Karen Akers is Luisa Contini…

Back in spring 2004, I received an invitation from Peter Filichia to attend that year’s Theatre World Awards at Studio 54. I graciously accepted and gladly attended – and I have been there every year since. I’ve noted before that it’s one of my favorite events of the entire theatre season, filled with warmth and community, welcoming new talents. One of the fun things about the awards ceremony is that they invite past winners to present and occasionally perform.

Karen Akers was the performer that first year. She won the award back in 1982 for playing Luisa Contini in the original production of Nine, singing “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own,” her characters two songs. I wish this video didn’t cut Akers’ comments between them as she talked about what it was like to work with director-choreographer Tommy Tune. She offered insight, especially regarding the latter song and her difficulty in getting what Tune wanted. His insightful direction, having her stand firm, with legs apart was something she wasn’t comfortable. He realized that she was fearing that the the audience would hate her because of the song. Tapping into this fear, he helped her to give a masterful, masterful performance that garnered the singing actress a Tony nomination, as well as this award. For the ten minutes or so she was onstage, all I could think was “I am seeing Karen Akers…live…performing the songs she originated in Nine opposite Raul Julia…”

By the way, in the upcoming film version of Nine, “My Husband Makes Movies” has made the cut. However, for some reason (and I hope it’s a good artistic one and not Oscar pandering), “Be On Your Own” has been scuttled in favor of a new solo for Marion Cotillard called “Take It All.” Now I know not to judge something that I haven’t had the opportunity of hearing, but all I will say is that it better be one hell of a good song to erase memories of the stage original. Enjoy…

The 2009 Theatre World Awards

Though not quite the odyssey I experienced last year, I had another adventure making my way to the train station today to attend the Theatre World Awards. I had called a cab with plenty of time to spare, and he showed up at my house twenty minutes before the train left. I figured there was going to be no problem.

Well, I didn’t anticipate getting into Mr. Magoo’s taxi. We crawled our way the two miles it takes to get to the station. As we show up the gates were lowered and we sat as my train pulled into the station. Going into full panic mode, I opened up the cab door before it came to a stop, threw money in his general direction and bolted up on the platform.

Out of breath and looking semi-crazed, I make eye contact with the conductor who shouts to me to just come on as I stop for my ticket. I can now check “train-hopping” off my list of things to do before I die. With the help of the conductor I found myself jumping aboard as the train rolled out of the station. Those old time western people sure had all the fun. So after leaping and bounding, I found myself on my way in, a little hectic but too bad.

I continue to revel in the new Times Square layout, even if I’m still habitually finding myself sticking to the sidewalks and walkways, and make my way over the Samuel Friedman (nee Biltmore) Theatre where the ceremony is being held this year. I meet up with the familiar faces I see but once a year at the ceremony while waiting for Sarah to swing on over from work.

The Theatre World Awards ceremony is always one of the most special events of the season. The award is one of the oldest presented for theatre in NY and celebrates the breakthrough/debut performances, this year running the gamut from the three Billy Elliots to Oscar-winning legend Geoffrey Rush. Each person, no matter how they are making their debut find themselves incredibly humbled by the experience. The winners are announced in advance, and in a break from the usual competitive nature of the industry, the idea of coming together as a community for the sake of creating and experiencing art is celebrated. This marked my sixth consecutive trip, one I look forward to immensely every single spring.

The curtain rose on the lavish New York apartment set of the current production of Accent on Youth, the pianist in an elegant dressing gown (Craig Bierko would later quip, “Ladies and gentlemen, Noel Coward’s production of Dick Cheney). Peter Filichia enters to give his understated but informative introduction to the afternoon. He always fills his talks with interesting tidbits on the season, celebrating the fact that it was the busiest year on Broadway in a quarter of a century and praising a U.S. president who likes to go to the theatre. He was a little more pointed than usual, with an especially irreverent crack about the current ad campaign for The Little Mermaid (later, he wistfully the audience, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to revisit the Majestic Theatre?” …before introducing longest running Phantom, Howard McGillin).

For the performances this year, there was no stunner like the Carol Lawrence-West Side Story redux (though how fitting would that have been this year with yet another Maria receiving the award), but the audience received three incredibly diverse, yet wholly entertaining sets. The first was the wry and witty Nellie McKay who brought down the house with her “Mother of Pearl,” an ironic ode to feminism complete with ukelele. I wonder if McKay has ever considered writing a musical, she’s mastered an effective comic list song. Vivian Reed tore the roof off the house with “God Bless the Child,” her soulful eleven o’clock number from Bubblin’ Brown Sugar. And Ann Hampton Callaway wrote an improvised song about the ceremony, with help from the audience.

