With the 2020 Tony Awards delayed by the global pandemic, it’s been months since nominators have seen this season’s contenders. So here’s a last minute Tonys wish list. A reminder of outstanding performances that deserve to be recognized when nominations are unveiled on Thursday October 15. Let’s cross our fingers for these underdogs.
Featured Actor in a Musical: Ryan Knowles, “The Lightning Thief”
“The Lightning Thief” is squarely aimed at young theatergoers, and in that realm it greatly succeeds. The teens sitting around me in the audience had an absolute blast cheering on the heroes of this musical. Thankfully, Ryan Knowles burst onto the stage as a multitude of characters to provide humor for the adults in the room. I guffawed as he swished across the moody underworld as a pitch perfect Paul Lynde impression escaped his mouth. I doubt any of the kids knew of Lynde, or why it was so hysterical that the former TV personality would show up as Hades, but Knowles turned the scene on its head in the most delicious of ways.
Watching the altering his voice and physicality on a dime was a joy to watch. He’s a bellowing voiced, proud chested centaur one moment, and a creepy Upper East Sider take on medusa the next. Knowles’ fearless performance is one of the funniest of the season.
Featured Actor in a Play: Ato Blankson-Wood, “Slave Play”
“Slave Play” is intentionally uncomfortable and provocative throughout its three acts. While many reviews and reactions rightly highlight the gut wrenching work from Joaquina Kalukango in the final scene, nominators would also make sure to reward Ato Blankson-Wood, who is tasked with some of the heaviest emotional work towards the start of the play.
Act 1 of “Slave Play” begins as a sex farce, with interracial couples acting out sexual fantasies in an antebellum south setting. Blankson-Wood’s Gary assumes a dominant position in a roleplay with his boyfriend Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), an inverse of what their respective skin colors would dictate of the time. When the power dynamics cause Gary to climax unexpectedly, Blankson-Wood unleashes a wail. It’s a mix of pain, anger, shame and a million other emotions that overtake him. I still haven’t forgotten that moment these many months later. Nor have I forgotten the important dialogue the rest of his performance produced. The Lucille Lortel Awards already nominated the actor for this role, and the Tonys should follow suit.
Featured Actress in a Play: Cora Vander Broek, “Linda Vista”
One of the major hurdles for many audience members in Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista” was getting past just how damn unlikeable the central character Wheeler was (kudos to Ian Barford for diving into this curmudgeon with such a daring performance). So what a joy it was to have Wheeler balanced out by Cora Vander Broek’s Jules. From the moment Vander Broek stepped on stage, you knew this woman. You fall in love with Jules just as Wheeler does (and at least at the performance I attended, actively boo and groan at him when he cheats on her).
Vander Broek displays her acute performance skills in a nude sex scene midway through the play. The bravery to disrobe nightly is commendable, but the actress also expertly manages to twist the moment from sensual to comedic to tragic. As if those stunning emotional acrobatics weren’t enough to win you over, Vander Broek also lands the best line delivery of the play. After Wheeler begs her to come back to him, she smiles and shuts him down: “I respect myself too much.” Whereas the audience booed Wheeler earlier, they erupted into applause and cheers for Vander Broek.
Lead Actor in a Musical: Keep the category!
Listen, there is no denying that this has been the most brutal period in Broadway history. The coronavirus pandemic shut down an entire industry overnight. Thousands of theatre artists are struggling to pay rent. Federal assistance has dried up. Many have lost or will soon lose their health insurance. So while I’m sure there are some nominators worried about lessening the prestige factor of a category by nominating the only two eligible gents, I say: get over it!
Eliminating this top category in a year when Broadway desperately needs things to celebrate would be exceptionally cruel. Tony nominators: you should have nominated Aaron Tveit for “Next to Normal.” You should have nominated him for “Catch me if You Can.” You didn’t. So consider a nomination for his awesome work in “Moulin Rouge!” as a massively deserved IOU. And yes, I understand that you don’t care for shows aimed at kids. But Chris McCarrell gave an endearing, winning performance in “The Lightning Thief.” He certainly has a great future ahead, so pack away your genre bias and throw him a nomination too.