Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about FENCES, LEND ME A TENOR, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, PROMISES PROMISES, COLLECTED STORIES and my annual Tony Rant.

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Because of those doggone Tony Awards, Broadway openings come at us fast and furious this time of year. The lion’s share of Broadway shows open between mid-March and 1 May, in hopes of snagging Tony nominations, which they can then use to promote ticket sales while they wait to see if they win the Tony Roulette. Expect to see many closings in June, of shows whose number did not come up. 

Anyway, I usually, write about a cross-section of productions I have seen, from those on the Great White way all the way down to deepest, darkest Off Off Broadway. This week, it’s all about Broadway. 

The revival of the late August Wilson’s Fences, at the Cort Theatre, heads my list of must-sees. The original production starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a former Negro Leagues baseball star who was too old when integration finally came and who now works as a garbage man. Troy is a complex character, a deeply flawed hero with a stormy relationship with his son, born of his resentment of both his youth and his athletic ability, a man who loves his wife but who just can’t resist tomcatting around with other women (Tiger Woods, anyone?). He is brilliantly embodied in this new production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a towering performance by Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors. Washington’s performance is matched by that of Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, who consents to taking in a baby whom Troy has fathered with another woman (who dies in childbirth), but who informs her husband that from this moment on, he is a woman-less man. 

Kenny Leon’s production is flawless, and there is terrific supporting work from Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Jim Bono and from Chris Chalk as the son. 

Don’t miss this great production of this great American play. 

I also recommend Stanley Tucci’s production of Ken Ludwig’s farce Lend Me A Tenor, about a Cleveland opera company which is forced to improvise when their visiting star Italian tenor drops dead (or so they think) on opening night. Lend Me a Tenor was the last of a long line of classic Broadway comedies, a genre which is now pretty much dead due to critical antipathy towards comedies which seek only to amuse. It is more than just amusing – it is hilarious. 

Tony Shalhoub is a scream as the manager of the opera company, as are Anthony LaPaglia as the tenor, Tito Morelli, and Jan Maxwell as his wife, who trusts him about as much as Elin now trusts Tiger; but all the performances are wonderful. 

Lend Me a Tenor is the best comedy on Broadway (well, it’s the only pure comedy on Broadway – thank you, cultural ayatollahs). 

Sondheim on Sondheim, Roundabout’s bio-revue about you-know-who at Studio 54 is, predictably, long on reverence and short on drama (it’s a revue, after all). It’s comprised of songs from Sondheim’s many shows, interspersed with filmed vignettes of Steve talking about his work. I love SS’s music; but for me, The Man’s talking about it and his life in general was the best part of this show. 

I found James Lapine’s staging to be rather rudimentary; but all the singers are mighty fine, though I guess I expected too much of Cabaret Legend Barbara Cook who is, I think, a few years past her expiration date. I was curious that Lapine included nothing from Pacific Overtures, nor does Sondheim talk about it during the vignettes. Strange …

 If you believe some critics (and at least one notoriously catty gossip columnist), the revival of PROMISES, PROMISES at the Broadway Theatre is a turkey. Well, it’s not. The production is a very clever send-up/pastiche of 60s dance and design, and Neil Simon’s book is still hilarious. Sure it’s gag-filled. And that’s a bad thing? 

To my mind, Sean Hayes is giving the best performance by a leading performer in a musical this season as a milquetoast of a man named Chuck Baxter who, before he knows it, finds himself practically homeless as a troupe of bosses at the insurance company where he toils away in oblivion take advantage of his eagerness to please by borrowing his apartment for trysts with their bimbos, one whom turns out to be the lady of Our Hero’s dreams. Ashford’s choreography is Just Plain Wonderful, as is Kristin Chenoweth as his Lady Love, Fran.  Katie Finneran, though, steals the show as a voracious barfly who scoops up Chuck, who has gone to a bar at the beginning of the second act to drown his sorrows when he realizes that Fran is having it off with the head of personnel, Sheldrake, in his own bed. Yuck! 

Promises, Promises is far better than Finian’s Rainbow, and deserved a Tony nomination in stead of that deservedly-departed o’turkey. 

Donald Margulies has had quite a season, what with not one but two plays appearing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Biltmore) on Broadway. Time Stands Still has been deservedly nominated for several awards, including the Tony for Best Play, and now Manhattan Theatre has brought back his Collected Stories, which appeared originally Off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel (mighta been the De Lys then) about fifteen years ago, starring Uta Hagen. As I recall, Ms. Hagen gave a dark-hued performance, whereas here Linda Lavin plays it more droll, for laughs, as a creative writing professor who sees the defining moment of her personal life, her affair with the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, become fodder for a novel by her own assistant. 

At the De Lys/Lortel/Lortel/Whatever, Collected Stories packed a punch; at the Friedman, it just seems like a very attenuated one-act play, stretched to two hours. Sometimes, when plays move to Broadway, they seem magnified. Not this one. It shrunk. 

Finally, I have to say a few words about the Tony nominations. Good Lord: the incidental music in two plays was nominated for Best Original Score? And, as previously mentioned, how could Finian’s Rainbow have beaten out Promises, Promises? Overall, though, I think the nominations are fair, though like everyone else I have my list of egregious omissions, which are: 

Best Play: RACE

Best Play Revival: HAMLET and PRESENT LAUGHTER

Best Musical Revival: PROMISES, PROMISES. How could FINIAN’S    RAINBOW have beaten this out???

Best Leading Actor: Victor Garber, PRESENT LAUGHTER; Daniel Craig and Hugh  Jackman, A STEADY RAIN

Best Leading Actress: Laura Benanti, IN THE NEXT ROOM etc.

Best Featured Actor, play: Patrick Breen and Cotter Smith, NEXT FALL

Best Featured Actress, play, Connie Ray, NEXT FALL

Best Featured Actor, Musical: Quentin Earl Darrington, RAGTIME

Best Costume Design, Play: Jane Greenwood, PRESENT LAUGHTER. Can you believe  that this great designer has never won a Tony? 

In my I Agree Wholeheartedly column: kudos to the Tony nominators for not nominating Come Fly Away as “Best Musical.” You know why? It’s Not a Musical – it’s a ballet. As was Contact, which not only received a Tony Nomination but which actually won. Lord have mercy … 

FENCES. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.            TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

LEND ME A TENOR. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.

            TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

            TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300

PROMISES, PROMISES. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

            TICKETS, TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

COLLECTED STORIES. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

            TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.” 

                             —– George F. Will

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