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Chicago gets shout-outs as ‘Kinky Boots,’ Steppenwolf vie for Tonys

Tracy Letts (left) Amy Mort(right) have been nominated for Tony Awards for their roles Steppenwolf Theater producti“Who’s Afraid VirigniWoolf?”

Tracy Letts (left) and Amy Morton (right) have been nominated for Tony Awards for their roles in the Steppenwolf Theater production of “Who’s Afraid of Virignia Woolf?”

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Updated: June 2, 2013 6:25AM



Betting on Broadway success is far riskier than putting money on a horse or popping coins into a casino slot machine. Sensing the taste of theatergoers, and their willingness to plunk down what can often be far more than $100 for a single ticket, involves that most fickle element: the human factor. And a quick scan of the 2013 Tony Award nominees list can set you theorizing from here to the top row of the balcony about why any particular show has caught on.

Yet there are two conclusions you might easily come to regarding the place that Chicago holds in the whole crazy business that is show:

♦ Steppenwolf Theatre seems to have the magic touch with New York audiences. Part of this involves long familiarity with the “company name,” as well as solid recent history. The 50th anniversary production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which began in Chicago — and demanded audiences engage in nearly three hours of intense marital strife — earned five major nominations: for best revival of a play; best director (Pam MacKinnon); best leading actor (Tracy Letts); best leading actress (Amy Morton, her second Tony nomination), and best featured actress (Carrie Coon). A whole new generation became acquainted with Albee’s best known play. And while Letts is not a “celebrity” by current Broadway standards, something about the legacy of his 2008 Steppenwolf-produced hit — the equally demanding “August: Osage County” — still powerfully connects with audiences.

This time around “Letts, the Pulitzer Prize -and Tony Award-winning playwright” showcased his brilliant acting skills in a revelatory turn as the beaten-down academic, George. And Morton, who co-starred in “August,” was back in full force, with a surprisingly human (as opposed to simply “braying”) Martha. Newcomer Coon landed a nomination for her quirky Honey, as did the show’s veteran, hand-picked Albee director, MacKinnon.

♦ Meanwhile, Chicago remains a strong place for tryouts. “Kinky Boots,” which received 13 Tony nominations, was in very good shape when it arrived here last winter, even if it had a few kinks to work out. Audiences — the most reliable barometer of what needs fixing — flocked to see it. And of course it never hurts to have a pop star like Cyndi Lauper pen the score — which she did with enormous skill. In New York, the show was faced with rather stiff, last-minute competition from the London-bred production of “Mathilda the Musical,” which earned 12 nominations.

So now the race to the awards ceremony to be held June 9 at Radio City Music Hall.

Will either of these musicals have the endurance of “The Producers” or “Spamalot,” both of which had pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago? No sane person would bet on such things. So the question now is this: How will “Big Fish,” which is currently running in its pre-Broadway tryout at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, fare in the shark-filled waters around Manhattan island when it opens there next fall?



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