The Tony Awards Hits And Misses: Ariana DeBose Hosts, A Strange Loop Wins, And A Brontosaurus Puppet Fails To Make An Appearance

"Why didn't they bring out the brontosaurus?" is an esoteric demand only comprehended by theatergoers who devoured nearly all of the Broadway season. The Tony Awards ceremony missed its opportunity to parade the ginormous James Ortiz-designed Brontosaurus puppet in the sprawling epic revival of Thornton Wilder's "Skin of Our Teeth," unlike the time the event galloped out Neil Patrick Harris on the horse puppets of "War Horse" at the 65th Annual Tony Awards ceremony.

But anyway, the 75th Tony Awards, broadcast from the Radio City Music Hall on CBS, may have been a succession of missed opportunities — in (my opinion) award choices or its lack of Best Ensemble. But it also flashed its storm of jaw-dropping talent, the enormity of it that can be experienced live in the theatre for those who can afford it or score the discounts in a pandemic age where general accessibility (or lack thereof) remain due for a reckoning. Let's look at the best bits and biggest blunders of the 75th Tony Awards.

Ariana DeBose sings for the swings and more

Having played an aspiring cheerleader in the "Bring It On" musical, the bullet/omen of death in "Hamilton," Alyssa Greene in the movie adaptation of "The Prom," and eventually her soulful Oscar-winning role of Anita in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story," Ariana DeBose did not disappoint as host. DeBose kicked off the main ceremony with "This Is Your Round of Applause," with an optimal medley of classics, and properly bookended the ceremony with a medley of this season's works. She also enacted adorable bits with the attendees, including a playful dance with Sam Rockwell (nominated Leading Star of the revival of "American Buffalo"). Her sharing the stage with Chita Rivera, the original Anita of "West Side Story" on Broadway, is a highlight with baton-passing poignancy.

Once an understudy herself, DeBose gave much-needed thanks to the understudies, swings, and stand-ins as the heroes of the seasons who kept the shows dancing and singing.

Shout out to the Broadway ushers, who were anecdotally meticulous (they patrol the aisles in tandem like hawks) in calling out the de-maskers in the Broadway houses lest they become spreaders. With that said, the unmasked Tony Awards left a looming cognitive dissonance and discomfort as Covid-negative testing, not masking, were attendance requirements in contrast to the current masking policies and protections in Broadway houses (with their vax requirements expired). Especially when cast and crew are still vulnerable to breakthrough Covid infections that canceled performances and woefully ended runs, this cognitive dissonance is exacerbated through the running gag "Chris Harper pays my salary" as quipped by the "Company" winners at the podium, which references Patti LuPone's own scathing critique (that ascended LuPone to Theatre-Twitter circulation, again) to a mask-defying audience member. The maskless makeup of the Tony Awards reminds us that theatre is less welcoming for the immunocompromised. 

Performances and honors

The few productions — "The Music Man" and "Mr. Saturday Night" — I reviewed as underwhelming on the whole threw out worthy presentations. Hugh Jackson, expectantly, led "76 Trombones" and tap-danced alongside Sutton Foster. Billy Crystal performed his scat act with the crowd, Samuel L. Jackson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Bob Dylan-laced "Girl from the North Country," a protracted yawn, exerted a soaring rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Pressing On" from Mare Winningham and Jeannette Bayardelle.

The unambiguously laudable aspect of a controversial "MJ" musical, Myles Frost (winner of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Musical) mesmerized with his silky leg-and-footwork in "Smooth Criminal." That the audio of Frost's singing voice seems sound-mixed off does not detract from the hypnotic gliding of his limbs with skate-like precision. The Best Choreography Tony was in the bag for Christopher Wheeldon.

For "A Strange Loop," the incandescent Jaquel Spivey, as the struggling Black queer writer Usher, and Usher's six pestering Thoughts gave their invigorating performance of the "Intermission Song." Spivey got to show off Usher's hungering eyes in intimate close-ups. "Six" presented the opening "Ex-Wives" number that economically introduces the six popified Tudor queens. They along with the "A "Strange Loop" Thoughts are glaring reminders that the Tonys lacks a Best Ensemble category. 

