BACK STAGE WEST

 

November 11, 1999

 

 

Ovations Rock, Drag

Three-hour tour of L.A. theatre's best is high on Reefer.

 

by Rob Kendt

 

It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times. The 10th annual Theatre LA Ovation awards celebration on Nov. 8, a peer-judged show honoring the best on Los Angeles stages in the past year, proved to be the loosest and rowdiest yet. The small theatre musical sensation Reefer Madness swept statuettes in five categories, to the ecstatic whooping of what seemed to be half the orchestra at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, and the musical numbers, from shows currently up in L.A. (including Reefer), boasted more rock and blues than ever.

 

No, this was not the Tony Awards. The price paid for all the extemporaneous fun, though, was a long final hour of rambling and roiling. Director Farrell Hirsch deserves credit for fostering the casual, semi-scripted party atmosphere onstage--and for the occasionally rudderless feel of only-at-an-awards-show indulgence, a little of which goes a long way.

 

Some of the slack had to do with the virtual Reefer sweep, whose remarkable momentum drained the last half of the show of suspense, but the drag really kicked in with a long theatre-story speech by playwright Jerome Lawrence, a lifetime achievement honoree. When Doug Motel later accepted his world premiere writing award for Shiva Arms and made a crack about the Lawrence speech, the hisses he got visibly deflated his acceptance speech euphoria and created a palpable discomfort. Ouch.

 

Hedda Who?

In lieu of a host, the show had the delightful recurring character of Carol Ann Knippel, "Ovation voter and artistic director of the Melody Barn Dinner Theatre." Played to ironically simpering perfection by Brian Beacock of the much-nominated When Pigs Fly, Carol Ann introduced the show's musical numbers, first taking a moment to marvel at the La Mirada Theatre's resident Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby ("my idol," Carol Ann gushed), then gently plugging her own theatre's shows (an evening of "newly discovered Richard Rodgers tunes, called You Don't Know Dick," for instance).

 

The presenters were a flavorfully mixed bag, distinguished by celebrity but more importantly by their relation to local theatre ('twas not always so in the past). Scott Wolf and Charles Nelson Reilly, presenting costume design awards, made an unexpectedly funny duo, with Reilly's dotty riffing spiralling to apoplectic proportions and Wolf gamely playing straight man.

 

Wolf, who was announced as slated to star in the L.A. premiere of Warren Leight's Side Man, also unwittingly provided a minor running gag by twice pronouncing Ibsen's play at the Geffen Playhouse "Hedda Gayb-ler." In a later presentation by too-hip-for-the-room husband-and-wife team Shiva Rose and Dylan McDermott, all McDermott had to do was repeat this unique pronunciation in a flawless deadpan to bring down the house. (And David Hyde Pierce lightly referred to it in his presentation, enunciating it in prim faux-Norwegian.)

 

A misfired gag about the Matrix Theatre's double casting--two pairs of presenters both arriving at the same podium--didn't detract from the glamour of Kaitlin Hopkins, David Dukes, Marilyn McIntyre, or Lawrence Pressman, and Sharon Lawrence and Alfred Molina, now paired on the sitcom Ladies Man, made an attractive pair. And Gary Marshall, surrounded by the blonde stars of his Falcon Theatre staging of Crimes of the Heart, was his usual encouraging, avuncular self.

 

But it was a pair of later presenters who upped the theatre star power, with Bea Arthur presenting a lifetime achievement award to Jerome Lawrence and producer Robert Fryer, and then Carol Channing, presenting the awards for musical production, claiming the stage in an endearing if slightly unhinged manner. She wasn't given a script, she lamented--so she'd say a few words.

 

"I have to tell you, the reason we're all here together tonight is because of Gower Champion and me," effused Channing, recounting the famed Broadway producer's casting her in her first revue, Lend an Ear, at Hollywood's Las Palmas Theatre in the 1940s. "It mushroomed from there, and now this town has more theatre going on in it than Broadway or Chicago, or anywhere."

 

Under-compensated L.A. stage actors will note that her pay at the 299-seat Las Palmas was $34.10 a week.

 

Channing's oddest off-book whim came when she presented her own personal "diamond award"--since, after all, "diamonds are a girl's best friend"--to the creators of the nominated musical The Last Session, apparently handing some gems to Session co-author Jim Brochu, who accepted this honor from the house.

 

Boogie Down

The musical numbers offered unlikely pleasures, even if they seemed a bit dwarfed by the set of The Gin Game, now on at the La Mirada. A sizzling rendition of "Hoochie Coochie Man" from the Geffen Playhouse's upcoming production of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues seemed to fit right into James Noone's quaint rec room setting, with its paper lanterns and trellises, while the title song from Reefer Madness spilled out menacingly from all directions and Michael Cerveris' quiet, semi-unplugged, non-drag rendition of "Midnight Radio" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch made its mark.

