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Originally published June 8, 2014 at 6:17 AM | Page modified June 8, 2014 at 1:20 PM

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Seattle talent figures in Tony-nominated shows

Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson critiques some big Broadway shows, in time for the Sunday, June 8, Tony Awards. Nominees include Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” and “Aladdin,” which got its start at the 5th Avenue.


Seattle Times theater critic

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As the Tony Award season culminates with Sunday night’s televised celebration of Broadway excellence and folderol, two of the most noteworthy and nominated shows on the Great White Way boast prominent Northwest connections.

“All the Way,” the LBJ bio-play, was penned by Seattle author Robert Schenkkan and premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Aladdin,” the latest Disney blowout, initially premiered here at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and features two seasoned Seattle performers in the cast.

Slightly Off Broadway, at Lincoln Center Theater, veteran Seattle stage-screen actor John Aylward appears in a thoughtful new play with a political tinge, directed by former Seattle Rep staffer Doug Hughes.

Aaron C. Finley (an alum of 5th Avenue and Village Theatre shows) is now rocking his mullet as the star of “Rock of Ages.” And “The Few,” a stirring drama by Idaho-bred playwright and Seattle Rep favorite Samuel D. Hunter, is just ending an Off Broadway run.

On a New York visit during a Broadway spring heavy with play and musical revivals (including “Cabaret,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Of Mice and Men”) fronted by big-name stars (Neil Patrick Harris, Denzel Washington, James Franco), I mainly (with one happy exception) followed the Northwest trail — the busy pipeline pumping our in-demand theatrical talent from this coast to that coast.

“All the Way” (Neil Simon Theatre)

Unlike anything else now on Broadway, Schenkkan’s engrossing, detailed chronicle of the eventful first presidential term of Lyndon Johnson is a rewarding date with history — and a lesson in the complexities of bare-knuckle American politics.

Judging by the audience’s rapt attention, this work may help fill a longing to comprehend how our country got from there (the 1960s) to here.

Crisply staged by Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch on a single set, with photo projections setting time and place, “All the Way” leads us through the backroom deals, expedient compromises and shifting alliances that led to the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Competing interests, sometimes nearly identical to the warring factions of our current political culture, are expertly manipulated by the salty, petulant but strategically masterful and deeply committed Johnson.

But he is not the only arresting figure here. Nor is the heavily mannered, Tony-nominated turn by “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston as LBJ the best performance in the show. John McMartin as Sen. Richard Russell, the powerful Southern legislator who was LBJ’s mentor, and Brandon J. Dirden as a determined Martin Luther King Jr., are standouts with more nuance.

It will be fascinating to see this meaningful play, and its sequel, “The Great Society,” at Seattle Rep next year, with a different actor, OSF member Jack Willis, in the lead.

“Aladdin” (New Amsterdam Theatre)

In its 2011 Seattle tryout, this latest Disney transfer of a hit animated film looked bargain-basement and sometimes clunky. But the cash and time spent revamping are paying off: “Aladdin” has been transformed into an “Arabian Nights” spectacle that pulls out all the stops to entertain and is up for five Tonys (including best original musical).

Chalk up the transformation to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who has made the jokes and magic carpet fly and the bazaar whirl, and to new scenic designer Bob Crowley, whose sets of gorgeous castles and gem-studded caves are shiny eye candy.

The romance between street urchin Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) and Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) is less grating now, while the comic antics are funnier — with Tony nominee James Monroe Iglehart perfecting his rapid-fire, soul-brother genie routine, and Seattle’s Don Darryl Rivera and Brandon O’Neill romping as, respectively, an evil imp who’s an aide to the villain Jafar, and one of Aladdin’s street-wise sidekicks.

By the time you’re pelted with a storm of multicolored streamers, it’s hard not to get into the spirit of the thing — even for Disney cynics.

“If /Then” (Richard Rodgers Theatre)

For their Broadway follow-up to the inventive “Next to Normal,” former Issaquah resident and writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt change up the usual Broadway musical formula again.

“If/Then” tracks the consequences of small and larger decisions made by a woman facing her 40th birthday.

The show plays out her two possible journeys on one ingenious, high-rise set. What happens if Elizabeth/Liz/Beth weds that handsome army doctor she meets in a park, and bears his child? Or what if, instead, she rises in her career as a city planner and has an affair with her boss?

The concept is novel, and the stagecraft and way the actors slip in and out of their dual roles is impressive. And the Tony-nominated Yorkey-Kitt rock-pop score charms.

But the divided central character played by Tony nominee Idina Menzel is so self-absorbed, my interest in her many personal dilemmas and those of her friends waned. To be fair, Menzel wasn’t at her best the night I attended: she bowed out due to illness after Act 1, and was replaced by her (capable) understudy in Act 2. Talk about divergent paths ...

“The City of Conversation” (Lincoln Center Theatre)

In Anthony Giardina’s savvy new play, the political is familial.

Charismatic Jan Maxwell is Hester Farris, wife of a Democratic senator and a Georgetown party hostess with a liberal agenda. In the 1970s, that means she can add conservatives from across the aisle like George Mallonee (a pitch-perfect John Aylward) to her guest lists, to exchange views (and maybe change votes).

But after Ronald Reagan becomes president, the bipartisan congeniality erodes. So does Hester’s relationship with her son, who is increasingly influenced by the wily neocon girlfriend who becomes his wife.

As the daughter-in-law rises politically and Hester tries to thwart the appointment of an ultraconservative Supreme Court judge, the dramaturgy becomes more melodramatic. (The family is wrenched apart, with wounds unmended until the election of Barack Obama.)

But apart from those conventional contrivances, like “All the Way” the play shines a light on how, over 30 years, our nation has come to be so divided — in the U.S. Capitol and across the dinner table.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” (Circle in the Square Theatre)

The starry show I saw with no Seattle ties, but a big Tony hook, was this lauded version of Lanie Robertson’s cabaret-style piece that imagines a shaky 1959 club date by jazz singer nonpareil, Billie Holiday. It's kicked around the regional theater circuit (including Seattle) for nearly 20 years. But when Audra McDonald takes it on, I’m there.

What McDonald does with a trunk full of Holiday standards (like “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child”), and a script heavy with the singer’s hard knocks and self-destructive addictions, is extraordinary.

Her opera-lush soprano pared down, she sings with the slurry phrasing but innate jazziness that uncannily echo Holiday’s stylings of the time.

And as an actor, McDonald uses every nerve and limb of her white-silk-clad form to convey her character’s rapidly shifting moods: joyful, bitter, defiant, woozy, funny, forlorn. McDonald doesn’t wring pity for Holiday, who died of liver disease in 1959. She conjures her as an undeniable force of art and nature, despite the tragedies that bedevil her.

If McDonald wins the Tony this year (for lead actress in a play), she sets a Tony Awards record for performance wins — six. (Julie Harris also earned six Tonys, but one was for a special prize for lifetime achievement.) McDonald deserves every one of those medallions.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com



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