to spare. As far as awards shows go, it was a marvel of efficiency — and it obviously couldn't last.

Following the pace set in the first hour, the next three on CBS couldn't help but feel like a slog. A surfeit of commercial breaks and filler moments created the feeling of sitting in traffic, inching our way slowly to the next category. Even some of the performances were dull, like the original cast of Spring Awakening singing "Touch Me," a moment that must have been very meaningful to the performers but left me feeling catatonic.

Perhaps sensing this, host Ariana DeBose seemed hell-bent on pepping up the proceedings with her high-energy presence. She came out kicking and twirling with "This Is Your Round of Applause," a number that included song snippets from 30 Broadway shows. I laughed when she danced to "Rich Man's Frug" with Sam Rockwell, and later when she sang a number about the dreaded specter of audience participation. Wrapping up just four minutes past 11 o'clock by singing another manic mash-up of showtunes, DeBose clearly did her job.

Beyond the host's contributions, there were high points: Billy Crystal leading the audience in "Yiddish scat"; Myles Frost channeling Michael Jackson in a performance of "Smooth Criminal" (as they did for Adrienne Warren last year, the voters rewarded Frost for an uncanny portrayal of a well-known pop star); Joaquina Kalukango, real tears streaming down her cheek, singing "Let It Burn" not just to the back row of Radio City Music Hall, but to the next-door neighbors of every home viewer. She naturally won the award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, as she was expected to. There were more tears as she was led away from the mic by presenters Danielle Brooks and Cynthia Erivo, who was dressed like the bride at a Jedi wedding.

via GIPHY

The most surprising win of the evening went to Simon Russell Beale, one of three actors who appeared in The Lehman Trilogy, this year's winner of Best Play. "Adam, Adrian, I feel a little sheepish," he addressed his co-stars, both of whom were nominated in the same category. I'll be working out in my head for a long time why the voters elevated one Lehman over the other two.

I was beyond delighted when Deirdre O'Connell won for Best Leading Actress in a Play. She has been consistently excellent over the years, mostly appearing off- and off-off-Broadway. Her performance in Dana H. was one of the most technically difficult things I've ever witnessed onstage, almost like a figure skating routine for the lips — and O'Connell landed all her triple axels. It was a well-deserved win for her and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel. In her acceptance speech, O'Connell offered some sage advice for theater-makers staring down a brutal and often unforgiving industry: "Make the weird art."

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This is not just good counsel when it comes to artistic integrity: If you manage to get your weird show to Broadway, Tony nominators and voters will reward you for taking the risk. They certainly did when it came to the evening's top prize, Best Musical, which went to A Strange Loop.

This is unsurprising for anyone who has seen it and knows it truly is the most daring and original musical of the season. However, home audiences might have been perplexed following a lackluster performance of the opening number (one of the only FCC-friendly songs in the show) that featured a confusing tangle of overlapping lyrics further hindered by wobbly sound engineering. This is the best musical of the year? I promise you it is, although I don't blame you for being skeptical.

It surely didn't help that the award was presented following a supercharged performance of the opening number from Six, the musical sensation that reimagines the wives of Henry VIII as members in a girl group — and which represented the only real competition to A Strange Loop in this category. Their characters' surnames appeared in lights above the stage, just so there was no confusion about who was singing. And the number sounded great with the last-minute addition of dance captain Mallory Maedke in the role of Jane Seymour (several winners highlighted the work of swings and understudies, who have allowed shows to keep running when cast members are sidelined with a positive Covid test). As far as performances that sell the show, it was one of the best.

But I don't expect many tickets to move following this year's Tony broadcast. It wasn't must-see TV, nor was it horrendous. It was just OK – and I'm not sure awards shows can do much better than that in 2022.

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