The Tony award nominations 2013: Feelgood fun from the best of Broadway

This year's nominations include a Chekhov spoof, Tom Hanks in a play about newspapers and a drag queen musical. Michael Coveney assesses this year's contenders

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The Independent Culture

At the end of the new hit play on Broadway, a Chekhov spoof called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, David Hyde Pierce as a modern Vanya in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, delivers a comic tirade against the loss of shared memory in our disconnected, techno-philiac lives, and about how much he misses the past.

At this point, the audience at the John Golden Theater more or less explodes in a communal yelp of agreement. Hyde Pierce, like Chekhov's worn-down country estate manager, will stick it out, however, and stay stoically put, hoping to see more blue herons across the lake. The play ends, ecstatically, on a blast of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun".

It's a classic Broadway statement of resistant defiance, a renewal of the message in the old musicals, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that "everything's coming up roses", "you'll never walk alone" and "there's a bright golden haze on the meadow".

And at this time of year in New York, the Tony-voting period, with the nominations in, the 868 voters – producers, writers, actors, tour presenters – fighting for tickets (especially to see Tom Hanks, best-actor nominee, in Nora Ephron's posthumous valentine to the old-style newspaper industry, Lucky Guy) and the winners announced on 9 June, everyone looks on the bright side of life.

That's the job, too, of the biggest, gaudiest new musicals in town, pop queen Cyndi Lauper and playwright Harvey Fierstein's feel-good drag-queen fiesta, Kinky Boots, and a sensational, acrobatic circus-style revival of the 1972 Roger O Hirson and Stephen Schwartz picaresque adventure/love story of the dopily optimistic, peace-loving son of King Charlemagne, Pippin.

Pippin should be a shoe-in for best musical revival. Diane Paulus's irresistible production disguises the hopelessly thin second act – in which Matthew James Thomas's wonderfully likeable anti-hero finds his "corner of the sky" in domestic bliss on a farmyard estate – in a Big Top sideshow of virtuosic physicality and grace, led by Patina Miller (the charismatic London star of Sister Act a few years back) as a slinky, serpentine emcee in black leathers.

Kinky Boots is leading the charge for the best new musical Tony, with 13 nominations in all categories compared to the mere 12 garnered by the RSC-originated Matilda by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly. The odd thing here is that both are so terribly British, the first based on Julian Jarrold's charming 2005 movie about a crisis in a shoe-making factory in Northampton, the second on Roald Dahl.

The Northampton connection is maintained in Kinky Boots, no doubt because the producers see here a tie-in with such other recent British-based Broadway hits relating to our industrial history and working-class hinterland as Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. And, as in those shows, Kinky Boots is all about redemptive transformation through artistic enterprise – fitted out in skin-tight, thigh-high, red leather boots: "a range of shoes for men" becomes "a range of shoes for a range of men".

The soul of the new sole business, where Charlie Price (a slightly anaemic Pippin-style figure as played by Stark Sands) has inherited a family business, is represented by Billy Porter's knockout drag queen Lola; originally called Simon and hailing, with unlikely fidelity to the original, from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, where his/her estranged father is fading fast in a nursing home, she galvanises the production line and proves, emphatically, in one of several electrifying ensemble numbers, that "Sex is in the Heel". Lola's Angels thus fall instep and save Charlie and his shocker-lace-up factory.

Vanya and Sonia's leading rival in the best-play category is Richard Greenberg's The Assembled Parties from the not-for-profit New York set-up, the Manhattan Theatre Club (their Royal Court). But this stilted family saga with take-out jokes ("A German Jewish girl is just a shiksa with a problem"; President Bush – this is 2000 – is so feeble that the old aunt is "starting to get nostalgic for his father") left me cold, though The New York Times has invoked heyday comedy classics by Moss Hart and SN Behrman.

Greenberg – whose acclaimed revival of The American Plan, starring Diana Quick, is en route from Bath to the West End – splits his two acts by 20 years and mixes generational angst and tragedy among the family in a ludicrously over-designed Central Park apartment with a nativity theme; as in so many of the old comedies, there's a Christmas tree in the corner.

But what most troubled me in the usually reliable Lynne Meadow's production was the strained breathiness of the acting, especially that of Jessica Hecht (a Broadway favourite) as the trouser-suited materfamilias who seems – she speaks so weirdly – to have either swallowed a walnut or fallen into a trance. Judith Light as the old aunt has her moments and there's a welcome measure of understatement in the performance of Jeremy Shamos as the man who stays for dinner, then full board and lodging.

Still, Greenberg is one of New York's best dramatists, and I'll put this one down to experience. How delightful, though, to see one of the 1970s old guard, Christopher Durang, always a witty writer, and a brilliant parodist, leap back to prominence with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

As the title implies, there's a layering of Chekhovian themes here, with siblings in crisis, an actress returning home – the glorious, imperious Sigourney Weaver – a threatened property sell-off, and a doormat black housemaid called Cassandra (brilliant Shalita Grant) who warns of disaster and sticks pins in a voodoo doll. The outsider Spike (Billy Magnussen, a nominated featured actor) is a moronic muscleman with a sexual fixation as much on himself as on Weaver's Masha.

The surprise – a surprise, that is, until, you see her – best-actress Tony nominee from this cast is Kristine Nielsen, a longtime Durang collaborator, who plays the miserable half-sister Sonia who suddenly effloresces at a fancy dress Snow White party as the Wicked Queen as played by Maggie Smith. What starts as a show business in-joke expands into a brilliant, hilarious metaphor of aspiration and glittering star quality: if London doesn't one day stand up and cheer this performance, I'll chew my balaclava and sell my samovar.

We know what to expect from David Hyde Pierce, simply the best actor at doing nothing you'll ever see. He even stole the show from Mark Rylance in London during a half-hour-plus speech by Rylance in La Bête; here, he channels Chekhovian apathy through a raised eyebrow and a wrinkled lip, and that's all night long, before he gets anywhere near the big speech of his own.

In marked contrast to The Assembled Parties, the acting in Vanya and Sonia is taut, tight and disciplined, the only way to play this kind of nutty comedy; Nicholas Martin's direction is easily in the Jerry Zaks class of Broadway bravura, and I can't say better than that.

And, while talking technical, I thought I'd better check out a Broadway long-runner, Newsies, a Disney-produced musical based on yet another movie (starring Christian Bale), about a newspaper boy strike of 1899 that helped unionise the industry and stave off a dangerous monopoly.

Over one year into its run, the show is a marvel of passion, precision and sheer knock-'em-dead joie de vivre. Poignantly, it charts the rise of a newspaper industry that has since been transformed and challenged by the sort of changes excoriated by Vanya in Durang's play. More importantly, it promotes the socialist idea that the boy who sells the newspaper on the corner of the street is as much a part of the industry as the journalists who write the words.

We may have lost that shared public spiritedness in our everyday lives but the Broadway theatre hasn't, apparently.