Picking & Panning: Thinking about the 2009-10 Ostrander nominations

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Guys & Dolls
  • Guys & Dolls
Whatever else may have happened this year the 2009-10 theater season will forever be defined by Jackie Nichols and the opening of a brand new state-of-the-art Playhouse on the Square that has already transformed the corner of Union and Cooper and will certainly transform Midtown's performing arts scene in the years to come. The theater opened on a sub-zero January night in the middle of a winter storm when every other playhouse in town was closed because of all the ice on the streets. But people kept calling about tickets. Excitement was high and seating could not be guaranteed. The first few shows in the new facility were a little shaky, it's true, but by the time John Waters' musical adaptation of Hairspray opened Memphis' longest-running professional theater had finally gotten its sea legs. In a different season Theatre Memphis' La Cage aux Folle, or Souvenir or even GCT's underrepresented Guys & Dolls might be the celebrated show. But If my hunch is correct this is going to be a big year at the Ostrander Awards for both Hairspray, and for Playhouse on the Square with Circuit Playhouse and Theatre Memphis picking up a few choice awards along the way.

A New Playhouse from Chris Davis on Vimeo.


And speaking of Hairspray...

When I saw Hairspray I sat near a chatty theater judge that I've known for years. He complained to me that The Emerald Theatre Company—a small TheatreWorks-based group dedicated to producing works aimed at gay audiences— had petitioned to be judged. He said—and with due concern— that he didn't know how a judging team already responsible for 40 shows could add any more companies to their viewing schedule. I told him I didn't know how they could refuse a group that's been around as long as Etc. Then again— and in spite of all protestations that will surely be made in comments to this post—in practice there has never been a completely satisfying policy regarding to who gets to play with the big kids and who rides the bench. The now-defunct Memphis Black Rep was up for awards after its first season while the similarly-focused Hattiloo has waited five years. 2009-10 was also the first season of consideration for Voices of the South, a different kind of professional company founded in the 1990's and dedicated to creating and adapting new work. Who knows when (or if) the (also professional) Tennessee Shakespeare Company will be included in the process?

I don't pretend to know how to reorganize the system to insure that the judging process is fair for everybody (including—and perhaps especially— the judges) but I do know that local theater is expanding. The alternative scene stabilized and grew after the founding of TheatreWorks. It stands to reason that the availability of the new Evergreen Theatre (the old Circuit Playhouse) will allow a whole new crop of companies to take root and flourish. And somehow, over time, The Ostranders must figure out how to make sure that everybody who wants to play by the rules gets a shot at all the fabulous prizes.

This year's nominees do, for the most part, represent the best of what Memphis' 2009-10 Theater season had to offer. There are, however, some glaring oversights and a handful of real head scratchers. So without much ado (literally... will that show be eligible next year, or did it exist in the limbo of "special summer offerings?) here are my predictions for this year's Ostrander Awards.

Set Design: I'm not entirely happy with the nominees for set design. I've long been a Chuck Britt fan but his set for The Seafarer was a pretty standard living room. True, it was trashed in ways that meshed perfectly with the script's demands, but otherwise, it's the sort of thing we see all the time. Jimmy Humphries design for Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 was epic, and walked a fine line between the gorgeous and the garish but it's massive scale overwhelmed the performances making the broad comedy seem even more inconsequential than it is. Dan Kopera's set for The Crucible was good but aided mightily by some exceptional lighting design. The only three nominations I can fully endorse are Jimmy Humphries grimy transformation of Hairspray into an underground comic book and Christopher McCollum's designs for La Cage aux Folles and Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the latter of which was easily this season's most imaginative use of color and form.

My pick: Christopher McCollum for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Who got robbed:
Kerry Strahm and L.D. Beghtol for Gorey Stories at GCT. Strahm designed a pretty basic drawing room set but Beghtol, a former Memphian currently living in Brooklyn, was brought in to hand draw all the details with a Sharpie. The goal—beautifully accomplished—was to create a 3-D Gorey illustration. Unfortunately the set was so badly lit as to be headache inducing and the show was even worse. Panels from the set were auctioned of as individual pieces of artwork.

Costume Design: Plenty of better (if not always exceptional) work was overlooked. I mean, Buffalo Gal? That really gets a costume nomination? Why not recognize the awful (but wonderfully designed) Fallen Angels? Or Pippin even? Or the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which brought way more flavor.

My Pick: La Cage Aux Folles and Andre Bruce Ward were made for each other.

Who got robbed: At least Andre was nominated for La Cage. His Art nouveau-inspired designs for Fallen Angels were perfect. And perfectly ridiculous.

*UPDATE: I've got a correction to make. Fallen Angels wasn't designed by TM's resident costume designer Andre Bruce Ward but by Guy Lee Bailey who also designed Buffalo Gal. So if he wins for the latter I'll pretend it was for the former and all will be right with the world. Adding: his designs for Fallen Angels really did out-Andre Andre.

My pick for Lighting Design: For me it comes down between Matthew Stampe's elegantly eerie look for The Crucible, Harrell Theatre, and Diane Kinkennon's more in-your-face approach to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Theatre Memphis. I'm going with the latter because it was a risky and effective design and that risk deserves to be rewarded.

My Pick for Music Direction: This was a good year for musicals in Memphis but there's only one obvious choice among the nominees. Renee Kemper took the musical theater out of Hank Williams: Lost Highway at Circuit Playhouse and served up an authentic evening of haunting mid-20th-Century honky tonk. Win.

