I spent two-and-a-half hours watching the Acclaim Awards last night — 150 minutes with no intermission. Thanks to affable hosts Charlie Clarke and Mark Hardy (the well-dressed “scoundrels” of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels last September at The Carnegie), there was a lot of humor, but I put an emphasis on “a lot” as in “maybe too much.”
As I’ve written previously, the Acclaims offer some solid recognition of many of the things that constitute our local theater scene. But the awards program itself lacks discipline: If this had been a stage production at one of our local theaters, I wouldn't be the only critic saying, “Nice work, but it needs a lot of trimming.” And some thoughtfulness.
It was funny to see a preview of Church Ladies, a production that’s part of the Commonwealth Theatre Company’s summer dinner theater season at Northern Kentucky University. It might be described as a mash-up of Greater Tuna and the Sanders Family from the Playhouse’s Smoke on the Mountain trilogy of plays with cornpone ersatz religious humor. We had five guys onstage in drag singing “Going Down” (double entendres were heartily encouraged). Lots of laughter, but the piece was more than 10 minutes of one-note humor.
And then the program jumped right into awkwardly introduced memorial tributes by Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers, full of heartfelt emotion regarding the loss of longtime UC theater professor Paul Rutledge and ETC board member Murph Mahler. And if one misstep wasn’t enough, Meyers walked off and still-in-drag Clark marched back on before tears were dried, picking back up with more raucous humor.
That’s a good example of why this celebration that “recognizes, supports and celebrates theatre excellence” doesn’t quite live up to its aspirations. With slightly more production polish, this program could (and should) have been presented in 90 minutes.
Here were the high points:
• The Acclaims present a set of “Best of Season” recognitions. The History of Invulnerability at the Cincinnati Playhouse was designated as the best professional production of a play, and Know Theatre’s two-part Angels in America was cited as the best independent (non-Equity) production. Northern Kentucky University’s Bye Bye Birdie was named the season’s best musical. The Playhouse’s mounting of a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters (a lavish production that didn't land well with audiences, many of whom walked out at intermission) was designated the “best of the 2009-2010 season” — which made sense in that it received more Acclaim recognitions (10) than any other production.
• In a overt effort to ramp up attendance, the Acclaim show audience was invited to vote for a favorite community theater show: They chose The Wedding Singer, a recent production by Footlighters. The audience also voted on for their “favorite professional theatre musical.” Strangely, the category included two university productions: Hair at UC’s College-Conservatory of music and the aforementioned Birdie from NKU, which had a large contingent in the seats at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. No big surprise that Birdie was chosen over shows like Daddy Long Legs at the Playhouse or ETC’s The Marvelous Wonderettes (which has extended its run three times since opening in April).
• Despite the voting ploy, the Acclaims attracted 250 people (as reported in The Enquirer); the Jarson-Kaplan seats 437.
• Four high school teachers were recognized: Lisa Bodollo (Mother of Mercy High School), Mark Femia (Cincinnati Country Day School) and Michael Sherman (Colerain High School) in addition to the top recipient, Michele Mascari, whose program at St. Xavier High School received a grant of $2,500 for her theater program. I loved Mascari’s remark to the other teachers: “I think we all teach at the same school.” Similar adulatory nominations from students underscored the impact that teachers have on kids in theater programs.
• Also honored were Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen, a couple who have been involved in many levels of theater for a quarter century. They received the 2010 “Trailblazers” award for their commitment to connect theater and community. The pair has choreographed and directed productions with community theaters, area universities and several independent companies.
• Lynn Meyers’ memorial cited a remark once made by longtime ETC board member Murph Mahler: “You don’t have to be imported to be important.” As one of a series of “MVPs” were named, Joshua Steele, who manages The Carnegie, hearkened back to this remark and observed that the “diaspora of talent” leaving Cincinnati for elsewhere seemed to be dissipating. He urged all present to keep the faith and keep building on local opportunities. Other MVP awards went to music director Steve Goers, set designer Mark Halpin, choreographer Patti James, performer Brooke Rucidlo and Know Theatre utility infielder Liz Vosmeier, who not only acted but handled wardrobe (and washed costumes over and over) for the entire season. A special MVP honor was given to the Playhouse’s Ed Stern to mark the regional theater’s 50th anniversary season.
My earlier questions about the necessity for two local theater awards programs — the Acclaims and the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards — are still out there awaiting answers. I’m all for recognizing excellence in local theater, but let’s do so with the best possible program we can assemble, one that will last beyond my personal support and CityBeat’s sponsorship of the CEAs and Jackie Demaline’s administration and The Enquirer’s promotion of the Acclaims.
Why not have one program that merges the best of both? As always, your thoughts are invited.