Some brief highlights of the ceremony include Wesley Taylor of Rock of Ages worshipping Phylicia Rashad, as well as his brief encounter with Geoffrey Rush that last all of three seconds but included some awkward bowing. Jennifer Grace, Emily in the hit off-Broadway revival of Our Town felt the only way she could rationalize the moment was to consider it an elaborate prank, “but how did they get Dylan Baker (presenter) to go along with it.”

Marin Ireland became emotional as former costar Jayne Houdyshell praised the young star of Reasons to Be Pretty. Ireland also told a lovely story about corresponding with Julie Harris via letter, a result of meeting her at the stage door of the Lyceum and how it culminated in Ms. Harris sending flowers to Ireland on her opening night at the very same theatre in Reasons.

Earth mother Tovah Feldshuh gushed over the excitement of presenting to the three young actors playing Billy Elliot, giving us a touch of borscht humor as she quoted her own mother, “If you reach for the stars, you might only land on the roof, but if you reach for the roof you may never get off the ground.” Craig Bierko presented to Josh Grisetti, the fresh faced star of Enter Laughing – the Musical, who did his homework and learned the role’s creator Alan Arkin also won the Theatre World award (and the Tony). Though he lamented that he couldn’t even get an Outer Critics Circle Award, he’ll be eligible for the big prize next season when he headlines the repertory revivals of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Loretta Ables-Sayre presented to fellow LCT actor Chad L. Coleman of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, who is not only a phenomenal actor but an incredible humanitarian. Condola Rashad of MTC’s Ruined has not only inherited talent and beauty from her famous mother Phylicia, but also her grace and poise. Harriet Walter presented to the brilliant cast of The Norman Conquests, represented in the speech by Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles, the latter quipping that they chose the two because “listening to Brits apologize for winning starts to get tedious.”

Kristin Chenoweth joked that she thought she’d won a second award when she got the call about presenting, but was more than thrilled to be giving it to newcomer Josefina Scaglione making her North American debut as Maria in West Side Story. Susan Kellerman presented to 33 Variations costar Colin Hanks, who isn’t big on musicals but proposed to his girlfriend onstage at the Eugene O’Neill by the ghost light.

Andrea Martin greeted the audience with, “I am honored and really bored to present this award to Geoffrey Rush. I don’t know why they asked me, because we’re not close at all. Would it kill him to ask me out for a cup of coffee?” The presentation, in which she basically roasted him, provided hands down the funniest aspect of the entire awards ceremony, only continuing once Rush was onstage to accept. Taking a moment to be serious, he talked about how people react in NY to hearing that he’s on Broadway for the first time, the implication in their voices expressing a hope that he’ll return (to which the audience applauded enthusiastically).

The afternoon ended with Ann Hampton Callaway’s improv song, working in such As always we spotted many of the Theatre World regulars, with the treat of seeing Celeste Holm in the back of the house. I also got to meet Sweeney Todd alum Lauren Molina, currently in Rock of Ages and had beautiful moment talking with the incredibly talented and lovely Amelia Bullmore and Stephen Mangan of The Norman Conquests. God, I’m a sucker for the Brits.

The Theatre World Awards also signifies that another more significant event is upcoming: Lady Iris’ Annual Moon Lady Extravaganza on Sunday evening, where we’ll class and sass up the Regency. It will also mark my first time ever live-blogging the awards show so that should be fun, tech-like and interesting.

The 65th Annual Theatre World Award Winners!

The Theatre World Award is presented to those making an auspicious debut or breakthrough performance in the NY theatre, whether it be off-Broadway or on. The event is held every spring and is hosted by Peter Filichia. Past winners perform (occasionally songs from the shows for which they won) and present. The awards will be held on June 2nd at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. As I’ve said in the past, I appreciate this awards ceremony more than the Tonys because the spirit is a genuine celebration of theatre and community, minus the competition.

Congratulations to the winners!!

David Alvarez/Trent Kowalik/Kiril Kulish, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Chad L. Coleman, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Jennifer Grace, Our Town
Josh Grisetti, Enter Laughing, The Musical
Haydn Gwynne, Billy Elliot, The Musical
Colin Hanks, 33 Variations
Marin Ireland, Reasons To be Pretty
Susan Louise O’Connor, Blithe Spirit
Condola Rashad, Ruined
Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King
Josefina Scaglione, West Side Story
Wesley Taylor, Rock of Ages

Special Award to the entire cast of The Norman Conquests: Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Stephen Mangan, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter and Amanda Root

"The 2008 Theatre World Awards – Or There and Back Again"

