“I came to Signature [Theatre] to do ‘Dreamgirls’ and met my dream guy,” said an ecstatic Cedric Neal as he accepted the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding supporting actor in a resident musical for playing fallen music idol Jimmy Early in the company’s take on the Motown-inspired musical. Filled with love and gratitude, but not too serious, describe both Neal’s boyfriend-acknowledging speech and the mood of this year’s ceremony held Monday night at the Warner Theatre.
Presented by theatreWashington, the Helen Hayes Awards have been doled out annually to reward excellence in Washington-area professional theater since 1984. Throughout 2012, 54 theaters produced 201 (150 plays and 51 musicals) productions that met eligibility requirements in the January-through-December judging cycle. From these shows, a pool of 48 volunteer judges selected the evening’s nominees and winners.
Monday’s ceremony was hosted by the familiar mellifluous tones of unseen announcer Robert Aubry Davis and changing pairs of presenters including gay theater professionals like actor Frank Britton, set designer Tony Cisek, sassy choreographer Maurice Hines and young Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Matthew DeLorenzo. Throughout the evening, six top notch local artists (including Delorenzo and Joshua Morgan — also gay) performed musical numbers — cute original songs as well as familiar tunes picked from the five nominated resident musical productions.
The evening got off to a quick start with Serge Seiden, who is gay, receiving outstanding director for a resident musical for MetroStage’s “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
Bobby Smith won outstanding actor in a resident musical for his brilliant work in “Brel.” “I’m sorry I didn’t wear my tux,” said Smith (also gay). He also joked about martinis and old age medications (though he’s hardly old) before getting serious and thanking MetoStage’s artistic director Carolyn Griffin for holding the title role for him while he recuperated from hip replacement surgery. Smith’s leading lady Natascia Diaz deservedly received outstanding actress for her gorgeous, heartfelt performance in “Brel,” winning a competitive category that included big-voiced Nova Y. Payton who memorably played Effie in Signature’s “Dreamgirls.”
But despite “Brel’s” big wins, in the end “Dreamgirls” took outstanding resident musical. And after not winning any of its many nominations, the Folger Theatre’s Wild West-set “The Taming of the Shrew” rather unexpectedly won outstanding resident play.
The most nominated musical of the night — Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s “The Color Purple” — took home just one award: Theresa Cunningham won outstanding supporting actress in a resident musical. She thanked Toby’s for the role and for teaching her the challenges of waiting tables. Before leaving the stage, she urged audience members to always tip well. Cunningham tied with Priscilla Cuellar for her work in Toby’s “Legally Blonde.” The dinner theater’s rowdy supporters ensured that these two recipients received the loudest and longest applause of the evening.
Young New York-based playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, a big proponent of same-sex marriage, won outstanding new work for “Really, Really,” his play about the selfish ways of young people. Colaizzo wasn’t on hand to pick up his award.
Victor Shargai, theatreWashington’s chairman, along with talented local actor Naomi Jacobson (whom Shargai said makes him laugh, cry and sometimes consider changing his sexual orientation), presented the Helen Hayes Tribute to Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. Typically, the tribute has been awarded to big theater names like Tommy Tune, Edward Albee and Jerry Herman in recognition of exceptional achievement, but this year was different. Accepting on behalf of the actors’ union were AEA President Nicholas Wyman and Oscar-winning movie star and longtime AEA member Ellen Burstyn.
The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company (named for Shargai’s late partner, an avid supporter of D.C. theater) went to Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, a terrific rock/vaudeville infused musical troupe. Capital Fringe, D.C.’s amazing unjuried, self-producing, open access arts festival received the Washington Post Award for innovative leadership.
Awards are great, but it’s the ongoing work that really makes the D.C. theater community hum. So, like Monday’s event reiterated in word and lyric — “go see a show!”
A complete list of winners is here.