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‘Mamma’ taps on the heels of ‘Millie’

This year's Tony Awards promise high suspense

Last year, the Tony Awards resembled nothing so much as a royal processional for “The Producers.”

Critics reached for superlatives, ticket buyers tore out their hair, prizes rained down like confetti upon Mel Brooks and his collaborators.

Suspense? The only tension derived from the possibility that the show might just lose in one of the 12 categories in which it was nominated, and thus fail to make Tony history. It didn’t; history was made.

A year later, the Tony landscape is vastly different. While the lack of a megahit like “Producers” may spell trouble for the telecast, industry watchers can at least savor the fierce fighting in several categories.

Herewith, a rundown of the artists and shows competing in the top fields:

MUSICAL

“Thoroughly Modern Millie” has the advantage of coming into the race with the most nominations of any show, 11, giving it the lead in the Tony noms news stories and thus the aura of a winner. But while the show got mostly positive reviews — including many significant raves — it also got some equally passionate pans, including a real raspberry from the New York Times. But it’s an old-fashioned razzle-dazzle show, and with key support from road voters who’ve both invested in and booked the show, the determined little flapper may just emerge triumphant.

“Urinetown” won the most uniformly positive reviews of the four candidates. The dark, faux-Brechtian fantasy about a place where you pay to pee has a nice rags-to-riches story, too. But it’s been struggling at the box office, and Tony likes a winner. Plus, its unsavory title and the show’s edgy, mocking tone could make it a tough choice for the top nod.

London import “Mamma Mia!” is the only bona fide hit musical of the season, which could give it a modicum of cachet in the eyes of Tony voters. But with its recycled pop score — deemed Tony ineligible — voters might have a hard time making a case for it. Nevertheless, in a year when both of the top contenders have their share of detractors, this lightweight confection could capture some “Why not?” votes. The real long shot of the bunch is “Sweet Smell of Success,” which was widely panned and hasn’t set the B.O. on fire either.

PLAY

For the first time in seven seasons, there isn’t a single British contender for this award, unless you consider adapter Mike Poulton, the real playwright of that new work by Turgenev. Here’s another tight and interesting race.

“Topdog/Underdog” won the Pulitzer Prize and some spectacular reviews, and is bringing new, young audiences to Broadway in significant numbers — a move that should help give it some clout at Tony time. But for the same reason, it doesn’t necessarily strike a chord with older-skewing, conservative Tony voters.

Edward Albee hasn’t had a new play on Broadway in 20 years, so an award to “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” would be a nice way of welcoming him back. The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle honor (despite mixed reviews), but its unusual subject matter indicates that its support isn’t universal.

The other two options are more middle-of-the-road choices, which could give them a leg-up with Tony voters. Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” was almost universally admired. But some feel that the adaptation of Ovid’s myths is more a directorial showcase than a play proper.

“Fortune’s Fool” is the comfort-food choice, an old-fashioned traditional play. Small wonder, that, as its author, Ivan Turgenev, has been dead for over a century, making the play’s inclusion in this new-play sweepstakes somewhat bizarre. Voters unenamored of the other choices might ignore the incongruity.

ACTOR IN A PLAY/MUSICAL

The competition for the actor-in-a-play nod was maybe the toughest of any category this year, with worthy candidates including “The Goat’s” Bill Pullman, Chris O’Donnell in “The Man Who Had All the Luck” and Ian McKellen in “Dance of Death” left out of the running entirely.

Among the final five, Alan Bates for “Fortune’s Fool” may have the best odds. He hasn’t been on Broadway since 1972’s “Butley,” which makes him a sentimental choice. The British angle doesn’t hurt — after all, three of this season’s five choices are from across the pond. But his chief competition could be Jeffrey Wright, for “Topdog/Underdog.” Wright received some of the best reviews of the season, and Tony voters could choose to honor the play by honoring him.

The other three nominees — Billy Crudup in “The Elephant Man,” Liam Neeson in “The Crucible” and Alan Rickman in “Private Lives” –are longer shots.

The actor-in-a-musical race includes a group of actors with roles of vastly variable sizes. Patrick Wilson, Curly in “Oklahoma!,” may have an edge in this regard, and John Lithgow’s J.J. Hunsecker in “Sweet Smell of Success” is very much at the center of his show.

The other three nominees — Gavin Creel in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” John Cullum in “Urinetown” and John McMartin in “Into the Woods” — are in somewhat smaller roles. McMartin and Cullum, veteran Broadway presences, could cancel each other out. Since Lithgow’s show was savaged, the edge could go to Wilson.

ACTRESS IN A PLAY/MUSICAL

Two of the nominees in the actress-in-a-play category come from shows that have closed, making them tough choices: Kate Burton, of “Hedda Gabler,” and Helen Mirren, of “Dance of Death.” Laura Linney’s role in “The Crucible” is really a featured one — indeed, Beatrice Straight won a Tony in that category for the original production. The top contenders would thus appear to be Lindsay Duncan, for “Private Lives,” and Mercedes Ruehl, for “The Goat.” Ruehl has already won a leading actress Tony, for “Lost in Yonkers,” giving Duncan, a nominee in 1987 for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a bit of an edge.

In the musical sphere, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” star Sutton Foster is the strong front-runner. She’s very much at the center of her show — she’s the title character — and the role is a good showcase. Louise Pitre, of “Mamma Mia!,” is hampered by that show’s reputation as an Abba music vehicle in which characters are secondary. Nancy Opel and Jennifer Laura Thompson of “Urinetown” have smaller roles, and while Vanessa Williams is a glamorous presence in “Into the Woods,” the show is really an ensemble work.