The winner of the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, the eruptive Joaquina Kalukango brought the house down with the barn-burner "Let It Burn" from the flawed but likable "Paradise Square."

In addition, the original Broadway cast of "Spring Awakening," featuring Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher Jr., delivered "Touch Me" with the consummate grace that reminded its fans just why the poetry resonated with them.

As expected, speeches were heartwarming supplies of gratitudes and encouragements. When winning Best Book, Michael J. Jackson reminded creatives to "Make sure we're staying on our grind." Deirdre O'Connell, winner for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for "Dana H," also delivered a stand-out: "Should I be trying to make something that could work on Broadway? ... Should I make the art that is haunting me, that is frightening me? Please let me standing here be a sign to make the weird art." In one of the greatest pieces of documentary theatre, O'Connell portrayed the eponymous Dana H, playwright Lucas Hnath's mother, lip-syncing (and slouching and shifting on cue with uncanny realism) the recorded testimony of the real Dana H's survival under a white supremacist.

One of the momentous losses of the season was the titan, giant in the sky, Stephen Sondheim. So it came as no surprise when Bernadette Peters, who originated the Witch of Sondheim's fairy tale mashup "Into the Woods," sang the weep-inducing "Children Will Listen."

As for a living legend, veteran actress Angela Lansbury was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. However, this and the New York City Gay Men's Chorus tribute performance of the title song of "Mame" exclusively aired on the tech-focused first hour on Paramount+. Lansbury herself was not present, nor was a pre-recorded speech presented.

Best musicals

Ariana DeBose remarked, "The Great White Way is starting to look like a nickname rather than a how-to guide and starting to reflect the people who love it." Still, the Tony Awards can be viewed as more commercial bolster than a metric of merit. The Tony Awards, not unlike its approximate movie counterpart the Oscars, has invited scrutiny and conversation over its own white-benefiting institution, as much as the landscape is attempting to evolve.

Already I have rooted for Michael R. Jackson's "A Strange Loop," winning 2 out of 11 of its nominations including Best Book, to be recognized as the Best Musical of the Broadway season for its bold conversation against the white cis-heteronormativity of the industry. So it is an egregious time management misfire that the "Big Black Queer Ass American Broadway" had its white woman producer deliver the most of the Best Musical acceptance speech as opposed to its queer Black creative Jackson, who was allotted less than 10 seconds.

I guessed correctly that the win for Best Revival of a Musical would go to "Company," the Stephen Sondheim revival which reimagines its marriage-ambivalent protagonist from a heterosexual man to a heterosexual woman under the direction and script re-writing by Marianne Elliot. While DeBose lauded it for breaking ground, I wasn't too keen on celebrating its conspicuously limiting heteronormative lack of imagination. But for all its underwhelming elements, this "Company" revival was entertaining and not unmeaningful. But the deserving revival should have been "Caroline, Or Change," by lyricist and bookwriter Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori.

Best plays

This season, the best Broadway plays were the harrowing "Dana H" (winning for Dierdre O' Connell and also a winner for Mikhail Fiksel's sound design) and Keenan Scott II's "Thoughts of a Colored Man," although they didn't ascend to nominations. The Sam Mendes-directed "The Lehman Trilogy" took home the Best Play prize. While it is an excellently performed production with delicately timed craft, it was not my pick against the more relevant Dominique Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew" or Lynn Nottage's "Clyde's." But the crops of best plays were to be found outside Tony-parameters, off-Broadway, which includes "English," "The Chinese Lady," and "Cullud Wattah."

My pick for Best Revival of a Play is the sprawling Lileana Blain-Cruz-directed "The Skin of Our Teeth," housed in the gargantuan Vivian Beaumont Center, but was excluded from the nomination list. It's highly disappointing that the ceremony saw little cause to bring out the aforementioned brontosaurus puppet. The play deserved to be among a competition of nominees that are tougher to choose among, starting with the gorgeously heartbreaking and cleansing Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" (that suffered the injustice of a short run). Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive," a frank portrait of grooming and the ambivalence toward an abusive loved one, has also seared my heart.

Segments of the 75th Tony Awards can be viewed on Paramount+ or Youtube.