Joaquina Kalukango (‘Paradise Square’): From standing O’s to Tony upset?

It is not an unusual occurrence to see audiences rise up to their feet in appreciative applause at the end of a Broadway show. But something rarer is occurring nightly at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the new musical “Paradise Squarejust debuted. Audiences are leaping to their feet for star Joaquina Kalukango for her powerful eleven o’clock number, well before the company gathers for the final curtain call. This type of response is a surefire sign that an actor is about to go far in the Tony Awards race.

The song in question is titled “Let it Burn.” To describe it fully would spoil the outcome of this epic musical, but the number serves as an emotional breaking point for Kalukango’s Nelly O’Brien. Throughout the story, Nelly witnesses her harmonious neighborhood fracture along race lines, she suffers tremendous loss, and must make impossible choices when it comes to how she defines her family. Heartache and trauma bubble around her until she finally unleashes in a powerhouse aria, chastising the divided world which has overturned her life. Kalukango’s voice roars through the gripping song with a fiery intensity. The audience is hers and by the time the actress reaches the final extended belt, they are practically begging for permission to jump up and shower her with adoring “bravas!”

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Mid-show standing ovations are often an omen of good Tony Awards fortune. Broadway watchers knew Cynthia Erivo had Best Actress in a Musical in the bag after seeing audiences fly out of their chairs following her signature number “I’m Here” in the revival of “The Color Purple.” Even when the performer in question doesn’t ultimately win the Tony, standing O’s usually provide clues toward a breakthrough nomination. This was true for Brad Oscar in 2015. Even though he would eventually lose the Featured Actor in a Musical race to his more famous “Something Rotten!” co-star Christian Borle, it was Oscar who commanded the audience to rise after his comedic tour de force “A Musical.” And when I witnessed folks stand in awe at Kate Baldwin’s pitch perfect rendition of “How are Things in Glocca Morra” (her first number in “Finian’s Rainbow”), I knew she would steal a spot from Kristin Chenoweth in the 2010 Actress in a Musical lineup.

Our combined Tony odds find Kalukango currently sitting in fifth place in the lead musical actress race based on the predictions of Gold Derby users. Perhaps her lower rank is due to her relative lack of name recognition when compared to other contenders like Sutton Foster (“The Music Man”) or Beanie Feldstein (“Funny Girl”). But Kalukango has already earned a Tony nomination for her electrifying performance in last season’s “Slave Play.” So nominators are keenly aware of her talents, and now she has the opportunity to display an entirely different skill set in the musical “Paradise Square.” Voters love to see versatility.

Can Kalukango win the whole thing? Olivier-winner Sharon D. Clarke still stands in her way for the ultimate victory, thanks to an equally formidable performance in “Caroline, or Change.” Clarke remains far out in front in our odds, and it’s easy to see why. Still, that revival finished its run this past winter, so Kalukango’s performance will be fresher in the minds of Tony nominators who will vote in just a few weeks. Nelly is a “star making” performance for the actress, and based on the reaction I saw to “Let it Burn,” audiences are certainly on Kalukango’s side. When looking for surprises at the Tonys, follow the standing O’s!

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