Call me Odysseus. I had the most horrifying commute into Manhattan for the Theatre World Awards, where it seemed that all that was missing was the woman with the baby carriage from The French Connection. The morning was set to begin early; my friend and I were going to drive in. Originally, he was going to go with me to the awards, then backed out when the prospect of an audition came up. However, the plan was still that we would head in together. I call that morning, wake him up. I proceed to get ready, with a warning that he might not be able to swing it into NY until later in the afternoon. Okay. I requested a ride from the train station as I was pretty much out of luck otherwise. He had just commenced shaving, so I made the garrulous decision to call a taxi. It was 11:29 – and the train was at 12:12. I figured that was plenty of time to get into the cab, have a nice relaxing ride to the station with some genial but rather meaningless conversation with the cab-driver. Standing there, my panic and anxiety started to skyrocket – also, it was practically 100 degrees and felt like I was breathing through a moist face towel. At 11:56 I call the cab company again – and, would you believe it, I am put on hold. At this point, I begin to quietly have an aneurysm or some other *insert medical hyperbole here*. I’m told that the cab would be arriving shortly. So I wait with frenzied tension, checking both ways for the sound of an engine – you know, I had no idea my road was so well traveled – until finally at 12:05, I see the blue blur emerge in front of my house. Yes – I haven’t even left the house at this point.

Okay. It’s 12:05, the train leaves Peekskill at 12:12. I’m mildly optimistic, but the optimism cannot override the increasing dread that has been building up inside me for the past half hour. There is another fare in the car with me, a very genial fellow who decided to be the world’s greatest conversationalist at a moment where I wanted him to go to hell. Not his fault by any means, when I have something important going on, it typically demands all my attention. We drive down the hill, and the another cab comes riding past. They honk at each other. I die a little inside realizing that they had dispatched another cab to get me. Then in a series of unavoidable circumstances, it turns into quite an adventure. We sit at a traffic light for an inexorably extensive period, then get behind someone who’s decided to go twenty miles under the speed limit. And in making matters even richer, we hit road work and are sitting staring at the little orange man and his stop sign which might as well have said, “I win! Love, the Universe.”

As we pass the construction, it is now 12:10. Every one of us realizes that I am not going to make this 12:12 train. Again, the death inside was small but prescient. The driver verbalizes this thought and asks what I want to do. I ask him “How much to Croton Harmon?” (another station a few miles south).

So we pick up the pace. We get rid of the Pollyanna to my right and the driver steps on it. We critique every driver in our way. Let’s face it, it played out like an action film. Every bad driver in town decided to get in front of the taxi. I’m sitting back there trying to remember the Rosary. We deal with more tortoise drivers, dodge vehicles jutting out too far into the road way. And then in a last belch of irony, get stuck behind a slow-moving utility truck – that belongs to Metro-North.

After all this, I make to Croton Harmon, get my ticket and panic – it’s 12:27. The train is in. Well as Dame Fortune would have it, there was a technical glitch on the train that dispatched from Poughkeepsie, so they had to switch out at C-H. Take that universe. It took me to about Yonkers to calm down after the adrenaline fueled-John McClane experience my noon-tide became.

Well, I made it in time for the Theatre World awards. And what a blessed event, as always. This year, the ceremony took place in the Helen Hayes, on the set of Xanadu and marked the first time I had ever entered this theatre. (What a tiny house!) SarahB got there ahead of me, and got us ridiculously perfect seats in Row G. It’s turned into something of an annual tradition for us. I first went in 2004, with an invite from Peter Filichia, where I sat at a table in Studio 54 next to Tandy Cronyn (which I didn’t learn until everyone came up to her to discuss her parents). I met Noah only a few days later at that closing performance of Gypsy, that for the three of us will hold special meaning. As a result of the chance meeting I had with Noah, we became very good friends and indirectly have led me to be writing to you today. Thanks, Bernadette!

Anyway, we’ve gone together for the last couple of years and have had a fantastic time. The presenters and the recipients are always warm and gracious, without fail. When you are in attendance for this awards ceremony, you forget the negative aspects of show business that tend to distort and jade the more avid theatregoers. It’s a time for celebration and community. There is no sense of competition, being that all twelve recipients are winners. Many who’ve won often talk about it as being the special award, or the one that really counts. And in many ways it is. There is unending support from the community – something which many of the outsiders from Chicago and London and Honolulu made special note.

The show opened with a bizarro nightclub medley of West Side Story in which Carol Lawrence, the original Maria, deconstructed the entire show in three minutes (something presenter Lin-Manuel Miranda made note of later) complete with choreography. It was a bit of what was is known as a hot mess, but we still applauded Carol Lawrence because, well, she’s Carol Lawrence!

Other performances included Tyler Maynard singing “Epiphany” from Altar Boyz, Alice Playten doing a rather pointless Piaf impersonation (which in lieu of one of her socko Henry Sweet Henry numbers, proved a disappointing cop-out – I WANTED “KAFRITZ.” Ok, I’m better now) and Karen Akers wrapping those lush mahogany tones around a poorly written Ahrens and Flaherty song. So the performances aren’t up to those we’ve seen in the past, but the presentations were as interesting as ever.

