Pop quiz: When was the first Tony Award for best musical handed out, and which show was the initial recipient?
I couldn’t have answered that question before Monday night, as the Chicago Humanities Festival presented “A Night at the Tonys,” its sold-out, one-night-only, grand-scale musical theater revue in the 1,000-seat auditorium of the Francis W. Parker School.
The answer? The year was 1949, and the show was “Kiss Me, Kate,” Cole Porter’s spirited musical “update” on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Even at rapid-fire speed, it’s not easy to sing your way through 65 seasons of Tony-winning musicals. But with Rob Lindley as witty host and director, the peerless Doug Peck as musical director, Tammy Mader as choreographer, and a cast of 20 power-voiced, fired-up performers who are either Chicago-based or with close Chicago ties, the challenge was met. It took just about three hours, but who was counting? This was one great musical marathon.
It would take me another three hours at the very least to describe the highlights of the evening, so here, in highly condensed form, are some observations:
* Jessie Mueller, who received the 2014 Tony Award as best actress in a musical — “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” — has not abandoned her hometown. On her only day off, she flew in to sing selections from “South Pacific,” “The Music Man,” “Fiorello,” a particularly ravishing take on “Moonfall” from”The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and a last-minute surprise (King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”). Her voice has never sounded more beautiful, and her gown (black, with sinuously shaped sparkling silver sleeves ) was a stunner. It will be so interesting to see what she does post-“Beautiful.”
* As it turns out, Mueller’s gift for creating a scene from a single song and endowing it with heart-piercing emotion, is one she shared with her fellow performers. Veteran actress Ernestine Jackson proved it in her searing take on “Measure the Valleys” from “Raisin.” Karen Mason did the same with her fervent, near operatic rendering of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from “Sunset Boulevard.” Andrea Prestinario, a woefully underutilized actress who can move easily from opera to hard rock, gave a heart-piercing performance of “Unusual Way” from the musical “Nine.” And Lindley seized hold of that “La Cage” anthem, “I Am What I Am,” with show-stopping ferocity.
* A couple of the male singers on the program possess voices that could easily command an opera stage. Travis Taylor, soon to be seen as Sir Lancelot in the Drury Lane Theatre revival of “Camelot,” is one of them (his rendering of “Stars” from “Les Mis,” was a beauty). James Earl Jones II was another as he moved easily from “The Impossible Dream,” to “Music of the Night,” to a knockout take on “Big Love” from “Memphis.” Adrian Aguilar did a fine job with the rap from “In the Heights.” And Devin DeSantis zestily led the guys in a rebellious “The Bitch of Living” from “Spring Awakening.” Andre De Shields, another Tony winner, reprised his 1975 title role in “The Wiz” (and wore the original costume), but he saved the real magic for a scorching rendering of “Black and Blue” from “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
* Rebecca Finnegan, a sensational Mrs. Lovett in the currently running “Sweeney Todd” at Porchlight Music Theatre, displayed her ability to move from the comic to the tragic in the wink of an eye. Tammy Mader, a most stylish dancer, evoked the spirit of Gwen Verdon, and dancer Emily Rogers was the enigmatic girl in “Contact.” There also were big vocal turns by Megan Murphy (especially good in a song from “Avenue Q”), Bethany Thomas, Allison Bazarko and Christine Mild. These ladies have pipes.
* While most of the performers were accompanied by Peck (on piano), Sarah Allen (percussion) and Larry Kohut (bass) — all superb — the more cabaret-oriented team of Beckie Menzie (piano and vocals) and singer Tom Michael put a jazzier, non-Broadway spin on several numbers and showed just how different the songs can become.
* As Lindley noted, hearing selections from all 65 years of Tony-winning musicals was a fine way to be reminded of shifting styles and tastes over the decades, and to get a sense of the evolution of the Broadway songbook. I’m trying to think of a theme I’d like to see explored in next year’s program, but I’m sure Peck and Lindley are already a good 32 bars ahead of me.