The 'Boys' Are Big Tony Contenders

By MICHAEL KUCHWARA
The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 6, 2006; 2:59 PM

NEW YORK -- Will this be a big Tony Award year for the "Boys"?

It appears likely, particularly for "The History Boys," Alan Bennett's spirited examination of the joys of learning and the leading contender for best play.

Then there are those lads from the Garden State, the "Jersey Boys," telling the story of pop icons Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It squares off most prominently against "The Drowsy Chaperone" in the best-musical category _ one of the more competitive races for Broadway's highest honor.

Winners will be announced Sunday in a three-hour CBS telecast from Radio City Music Hall with no host but 60 different stars _ including Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey _ attempting to keep things moving. The traffic patterns could be interesting.

Some years Tony nominators have had to struggle to come up with four credible nominees for best play. Not so in 2006.

"The History Boys" has worthy competitors in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," Martin McDonagh's comic, blood-splattered tale of an Irish terrorist; Conor McPherson's adult ghost story, "Shining City"; and "Rabbit Hole," David Lindsay-Abaire's heartbreaking look at a couple coping with the death of their young son.

Yet all signs _ including top nods from the New York Drama Critics' Circle and the Drama Desk _ point to another win for "The History Boys."

"Jersey Boys," besides demonstrating potent box-office appeal, has redeemed the honor of the much-maligned jukebox musical, while "The Drowsy Chaperone" has surprised and entranced audiences, for one thing, by not being based on a movie, book, TV series, comic strip or pop-tune catalog.

"Drowsy," which began life as a small fringe show in Canada, celebrates old-fashioned musical comedy. It concerns a true believer sitting alone in his apartment, playing a record of his favorite show and having it come to life.

Also nominated is "The Color Purple," a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Alice Walker's novel about a spunky heroine who survives and triumphs over an abusive family life, and "The Wedding Singer," a nostalgic homage to the 1980s by way of the popular Adam Sandler movie.

Broadway is feeling pretty good about itself these days. Attendance has cracked the 12-million mark for the first time, the highest number of theatergoers since the season before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And grosses are climbing, too, up 12 percent from the year before, jumping to $861.6 million from $768.5 million

True, ticket prices were higher and so was the demand for those expensive premium tickets, the deluxe price charged for the best seats at the hottest shows.

"A variety of factors converged to make the 2005-2006 season so successful," says Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, which founded the Tonys in 1947.

He cited the continued strength of several long-running shows that experienced renewed life this year; and the appeal of such new productions as "The Color Purple" and "Jersey Boys," which attracted audiences "that aren't necessarily the traditional Broadway theatergoer."

Then there has been the remarkable strength of nonmusicals _ star-vehicles such as "The Odd Couple," featuring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, as well as Roberts' appearance in "Three Days of Rain" and Ralph Fiennes in "Faith Healer."

The others were snubbed by Tony nominators, but Fiennes picked up an acting nomination for his portrayal of a charismatic charlatan in the Brian Friel play, which had recouped its $2 million production costs in a fast eight weeks.

Fiennes faces some formidable competition for the Tony, with the prize most likely going to Richard Griffiths' avuncular portrayal of a sympathetic teacher in "The History Boys."

None of the nominated best-actress performances are still on view. Cynthia Nixon's portrait of a grief-stricken mother in "Rabbit Hole," is the favorite but don't be surprised if Judy Kaye, as tone-deaf diva Florence Foster Jenkins in the short-lived "Souvenir" pulls an upset.

And Patti LuPone, already a Tony winner for "Evita," could pick up a second for her performance as the pie-making Mrs. Lovett in the revival of "Sweeney Todd," although in this actress-musical category, Kelli O'Hara, a sexy union activist in the wildly successful revival of "The Pajama Game" can't be dismissed.

O'Hara's co-star, Harry Connick Jr., is the best-known of the contenders for the actor-musical prize. It's another tough category with Michael Cerveris, the demon barber in "Sweeney Todd"; Bob Martin, the unabashed fan in "The Drowsy Chaperone"; and Stephen Lynch of "The Wedding Singer" among the other nominees.

But look for the most prominent of those "Jersey Boys" _ John Lloyd Young, Broadway's astounding Frankie Valli _ to take home the prize.


© 2006 The Associated Press