My favorite is Loretta Ables-Sayre, who won for her NY debut as Bloody Mary in the LCT revival of South Pacific. The woman is endlessly entertaining. Her warmth and openness and gratitude are so incredibly genuine, you can’t help but love her. She talked about her experiences as a chick singer, singing with bands and doing this and that in Hawaii. I cannot believe she almost didn’t even bother going to the audition. There is a glorious soul in her person, one that touches everyone she meets. So moved was she and so moving was her speech, the audience gave her that kind of applause that Filichia loves, it started to die down, but then surged forward with a burst of energy. She is a real treat to NY theatre this season and I tell you, I’m a fan. For me, that was the highlight of the ceremony.

I almost missed it. For in my earlier fiasco I overhydrated myself to counteract the intense heat. And getting to the theatre when I did, I didn’t run down to the Little Boy’s Room like I should have. So in the middle of Griffin Dunne’s speech I had to get up and get out. I got back in time to hear him call her up onstage and don’t know what he said about her, but I’m sure it was glowing.

Alec Baldwin discussed his love of theatre and the effect August: Osage County had on his day, which had been terrible until the performance. He presented to Deanna Dunagan, the senior member of the class of ’08, to whom he left a note in her dressing room telling her he’d love to work with her. Of course when giving a shout out to Odessa, TX, Sarah couldn’t resist clapping. Loved it. Mark Rylance discussed his earliest memory, when he was three years old and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time. His presenter, Jonathan Cake, only learned he was a winner last week. Turns out no one told him – and he won for the Fiona Shaw Medea in 2002! He received his award that afternoon. Jenna Russell talked about playing Sondheim at 2AM, singing along at full volume. (I’m sure no one who’s reading this has done that…). John Cullum had an interesting “emergency,” in which his wife needed the keys to the basement cages (?) However it played out, it turned into a rather hilarious spontaneous moment. Andrea Martin is enjoyable, bringing a red velvet cupcake for Alli Mauzey from Cry-Baby. Paulo Szot was humbled by the acceptance of the NY theatre community of an opera singer. And let’s face it, love was all around. And it was better than anything we could expect from the Tony telecast this weekend. Except perhaps Patti LuPone unhinging her jaw and swallowing Kelli O’Hara whole.

We didn’t go to the party this year, but instead enjoyed a nice late lunch at Mercury’s on 9th Avenue (their caesar wrap is stellar). I tell you, you aren’t likely to find two theatregoing companions as fun and entertaining as our Moon Lady and her Little Love.

I can’t wait for next year!

"Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?"

I’ve not felt the urge to blog in this heat, but to seek refuge away from anything that emits heat. I have also been working a lot lately, which is great for the checking account but poor for my writing. I do get a vacation soon (when should I take it…and how shall I enjoy it?) so we’ll see what that brings…

So yeah, how about this ridiculous weather? I anticipate this sort of streak in mid-July, not now. So I’ve been going through thinking of all the ‘hot’ songs my mind can muster. So far in my heat-induced coma, I’ve thought of “Gonna Be Another Hot Day” from 110 in the Shade, “It’s Hot Up Here” from Sunday in the Park With George, “Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?” from Street Scene, “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me Kate. Any others that fit…?

Though we’ve known it for weeks, it’s now official: Deanna Dunagan plays her final performance as Violet Weston in August: Osage County this coming Sunday, June 15 (and then the Tonys!) so if you miss her performance, don’t come crying to me, you’ve had six months. Instead, enjoy Estelle Parsons – which should prove to be an interesting performance, I’ve no doubt. Rondi Reed, Jeff Perry and Francis Guinan are also departing the company. I’ll be there on the 15th to cheer them on – and also take my best friend to see them in it for an early birthday present.

But before I do that, it’s the Theatre World awards tomorrow with my regulars. I cannot wait. I’m off to cool down/melt/self-immolate. Whichever happens first.

The 64th Annual Theatre World Award Winners!

The Theatre World Award is presented to those making an auspicious debut or breakthrough performance in the NY theatre, whether it be off-Broadway or on. The event is held every spring, and is hosted by Peter Filichia. Past winners act as presenters, and most often the afternoon’s entertainment consists of certain performers singing big numbers from the shows for which they won. The awards will be on June 10th at the Helen Hayes Theatre. As I said in an earlier post, I appreciate this awards ceremony more than the Tonys because the spirit is a genuine celebration of theatre and community, without the competition. Congratulations to the winners!!

de’Adre Aziza, Passing Strange
Cassie Beck, Drunken City
Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange
Ben Daniels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County
Hoon Lee, Yellow Face
Alli Mauzey, Cry-Baby
Jenna Russell, Sunday in the Park with George
Mark Rylance, Boeing-Boeing
Loretta Ables Sayre, South Pacific
Jimmi Simpson, The Farnsworth Invention
Paulo Szot, South Pacific