Times theater critic Misha Berson offers her take on the fun and drama from Sunday night's Tony Awards ceremony.

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A comically resentful Chris Rock said at the close of this year’s Tony Awards telecast on Sunday night that if you’d told him he’d be rubbing elbows at the Beacon Theatre with Nathan Lane instead of watching the concurrent NBA finals, “I’d have said you’re crazy.”

But there Rock was, along with a plethora of Broadway and Hollywood stars, handing out the Tony for best musical to the biggest, most-awarded hit of the past season, “The Book of Mormon.”

Rock, who is making his Broadway debut in the gritty urban comedy, “The Motherf**er with the Hat,” was rumored as the possible host of this year’s Tony shindig, which took place off Broadway at the beautifully restored Beacon Theatre.

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But thank heaven those duties went again to TV sitcom star Neil Patrick Harris. A chipper, versatile, quick-witted charmer, he was as adept at singing and rapping two original numbers for the show (and a number from his filmed version of the musical “Company,” which plays several dates this week at the Metro and Egyptian Cinemas) as he was going head to head (and toe to toe) in a medley battle with former Tony host and fellow paragon of versatility, Hugh Jackman.

James Franco should have taken a tutorial with these guys before hosting the Oscars earlier this year. For in just about every way, the Tony Awards was a fresher, funnier, whimsically weirder and just all-around more entertaining event than the fairly lugubrious Academy Award ceremony that Franco presided over.

Contributing to the high spirits, recession be damned, was the banner season Broadway had financially, and the many productions and performances that were well worth celebrating with Tonys for theatrical excellence.

But the Tonys show generally is the best variety bash on the air, because it’s stocked with vivacious song-and-dance numbers polished to a fine sheen by performers appearing on the Great White Way nightly. Practice makes perfect, indeed.

And the star presenters and Tony winners seem, paradoxically, both more human and more theatrical in this setting. In their speeches and impromptu remarks they openly express an ardor for live theater that’s sincere, and at times insanely over the top — and shared by most everyone bitten hard by the theater bug.

The over-the-top category this year was headed by Ellen Barkin (best featured actress in a play, “The Normal Heart”), who invoked Atlas and Molotov cocktails in her teary, long, hyperbolic speech. And best actress in a musical Sutton Foster, who, after dancing her tootsies off in a tap extravaganza from the hit revival “Anything Goes,” burst into tears while praising her longtime dresser.

Less gushy but just as intense, the best-actress-in-a-play winner Frances McDormand (in one of the two strangest get-ups of the night, a long, red, striped dress topped by a denim jacket) paid strong tribute to her fellow cast members in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” to director (former Seattle Rep head) Daniel Sullivan, and to the script itself.

And accepting the Tony for best actor in a musical (“Catch Me if You Can”), Norbert Leo Butz’s genuine gratitude and shout-out to his late sister Teresa Butz struck a chord for many a Seattleite. (Teresa Butz was murdered during a 2009 home invasion in her Seattle residence while Butz was appearing in the pre-Broadway run of “Catch Me if You Can” at 5th Avenue Theatre.)

If the scripted moments were often flowery (in the Hallmark greeting-card tradition of presenters’ speeches), at heart the Tonys are about the sheer love, skill, and fortitude of live performance, which attract many movie stars to Broadway. Even the rock star Bono (who took the volley of jokes about his controversial, much-delayed musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” in good humor) seemed humbled by how hard people on the Great White Way toil. (Best “Spider-Man” jibe: “The book is the spine from which all the songs hang,” quipped presenter Robin Williams, “or in the case of ‘Spider-Man,’ they dangle and pray for the best.”)

Though excerpting a full scene from “War Horse,” the Tony-winner for best play, would have been technically daunting, the magic of the show’s life-size horse puppets was conveyed in a short cameo appearance.

And though the splendid, much-nominated musical “The Scottsboro Boys” won no Tonys (and should have grabbed one, for the superior Kander and Ebb score), and closed months ago, the reassembled cast gave it their all in a rousing number on an imaginary freight train.

And who knew that “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe could dance like a dervish, as he did in the ebullient “Brother of Man” number from the revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (which he’s currently starring in)?

You can’t fake those high kicks and leaping turns, or phone ’em in. And there are no double-takes.

This award show also flies under the radar just enough to be outrageous in clever ways. There was that tune from the much-honored “South Park” offspring “Book of Mormon” (sung by Tony nominee Andrew Rannells) that mocked some of the, ah, more unusual aspects of said religion. There was the saucy lampoonery of homophobia in Harris’ opening number, which mocked the old saw that only gay folk (and Jews and liberals) give a hoot about theater. (Sample lyric: “The glamour of Broadway is beckoning straights — the people who marry in all 50 states.”)

Then there were the seemingly odd remarks by Mark Rylance upon winning the best actor Tony for his dazzling work in “Jerusalem.” Rylance eschewed the standard thanks and recited a poem by Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins, “Walking Through a Wall.” Though it made no obvious sense, if you didn’t know Jenkins’ work, it seemed a fine, sly metaphor for blasting through the theatrical “fourth wall” that actors of Rylance’s brilliance unfailingly do.

Which brings us to the moment which, for me, encapsulated the theatrical art most potently. It was when the beloved stage-screen veterans Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones (who co-starred last season in a revival of “Driving Miss Daisy”) took center stage.

All Jones had to do was read a short introduction, in that gloriously deep and regal voice of his, a voice that once belonged to a stuttering farm boy before it became a vessel for Shakespeare and Darth Vader. That was enough. That was theater incarnate.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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