Robert Askin’s dark comedy Hand to God opened this week with some of the strongest reviews of any show this season, and Steven Boyer is getting major Tony buzz for his dual role as a shy Texas teenager and his demonic sock-puppet alter ego, Tyrone. The boyish 32-year-old seems poised to challenge Broadway newbie Alex Sharp, who plays an autistic British teen in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for the Best Actor prize.
Broadway has had a Big Bird-sized love affair with onstage puppetry ever since Julie Taymor’s The Lion King swept the savannah in 1998 with seven Tonys, including Best Musical. Then six years later, Avenue Q, whose R-rated puppet antics are a clear inspiration for Hand to God, surprised front-runner Wicked for the top prize with its crafty “vote your heart” campaign. John Tartaglia and Stephanie D’Abruzzo both snagged lead acting nominations for Avenue Q, but — in what could be a bad sign fro Boyer — neither won.
Puppetry has featured prominently in other Broadway productions, from the 2009 Best Musical nominee Shrek to The Pee-wee Herman Show in 2010 to Little Shop of Horrors, which made its Broadway debut in 2003-04 with Tony nominee Hunter Foster grappling with the voracious animatronic Audrey II.
And it isn’t just musicals that have gone merry with marionettes. Four years ago, War Horse took home the Best Play in part on the strength of Handspring Puppet Co.’s work crafting convincingly life-like full-size equine stars from steel, wood, leather, and cables. Hand to God‘s Tyrone may want to get fitted for his tux — if they even make them out of felt.