Nov 19, 2004

A Sitting Ovation

Maybe the Los Angeles Stage Alliance, which until last year was Theatre LA, should consider another name change—say, to something like Greater Southland Theatres Who Are Members. Not very catchy, is it? But then neither is the garbled message sent by this year’s Ovation Awards: Among the big winners were the Rubicon Theatre of Ventura and Performance Riverside of, well, Riverside. Earth to the Los Angeles Stage Alliance: These no doubt fine companies are not even in Los Angeles County, let alone the city of Los Angeles.

I don’t begrudge these artists a single award for their apparently killer productions of All My Sons and 1776, respectively, which clearly a quorum of Ovation voters felt were more than worth the drive. But if one of the goals of the Ovation Awards is to promote a more coherent picture of theatre in Los Angeles—which already sprawls from Pasadena to the South Bay and all points in between, and is already hard to even conceptualize as one community—then how exactly is that mission served by extending the boundaries beyond any reasonable geographical definition of what can be called Los Angeles? While they’re at it, why not add Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa? Or Lost Hills, where I drove on a hot day this past summer to see the beautiful culminating production in Cornerstone’s first rural residency in more than decade?

Monday night’s Ovations show was full of such puzzles and contradictions. For there, at one point, was Cornerstone, receiving not an award for Waking Up in Lost Hills but instead collecting a long overdue special Community Outreach Award. Presenting was South Central resident Guillermo Aviles, who injected a bracing reminder of the real impact of theatre into the otherwise lightweight proceedings: “I’m here because Cornerstone saved my life.” Aviles had signed on during the troupe’s 18-month Watts residency with the play Los Faustinos, offering him the “life preserver of theatre” in a community in which, according to Aviles, the only hope for young people is “the military or sports, because the education system is moribund.” Cornerstone’s work, Aviles averred, is “a testament to how much can be accomplished when you empower people to live up to their full potential.” Founding artistic director Bill Rauch, who has spent a good part of this year directing projects outside of Cornerstone (at Yale Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and South Coast Rep), then offered, in a form all the more powerful for its brevity, an encapsulation of the mission statement that makes Cornerstone such an inspiration to artists who may have lost track of why the heck they get up on a stage in the first place: “We believe that everyone is an artist… We believe that every work of art has the power to change the world, and theatre is the best rehearsal we know for that change.” (Somehow that sounds a little loftier than presenter Garry Marshall’s terse sum-up of Cornerstone’s work: “They go from town to town using the local people.”)

Other contradictions: The Buffalo Nights’ zippy production was among the most consistently fun awards show in memory, with the irrepressible Matt Walker appearing as the Ovation itself, in a white leotard, and a gaggle of old men—well, young men in bad bald wigs and makeup—chasing him across the stage in wheelchairs. Later, Eric Anderson from Performance Riverside’s Rocky Horror Show and David Engel from South Bay CLO’s La Cage Aux Folles trotted out in extravagant drag, flounced through a rendition of “Sisters,” and then managed to plant indelible drag-queen lipstick kisses on all the costume designers to whom they presented awards. A waggish, slightly mad tone pervaded the evening—a very welcome antidote to the unavoidable awards-show pall. And David O’s tight band was a treat, witty and smoking.

But somehow the evening felt a little sad, with a recurring theme of resignation—both in the literal and the emotional sense. Steve Glaudini, whose Performance Riverside production of 1776 swept the musical, larger theatre category, recently resigned from the helm of the company he’s run for five years; he’s now an agent as Kazarian Spencer Associates. Derek Livingston, who accepted the small-theatre musical award for the Celebration Theatre’s smash production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is leaving the artistic directorship of that theatre, too.

And perhaps the evening’s defining award presentation—the one that typified all that’s most distinctive, and most threatened, in L.A. theatre—was the James A. Doolittle Award for Leadership in Theatre. The L.A. Stage Alliance Board saw fit to honor Paula Holt, whose Tiffany Theatres shuttered two years ago. A more worthy candidate for this kind of career recognition you couldn’t find (and I’m relieved that the Ovations did a much classier job of paying her tribute than our Back Stage West Garlands did back in 2002, in a pitifully under-attended show at the Alex). But what does it say about the state of leadership in L.A. theatre that the Ovations would honor a woman who hasn’t produced a play in years? Presenter Susie Dietz tried to muster as much enthusiasm as possible for such current examples of Paula’s “leadership” as, “She continues to sit on that board,” and, “She’s developing a huge Broadway musical with Amanda McBroom,” but there remained in this tribute to a bygone era a whiff of the pathetic.

