The 54th Annual Tony Awards

The Tony Awards, sprinkled with controversy much like its politically outspoken host, Rosie O'Donnell, managed to rise above the flak to deliver one of the closest races in years. It also provided two hours of show-stopping entertainment interspersed with the usual goofs, gaffs and blunders typical of a live awards show. But in an effort to honor the best in American theater, the Tonys sure looked and felt a lot like the Oscars, complete with coverage of star arrivals, an infatuation with all things British, and, most blatantly, an opening roundup song a la Billy Crystal.

The Tony Awards, sprinkled with controversy much like its politically outspoken host, Rosie O’Donnell, managed to rise above the flak to deliver one of the closest races in years. It also provided two hours of show-stopping entertainment interspersed with the usual goofs, gaffs and blunders typical of a live awards show. But in an effort to honor the best in American theater, the Tonys sure looked and felt a lot like the Oscars, complete with coverage of star arrivals, an infatuation with all things British, and, most blatantly, an opening roundup song a la Billy Crystal.

O’Donnell’s opener, featuring several stage actors-turned-TV stars, fell noticeably flat. It’s never a good idea to start a theater awards show using TV actors and Oscar ripoffs to validate yourself.

Despite the hyped return of O’Donnell as host, who passed on last year’s Tony duties, the evening belonged to her unbilled co-host, Nathan Lane. Lane, listed as special guest star, outshined the unusually sedate talkshow host in nearly every skit, making the most out of the topical and insider jokes provided by Thomas Meehan and veteran Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch.

Unlike the Oscars, however, hosting duties are secondary here; viewers tune in to the Tonys specifically for the musical numbers. To that end, director Paul Miller gave them an eyeful with a rousing collection of old-time favorites from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Music Man,” to new numbers from “Contact,” “Swing!” and “The Wild Party.” Miller managed to harness all of the energy of a real play experience — with the help of Elliott Lawrence’s musical direction and Roy Christopher’s festive set decoration — and still finished a minute early.

As often is the case with the Tonys, the show’s best non-choreographed moments came from the heartfelt acceptance speeches and fraternity-like atmosphere that these stage actors share. Controversy was met head on, and presenter Patrick Stewart, who has been in a much-publicized battle with the producers of his play, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” sheepishly told the audience, “What can I say? Nothing.”

Despite a protest over its eligibility as a musical by the Broadway Musician’s Union, the prize for musical went to “Contact,” a play that has no original score, hardly any dialogue and absolutely no singing.

Too often throughout the show, open mikes captured extraneous sounds and comments, and commercial breaks were cut dangerously close. But any inadequacies of the network production were paid back with deftly handled music and dance numbers, specifically the gravity-defying antics of the “Swing!” cast.

CBS distributed the lion’s share of awards in two hours, and PBS handled the first 10 awards in a one-hour special presentation that aired at 8.

The 54th Annual Tony Awards

Sun. June 4; 9 p.m.; CBS

Production: Broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall by Tony Awards Productions and CBS. Executive producers, Walter C. Miller, Rosie O'Donnell; producer, Ricky Kirschner; director, Paul Miller; writers, Thomas Meehan, Bruce Vilanch.

Crew: Music, Elliott Lawrence; host, Rosie O'Donnell. Running time: 2 HOURS.

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