The 71st Annual Tony Awards: TV Review

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Kevin Spacey hosting the 71st Annual Tony Awards
Lost in Spacey.
6/11/2017

Kevin Spacey debuted as emcee of Broadway's annual honors ceremony, with 'Dear Evan Hansen' and 'Hello, Dolly!' receiving much of the love.

Ever since it was announced that Kevin Spacey would host the 71st Annual Tony Awards, the two-time Oscar winner has made it part of his shtick that he was way down the list of potential emcees, and got the job only after everyone ahead of him declined. So did the fallback choice find a new calling as the 21st-century answer to Johnny Carson? Well, that depends whether channeling Carson in one of a series of impersonations Spacey threaded throughout the ceremony counts. For young viewers who tuned in to see the coronation of the hit teen-isolation musical Dear Evan Hansen, maybe not, since Carson's name probably means very little to them.

Spacey is a brilliant actor, but warmth and humility are perhaps not his strongest suits. So opening on the defensive, with a messy mashup of songs from current-season musicals that he repurposed to head off any eventual criticism of his hosting performance, started the show on a strained note.

Even with affable onstage help from Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg and, via video, Billy Crystal, it was dangerous territory to draw comparison to recent hosts James Corden, Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman. Those predecessors all are eager-to-please charmers who did the job with the right combination of polish and theater-fanboy enthusiasm. Spacey shot off some funny lines here and there, and nobody can touch his Bill Clinton impression (though his James Earl Jones could use some work). But for much of the time he was up on the Radio City Music Hall stage, his manner seemed more self-serving than genuinely celebratory of the Broadway season being honored.

Spacey doesn't really do vulnerable, so it was possibly unwise having him start out as troubled teen Evan Hansen, with a plaster cast on his arm that read #HOST, even if it did yield the number's best gag when the cast was removed and reapplied to his knee as he segued into a bit from Groundhog Day. That reference to Groundhog lead Andy Karl's widely covered injury was inspired, but it was also one of many inside jokes unlikely to register far into the CBS viewership.

As a song-and-dance man, Spacey gets by, though his tap skills are not going to make the Nicholas Brothers stir in their graves. And his choice of closing number, a duet with Patti LuPone on the Bobby Darin hit "The Curtain Falls," was an old-school nostalgic snooze that served mainly as a reminder of one of Spacey's big-screen flops, the Darin biopic Beyond the Sea.

Unsurprisingly, the host was at his best making a late entrance as his House of Cards alter ego, Frank Underwood, flanked by Robin Wright and Michael Kelly as Claire Underwood and Doug Stamper, respectively. While delaying the announcement of the night's final award seemed just plain cruel at that hour, cruelty is Underwood's style. Plus it allowed Spacey to comment on the ceremony's most epic acceptance speech by muttering, in-character, "I want to get the hell out of here before Bette Midler thanks anyone else."

What the 2017 Tony Awards ceremony did have going for it was an element of suspense around some of the major awards — particularly coming a year after Hamilton, when the majority of top prizes were preordained.

With the exception of Danny DeVito going home empty-handed, most of this year's key acting awards went according to predictions. But pundits held their breath until the bitter end to see if favorite Dear Evan Hansen would prevail over popular underdog Come From Away for best musical (it did); and which of the highly regarded frontrunners for best play, Oslo or A Doll’s House, Part 2, would grab the gold (it went to Oslo).

No less than the opportunity to recognize the standouts of the just-concluded theater season, the Tony Awards serve as a giant infomercial for the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing to keep driving traffic to the 41 venues that make up the Broadway circuit.

That push this year comes on the heels of record grosses, which hit a whopping $1.45 billion for the 2016-17 season, a 5.5 percent increase on the previous year. However, total attendance dipped slightly from 13.32 million for the 2015-16 season to 13.27 million for the one that just wrapped, indicating that audience growth is struggling to keep pace with soaring premium ticket prices.

Even with the traditional ratings challenges of the Tonys — last year's telecast, hosted by Corden and bolstered by saturation media coverage of the inevitable Hamilton blitz, surged by 60 percent to a 15-year high, with 8.7 million viewers — a spot on the show for a musical number can often have more sales impact on a still-running production than its entire ad campaign.

