BACK STAGE WEST
November 19, 1998
Ovations Honor Great Men and Women of the Theatre, Nos. 1-26.
by Rob Kendt
There's no people like show people, and nothing proves it like their awards shows. The Tonys, for instance, are an annual feast of insider indulgence and gypsy glamour, and now the Ovations, though only five years old as a competitive awards show, is settling into a comfortable niche as L.A. theatre's definitive yearly lovefest.
This year's show, the third at the plush Shubert Theatre in Century City, stretched over three long but well-orchestrated hours on Monday night, with host Nathan Lane adding just the right touch of offhanded bitchy levity.
In a peculiarity that's become a heartening Ovations tradition, voters--composed of volunteers from each of Theatre L.A.'s 160-or-so member theatres--didn't allow any single show to sweep the top awards. That meant that while The Cider House Rules at the Mark Taper Forum won the best play, larger theatre award, it garnered only one other award (for featured actor Tom Beyer), and while the Circle X Theatre Company's Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22 won best play, smaller theatre, it won just two other design awards (for Gary Smoot's set and M.E. Dunn's costumes). And the winningest musical, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, did not win the best musical award (Noise/Funk got nods for ensemble, choreography, and lighting, while Chicago nabbed the best musical, larger theatre award).
And there were no huge slights in voters' choices--a la last year's fiasco of Showboat's Ned Beatty acing out Ragtime's Brian Stokes Mitchell--although the Pacific Resident Theatre's Indiscretions was regrettably shut out and the much-nominated Geffen Playhouse walked away with only a sound design award (Red Ramona for Old Wicked Songs).
The only noticeable "upset" was Tony Abatemarco's win for The Mystery of Irma Vep, but it came as a gratifying surprise, not a mortifying oversight. Though he was nominated against heavy dramatic work by Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Winters, Josh Hamilton, and Frank Langella, voters pleasingly honored this under-praised L.A. stage veteran for his extraordinary comic chops.
Apart from an embarrassing problem with the Shubert's sound system for the show's first hour and a tendency for speeches to go long, the show--produced by Jeff Brown, Farrell Hirsch, and Don Hill--moved along fleetly, in front of Bradley Kaye's dazzlingly strange set pieces (constructed by Rick Goodwin), lit nicely by Garrett Caine. Songs from the musical nominees were delivered rather perfunctorily in a pair of non-medleys, with a too-brief turn by Jennifer Leigh Warren (featured actress winner for Hello Again) standing out.
Presenters represented theatre, and specifically L.A. theatre, a bit more appropriately than some in previous years, with returning regulars John Rubinstein (this time with his wife, Jane Lanier), Mariette Hartley, and Kathy Buckley, as well as newcomers Tsai Chin, Annette Bening, Blythe Danner, David Hyde Pierce, Susan Egan, Harry Groener, CCH Pounder, Stephen Schwartz, Lee Blessing, Joan Van Ark, and Jane Carr.
If last year's running theme seemed to be lifetime achievement honoree Stephen Sondheim's comment that he wished New York had the kind of theatre community L.A. evidenced at that awards show, this year's seemed to be support. Speech after speech by winners from theatres small and large thanked parents, lovers, friends, and colleagues for their support and patience with their crazy, irrational, draining lives in the theatre.
"My family doesn't know why I do this, but they totally support me," said Beyer, in an early acceptance speech. Said Dunn, accepting her costuming award, "To Mom & Dad: I promise I'll get a real job, but not tonight." World premiere writing winner Pamela Forrest (for Valsetz) thanked her "wife" for being the household breadwinner, and costume design, larger theatre winner Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez (for Pacific Overtures) thanked her husband and child for providing her a stable home to come back to "after all the craziness."
The promotion of theatre as a cultural force in L.A. wasn't absent, of course: Theatre L.A. president Larry O'Connor (also the Shubert's general manager) and executive director Alisa Fishbach made the obligatory pitch for their organization's many marketing efforts, keeping it short and sweet, and this year's winner of the James A. Doolittle Award for Leadership in local theatre, the Colony Studio Theatre's Barbara Beckley, quoted the Arts Action Research study that suggested L.A. should call itself "Theatre City, U.S.A."
Andrew J. Robinson, who won for his direction of The Yield of the Long Bond, mused that the voters' embrace of such a "dark" and heavy play shows that "we're really grown up here--we're really serious about doing this shit!" And speaking from an L.A. theatre outsider's perspective, Tom Hulce (accepting the Cider House best play award with the Taper's Gordon Davidson) said, "It was really lonely at the Taper. We'd look outside and the streets were empty. We said, "Where is the community?' I'm very glad to see it's here tonight."
Perhaps Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Terrence McNally put it best, in a taped acceptance speech, when he spoke of a "national theatre" that's grown up in cities and regions all over the U.S., and most gratifyingly in L.A. "The theatre community is not in any one city anymore," he said. Indeed, this year's Ovation winners included a good number of out-of-towners--there were the usual New Yorkers, of course, but also a number of Northwesterners, as both play winners, Cider House and Great Men, were loaded with Seattle-based or Seattle-originated talent.
But on the evidence of these annual awards, L.A.'s large and persistent theatre scene seems strong and vital enough to draw still greater strength and vitality from such cross-pollination, and indeed may find its identity as the pre-eminent place for such cross-pollination, not only across geographical boundaries but across racial and film/TV industry divides, as well. The Ovations this year were a vision of a vibrant L.A. theatre not at a crossroads but as a crossroads for some of the best stage talent in the country.
And now, some favorite quotes from the show:
Nathan Lane: "It's a beautiful award--sort of like a cross between Evita and Our Lady of Fatima."
Tom Beyer, featured actor in The Cider House Rules: "Nine months ago in New York I was catering in these pants."
Glen Berger, playwright, Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22: "I didn't prepare a one-minute acceptance speech, because as a writer I know it would take me two months."
Jennifer Leigh Warren, featured actress in Hello Again: "I'd like to thank [director] Daniel Henning and [producer] Noah Wyle for recognizing that a short, brown-skinned woman can be sexy."
Nathan again: "If the Ovations are L.A.'s Tonys, where on the food chain are the Drama-Logue awards? I've heard there's a guy with a Xerox machine at LAX, and he asks you as you get off the plane if you're going to be appearing in a theatrical production in town. If you are, he gives you your award and directs you to your luggage."
Dominique Kelley of Noise/Funk, accepting a choreography award for Derick K. Grant: "Being part of this show is not only exciting, it's hard. So I'd like to thank Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Sholls, Tiger Balm, and all the massage therapists across the country."
Larry O'Connor, president of Theatre L.A.: "...here at the Ovations Theatre... er, the Shubert Theatre..."
Stephanie Faracy, featured actress in Two Rooms at the Court Theatre: "This was definitely smaller theatre. I feel like I could have run in that play for a year and not seen as many faces as I see tonight."
Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez, costume designer for Pacific Overtures: "Thank you to the actors of L.A. I love dressing you."
Joe Stern of the Matrix Theatre Company, presenting leadership award to Barbara Beckley: "Without her tenacity and passion, 90 percent of what we know as L.A. theatre would not exist."
Barbara Beckley: "Theatre people are the most resilient people in the world."
A final Nathan: "I'm going on tour with Judge Judy in Love Letters. So things are looking up."
Terrence McNally, accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award: "To quote Ruth Gordon, 'This is very encouraging.' "