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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

2004 Tony Preview

Two Pulitzer Prize winners — “Anna in the Tropics” and “I Am My Own Wife” — are squared off against each other as BEST PLAY while the people and puppets of “Avenue Q” are in a face-off with the witches and munchkins in “Wicked” for BEST MUSICAL. Not only does “The Boy from Oz” star Hugh Jackman have BEST LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL in the bag, he will be hosting this year’s American Theatre Wing 58th Annual Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards, which place on Sunday, June 6, at 8:00 p.m. from Radio City Music Hall, with a telecast over CBS.

Jackman will also perform in the show, which will include musical numbers from the four nominated musicals. The show will not include a scene from the 14-million-dollar British import about Bollywood — “Bombay Dreams” — as it did not get nominated for Best Musical, although it was nominated in three other categories. While Avenue Q has only seven nominations compared to the ten for “Wicked,” it has in its favor the season’s most infectious score and an incomparably funny book that is second to none. Odds are that “Wicked” will win, but “Avenue Q” has my heart.

“Assassins,” which has been designated as a revival, although it only played a few weeks off-Broadway in 1991, opened at the eleventh hour to give rivals “Wonderful Town” and “Fiddler on the Roof” reason to worry. Broadway owes a debt to Off-Broadway for launching three excellent plays “Golda,” “I Am My Own Wife,” and “Frozen,” and its most lovable musical, “Avenue Q.”

The winners, in my opinion, are the plays and actors whose names appear in bold. They are:

Play: Although the lyrical “Anna in the Tropics” won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, most of the major critics were cool, as were audiences, who were reluctant to spend time with cigar factory workers. The well-acted British import “The Retreat from Moscow,” about a marriage gone sour, seems to be merely filling up an empty slot. The chilling and gripping “Frozen,” about the mother of a murdered child and a serial killer, is distinguished by its riveting performances. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “I AM MY OWN WIFE,” the true story of a German transvestite antique dealer — and most likely a spy who survives the Nazis and the Russians — is an extraordinary theatrical experience.

Direction of a Play: Doug Hughes (“Frozen”); David Leveaux (“Jumpers”); Jack O’Brien (“Henry IV”); MOISES KAUFMAN (“I Am My Own Wife”).

Musical: Neither the compelling but dour “Caroline, or Change,” nor the star-vehicle “The Boy from Oz” have a chance up against the impressive stage wizardry of “Wicked” and the hilariously sexy doings on “AVENUE Q.” I’m going out on a limb here, as “Wicked” has already picked up other major awards, including the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards in this category. The hitch is that those two organizations had already considered “Avenue Q” in the previous season when it played Off-Broadway.

Direction of a Musical. Kathleen Marshall (“Wonderful Town”) Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”); George C. Wolfe (“Caroline, or Change”);JOE MANTELLO (“Assassins”).

Play/Revival. The intellectual “Jumpers” gets the prize for British snob hit of the season. “King Lear” had only Christopher Plummer to recommend it. The classic drama “A Raisin in the Sun” is nearly undone by Sean Combs’ sincere, but dramatically inadequate, performance. All pale next to the towering Lincoln Center production of “HENRY IV.”

Musical/Revival. “Fiddler on the Roof” gets complaints about its lack of ethnicity. The sign language-enhanced Roundabout Theater production, in association with Deaf West Theater of “Big River” was terrific, but Roundabout’s brilliantly staged “ASSASSINS” has the sharpest eye on the target.

Actor/Play: Lauded Britisher Simon Russell Beale plays a loquacious philosopher in the eccentric farce “Jumpers.” The Bard inspired two towering performances: Christopher Plummer, who went notably mad as “King Lear,” and Kevin Kline, who found what was irresistible about the irresponsible Falstaff in “Henry IV.” Frank Langella camped beautifully in “Match,” but it is JEFFERSON MAYS who is bringing the most incredibly complex and fascinating character to life in “I Am My Own Wife.”

Actress/Play: Tough Tovah Feldshuh wins a war as the Israeli Prime Minister in “Golda” while a game Anne Heche hops frenetically aboard the “Twentieth Century.” Eileen Atkins poignantly survived a disintegrating marriage in “The Retreat from Moscow,” and while Phylicia Rashad is valiantly keeping her family together in “A Raisin in the Sun.” But the peak is reached by SWOOSIE KURTZ, as she confronts her heartbreak and the killer of her child in “Frozen.”

