November 28, 2002 


Ovations Flow for River and Napoli

Orpheum Theatre a glittering frame for L.A.-focused show.


by Rob Kendt


More awards, less show wouldn't seem to be a recipe for a good time, but somehow this year Theatre LA managed to mount a warm, watchable, elegant yet eccentric Ovation Awards show at Downtown's beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre. Hosted by an engagingly offhand and slightly cheeky Alfred Molina, the show featured multiple winners in nine categories and a few diversions along the way, but no production numbers. They weren't missed, in an evening that ran 2 hours, 45 minutes but got the crowd out "in time for The Sopranos," as Molina quipped, as it began at 5 p.m.


And the evening's special awards--for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, for arts education pioneer Joan Boyett, and for the veteran acting couple Tom Troupe and Carole Cook--had a hearteningly local focus. The Ovations are always the big annual party for L.A.'s disparate theatre community, but this year's felt especially tight-knit and stage-centered. (Don Hill directed, Nancy Ann Adler produced.)


The spotlight this time was on the honorees, who could have been handpicked to showcase L.A. theatre's astonishing diversity, range, history, and promise--and they did so in relatively short acceptance speeches, prodded by a cranky stagehand with a huge hook and a one-minute-or-so clock (Jane Johnston). Taking deservedly more stage time, career achievement honorees Cook and Troupe, after an uproarious intro by Dom and Carol DeLuise ("When Carole curses, you feel blessed," Dom said), recalled a four-decade career on the L.A. boards, highlighting their small-theatre triumphs and emphasizing that "love of the work" has been their driving passion. "I got as much joy from opening Oliver Hailey's Father's Day at the Melrose Theatre," effused Cook, "as from any Broadway show."


Apart from an admiring standing ovation for Cook and Troupe, the evening's most thunderous ovation seemed to come during the speech by community outreach awardee Joan Boyett, who founded and built the Music Center's Education Division. She challenged the audience to "please become vocal about having arts in the schools." And in giving the L.A. County Board of Supervisors the James A. Doolittle Leadership Award, Theatre LA CEO Lee Wochner hoped aloud that honoring the Supervisors' consistent support of public arts funding, in a chilly political climate for same, would set a healthy example. supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky hailed theatre as the best art form for "probing political issues, social issues, and sometimes probing nothing in particular," and called it "still the most sophisticated medium to teach us about ourselves."


Amid the mostly upbeat acceptance speeches were heartfelt tributes to loved ones and colleagues, present in the house and not: Presenter Ron Sossi asked for "good thoughts and a round of applause" for actor Frances Bay, gravely injured in a car accident last week, and Morlan Higgins, accepting an acting award for the Fountain's After the Fall, credited the Matrix's Joe Stern for getting him back into acting (with last year's The Birthday Party) and paused to acknowledge Stern's ill wife, Peppy. Jeanne Sakata dedicated her acting award for East West Players' Red to artists who died in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank dedicated their writing awards for The Exonerated to the Death Row inmates whose stories formed their play, and several winners for the Colony's The Laramie Project invoked the memory of that play's inspiration, Matthew Shepard.


Speeches that best captured the evening's mood included that of director Deborah LaVine, accepting for the Road's Napoli Milionaria, who wished her children a career like hers. "What you get if you work hard is, you don't usually get awards--what you get is a community," she said, gesturing to the theatre. And Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet, accepting for Big River, gave a beautiful silent tribute, pointing a finger to indicate all present, then appearing to squeeze us all into his cupped hand, and tucking us into his heart.


Some notable and quotable show highlights:


Molina vs. the Times: Alfred Molina, revving up the audience, "Are you theatre people? All of you? Won't the L.A. Times be surprised."


Sugar from Kane: Said honoree Carol Kane (He Hunts), in her patented endearing squeak, "Anyone who does theatre in L.A. is already a winner, and very brave, because it isn't what this town is really about."


Earth to Mancini: Honoree Al Mancini (The Time of Your Life) was a real trip. After disclosing that he once beat James Lipton at fencing, he tried to trip up the ASL interpreter: "I'd like to thank the choosers of me for their perspicacity--ha!" He closed by thanking "Los Angeles, New York, Duluth, Mars, Pluto, Mandelbaum--that's the Jewish planet, they've got to have their own planet."


Secession knee-slapper: Quipped Supervisor Yaroslavsky, "I want to thank all the other nominees--secession failed, so there are no other nominees!"


A sound idea: Dave Marling, accepting a sound design award for Napoli Milionaria, stood at the podium and played a taped acceptance speech, complete with Italian music and quaint sound effects.


Show queens: Molina took a moment to recognize Ovation voters Jacque Lynn Colton, Marilyn Lasky, and Linda Levitz, who among them saw 353 shows in the voting period. The trio received tiaras to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance."


The irrepressible James Blackman: Producer Susan Dietz, presenting costume awards, quipped, "They wanted James Blackman in drag, but they got me." Hollered South Bay Cities CLO producer Blackman from the audience: "I don't have the shoes."


