Sleepy 2023 Tony Awards fail to showcase Broadway at its best

Against all odds, the show went on.

On Sunday night, the 76th Annual Tony Awards was performed without a script due to the ongoing writers’ strike and was staged far, far away from its usual Midtown venue of Radio City Music Hall. 

Instead, the ceremony honoring Broadway plays and musicals was put on at the United Palace in Washington Heights way up on 176th Street.

And with no lines professionally written, there were none of the usual skits or banter that make award shows chug along. Well, almost none.

At one cringeworthy point, host Ariana DeBose ripped off Ellen DeGeneres’ celebrity selfie bit from the Oscars but lost her train of thought.

“I don’t know what these notes stand for,” the “West Side Story” Oscar winner said awkwardly. “Please welcome… whoever walks out onstage next!”

Yikes. Is this the Tonys or Improv Night on the quad?

"Kimberly Akimbo" won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
“Kimberly Akimbo” won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

The real problem, however, was not the production hiccups. It was the shows themselves.

The 2022-23 Broadway season was encumbered by tiny, niche, pretentious fare that nobody cares much about and that looked absolutely microscopic in the 3,300-seat theater. The nominees’ performances — the biggest showcase these musicals will ever get — were Ambientertainment.

“Kimberly Akimbo,” a slip of a thing by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, won Best Musical. It’s the polar opposite of a red-hot “Producers” or “Hamilton” — the struggling “Akimbo” is about a 16-year-old high-school girl who has a fatal disease that makes her age rapidly and look 67.

That plot — not exactly “Guys and Dolls” — is a tough sell, and the production will continue to be a tough sell regardless of winning Musical, Actress in a Musical (Victoria Clark), Featured Actress in a Musical (Bonnie Milligan), Book and Score.

“Who goes to this show?” asked a wag. “I don’t care if it wins the Preakness, the Nobel and the World Series!”

Victoria Clark, who plays the title role in "Kimberly Akimbo," won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Victoria Clark, who plays the title role in “Kimberly Akimbo,” won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

The musical’s low-key performance of the song “Anagram,” led by Clark, was confusing out of context.

But few of its competitors came off much better on the telecast.

“& Juliet,” a peppy jukebox pixie stick with songs by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry and more performed a strangely lethargic rendition of Perry’s “Roar.” It’s a lot more fun onstage than it looked on Sunday.

“New York, New York,” based on the Martin Scorsese movie, performed the famous “Start spreadin’ the news!” title number, but also had the whiff of an expensive tourist trap.

And the retro “Some Like It Hot” will have an uphill climb now that it’s lost Best Musical, which it desperately needed to win. Its flashy song-and-dance was pleasant but generic and old-fashioned, and the show costs a hefty $950,000 a week to run.

"Shucked"'s musical number at the Tony Awards was big and boisterous.
“Shucked”‘s musical number at the Tony Awards was big and boisterous.

The musicals that came off best, and could get a box office bump from the broadcast, were the big-cast “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban, and the Neil Diamond show “A Beautiful Noise.”

That bio-musical had zero nominations and got horrible reviews, but its rendition of “Sweet Caroline” was one of the few lively moments of a long night that felt like “The Ring Cycle.”

The fabulous musical comedy “Shucked,” a lovable down-home show with a “Hee Haw” sense of humor, was energetic and filled with underdog appeal. It only won a single Tony, though, for Best Featured Actor (Alex Newell).

While the musicals were fighting for trophies in an attempt to stay alive, most of the winning plays have already closed or are about to.

Jodie Comer won Best Actress in a Play for her performance in "Prima Facie."
Jodie Comer won Best Actress in a Play for her performance in “Prima Facie.”
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

“Leopoldstadt,” by the legendary British playwright Tom Stoppard, won Best Play just as it’s set to end its run at the Longacre Theatre in July. 

Suzan-Lori Parks’ shuttered “Topdog Underdog” won Best Revival of a Play.

Musical Revival went to the limited run of Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade,” starring Ben Platt, about the lynching of Leo Frank.

Some big stars were nominated — Jessica Chastain for “A Doll’s House,” Josh Groban for “Sweeney Todd,” Samuel L. Jackson for “The Piano Lesson” — but were snubbed.

Jodie Comer (TV’s “Killing Eve”) won Best Actress for “Prima Facie,” though. Her Tony was well-deserved. The actress’ bravura turn in the one-woman-show about a lawyer whose life is upended is sensational.

Too bad Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace” won Best Actor in a Play for his hamfisted performance in the dreadful dramedy “Good Night, Oscar.” 

Joel Grey (left) and John Kander (right) were both honored with lifetime achievement Tony Awards.
Joel Grey (left) and John Kander (right) were both honored with lifetime achievement Tony Awards.
Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

What was best about the Tony Awards? The honored legends. 

John Kander, 96, who along with Fred Ebb, created “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider-Woman” and more, was moving as he reflected on his storied career.

So was Joel Grey, who was introduced by his famous daughter Jennifer Grey, who played Baby in the movie “Dirty Dancing.” The 91-year-old took the stage and started to sing his signature song “Willkommen” from “Cabaret.” 

It was also a treat to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick present the award for Best Actor in a Play. In those two huge stars of 2001’s “The Producers,” the audience finally saw something they hadn’t seen all night long.

A hit. 

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