It's a crowded field as several contenders vie for B'way prize

NEW YORK — Tony handicappers hoping this year for clear front-runners are out of luck. Instead, there’s a gridlock of top contenders all jockeying for position in the key races.

The competition heats up with the May 16 announcement of nominations for the 2006 Tony Awards. And the crowded field of new musicals and plays on Broadway this season means inevitably that some high-profile shows will be shut out.

In the musical stakes in particular, the 2004-05 season yielded an unusually robust crop of four hit tuners, all of which picked up a prize or two and all of which are still running successfully a year later. If this year’s Tonys again spread the wealth, fueling a fresh string of hits, it will be good for business but bad for incoming shows. Broadway real estate has rarely been at such a premium, and vacant theaters sufficiently large to house new musicals are becoming scarce.

Early speculation in the best musical category has centered on two shows.

“The Color Purple” drew a mixed critical response but has blossomed into a bona fide hit. And in an industry especially hungry for new revenue streams, the adaptation of Alice Walker’s feminist-empowerment saga has brought the normally elusive black audience to Broadway in significant numbers, not to mention formidable marketing muscle in presenting producer Oprah Winfrey.

“Jersey Boys” also has found solid commercial footing. But even a superior example of the jukebox musical has to contend with industry prejudice against the much-derided assembly genre — the lack of an original score in this biotuner about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons might count against it.

The return of commercial behemoth Disney Theatricals, with its first new Broadway musical since “Aida” in 2000, is not to be underestimated, a factor that could help “Tarzan,” opening May 10, swing into the final four. Likewise, the attempt by the “Hairspray” producing team to put down roots with another candy-colored retro musical, “The Wedding Singer,” might gather some votes.

Less likely to land a spot is the troubled vampire tuner “Lestat,” which threatens to break composer Elton John’s hit streak.

With songbook compilations and screen-to-stage adaptations now dominating the Broadway landscape, purists tend more than ever to appreciate original material, which could give “The Drowsy Chaperone” an edge. An exuberant valentine from a musical lover to the kitschy romantic comedies of yesterday, its spirit could sway voters nostalgic for Broadway’s past.

The directors of those shows face stiff competition from the creative forces behind two hit tuner revivals: John Doyle, whose pared-down “Sweeney Todd” brought vibrant new blood to Broadway; and Kathleen Marshall, who painted a fresh face on classic ’50s fluff “The Pajama Game.”

The male leads of those revivals, respectively Michael Cerveris and Harry Connick Jr., also look sure to figure in a crowded actor race, posing a serious threat to contenders like John Lloyd Young from “Jersey Boys” and Bob Martin from “Chaperone.”

Contention for actress in a musical is less heated, though Patti LuPone’s turn as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” makes her a sure thing, while LaChanze looks likely to figure for “The Color Purple,” Kelli O’Hara could make the cut for “Pajama Game,” and the much-admired Maria Friedman might raise the flag for the commercially failed return to Broadway of Andrew Lloyd Webber with “The Woman in White.”

The decision to enter “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” in the musical category rather than special event likely will cost that short-lived show its shot at Tony gold, but respect for the vet trouper could earn her a nod.

One of the standard gripes heard in recent years regards the tough climate for new plays on Broadway, with producers opting increasingly for the ostensibly safer, tested ground of revivals. However, this season delivered a number of premieres, fortified by a British invasion.

Leading that charge is Alan Bennett’s reflection on adolescence and education, “The History Boys,” with lead Richard Griffiths looking like a lock for an acting nom. Also from across the Pond are Martin McDonagh’s blood-drenched terrorism comedy “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” and Conor McPherson’s contempo Dublin-set ghost story “Shining City.” The generally tepid reception for the American transfer of David Eldridge’s London hit “Festen” makes that Danish angst fest a likely shutout.

However, add to that crop another Irish import in the Gate Theater’s revival of “Faith Healer,” with Ralph Fiennes, and the possible entry of Gabriel Byrne in the actor race for “A Touch of the Poet” and the play categories at the Tonys will take on a distinctly transatlantic flavor.

All of which could give an extra push to the homegrown contingent, headed by David Lindsay-Abaire’s drama of a family struggling to bounce back from tragedy, “Rabbit Hole.” That play cleaved the critical faculty into passionate love-it or leave-it camps, but scored universal praise for Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly, likely steering them into noms for lead and featured actress, respectively. Also in the running is playwright-performer Lisa Kron’s metatheatrical exploration of her relationship with her chronically ill mother, “Well.”

While most critics showed far less enthusiasm than ticket buyers for the revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” the comic turn of Broadway royalty Nathan Lane as uber-grouch Oscar Madison likely will be remembered by voters. (Less likely is his co-star, Matthew Broderick.)

The key question for many Tony watchers concerns the star of another Joe Mantello-helmed revival, “Three Days of Rain.” Will Julia Roberts’ famous smile help her overcome the underwhelmed response to her stage bow? Broadway loves the adrenaline shot brought by big-money Hollywood stars, and the ratings-beleaguered Tonycast loves high-profile presenters. But tell that to Denzel Washington, who missed out on a nod for “Julius Caesar” last year.

The Tony Awards will be presented June 11.

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