 

Stealing some of the musical spotlight, especially on the blues numbers from It Ain't Nothin' and from Servant of Two Masters, was the tireless and soulful sign language interpreter, Norman Galapin, who boogied down with every growl and stomp. An earlier and very witty segment had John Moschitta read the Ovation voting rules in his patented rapid-fire blur; Galapin kept up with him gamely.

 

A slide-show tribute to L.A. theatre figures lost in the past year--Gil Craft, Ron Link, Stanley Soble, Danielle Surrette, and J. Haran--was brief, silent, and a tad perfunctory. The live band under conductor Nick DeGregorio was tight and lively, running the awards-show-snippet gamut gracefully from Henry Mancini to Donna Summer.

 

The briefest acceptance speech of the night came from James A. Doolittle leadership award winner Charles Kenis (accepting for himself and his wife, Audrey Skirball-Kenis, honored for their generous play development efforts): "I don't have a speech. Thank you all very much."

 

On that note, indulge me some favorite quotes, scripted and un-, from the evening's festivities:

 

John Moschitta, in full speed-read mode: "Theatre LA would like to thank American Express, Kappa Studios, KPMG, and Pacific Bell, which basically just means they coughed up the dough for tonight, not that they've seen any of the goddamn shows."

 

Joel Traywick, accepting his featured actor in a musical Ovation for The Last Session: "All praise and glory to God."

 

Carol Anne Knippel (Brian Beacock), introducing the Reefer Madness! number: "On a serious note, I want to say that Reefer Madness! is an important public service announcement about the evils of marijuana."

 

John Zalewski, holding his sound design statuette for One Flea Spare (and fishing for the right thank-you list, as he was nominated for four separate shows): "It's been a blur of a year, and it's good to see it crystallized in something."

 

Scott Wolf, to co-presenter Charles Nelson Reilly: "Next hiatus, what do you say: Death of a Salesman?" Reilly to Wolf: "I can play the older brother, Biff."

 

David Rambo, accepting on behalf of the late costume designer Howard Crabtree for When Pigs Fly: "Howard never lived to see When Pigs Fly onstage, but he saw it several times in his vivid imagination right up to his final hours."

 

Faith Ford, after struggling with her announcement envelope: "I'm not a ditz, I just play one on TV."

 

Harry Murphy, accepting the ensemble award on behalf of the Reefer cast: "To all the Ovation voters, and to anyone who ever inhaled, our deepest appreciation."

 

Josh Schiowitz, agent, accepting actress in a musical award on behalf of client Carolee Carmello, who's now in Scarlet Pimpernel in New York: "I know that Carolee would have thanked me."

 

Ted Lange, throwing out his dorky presenter's script: "This was obviously written for a young white guy." On a similar note, when the absent Christopher Plummer won best actor in a play for Barrymore: "I accept this for the white man."

 

Tracy Middendorf, accepting best actress in a play for Summer and Smoke and quoting Tennessee: "Life is full of little mercies--not big mercies, but comfortable little mercies, and so we go on."

 

Jerome Lawrence, lifetime achievement honoree: "If you're making a lot of loot in TV and film, and you've left the theatre to do it, we beg you to come home again soon."

 

David Hyde Pierce, referring to his recent turn in Reprise!'s Boys From Syracuse: "It had been eight years since I'd worked in a theatre, and I'd forgotten--I'd forgotten how many people you can fit in a dressing room, or that after a five-show weekend, it's not the smell of the greasepaint, it's the smell of the wardrobe." And, after announcing a nomination for Reefer to deafening cheers: "It's a shame no one likes that show."

 

Anonymous isolated cheer for Alison Comins Richmond's fine Chekhov adaptation: "Go, Cherry Orchard!"

 

Robert Fryer, lifetime achievement honoree: "I am very moved by this evening. It's old friends meeting new friends. Just when I thought it was over, it's not over yet."

 

Carol Channing, after being reminded to read not just the title of the nominated show but the producers' names, as well: "Cabaret. . . Pace Theatrical Group/SFX Entertainment, in association with Eric and Scott Nederlander and Jujamcyn. . . Oh, I've worked for all these people."

 

James Blackman, managing director, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, accepting best musical, larger theatre award for West Side Story: "To all the people who hate me and told me I didn't know what I was doing. . . ha ha ha."

 

Stephanie Steele, co-producer of Reefer Madness!: "Long live theatre in L.A."