Actor/Musical.: Alfred Molina is a Tevya for today in “Fiddler on the Roof.” An outstanding Hunter Foster is a plant’s best friend in “Little Shop of Horrors,” while Boy George portrayer Euan Morton gave the much maligned but highly imaginative “Taboo” a boost. The versatile John Tartaglia made “Avenue Q” the nicest place to hang out. Showman of the year HUGH JACKMAN is a singular sensation as the flamboyant entertainer Peter Allen in “The Boy from Oz.”

Actress/Musical: What a shame that “Wicked” co-stars pink Kristin Chenoweth and green Idina Menzel will cancel each other out. Neither Stephanie D’Abruzzo, a knockout denizen of “Avenue Q,” nor the terrific Tonya Pinkins in “Caroline, or Change” will edge out vivacious DONNA MURPHY in “Wonderful Town.”

Featured Actor/Play.: Omar Metwally terrorized “Sixteen Wounded” and Tom Aldredge asked passengers to repent aboard the “Twentieth Century.” Aiden Quinn was brilliantly creepy in “The Caretaker.” Ben Chaplin must have made an impression on someone in “The Retreat from Moscow,” but he was not nearly as unforgettable as BRIAN F. O’BYRNE, as the psycho killer in “Frozen.”

Featured Actress/Play: Co-performers in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan, may also cancel each other out. Essie Davis impresses by singing on a crescent moon in “Jumpers.” Daphne Rubin-Vega smoldered in the cigar factory in “Anna in the Tropics.” MARGO MARTINDALE bowled us over as Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Featured Actor/Musical: John Cariani hasn’t got it sewed up as Motel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof.” There isn’t much hope for Michael McElroy, as the runaway slave in “Big River” or for “Raul Esparza” as the bizarre narrator in “Taboo.” Will the “cancel out” theory hurt Denis O’Hare and MICHAEL CERVERIS, both of “Assassins?” I think not.

Featured Actress/Musical: Beth Fowler, as back stage mother in “The Boy from Oz,” Isabel Keating, as Judy Garland in “The Boy from Oz,” Anika Noni Rose, as the rebellious daughter in “Caroline, or Change,” and Karen Ziemba, as the wise-cracking friend in “Never Gonna Dance,” are all terrific, but my guess is that JENNIFER WESTFELDT, as the stage-struck sister Eileen in “Wonderful Town,” will nab the prize.

Book/Musical: Tony Kushner (“Caroline, or Change”); Martin Sherman and Nick Enright (“The Boy from Oz”); Winnie Holzman (“Wicked”); JEFF WHITTY (“Avenue Q”).

Original Score.: This is a tough one. Boy George wrote almost two dozen fine new songs for “Taboo.” You won’t be singing many of the piercing songs Stephen Schwartz wrote for “Wicked,” or the very eclectic operatic arias Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner wrote for “Caroline, or Change.” But once you hear it you won’t stop playing Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s beguiling score for “AVENUE Q.”

Scenery: Robert Brill (“Assassins”); Ralph Funicello (“Henry IV”); Tom Pye (“Fiddler on the Roof”); EUGENE LEE (“Wicked”).

Choreography: Anthony Van Laast and Farah Khan (“Bombay Dreams”); Jerry Mitchell (“Never Gonna Dance”); Kathleen Marshall (“Wonderful Town”); WAYNE CILENTO (“Wicked”).

Costumes: Jess Goldstein (“Henry IV”); Mike Nicolis and Bobby Pearce (“Taboo”); Mark Thompson (“Bombay Dreams”); SUSAN HILFERTY (“Wicked”).

Lighting: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (“Assassins”); Brian MacDevitt (“Fiddler on the Roof”); Brian MacDevitt (“Henry IV”); KENNETH POSNER (“Wicked”).

Orchestration: Larry Hochman (“Fiddler on the Roof”); Paul Bogaev (“Bombay Dreams”); William David Brohn (“Wicked”); MICHAEL STAROBIN (“Assassins”).

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