Dayton connections heighten Broadway’s biggest night

Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "A Strange Loop" is nominated for 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical. MARC J FRANKLIN / CONTRIBUTED

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Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "A Strange Loop" is nominated for 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical. MARC J FRANKLIN / CONTRIBUTED

Tony Award nominees “Strange Loop,” “North Country” have ties to the Miami Valley.

The 75th annual Tony Awards, airing Sunday, June 12, from New York’s Radio City Music Hall and honoring Broadway’s 2021-2022 season, will feature two critically acclaimed musicals with connections to Dayton.

Youngstown native and 2012 Wright State University musical theater graduate Joey Monda of Sing Out, Louise! Productions and West Milton native Jimmy Wilson of Barbara Whitman Productions are among the legion of producers behind Michael R. Jackson’s dynamic Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “A Strange Loop.”

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Jacquel Spivey (center as Usher) and the Broadway cast of "A Strange Loop," nominated for 11 2022 Tony Awards including Best Musical. PHOTO BY MARC J FRANKLIN

Credit: MARC J FRANKLIN

Jacquel Spivey (center as Usher) and the Broadway cast of "A Strange Loop," nominated for 11 2022 Tony Awards including Best Musical. PHOTO BY MARC J FRANKLIN

Credit: MARC J FRANKLIN

Combined ShapeCaption
Jacquel Spivey (center as Usher) and the Broadway cast of "A Strange Loop," nominated for 11 2022 Tony Awards including Best Musical. PHOTO BY MARC J FRANKLIN

Credit: MARC J FRANKLIN

Credit: MARC J FRANKLIN

A bold, fierce and groundbreaking exploration of Black identity, introspection, truth-telling, spirituality, and the debatable appeal of Tyler Perry, “A Strange Loop” is the clear frontrunner with 11 nominations including Best Musical. As the title suggests, the show concerns Usher, a Black, queer writer, writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer.

In 2019, “A Strange Loop” had its world premiere off-Broadway at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. In December 2021, it received raves during its run at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, paving the way for its road to Broadway where it opened April 26 at the Lyceum Theatre to more glowing notices.

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times notably praised Jackson’s work saying, “For much of this triumphant, emotionally lacerating show, I sat with my mouth agape, astonished and grateful that something so brutally honest and rigorously constructed had finally broken through to a Broadway stage.”

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Wright State University graduate Joey Monda won Tony Awards for producing "Hadestown" and "The Inheritance." He is nominated this year for "A Strange Loop." PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Credit: WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Wright State University graduate Joey Monda won Tony Awards for producing "Hadestown" and "The Inheritance." He is nominated this year for "A Strange Loop." PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Credit: WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

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Wright State University graduate Joey Monda won Tony Awards for producing "Hadestown" and "The Inheritance." He is nominated this year for "A Strange Loop." PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Credit: WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Credit: WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

Monda, 32, is a two-time Tony winner as producer of Anaïs Mitchell’s jazz-flavored musical “Hadestown” and Matthew Lopez’s gay-themed epic drama “The Inheritance.” He is still impressed by the response “A Strange Loop” has received while simultaneously acknowledging the show’s unapologetic uniqueness.

“I don’t think anybody really expected the show to hit the zeitgeist in the way that it has,” said Monda. “It’s something so spectacularly different than anything Broadway has ever seen before. When you look at what’s on Broadway right now, it’s a lot of classic musical theater and comedies. But ‘A Strange Loop’ is so different, so out there and form-bending, and it speaks to political and social issues that are very much of the social zeitgeist right now. It pushes what we talk about in a musical and how we talk about it. This show didn’t go through a sterilization process, which is rare. For better or worse, it’s exactly what the author wanted to say.”

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‘A dream come true’

Wilson, a 2005 Milton-Union High School graduate, has taken a long and winding road to the Tonys.

After attending Wright State University and graduating from Bowling Green State University, Wilson, 35, moved to New York City and landed a variety of jobs. Those positions included child wrangler/guardian on the “Billy Elliot” national tour, office management with Bespoke Theatricals and Actors’ Equity Association, house managing at Playwrights Horizons and Barrow Street Theatre, executive assistant to the president of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and a three-year stint as Tony winner Alan Cumming’s personal assistant.

However, everything changed when Wilson attended a 2018 reading of “A Strange Loop” presented by the aforementioned Whitman.

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West Milton native Jimmy Wilson is a Tony Award nominee for producing "A Strange Loop." CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

West Milton native Jimmy Wilson is a Tony Award nominee for producing "A Strange Loop." CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Combined ShapeCaption
West Milton native Jimmy Wilson is a Tony Award nominee for producing "A Strange Loop." CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“I was simply looking for mentor advice and Barbara asked me if I wanted to be her associate and I got the job,” recalled Wilson “Toward the end of the Playwrights run, Barbara and I felt we had to get ‘A Strange Loop’ to Broadway. Producing this show is a dream come true. I’ve always had aspirations to work on Broadway yet I had convinced myself that Broadway didn’t want me to be a part of it, but that was my own insecurities. It’s amazing to be a Tony nominee for my Broadway producing debut.”

