November 20, 1997


L.A. Theatre Fever Catches

'Ragtime,' 'Midsummer' Win Big and Sondheim Hails Local Spirit


by Rob Kendt

The excitement was contagious at Monday night's Theatre L.A. Ovation Awards, which honored the best on the L.A. boards in '97 on the set of one of its great achievements, Livent's Ragtime at the Shubert Theatre. Big-name presenters and winners not widely known for long associations with West Coast theatre all remarked on it, with Lifetime Achievement Award winner Stephen Sondheim supplying the crowning compliment of the night: "The real thrill of this evening," the legendary composer/lyricist said after receiving a standing ovation and a beautiful, succinct tribute from co-host Joanna Gleason, "is the sense of community here. I wish we had it New York."


Steppenwolf Theatre member Frank Galati, who won for directing Ragtime, compared the Ovations' outpouring of mutual acclaim and support to the energy of his Chicago homebase: "I feel the force and passion of this group, and I know how much this event means to the community."


Celebrity presenters like Danny Glover, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, and Garry Marshall seemed charmed and amazed by the various cheering sections which erupted on cue at the mention of a nominee. The effect--with the sight of Marshall enthusiastically trying to lead the audience to cheer for each nominee, not just their own--suggested some kind of black-tie high school pep rally.


Gushed Kathy Buckley, the hilarious hearing-impaired comic who won best world premiere writing for Don't Buck With Me!, "I didn't know there was a theatre here. I did my show as a showcase for the media, but they must be deafer than I am, because they didn't come. Instead, you theatre people came."


Ovation voters spread the love around with their choices, too, with a handful shows sweeping several awards (Ragtime, Show Boat, A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stella Adler Theatre, and the Actors' Gang's Euphoria) and the rest getting one or two statuettes apiece.


There were some notable blind spots. Ned Beatty, who won for best actor in a musical, was positively delightful in Show Boat, but excuse me: Fellow nominee Brian Stokes Mitchell, a contender for next year's Tony for his role as Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker Jr., wuz robbed. And the Colony Studio Theatre's flawless Sondheim revue Putting It Together walked away empty-handed, victim to stiff competition in the directing and performance categories--in which small-theatre tuners competed directly with Livent megamusicals--and to the invincible Euphoria, which beat it out for best musical, smaller theatre.


There were also a record number of no-shows--10 out of the 26 awards--with many winners out of town (or in town?) working or playing. The featured actor winner, the incomparable Michel Bell, who's still touring with Show Boat, did a classy thing: He sent his son. Others sent craftspeople in related fields as proxies; more than one producer or director accepted an award by saying, "I know he'd thank me."


The unfortunate snub of the night, though, came when Terrence McNally, presenting the award for best adaptation or translation to Robert Cornthwaite's So It Is. . . If So It Seems to You at A Noise Within, stared out into the house and, finding no takers, improvised a speech on behalf of all writers. Shame, shame.


Kvetchy Patter

The show itself, produced by Jeff Brown and directed by Luke Yankee, came in on the long side of two and a half hours (maybe the no-shows were a blessing in disguise). In all, it was a slick entertainment which didn't so much avoid the congenital dryness of awards shows as plow through it with a little shtick, song, and good sportsmanship. Peerless presenters John Rubinstein and Joanna Gleason had little stage time, but they made the most of it (kudos to Playwrights Ink for its brief, sneakily witty, only intermittently corny script).


Stiller and Meara tossed out the script for their presentation, proving themselves masters of comic timing but not time, milking the laughs with their patented kvetchy patter.


Still, the evening's good humor was infectious, and much of it got rolling with a knockout medley of songs from the best musical nominees, winningly performed by Ragtime's Jason Graae and last year's best musical actress winner, Yvette Freeman (supported by a crack band under music director Steven Smith). It was a pleasure not only to hear Graae sing "Ragtime" and "She Loves Me," or to hear Yvette Freeman bat "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" out of the park, but to witness them wrap their seasoned voices around Laurence O'Keefe's "You Drive Me to Drink" from Euphoria or Shishir Kurup's folksy, plaintive "If I Could" from Candude.


Less successful was an obligatory medley of Sondheim "love songs," a miscast and perversely parsed hodgepodge performed in front of a blowup of the famous Hirshfeld caricature. Sondheim graciously thanked the band and performers--for the record, Sean Smith, Stacy Sullivan, Peisha McPhee, and Kim Strauss--but I would submit that any single number from the Colony's Putting It Together or West Coast Ensemble's recent Company would have made a more fitting tribute.


A richly deserved leadership award tribute to Geffen Playhouse director Gilbert Cates ran a tad long, with Beau Bridges' heartfelt but rambling character witness, but Cates made some welcome comments about the current harsh cultural environment for "the most ancient art" of the theatre. A longtime producer of the Oscar show, Cates concluded, "We don't allow people to talk so much on the Oscars because strangers are watching. But we're family tonight, and it's good to talk."


Good, indeed.


And now, indulge me in a bit of this and that, overheard before, during, and after the ceremony, in the multi-level lobby party at the Shubert, and at the real party across the plaza at Harper's Bar.



Kathy Buckley on the lighting and sound design for Don't Buck With Me!: "The lighting was great. I have no idea what the sound was like."

John Rubinstein on Sondheim: "I was playing the piano one day in New York with the windows open, a beautiful day. A knock came on the door, I opened it, and a nice-looking man said, 'I'm Steve Sondheim. Could you stop playing? I'm trying to write a musical.' "

Anne Meara: "It's great to see all you beautiful women out there who are still ovulating." Jerry Stiller: "I'm joining Promise Keepers tomorrow."

Sondheim accepting his award: "It's a little spooky to get a lifetime achievement award when you're still working."

Sondheim at Harper's: "I think they change the Sunset Strip all the time just to confuse me when I come out here."

More Sondheim at Harper's: "Everyone I know who comes out to L.A., after a while they lose their edge."

Executive director of Theatre L.A. William Friemuth's opening line: "Welcome to Theatre City, U.S.A."

Livent CEO Garth Drabinsky, accepting the award for Ragtime: "I think we were right to give the American premiere to L.A. You made us feel very, very welcome."

Presenter Fred Savage, suggesting that he could do Rent: "Hey, if Doogie Howser can do it, why not Kevin Arnold?"

Eileen T'Kaye, accepting the best play, smaller theatre award for Midsummer: "My name is Eileen T'Kaye, and I am a theatre-holic."

Garry Marshall, who recently built the 99-seat Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake: "I'm very proud to be part of the L.A. theatre scene."

More Marshall: "I notice there's no name on the smaller theatre play award. The musical says 'the Franklin R. Levy award.' This should be an inspiration to somebody: Your name could be here--it could be the 'Milton Zuckerman Best Play in a Smaller Theatre Award.' "

Gil Cates: "No one in the theatre is in it for the money."


Ovations mysteries, solved and unsolved:

When Jonathan Deans accepted his sound design, larger theatre award for Ragtime, he thanked "authors Terrence (McNally), Lynn (Ahrens), Stephen (Flaherty), and Bill." Bill? Say what? Was there a previously unacknowledged ghost writer on the show? No, Ahrens told Back Stage West the next day: Deans was referring to the the show's peerless orchestrator, William Brohn-not an author per se, but a major player in the soundscape marshalled by Deans. . .

In the Ovations program, next to the usual congratulatory ads, a small box read simply: "Join the Catholic Church." Um, no thanks, I gave at the office. . .

Where was Ned Beatty?