'Paradise Square' earns 10 Tony nominations, playwright Lynn Nottage earns two

  • Powerhouse performer Joaquina Kalukango, seen here last November, earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance as tavern owner Nelly O'Brien in the musical "Paradise Square," which also earned nominations for best musical, featured actor, book, score and set design among others.

    Powerhouse performer Joaquina Kalukango, seen here last November, earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance as tavern owner Nelly O'Brien in the musical "Paradise Square," which also earned nominations for best musical, featured actor, book, score and set design among others. Courtesy of Kevin Berne

 
 
Updated 5/9/2022 12:32 PM

NEW YORK -- "A Strange Loop," Michael R. Jackson's critically cheered theater meta-journey earned a leading 11 Tony Award nominations Monday as Broadway joined the national discussion of race by embracing an envelope-pushing Black-written and Black-led musical.

Jackson's 2020 Pulitzer Prize drama winner about a Black gay man writing a show about a Black gay man earned nods for best musical, best leading man in newcomer Jaquel Spivey and best featured actress for L Morgan Lee, who becomes the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Tony Award.

 

Jesse Williams, the "Grey's Anatomy" star making his Broadway debut, got a nomination for "Take Me Out," as did his co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson of "Modern Family" fame. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who's 2003 drama "Intimate Apparel" is currently running at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, had two reasons to smile: Her book for the musical "MJ was nominated for best book and her play "Clyde's" about ex-convict truck stop diner workers trying to restart their lives, got a nod for best play. Goodman Theatre's Chicago premiere of "Clyde's" begins previews Sept. 10.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, whose 2003 drama "Intimate Apparel" runs through May 15 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, was nominated for two Tony Awards.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, whose 2003 drama "Intimate Apparel" runs through May 15 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, was nominated for two Tony Awards. -

Right behind "A Strange Loop" is a tie with 10 nominations each for "MJ," a bio musical of the King of Pop stuffed with his biggest hits, and "Paradise Square," a musical about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City around the time of the Civil War that features several reworked Stephen Foster songs.

As predicted, "Paradise Square," which tried out in Chicago last fall, earned Tony nominations for lead actress Joaquina Kalukango for her glorious performance as a freeborn Black tavern owner and for Bill T. Jones for his spectacular choreography pairing Irish and hammerstep with Black American juba.

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Also earning a nomination in the best new musical category was "Six," a pop, rock and hip-hop "herstory" remix about Henry VIII's six wives. The 2019 North American premiere, which took place at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, subsequently transferred to Broadway with its Chicago cast (including Evanston's Abby Mueller) intact.

Brittney Mack, center, co-stars in "Six," which was nominated for the best new musical Tony.
Brittney Mack, center, co-stars in "Six," which was nominated for the best new musical Tony. - Courtesy of Boneau, Bryan Brown

The rest of the best new musical category includes "Girl From the North Country," which uses the songs of Bob Dylan to weave a Depression-era story in the Midwest and "Mr. Saturday Night," a reworking of Billy Crystal's film about a bitter, old insult comic chasing a last laugh.

Another Tony nominated production Chicago-area theater lovers experienced first was Lucas Hnath's "Dana H," an unsettling tale about a woman kidnapped and held captive by a violent felon, whose 2019 world premiere was produced by The Center Theater Group and Goodman Theatre. The production's unconventional performance style has Dierdre O'Connell (who earned a lead actress nomination for her performance) lip syncing to an audio recording of the real-life Dana Higginbotham (playwright Hnath's mother) who narrates her survivor's tale. Director Les Waters received a Tony nod as did Mikhail Fiksel, for his impressive sound design.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Two of the best play nominees are about economics -- "Skeleton Crew," Dominique Morisseau's play about blue-collar job insecurity in a Detroit auto stamping plant in 2008, and "The Lehman Trilogy," Stefano Massini's play spanning 150 years about what led to the collapse of financial giant Lehman Brothers.

There's also "Clyde's," and "Hangmen," Martin McDonagh's look at an executioner-turned-pub owner forced to grapple with his past when capital punishment is made illegal in the United Kingdom. "The Minutes," Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tracey Letts' fiercely funny depiction of a small-town city council meeting that exposes backstabbing, greed and the larger delusions in American history, also earned a best play nod.

There were four musical revivals during the season, but only three got nominations: "The Music Man," which celebrates America's soul with a traveling con man in a small Iowa town starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, who each have two Tonys and were each nominated this time as well.

The two other entries in the musical revival category are "Caroline, Or Change," Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's show that explores America's racial, social and economic divisions in 1963 Louisiana, and "Company," Stephen Sondheim's exploration of a single person's conflicted feelings about commitment, this time with a gender-switching of the lead character. That left "Funny Girl," the classic American show starring Beanie Feldstein about the rise of a comic star of the Ziegfeld Follies, out of the running -- it got only one nod, for Jared Grimes as best featured actor.

Nominations for best play revival are "Trouble in Mind," Alice Childress' play about a Broadway play that explores the racial divide in the 1950s, and "How I Learned to Drive," Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning memory play told by the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, starring two nominees: Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse. The others are "Take Me Out," Richard Greenberg's exploration of what happens when a baseball superstar comes out as gay, and "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enough," playwright Ntozake Shange's exploration of Black womanhood.

Hailee Kaleem Wright, Karen Burthwright and Sidney Dupont star in "Paradise Square," which earned 10 Tony Award nominations.
Hailee Kaleem Wright, Karen Burthwright and Sidney Dupont star in "Paradise Square," which earned 10 Tony Award nominations. - Courtesy of The Press Room

The season -- with a whopping 34 new productions -- represents a full return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown. It is also notable for a wave of plays by Black playwrights, reflecting the impact on Broadway of the global conversation about race following the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Neither Matthew Broderick nor his wife Sarah Jessica Parker earned nominations for a revival of "Plaza Suite," but Patti LuPone got one for "Company" and so did LaChanze for "Trouble in Mind." Ruth Negga earned a nomination for "Macbeth" but her co-star Daniel Craig came up empty.

The musical "Mrs. Doubtfire" earned only one nod, for Rob McClure, stepping into the Robin Williams role of an actor who poses as his children's portly, Scottish nanny in order to spend time with them after a divorce.

Joining Kalukango among the best actress in a musical nominees are Sharon D. Clarke of "Caroline, Or Change," Foster in "The Music Man," Carmen Cusack in "Flying Over Sunset" and Mare Winningham in "Girl From the North Country."

Joining Spivey, Jackman and McClure in the best actor in a musical category are Crystal for "Mr. Saturday Night" and Myles Frost, whose King of Pop in "MJ" was a moonwalking triumph.

The eligibility cutoff date for the 2021-2022 season was delayed to May 4 after several Broadway shows had to cancel performances due to COVID-19 cases reported among cast and crew.

The Tony Awards will be held at Radio City Music Hall on June 12. The ceremony will air live on CBS and Paramount+ starting at 7 p.m. Film and stage star Ariana DeBose will host.

• Daily Herald theater critic Barbara Vitello contributed to this report.

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