As the Tonys approach, Wilson fondly reflects on the legacy of Kellie Mahaney, a longtime choir and drama teacher at Milton-Union Schools, who died last year after a battle with COVID. With the blessing of Mahaney’s family and Milton-Union, Wilson has sponsored an award in her memory.

“I miss Kellie – she was really proud of me,” Wilson said. “I find myself thinking of her a lot. I’m so blessed to be sitting where I am today. I wouldn’t have the confidence or the passion for what I’m doing if it wasn’t for everyone in West Milton. And even though I may not agree with everyone in that small community about this or that, I can feel their love and support rooting me on.”

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‘It’s a story of humanity and wanting to be seen’

Written and directed by Conor McPherson, “Girl From the North Country,” which received seven Tony nominations including Best Musical, is fueled by the legendary songs of Bob Dylan. The story tells a poignant, “Our Town”-esque tale of community and connection at a boarding house in 1934 Duluth, Minnesota.

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Wright State University graduate Law Dunford is a member of the original Broadway cast of "Girl From the North Country," Grammy-nominated for Best Musical Theater Album. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Wright State University graduate Law Dunford is a member of the original Broadway cast of "Girl From the North Country," Grammy-nominated for Best Musical Theater Album. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

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Wright State University graduate Law Dunford is a member of the original Broadway cast of "Girl From the North Country," Grammy-nominated for Best Musical Theater Album. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Dayton native Law Terrell Dunford, a graduate of Dominican Academy of Dayton and a 2015 Wright State University acting graduate, understudied the principal role of boxer Joe Scott and was also a swing/standby. He didn’t step into the show during the original run, which opened in February 2020 before closing one month later due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is grateful to have received an opportunity to grow.

“During rehearsal, I was learning my role off to the side taking notes and talking to the associate director about ideas I may want to (incorporate), but I had to keep the integrity of the show,” explained Dunford, 35. “I had to watch the show over and over again in order to be able to execute what I had learned. But it was hard. When you thirst for the stage and you have to watch it, it’s not the easiest. But you realize you’re there to support the integrity of the show so when others aren’t able to go on, the show can still go on. I felt I could do the work and could carry the show.”

“Girl From the North Country” returned to Broadway in October 2021 but closed in January due to the surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The show reopened in April for a brief run that ends June 19. In spite of the pandemic, the original Broadway cast was preserved, resulting in a 2021 Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album.

“I had an amazing time in ‘Girl From the North Country,’” said Dunford, who made his Broadway debut in “Waitress” in 2017. “The cast recording took about seven hours and the music director trusted me enough to add different background vocals. I got do a lot of amazing stuff on that album. The show is about all of these souls running away from something. The boarding house is a safe home for all these people to figure out who they are, which is so beautiful. It’s a story of humanity and wanting to be seen.”

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Todd Almond performs with the cast in "Girl From the North Country" in New York. The Depression-era drama set to the songs of Bob Dylan, will re-open on Broadway this spring, a little more than three months after going on hiatus due to virus concerns. (Matthew Murphy/Rubenstein via AP)

Credit: Matthew Murphy

Todd Almond performs with the cast in "Girl From the North Country" in New York. The Depression-era drama set to the songs of Bob Dylan, will re-open on Broadway this spring, a little more than three months after going on hiatus due to virus concerns. (Matthew Murphy/Rubenstein via AP)

Credit: Matthew Murphy

Combined ShapeCaption
Todd Almond performs with the cast in "Girl From the North Country" in New York. The Depression-era drama set to the songs of Bob Dylan, will re-open on Broadway this spring, a little more than three months after going on hiatus due to virus concerns. (Matthew Murphy/Rubenstein via AP)

Credit: Matthew Murphy

Credit: Matthew Murphy

At Wright State, Dunford, who received ArtsGala and Tom Hanks scholarships, appeared in such shows as “The Wild Party,” “1913: The Great Dayton Flood,” “Les Misérables” and “Fences.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Dunford left New York and moved to Los Angeles to pursue film and TV roles. This fall he is heading to Yale School of Drama to obtain his MFA in acting.

“I’m so excited,” he said. “I realized during the pandemic I wanted to go back to school. I look forward to exploring text in a new way. The next chapter of my life is rediscovery and repurposing my abilities.”

Russell’s Tony Predictions in the Top 4 Categories:

Best Play: “The Lehman Trilogy”

Best Musical: “A Strange Loop”

Best Revival of a Play: “Take Me Out”

Best Revival of a Musical: “Company”

HOW TO WATCH

What: The 75th annual Tony Awards hosted by Oscar winner and Tony nominee Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)

Where: New York’s Radio City Music Hall

When: 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS

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