May 16, 2017 at 12:34 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Ford’s ‘Come From Away,’ Keegan’s ‘Next to Normal’ among 2017 Helen Hayes Award winners


BOBBY SMITH in Signature’s ‘La Cage.’ (Photo by Christopher Mueller; courtesy Signature)

On Monday the local theater scene honored its own with the 33rd annual Helen Hayes Awards.  Like last year, the ceremony was held at the historic Lincoln Theatre and awards were given in parallel “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts designated by the number of Equity members involved in a production with Hayes awards having the higher number.

And again this year E. Faye Butler and Lawrence Redmond, both Helen Hayes Award-winning actors, served as emcees. The pair was assisted in presenting 47 awards (plus two special awards) by rotating pairs of presenters including Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Rebecca and Hugo Medrano, out artistic directors Jason Loewith and Adam Immerwahr (Olney Theatre and Theater J, respectively), and many others. The Lincoln’s red-lit stage was otherwise bare except for lecterns backed by out musical director Luke S. Frazier conducting his fabulous American Pops Orchestra.

It was a big night for Ford’s Theatre. Its musical “Come From Away” (now on Broadway) won Outstanding Musical (Hayes). The story of insular Gander, Newfoundland that hosts far-flung passengers diverted from their destinations on 9-11 also won awards for direction (Christopher Ashley), ensemble and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for out actor Jenn Colella who played real life pilot Beverley Bass.

Adventure Theatre MTC’s “Jimanji” won for Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences. The company’s newly svelte artistic director Michael Bobbitt accepted the award thanking both his 15-year-old son and his boyfriend, Steve.

Theatre Alliance’s “Word Made Flesh” a play about young, unwed African-American fathers and their sons was named Outstanding Play (Helen). And Keegan Theatre’s “Next to Normal” won Outstanding Musical (Helen). Folger Theatre’s “Sense & Sensibility” beat the competition for Outstanding Play (Hayes) and other categories.

About midway through the three-hour ceremony, out musical theater star Nicholas Rodriquez sang a stirring rendition of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in remembrance of theater professionals who died during the last year. A large projected image of Tricia McCauley, the well-loved actor who was murdered on Christmas day, received a strong reaction.

Out actor Bobby Smith nabbed the Outstanding Lead Actor in Musical (Hayes) for his portrayal of Albin/Zaza, the family loving drag queen in Signature Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles” staged by out director and multiple nominee and past recipient Matthew Gardiner. In his acceptance speech, Smith said he couldn’t balance a check book but he does have a dog named Mabel and a theater that believes in him (i.e. Signature).

Liam Forde picked up the Robert Prosky Award for outstanding lead actor in a Play (Hayes) for his work in Studio Theatre’s “Hand to God.”

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan received the trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in Play (also Hayes) for her Maggie in gay playwright Tennessee William’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Round House Theatre. And Dorea Schmidt won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play (Hayes) for her work in Woolly Mammoth’s lesbian-themed “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops.”

Presented by theatreWashington, the Helen Hayes Awards honors excellence in professional theatre throughout the Washington region. Award recipients are selected by appointed judges.

In traditional Helen Hayes Awards form, the audience seated in the balcony stomped, shrieked and hooted loudly for favorites. But by far the loudest applause and longest standing ovation of the evening went not to a winner but to surprise presenter Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A familiar face in Washington theater audiences, Ginsburg presented the Helen Hayes Tribute to fellow octogenarian Ted Van Griethuysen.

The revered actor who came to Washington 30 years ago at 52 to do classics at Shakespeare Theatre Company and later branched out to more contemporary roles at Studio Theatre is still going strong today.

The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company (named for the late John Laurentzen Aniello Jr., the openly gay D.C. theater supporter) went to the deserving Mosaic Theatre whose “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival includes works from Israel, Palestine and Gaza.

Many of the heartfelt and personal acceptance speeches defended federal funding of the arts and were dedicated to artists of color and immigrants. At the end of the evening, esteemed Helen Hayes and theatreWasnhington founding of Victor Shargai, who is gay, commended the winners for their civic mindedness and unselfish concern for others and the state of our nation. Shargai was followed by Karen Vincent who closed with Streisand’s signature song “People.”

After all awards were dispersed, an increasingly antsy but ebullient audience decamped for an after-party at the nearby 9:30 Club.

A complete list of winners is here.

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