The shows likely to score a sizeable boost from their telecast exposure this year include Bandstand, given a heartfelt introduction by Jill Biden, who spoke movingly of the musical's depiction of American World War II veterans struggling to find their place in civilian life. The number also served to showcase the athletic swing-style dance moves of Andy Blankenbuehler, who notched his second consecutive choreography Tony after winning last year for Hamilton.

Ben Platt gave audiences a dynamic taste of the emotional experience of Dear Evan Hansen with his impassioned performance of the title character's signature outsider anthem, "Waving Through a Window." LuPone and co-star Christine Ebersole showed why they're considered Broadway royalty, deploying their contrasting styles to commanding effect with a song from War Paint. Eva Noblezada demonstrated her powerhouse pipes in a Miss Saigon excerpt. The Come From Away cast stomped through its rousing opener "Welcome to the Rock," referencing the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And Karl showed why he's one of the best-liked young troopers on Broadway with his tender rendition of "Seeing You," the romantic 11 o'clock number from Groundhog Day. While it won't sell any tickets since the limited engagement closed in January, the reunion of the Falsettos cast provided a sweet moment for fans of that landmark musical, set at the dawn of the AIDS crisis.

Arguably the standout musical interlude on the telecast was the superb presentation from Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It started with Josh Groban hitting heavenly notes with suitably celestial choral backing before segueing into a rousing ensemble number that did a terrific job of conveying the visceral excitement of that show's immersive staging.

Much was written in advance about producer Scott Rudin's decision not to have the cast of Hello, Dolly! perform a large-scale ensemble number led by Bette Midler, due to the complexities of reworking the staging for the significantly larger space at Radio City, and related safety concerns for the cast.

Midler's co-star David Hyde Pierce instead performed his solo, "Penny in My Pocket," a song previously cut from the Jerry Herman musical but restored for this production. It's a simply staged character-defining comedy ditty that's charming in the show. But out of context, it was such a low-key choice that many viewers might have been left wondering what all the fuss is about with the smash revival. Still, with massive advance sales and very limited availability for the remainder of Midler's run through January, Hello, Dolly! doesn't need the Tonys to help sell tickets.

As mentioned above, Midler easily claimed the prize for longest acceptance speech when she won for best actress in a musical, barking, "Shut that crap off!" as she proceeded to keep talking over the play-off music until she silenced the orchestra by sheer force of will. She capped her speech by acknowledging the enduring optimism that makes Hello Dolly! such a beloved musical: "This thing has the ability to lift your spirits in these terrible, terrible times."

That was in keeping with references to the current political climate that were mostly restrained, epitomized by classy speeches from winners Cynthia Nixon and Kevin Kline.

Accepting best featured actress in a play for The Little Foxes, Nixon said, "It is a privilege to appear in Lillian Hellman's eerily prescient play at this specific moment in history." She went on to quote a line from the play about a nation being consumed by greed while others stand by and watch, before saluting those protesters who refuse to stay silent. Kline, accepting the award for lead actor in a play for Noel Coward's Present Laughter, paid tribute to the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities, both of which are faced with defunding threats from the Trump administration.

Presenter Colbert was far cheekier in his digs at the current White House occupant by referring to "a revival down in D.C." of a show that started in the '80s. "This D.C. production's supposed to have a four-year run but we don't know, reviews have not been kind," said Colbert. "Could close early."

Tina Fey eschewed politics in favor of self-deprecation while presenting the best actor in a musical prize. "Straight men playing gay, gay men playing straight, anxiety disorders, existential crises, accordions and fat suits," she said of the nominated performances. "These are just a few of my college dating experiences. And oh, how awkwardly I would have tried to make out with each of these gentlemen."

It's a safe guess that both Colbert and Fey were on the list of potential Tony hosts who turned the job down. Maybe the producers need to push harder next year.

Venue: Radio City Music Hall, New York
Host: Kevin Spacey
Airdate: Sunday, June 11, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)

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