Last week, Fergus McGillicuddy, Talkin' Broadway's resident critic, and I discussed the Best Musical and Best Play categories for the upcoming June 6 Tony Awards. We disagreed completely, of course. Fergus picks The Civil War and I pick Fosse for the musical category and he picked Not About Nightingales for Best Play while I picked Side Man.

Here we go again, this time Best Revival of a Musical and Best Revival of a Play.

V.J. Okay, Fergus. Your words of wisdom on Best Revival of a Musical, your pick first?

F.M. Annie Get Your Gun.

V.J. I can pick anything you can pick's going to You're A Good Man Charlie Brown. Why Annie Get Your Gun? I mean, look what they did to it, especially the book.

F.M. Have you read any of my reviews this season? Allow me to quote from my Annie review. "Herbert and Dorothy Fields' original book was pretty darn good to begin with. Peter Stone has dusted off the cobwebs of 50 years and provided a clear, revised book, chock-full of laughs, while always respecting the quality and integrity of the original." I'll bet that most people who claim Stone butchered the book have never read it or only have vague memories of a production seen years ago. Compare the two books line for line and you'll see what I mean. Stone accomplished the near impossible, a book revision that improved the original, making it much more accessible to today's audience, while staying true to the original style.

V.J. Oh! So you want to play Ben Brantley. How about this review: "So, is Charlie Brown just a kids' show, a mindless musical entertainment discerning adult theatregoers should avoid at all costs? No, my friends, it is much, much more than that. Charlie Brown is nothing less than a delightful, virtuoso display of theatrical skills marshaled by its director and a handful of disciplined, astute and finely calibrated bravura performances, the likes of which have rarely been seen on Broadway since Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber changed the rules and expectations of what a musical should be." Y'know who wrote that?

F.M. I did, of course. And I stand behind every word. Charlie Brown is all that and more. For pure, feel good, "walk out of the theatre on a cloud of joy" entertainment, Charlie Brown is without question the best musical revival of this and many other seasons. Add to that the astonishing performances from its dazzling cast and its ability to make you feel like you are young again in a world where anything is possible, and you have one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences you're ever likely to have. So, now I bet you want to know why I picked Annie to win the Tony for best musical revival, right?

V.J. Um, hmmm. You're A Good Man Charlie Brown also received the Drama Desk Award for Best Revival and its only other competition was Annie Get Your Gun. The performances by Kristin Chenowith and Roger Bart were also rewarded. So, why, in your sage wisdom, will the Tony go to Annie Get Your Gun?

F.M. In one word, gravitas. In two words, star quality. Allow me to quote myself again, first from the Charlie Brown review.

"Anthony Rapp's Charlie Brown is a revelation, both for his performance and the discipline and professionalism behind it. Charlie Brown is a dangerous and, when done properly, thankless role. Play it all wide-eyed innocence and naivete and an audience quickly grows bored and surprisingly angry with the character. Overdo the anguish and self-doubt and you'll lose them even faster. Dare to play it for laughs and suddenly the character is too self-aware and the assumptions on which this fragile show is built shatter into a thousand pieces.

"Jack Benny, a comic genius in anyone's book, built a career on his razor sharp sense of timing and ability to gauge and communicate his reactions to the illogical world confronting him at every turn. While there are still a few awkward moments in Mr. Rapp's performance, on a whole he displays a similar confident and understated approach, and appropriates the great comedian's technique of allowing the other actors to get the big laughs. And by doing so, he brings his character, and, indeed, the whole show to life. It seems a little thing, to walk this particular tightrope. But, when you stop to think about it, it's an astonishing accomplishment."

Anthony Rapp's performance is the secret ingredient that makes Charlie Brown work on all levels and lets the rest of the cast shine so brightly. Unfortunately, he's doing his job so well, so professionally that nobody has noticed how crucial his performance is to the success of the show.

Now another quote from the Annie review.

Any appearance by Bernadette Peters in a musical is just cause for popping open bottles of the best champagne and dancing in the streets. To this generation, she is the very definition of the phrase "Broadway star," and her name on a marquee conjures magic in exactly the same way the names Ethel Merman or Gertrude Lawrence held unspoken meaning and offered rich, delicious promises to the audience of their eras. Bernadette's Annie Oakley is a glorious creation, a wild, illiterate girl who, over the course of two and a half hours and through ten of Berlin's best songs grows into a dignified, wise, and happy young woman. As befits her status and reputation, Bernadette both sparkles and glows in a role which seems, though it's older than she is, to have been written just for her.

