Tony predictions: Who will win, who should win?

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune

With “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” likely to do to its rivals nominated for best play what the Dementors do to Ron and Hermione — in one narrative, anyway — most of the tension at the 2018 Tony Awards is likely to revolve far from the wizarding world. On Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall, it’ll be all about the musical muggles.

“The Band’s Visit,” at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway with Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub, is likely to clean up at the Tonys.

Does Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” — a peppy, moralistic, funny, Instagram-friendly musical that attracts a youthful audience to Broadway and explores how much high school power dynamics change over time — have any chance of beating out “The Band’s Visit,” a deconstructed “Friday Night Lights” of Broadway musicals and a masterful reminder of how art can explore great geopolitical questions with small metaphors focused on ordinary people?

And does a yellow Nickelodeon-branded poriferan with Panglossian tendencies have any chance at all?

Don’t hold your breath, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” although your charming star, Ethan Slater, deserves to win best actor in a musical, even if he may lose to Joshua Henry.

For my money, Slater created the most guileless leading male performance of the year, just as Katrina Lenk, who plays the lonely Israeli woman at the heart of “The Band’s Visit,” gave the most complex female performance in a leading role. Without Lenk reaching out for a human connection with an Egyptian stranger with equal measures of cynical realism and smoldering desperation, “The Band’s Visit” would not have felt so essential to how our hearts beat, and our lives ebb.

With “Frozen” likely iced out (it’s not so bad, really), this season’s eclectic slate of new musicals all are likely to bow to “The Band’s Visit.” No other score this year came even close to what David Yazbek, a jazz master, conjured up in his gently feverish dreams. No piece of direction fully compared with David Cromer’s achievement on that show, although, in a different year, Tina Landau’s transformation of a cartoon into a joyous, omnicultural and spectacular inclusive playground would have scored its deserved Tony Award. Landau’s work on “SpongeBob” was remarkable; this was more difficult material than people tend to realize.

Fey, though, deserves to win best book for “Mean Girls.” It’s by far the funniest musical of the year — just insouciant enough to challenge its audience, while also making it feel supported.

In the realm of musical revivals, it’s likely “Carousel” versus “My Fair Lady,” the former being beautiful and emotionally disrupted and traditional, and the latter being a radical and aggressive deconstruction for the current moment.

I greatly prefer “Carousel,” which is far better sung and does not so explicitly bend the material to the moment, just because people do not now as easily understand its profoundly progressive origins.

But that’s probably a minority view. Many saw Lauren Ambrose’s performance in director Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center production as revelatory in its power and guts. So stipulated.

Really, it all depends on whether you think “My Fair Lady” is obligated to wrestle with love and romance, or if you think that its characters, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, should now express themselves in merely transactional terms.

I say romantic musicals must wrestle with love, and what that now means.

“Carousel” was vulnerable. “My Fair Lady” was totally sure of itself. This is, perhaps, a moment for moral certitude. But musicals are by, about and for those who are unsure of themselves.

Josh Groban, left, and Sara Bareilles will host the 72nd annual Tony Awards on Sunday.

Certainly, the young “Carousel” choreographer Justin Peck created the most gorgeous movement of a human body through time and space seen on any Broadway stage all year. He must win. And so should both Alexander Gemignani and Lindsay Mendez, the saltiest Mr. and Mrs. Snow you ever did see.

But there is formidable competition in both categories; Norbert Leo Butz is a likely winner for his bravura turn in “My Fair Lady,” and such a victory would be well-deserved. Gavin Lee, the driest wit in “SpongeBob,” deserves a Tony, too. It’s tough to be a dancing squid.

There were three excellent play revivals on Broadway this season: “Three Tall Women,” which was superlative; “The Iceman Cometh,” ditto, in a remarkably unpretentious way; and “Lobby Hero,” which was sad and funny in equal measure and a reminder of how little most of us matter.

A fourth entry in that category, “Angels in America,” was a flawed production of a masterpiece. But it has sucked up so much of the oxygen that it has become the likely winner.

I’m all for Nathan Lane, who carried so much of the show on his back, triumphing Sunday night. Revivals, though, are supposed to recognize either revisionist brilliance or the provision of restorative luster.

In the former category, “Three Tall Women” reigned (and, mercifully, no one has a chance of beating its leading actress Glenda Jackson).

In the latter, “The Iceman Cometh” rolled eloquently through time, with its great star, Denzel Washington, bringing in his fans to see Eugene O’Neill, and now going up against Andrew Garfield of “Angels.” That’s a hard one to call.

Garfield’s performance was consistently fascinating, but Washington deserves the Tony. So does director Joe Mantello’s “Three Tall Women,” the home of Laurie Metcalf, who competes against Denise Gough of “Angels.”

And any magic on the stage is all her own.

72nd annual Tony Awards

8-11 p.m. Sunday

CBS (Channel 62)