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Nicole Serratore: First-time nominees offer reasons to be cheerful about the Tonys

Ashley Park (second from left) in Mean Girls, with co-stars Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell. Photo: Joan Marcus Ashley Park (second from left) in Mean Girls, with co-stars Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell. Photo: Joan Marcus
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It’s always easy to find reasons to be grumpy about the Tony Awards. Whether it’s overcritical omissions (what do you mean there’s no nomination for Angels in America’s James McArdle!?) or weak categories that lack rigorous competition (hello, best new play).

Tony Awards 2018: the nominations in full

But, ahead of this Sunday’s ceremony there is at least one reason to be optimistic: many named in the acting categories are nominated for the first time, and there are even several Broadway debuts in there too. It reflects a deep well of diverse talent now getting a chance on some of theatre’s biggest stages, and the trend will hopefully continue for years to come.

The tyro nominees of the Tony class of 2017-2018 include Ashley Park, who demonstrated her broad range this year with her role as a Korean pop-star diva in the Off-Broadway musical KPOP followed by her turn as the anxious-fretful Gretchen Wieners – the role she was nominated for – in Mean Girls. Based on the iconic film about tyrannical teenage girls ruling a high school, it’s a step forward to cast an Asian-American woman as one of the famed ‘Plastics’, and Park fits perfectly.

Open-hearted with a bold voice to remember, 19-year-old Hailey Kilgore received a leading actress in a musical nomination for her debut role on Broadway as Ti Moune in the revival of Once on this Island. This puts her in the same category as Broadway veteran LaChanze (up for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical), who originated the role of Ti Moune in 1990.

African-American actor Brian Tyree Henry is no stranger to Broadway after starring in the original cast of The Book of Mormon. In his return to the Great White Way, he offers nuance he never could in Mormon and puts in a powerful performance as a security guard struggling with a personal moral dilemma in Kenneth Lonergan’s play Lobby Hero.

New musical The Band’s Visit involves an Egyptian band visiting Israel and the cross-cultural interactions that take place in a small desert town. A Southwest-Asian story on Broadway is rare and casting many Middle Eastern actors in a work like this is all the more critical. Yemeni-Jewish actor Ari’el Stachel, who woos the audience playing Haled, a hapless, romantic musician full of longing but lacking game, is nominated for best actor in a musical on his Broadway debut.

Best leading actress in a play nominee Lauren Ridloff made her first professional stage appearance in Children of a Lesser God when it premiered out-of-town last summer and then her Broadway debut with the show when it transferred.

Ridloff, a deaf actor of African-American and Mexican-American descent, fervently expresses her character’s love, anger and ferocity while fighting to be understood by those around her. She shows there’s no excuse not to be hiring more D/deaf and disabled actors on Broadway.

Latina actress Lindsay Mendez has been working on Broadway for a decade. Finally, her joie-de-vivre and mellifluous voice has been recognised by the Tony nominating committee in the category for featured actress in a musical. Her hilarious and effervescent turn as Julie Jordan’s sidekick Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel brightens this dark musical and makes us long for such a BFF ourselves.

Whoever wins on Sunday night, these nominated actors show a bright future for a more inclusive Broadway if producers are smart and keep putting these talents to work. And if not this year, many of these talents will take a Tony award home sometime in their career.

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