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown is technically the better revival production. But, because Anthony Rapp has quite rightly chosen not to give a "star performance" at the expense of the show, it seems somehow less weighty, less significant, less of an event than Annie. Bernie, by her very presence, gives Annie a clear focus, a rock solid center which makes everything else about the production appear better than it actually is. Charlie Brown was written for and only works well with an ensemble cast. Annie was written to showcase a STAR, and in Bernie it has one. Whenever the two types of shows are in competition for a Tony, the latter will win.

V.J. I still feel that Annie was revamped a bit too much, in it's circus tent setting, its cut songs, and the choreography wasn't too thrilling. Although, I have to admit, Bernadette is great, but even more surprising is Tom Wopat. I thought he was great. So, it's not so much that it's a revival, because there is much that is new, where with Charlie Brown, the only thing different is a couple of added songs, instead of deleted songs.

F.M. Yes, that and the presence of a star. Which brings us to Best Revival of a Play. This category is lousy with stars, to the point where they begin to cancel one another out. However, I feel there is one clear-cut winner, Death of a Salesman. Surely you agree?

V.J. Surely you jest. "The Iceman Cometh is an ensemble piece with a cast of 19 actors. Not only is it a luxurious pleasure to see a Broadway stage this full, but this production is blessed with superior performances in every role. To single out individual performers, other than Spacey, for praise would quickly result in a repetitive roll-call of superlatives. However, I do suggest you pay particularly close attention to the work of Tony Danza (Rocky), Ed Dixon (Piet Wetjoen), Paul Giamatti (Jimmy Tomorrow), Robert Sean Leonard (Don Parritt), and Tim Pigott Smith (Larry Slade). You will not be disappointed." Guess who wrote that? Obviously the performers are great in this great play? Perhaps, I'm too Dustin Hoffman-ized to appreciate Dennehy.

F.M. Hoffman-ized or lobotomized - same thing. Iceman is good. Salesman is better. If you want to talk performances, I quote "With this Willy Loman, Brian Dennehy - a damn good actor to begin with - enters the pantheon of theatrical gods. His is a performance destined for legend. This Willy Loman is a big man who can be gentle and quiet one moment, only to explode in Shakespearian anger and rage the next. This Willy Loman is an intelligent man who foolishly believes the myths he has created himself. This Willy Loman is at once brave and cowardly, aggressive and timid, loving and vengeful. This Willy Loman is a man complete unto himself. Dennehy reaches out from the stage to grab us by the throat, daring us to look away from what we see. It's not a pretty picture, for what we see is ourselves and our fathers. And we laugh and cry."

Fortunately all the plays nominated for best revival have stellar casts. This means that we can dismiss the performances and concentrate on the overall productions. (Let the actors fight it out in their own categories.) Both Salesman and Iceman have been given superior productions. But, when you compare them side to side, the Iceman production seems somehow a bit too baroque, too slick, too aware of itself as an "event." Salesman, on the other hand, shows itself to be much more a simple, straightforward, honest production that forsakes excess to concentrate on telling the story of the play.

V.J. Okay, let's forsake the actors then. "Robert Falls, the director, has handled Salesman in the only way it can be effectively presented these days, as a dark portrait of a father and son's love, ever at odds with the inherent trauma, resentment, and unrealistic expectations of such a relationship, downplaying Miller's habitual speeches about What It All Means. I would be more impressed with his work here if it were not for the physical production he offers, which is problematic." Problematic, you wrote? Did these problems exist in Iceman? No, of course not. It's by far a superior production. However, to be fair, I think this is a very tough category as both plays were brilliantly done.

F.M. Did Iceman have these problems? No, of course not. Iceman has its own set of problems - equally problematic. Neither production is perfect. I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect production of a play. Certainly I've never seen one. And that, my friend, is why awards like the Tony are so valuable. They give us a forum in which to compare and debate the virtues and faults of these productions, and by doing so define ourselves, our art, and possibly learn something in the process. And now that we have agreed to disagree - at least until June 6th - let's head down to Barrymore's for a celebratory libation. I believe it's your turn to buy.

V.J. My turn? But, of course. So, what's new on the Rialto, Fergus?

See you next Sunday when we take on the Actors in various categories.

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