Maybe it was just post-election gloom. Indeed, Holt herself made a few such references in her acceptance speech: “If there’s anything we’ve learned in this post-election era,” she said (in an ominous turn of phrase, as if there won’t be any more elections), “it’s that there’s not only a culture that prevails, but there’s a very powerful counter-culture, as well. And you’re all part of that.” And, taking up the sort of theme that former LASA executive director Lee Wochner used to like to repeat, “California, this wonderful blue state, ranks dead last in arts funding per capita: It’s 3 cents a person. That’s lower than Mississippi.” (Am I the only one who found this presumptively pejorative invoking of a Deep Southern state to be a little, well, blue-statist?) She closed with the rather puzzling but crowd-pleasing, “I am grateful for all my years in the theatre, and for not being a Republican.”

Similarly worthy but considerably sunnier was Betty Garrett, who accepted a Life Achievement Award. She’s a classy old-school dame whose recording of “There’s a Small Hotel,” from the Rodgers & Hart anthology musical Words and Music. is a particular favorite of mine. She also trotted out an easy applause line, though more self-consciously: “My son says I should tell people my age: I’m 85.” The audience erupted in cheers, and Garrett deadpanned: “He was right—he said it would get me applause.”

Since we’re getting down to the quotes, herewith follows a sampling of some of the best, the worst, and the weirdest highlights of the evening:

Specificity is everything: “Have they suffered? You haven’t suffered until you’ve done a play at the Complex.” --Harry Harrison (Morgan Rusler), the Mr. Potter-esque geezer who busted in to give advice to the kids of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant at the show’s opening

And the children shall lead us: The opening number from A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant wasn’t the only example of youngsters winning our hearts. A group of kids from the La Bohème ensemble were about to be ushered dutifully off the stage when presenter Joanne Worley insisted, “Let the children say thank you!” They decorously marched forward and said polite thank-yous, but the priceless closer was a little girl who oozed attitude as she said, “Thank you Mom and Dad and Alice for actually coming.

Nice image: “I did this show because I needed to let my heart sing. Live theatre lets your heart sing.”
--Yvette Freeman, accepting for Dinah Was

Nice rationale: “This is for all of us but it’s going to stay at my house ’cause it’s so pretty.”
--Freeman again

Garry Marshallisms:
“They sat Gordon Davidson up there in the back. A guy retires and they send him straight to the back of the balcony.”
“There were 378 registered shows, and amazingly enough, 361 with only one person in them.”
About Carolyn Hennesy’s lovely, revealing dress: “Some dresses are slow-walking dresses. That’s a slow-walking dress.”

One actor to another: Morlan Higgins, accepting for his stunning lead performance in Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, thanked his co-star William Dennis Hurley, “whose performance is an acting lesson every night.”

Odes to the Ovation:
“She’s a juicy piece of glass.”
--Harry Harrison, in an opening number set to Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”
“This is much more beautiful than any other award. I thought I was going to get a certificate or a plaque. (Kissing the statuette) I love you!”
--Betty Garrett, accepting a Life Achievement Award

Are there that many to go around?: Presenter Joanne Worley walked onstage with a red balloon and released it with the wish, “May you all win many, many Ovations.”

That cheeky announcer: Introducing presenter Julia Sweeney: “She’s the former SNL cast member who has made us laugh at androgyny and cancer.”

Random religiosity: Carolyn Hennesy, accepting a featured actress award for The Fan Maroo, “As Kiff (Scholl, the director) told me: Thank the baby Jesus.”

Milk it: “It’s hard to do this quickly, because you want this moment to last forever.”
--Gigi Bermingham, accepting a solo show award for Non-Vital Organs (redux)

Fly the freak flag high: Accepting the lighting design award for the Black Dahlia’s Nocturne, Mike Durst hopped up onstage in an oversized white suit, black sunglasses, and a sculpted Mohawk. His extremely brief acceptance speech began with a murmured question about whether the award would count for some drink tickets.

