On the Road: A Look at Some Tony Award Contenders

On the eve of Sunday’s Tony Awards broadcast, here’s a look at four productions that will be vying for recognition in various categories. All four of them are musicals, and one, Illinoise, has its roots in the state’s most famous city. Depending on what happens Sunday night, some of these show’s marquees will braze brilliantly for months (or years) to come. Others will dim and fade away before the end of June. Two of these shows debuted at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The shows below are listed in alphabetical order:

Back to the Future
Without question, the DeLorean is the star attraction in this adaptation of the 1985 comedy about a teenager (Marty) who time-travels to the 1950s and meets his parents when they were his age. With Roger Bart (Tony-nominated for his performance as the eccentric inventor Doc Brown—aka the Christopher Lloyd role in the film)—and Casey Likes (Almost Famous) in the Michael J. Fox role of Marty McFly, John Rando’s production boasts scenic design by Tim Hatley (Life of Pi) and video design by Finn Ross, joint Tony nominees for the set.

Chicagoans will have a chance to see the national tour of this fun-filled show by Broadway in Chicago starting in mid-August at the Cadillac Palace. Don’t miss your chance to see some of the jaw-dropping special effects, and groove to the songs by Huey Lewis.

Foreground: Byron Tittle, Christine Flores, Kara Chan and Ricky Ubeda (kneeling). Background: TashaViets-VanLear, Shara Nova. Broadway cast of Illinoise. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Illinoise
Inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album, Illinoise debuted at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in January and February. Now it’s on Broadway, and nominated for Best Musical and Best Choreography, among other Tony nominations. There’s little doubt that New York director/choreographer Justin Peck will take home the Tony for Best Choreography. The other nominations are less certain, but the show is definitely worth seeing, especially for dance fans. Peck and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies wrote the book, which loosely tells the coming-of-age story of a young man and his friends who are sitting by the campfire in the woods. With basically no dialogue, this 90-minute production (no intermission) is sure to be a hit with international visitors who don’t need to understand English to enjoy it. Midwestern audiences will pick up on details such the number featuring serial killer John Wayne Gacy (who appears in a clown costume), and recognize background graphics depicting the tower formerly named Sears.

Three friends travel back in time to their first meeting in Merrily We Roll Along. From left: Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff and Lindsay Mendez. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Merrily We Roll Along
The three leading players—Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”), Jonathan Groff (Hamilton’s King George) and Lindsay Mendez (a Tony winner for Carousel)—all share Tony nominations. Watching them go through their paces in this whimsical musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth makes one appreciate why this is among the hottest tickets on Broadway. The time-traveling musical starts in the 1970s and goes backwards some 20 years, when the three friends first meet. Every aspect of this production is worthy, and it’s certain to win the Tony prize for Best Musical Revival. Although audiences must wait patiently for songs like “Not a Day Goes By,” all of the music is wonderful. Director Maria Friedman worked this musical puzzle so marvelously that the 1981 flop has become a current hit.

The three stars are at the top of their game, as is the strong cast of supporting players. The production’s final night on Broadway is July 7.

The Notebook
Here’s another musical with a Chicago connection: its pre-Broadway tryout was staged by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in fall 2022. It took 20 years for this romantic tale to transition from screen to the stage. The story is beautifully told on Broadway, where three pairs of actors represent the main characters, Noah and Allie, from adolescence to old age. This premise may sound confusing, but it adds a richness that would be lost otherwise. Many times, one sees all three iterations of a character (usually dressed in the same-colored clothing) as they recall a shared moment.

The oldest set of actors—Maryann Plunkett (who was in the Chicago cast) and Dorian Harewood—are both nominated for Tonys. Whether they receive them or not, they paint a gorgeous picture of love, respect and admiration that do not fade through the years. As Allie, Plunkett must traverse a twisted path as a woman coping with Alzheimer’s disease. While she doesn’t always recognize Noah, who lives with her in a memory care facility, she enjoys listening to a story he reads to her. Most of the time, she fails to recognize that the story is her own. You had better bring a supply of tissues to watch this show, a certain tear-jerker. Directed by Michael Greif and Schele Williams, The Notebook has a Tony-nominated book by Bekah Brunstetter, and a score by singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.

The many faces of The Notebook: Dorian Harewood (Older Noah—back) reflects on his past, with John Cardoza (Younger Noah) and
Jordan Tyson (Younger Allie—front); Ryan Vasquez(Middle Noah) and Joy Woods(Middle Allie—middle). Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

While Back to the Future is the only one of these shows with firm touring dates (August, remember?), the others will probably be coming soon to a theater near you.

The 77th annual Tony Awards ceremony will take place this Sunday in New York, hosted again by Ariana DeBose. The live broadcast will be on CBS and streamed on Paramount+ (for subscribers of Paramount+ with Showtime only) from 7pmCT; more information at www.tonyawards.com.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.