Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976
Two revivals took top honors in Chicago's Non-Equity Jeff Awards Monday, June 6, 2016, with Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's production of Rent winning Best Production of a Musical and Griffin Theatre Company's revival of John Van Druten's London Wall winning Best Production of a Play. The Best Ensemble award was a tie, with the coveted honor being shared by Steep Theatre Company's Posh, a British drama detailing the excesses of 11 members of a club of highly privileged Oxford University students, and Raven Theatre Company's Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys, Mark Stein's historical play with music about the nine young African-American men falsely convicted in 1931 of raping two white women. Jonathan Berry and Michael Menendian directed the Posh and Scottsboro casts, respectively.
Rent, with wins for Director of a Musical (Scott Weinstein), Music Direction (Jeremy Ramey), and Supporting Actor in a Musical (Aubrey McGrath for his portrayal of Angel) in addition to its Best Production of a Musical nod earned the most awards (four) for a single production or for a single company. The production was briefly a cause célèbre in April when the company's request to extend its sold-out run was initially denied by the rights holders then granted after Broadway producer Kevin McCollum personally intervened. The production was lauded for Weinstein's intimate take on the Broadway classic, and the appropriateness of Theo Ubique's mall and edgy performance space, the No Exit Café, as its venue.
Though the non-Equity awards celebrate artistry performed most frequently in storefront spaces on frugal budgets, the ceremony was once again done in the style of Broadway's Tony Awards. Actors Sarah Hayes and Karl Hamilton served as Masters of Ceremonies, opening the show with a short routine that included a striptease by actor/choreographer nominee Christopher Logan removing articles of clothing as Hamilton read the statistics detailing the number of eligible shows, recommended shows, and nominated shows that were considered for awards.
As on the Tony Awards, selections from the nominated musicals were performed live, with four of the numbers giving audiences exposure to some lesser known gems of musical theater. The first was a medley from Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy's Heathers: The Musical."Seventeen," sung by leads Courtney Mack (who later won Best Actress in a Musical) and Chris Ballou, and "Shine a Light" sung by the company, which also showed the award-winning choreography of Sawyer Smith for the Kokandy Productions musical. Sarah Larson soared with Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman's "Disneyland" (from Smile) that was included in Theo Ubique's nominated A Marvin Hamlisch Songbook. A chilling "You Belong to Me" from Bailiwick Chicago's production of the Off-Broadway musical Murder Ballad was sung by the four-person cast of Camille Robinson, Amanda Horvath (who won Supporting Actress in a Musical for her work in the show), Matt Wilson Miles, and Christopher Logan. Stephen Flaherty's lovely "Lifting Belly" from Loving Repeating, his bio-musical of Gertrude Stein, was warmly sung by Amanda Giles and Emily Goldberg of the Kokandy Productions show. The final spot was given to a most familiar show tune, as the cast of Theo Ubique's Rent sang a rousing "Seasons of Love." The song had added significance for its following of a recognition and fund-raising appeal for Seasons of Concern, a charitable organization supported by Chicago's theater community.
The ceremony also included the now-abandoned Tony Awards practice of presenting scenes from the five nominated non-musical plays, giving the crowd of 700 the chance to see excerpts from four plays that eventually won some of the night's biggest awards. Three of them were two person scenes, beginning with Vanessa Greenway and Rochelle Therrien as law firm secretaries in the Best Play winner London Wall, which also won for director Robin Witt. A scene from Byhalia, Mississippi, a new drama about a lower-middle-class couple in a town outside of Memphis that won Best New Work, was performed by Liz Sharpe and its author and leading actor Evan Linder. The play, co-produced by The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company, also won for Supporting Actress in a Play (Cecelia Wingate) and Scenic Design (John Wilson). A sweetly funny scene from Samuel D. Hunter's Pocatello was performed by nominees Michael McKeogh and Becca Savoy.
The other two Best Production of a Play nominees eventually became the surprise tie winners of the Best Ensemble award. Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys, a mostly non-musical version of the story written before the Kander and Ebb musical, featured a medley of traditional southern songs performed by the company that also showcased the choreography of Kathleen Dennis and the music direction by Ricky Harris. The crisp ensemble work of 11 men from the cast of Steep Theatre's Posh was also displayed.
Midway through the evening a pre-announced special award was given to Kimberly Senior, a Chicago director who has risen from the ranks of storefront theaters to Broadway. Senior directed the world premiere of Disgraced in 2012 and helmed its production by Lincoln Center and on Broadway and joins the ranks of directors like Gary Griffin and David Cromer in a career path from Chicago's storefronts to Broadway. Her award was presented by directors Jason Gerace, Joanie Schultz, and Keira Fromm, who all praised her for mentoring them and many other aspiring directors.
With over 250 productions evaluated for awards, most of which run only five to seven weeks, it's nearly impossible for anyoneeven the critics of the daily newspapersto have seen all the nominees. There's thus little opportunity for the sorts of debates about "worthiness" of the winners or "who shoulda won" talk and the evening is appropriately a celebration of the vast body of work produced by non-Equity theaters in the season (the eligibility period is April 1 - March 31). That said, three of the major winners will be remounted this summer, giving audiences a second chance to catch up on some of the most lauded work of the season. Raven's Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys will return with its entire award-winning ensemble intact from July 21 - August 27. The New Work winner Byhalia, Mississippi will transfer to a new performance space at Steppenwolf and run July 22 - August 21. Oracle Theater Company's acclaimed re-imagining of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape with an all African-American cast, which won awards for Julian Parker's leading performance, Breon Arzell's movement choreography, and Jeffrey Levin's sound design, will be restaged in the Theater on the Lake Series from July 6- 17.
The complete list of winners is as follows:
2016 Non-Equity Jeff Award Recipients
Production - Musical or Revue
Director - Play
Director - Musical or Revue
Actor in a Principal Role - Play
Actor in a Principal Role - Musical
Actress in a Principal Role - Play
Actress in a Principal Role - Musical
Actor in a Supporting Role - Play
Actor in a Supporting Role - Musical or Revue
Actress in a Supporting Role - Play
Actress in a Supporting Role - Musical or Revue
New Adaptation (tie)
Original Music in a Play