Philosophy of the theatre: “Playwrights are poets who got lonely.” --The Hope Davis-like Joy Gregory, accepting the world premiere musical award for The Shaggs, quoting a fellow playwright, Leon Martell

Props for the old rag: “This is totally unexpected—I read the Back Stage West article, didn’t you?”
--Gigi Bermingham, accepting a solo show award for Non-Vital Organs (redux); BSW’s Les Spindle had predicted Clinton Leupp’s Miss Coco Peru Is Undaunted “by a landslide”

Gaffe of the night: Presenting sound design awards, Paul Dooley announced the Boston Court’s Romeo and Juliet as the small-theatre winner. Then, after co-presenter Granville Van Dusen announced La Bohème for the larger theatre award, Dooley came back to the podium and said, “I forgot to announce a tie.” And then he promptly re-read the names of the sound designers from Romeo and Juliet and stood back as the band blared and the audience sat in mortified embarrassment until somebody called out, “Read the other one!” Dooley, chastened, obliged, and bestowed the second Ovation on Steve Goodie for Cold/Tender. Goodie ran to the stage and looked around, bewildered, and spoke for all of us: “What the hell just happened?”

Most puzzling attempt at a joke (we think): Dean Mora, music director of Amanda McBroom’s solo show Lady Macbeth Sings the Blues, quipped, “You have no idea how hard it was to teach Amanda the harmonies.”

Candor award: “I’m sorry, my buzz wore off before I got my award.”
--Alex Jaeger, accepting for costume design of Romeo & Juliet

First and only F word of the night: “Sandra Tsing Loh is such a fucking amazing inspiration!”
--Gigi Bermingham, about a fellow solo show nominee

Musical commentary: David O had some fun coming up with these, and we had fun identifying them. For sound design winners, the band played “Do You Hear What I Hear?” For the lead musical actress award, which went to Jill Van Velzer for 1776: “The Lady Is a Tramp.” For the lead musical actor award, which went to 1776’s Steve Glaudini: “Someday My Prince Will Come.” For Cornerstone’s Community award: “What a Wonderful World.”

All about me: Derek Livingston, accepting the small-theater award for the Celebration’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch: “I would thank my producer—which would be me. I would thank my artistic director—which would be me. I would thank my box-office staff—which would be me. I was washing fishnet stockings every week, and I’d be asking myself, Does Gordon Davidson do this?”

Thanks, I’ll be here all week: “I think the Diebold people are still in the back counting the votes, so I’m not sure I really won.”
--Martin Carrillo, sound designer for the Boston Court’s Romeo & Juliet

A sense of proportion: “I’d like to thank director Jessica Kubzansky, who on the way over said the traffic on Olympic was tragic—and then said that if a bomb were to fall on this building, it would be sad.”
--Jeff Goodie, accepting a sound design award Cold/Tender

Marty’s world: Marty Ingalls, co-presenting with his wife Shirley Jones, was a font of… a kind of humor. Like: “I’m a little hyper, I’m tripolar.” Or: “You know, there’s not one Jew on this list [of nominees]. That’s a violation in some states.” Or: “And the winneress is…”

Impromptu pop culture reference: Davis Gaines, co-presenting with Marissa Janet Winokur and Susan Egan, simply gestured to all three and proposed, “Three’s Company, the musical?” Susan piped in to clarify her part: “Joyce Dewitt.” Marissa chimed in: “They’d recast me.” And Davis shook his head: “Oh, Chrissy.”

Eternal mysteries: What was George Furth saying to the ASL interpreters before the show? Who is Morlan Higgins’ tailor? And why was Simon Levy, producing director of the Fountain, dressed in a morning coat and cravat?

Are we bitter?: Giving out a musical actress award, presenter Jason Graae went off script to quip: “Oh my God, it’s a write-in: David Engel won again!” And then, offering a self-critique: “That’s so inside it gives me gas.”

Drollery #1: “You may remember me, I went under the screen name of Irene Dunne.”
--Presenter Orson Bean

Drollery #2: “I only use these for reading. And walking.”
--presenter Paul Dooley, referring to his glasses

Drollery #3: “What hasn’t been said about sound?”
--Cold/Tender sound designer Jeff Goodie

Drollery #4: Presenter Marissa Janet Winokur, reading off the nominees for touring productions, all at the Ahmanson Theatre: First there was the Little Shop of Horrors, then Phantom of the Opera, “produced by the same people and some others.” And then Thoroughly Modern Millie, produced “by the same people and a few different people… Whoever wins, I’m sure these people will be very happy.”

Complaint as joke: A cast member of Caught in the Net at International City Theatre referred to the Long Beach company “as the Carpool Rep Company.”

Overstated absurdity watch: The offstage announcer made a little too much of the strangeness of juxtaposing lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, Geffen Theatre artistic director Randall Arney, and Laugh-In nutjob Joanne Worley. Yeah… and?

The man with the power over time and space: John Ballinger, who wielded a mean triangle when speeches went too long.

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