Bill Conti, watch your back: As presenter Gil Cates watched the "hook lady" remove a garrulous honoree, he quipped, "That's a good idea, I think I'll try that out next year."


Meow: David Engel, accepting an acting award for Crazy for You, said "I can finally take down the Robby Award from the mantle."


I'm your man: Accepting her acting award for Red, Jeanne Sakata recalled, "When Chay Yew asked me to play a 60-year-old man, I didn't take it as a compliment."


Just two carry-ons, please: Morlan Higgins thanked his After the Fall co-star Tracy Middendorf by saying, "Your Maggie is still splashing around in my soul," then said that director Stephen Sachs "was in my pocket every night."


NoHo neigbors: Big River director Jeff Calhoun gave a shout out to fellow awards sweeper the Road Theatre, which is on the same block of Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood as Deaf West.


Blackout: Among the inevitable no-shows were all the awarded lighting designers--three intimate theatre winners and one large. Was there a convention or something?


Why they got married: Carole Cook, recalling the night she saw her husband in The Caretaker, said, "Other people are seduced by money or status. We in the theatre are seduced by talent."


Irrepressible Blackman, part 2: His first words, accepting for Crazy for You: "I have so much botox in my face."


Grabby hands: Colony producer Barbara Beckley, accepting for Laramie Project, began to say, "I would like to dedicate… Where's the award?" The Laramie actors, assembled behind her onstage, had eagerly snagged the statuette.


A complete list of winners follows:

World premiere play: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Exonerated, the Actors' Gang; World premiere musical: Jillian Armenante, Alice Dodd, and Chris Jeffries, Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog, Circle X Theatre Company; Musical, large theatre: Crazy for You, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities; Play, large theatre: The Laramie Project, the Colony Theatre Company; Musical, intimate theatre: Big River, Ed Waterstreet, executive producer; Bill O'Brien, producer; Suzanne Tara, associate producer, at Deaf West Theatre; Play, intimate theatre: After the Fall, Simon Levy, producer, Fountain Theatre; Touring production: The Full Monty, Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, Albert Nocciolino, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Lindsay Law, Thomas Hall, producers, at Center Theatre Group: Ahmanson Theatre.


Director, musical: Jeff Calhoun, Big River; Director, play (3 winners): Deborah LaVine, Napoli Milionaria, the Road Theatre Company; Nick DeGruccio, The Laramie Project, and Stephen Sachs, After the Fall; Choreographer: Jeff Calhoun, Big River; Musical director: Steven Landau, Big River.


Lighting design, larger theatre: Tad Shannon, Do Jump!, Geffen Playhouse; Lighting design, intimate theatre (3 winners): Jerry Browning, Steel: John Henry and the Shaker, Oasis Theatre Company; Michael Gilliam, Big River, and Robert Fromer, Street Stories, Playwrights' Arena; Set design, large theatre (3 winners): Don Llewellyn, Master Harold… and the Boys, International City Theatre; Douglas Schmidt, Into the Woods, Center Theatre Group: Ahmanson Theatre, and John Lee Beatty, My Old Lady, Center Theatre Group: Mark Taper Forum; Set design, intimate theatre (3 winners): Desma Murphy, Napoli Milionaria; Joel Stoffer, Coyote on a Fence, Alliance Repertory Company, and Ray Klausen, Big River; Costume design, large theatre (2 winners): A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, Side Show, the Colony Theatre Company, and Gregg Barnes, Flower Drum Song, Center Theatre Group: Mark Taper Forum; Costume design, intimate theatre: Marci Hill, Napoli Milionaria; Sound design, large theatre: Jon Gottlieb & Philip G. Allen, Flower Drum Song; Sound design, intimate theatre: Bob Blackburn, Street Stories, and Dave Marling of Wav Magic, Napoli Milionaria.


Actress, musical: Julie Dixon Jackson/Misty Cotton, Side Show, the Colony Theatre Company; Actress, play (3 winners): Jeanne Sakata, Red, East West Players, Suanne Spoke, Napoli Milionaria, and Tracy Middendorf, After the Fall; Actor, musical (3 winners): David Engel, Crazy for You; Michael A. Shepperd, Steel: John Henry and the Shaker, and R. Christofer Sands, Pinafore!, Celebration Theatre; Actor, play (3 winners): Joe Mellis, Coyote on a Fence; Morlan Higgins, After the Fall, and Sam Anderson, Napoli Milionaria; Featured actor, musical: Rod Keller, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the Colony Theatre Company; Featured actor, play: Al Mancini, Time of Your Life, Camelot Artists; Featured actress, musical: Jodi Long, Flower Drum Song, Center Theatre Group: Mark Taper Forum; Featured actress, play: Carol Kane, He Hunts, Geffen Playhouse; Solo Performance: Ann Randolph, Squeeze Box, the Court Theatre; Ensemble performance (2 performances): The cast of Swing!, Musical Theatre West, and the cast of The Laramie Project.