Who got robbed: I'm glad Renee was nominated for Lost Highway and Hairspray. But she arguably did better work on the otherwise misguided Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. "My Death" was perfection.

Best Choreography: I didn't see 13 in Collierville, but none of the nominations in this category are surprising. That said, I'm betting against Mitzi Hamilton As good as La Cage Aux Folles was some of the more exciting dance sequences seemed recycled from her previous visits. I'm constantly impressed by Jay Rapp, but Pippin was the first show in the new Playhouse on the Square and nothing about it seemed quite finished. That leaves Shorey Walker & Jordan Nichols' comic answer to 60's-era dance crazes: Hairspray.

My Pick: Hairspray. As they say, this was the "feelgood hit" of the season. And I've got a good feeling that it's going to clean up.

Who got robbed:
Nobody. It's a great selection of talent. I might have thrown a bone to Guys & Dolls for accomplishing so much on such a small stage, but otherwise I've got no complaints.

My Pick for Supporting Actress in a Musical: Laura Stracko, Hairspray, Playhouse on the Square. Although she was also wonderful in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And in Jacques Brel, even if she wasn't nominated for that.

Who got robbed: Whitney Branan and Jackie Murray were both great in Hairspray but I think this list looks about right.

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical: Karlos Andre Nichols was delightful in Hairspray , as was Matt Reed and David Foster. Kent Fleshman was satisfying in Pippin, and I can't really comment on 13. But the category seems incomplete without a nod to Jonathan Underwood's unforgettable scene-stealing performance as the maid and/or butler in La Cage. Near perfection.

My Pick: Matt Reed. His performance humanized a production that could have sailed over the top.

Who got robbed: Mr. Underwood, you need to call 911.

My Pick for Leading Actress in a Musical:
Courtney Oliver in Hairspray. Seldom has a role been sung, danced, and acted with such a winning combination of intelligence and pizazz. If there's a spoiler in this bunch it's Deborah Manning Thomas from the Hattiloo Theatre's sold out production of Mahalia. It's the one show of this bunch that I didn't see, but there's a reason why Hattiloo keeps reviving it. That could spell trouble for Oliver, who seems like the obvious front runner.

Leading Actor in a Musical: Tim Greer was a fantastic Hank Williams in Lost Highway. He looked like Hank, sang like Hank, and held his own with an acoustic guitar. But the script was terrible and as an actor he occasionally lost his way. Pete Montgomery was hilarious in Putnam County Spelling Bee. His performance as a socially awkward speller would have been a standout in any season, but its not a leading role, really. With all due respect to the no less delightful Jenny Odle Madden, I'm not sure that there are any leading roles in that show. Jonathan Christian was extraordinary in La Cage Aux Folles in a role far more demanding than that of Hairspray's teen idol, no matter how perfectly Jordan Nichols may have played it. Christian's only real competition comes from Ken Zimmerman, who also got all dragged out for Hairspray.

My Pick: Jordan may get a sympathy nod from the judges. The gifted triple threat went from tragedy to triumph after a near-fatal heart attack robbed him of the chance to play Pippin. If that happens, you won't hear me complain a bit. But no matter the outcome, Jonathan Christian's nuanced performance as the crossdressing Zaza was the season's finest performance by man or woman. Or anything in between. In fact, only one performance even comes close...


Who got robbed:
Randy Hartzog didn't get robbed, he was mugged. As Zaza's lover Georges Hartzog was tender, tough, and as human as any character In any musical I've ever seen. The fact that he's not being considered as either a lead or supporting actor is possibly the most shocking Ostrander omission since Jason Spitzer was ignored for both Pride & Prejudice and The Violet Hour.


My Pick for Best Direction of a Musical:
Dave Landis for Hairspray. And my pick for worst mistake in a theatre review: Me for praising choreographer Shorey Walker for great work done by Landis. What a fun show.

Best Musical: This is another category that has me somewhat baffled. Hank Williams: Lost Highway was a beautifully realized production, but it's also a terrible play. That it was nominated and not the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a real head smacker. Oh well...

My Pick: Hairspray by a hair. La Cage was great, but Hairspray was a force of nature.

Hank Williams: Lost Highway
  • Hank Williams: Lost Highway

My pick for Supporting Actress in a Drama: Angela Fredriksson in Germantown Community Theatre's production of Is He Dead?. It's pretty clear that Mark Twain's lost play was lost for a reason but Fredriksson came on like some lost Marx sister. That's saying something considering that Christina Wellford Scott stretched well outside of her comfort zone to play a sharp-tongued male scientist in Jekyll & Hyde, and Cecelia WIngate took on a role that could have (and may have) been written for her in Cicada.

My Pick for Supporting Actor in a Drama: I'd like to see this go to Jason Hansen in Dead Man’s Cell Phone just because I'd like to see that wonderful, completely shortchanged farce get at least some recognition. But I'm picking Tony Isbell for his performance as a middle aged man willing to give up everything to be with his old flame who has since become a star. Sometimes sweet and creepy can be a winning combination.

My Pick for Leading Actress in a Drama: Jude Knight stands head and tiara above the pack for her perfectly off key performance as Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir at Next Stage/Theatre Memphis.

Who got robbed: She couldn't have won but I was a little surprised that Pamela Poletti wasn't nominated for Dead Man's Cell Phone.

Leading Actor in a Drama: This is another category that leaves me wondering what in the world the judges were thinking. Bill Andrews for Frost/Nixon but not Michael Ingersoll? Michael Gravois for The Seafarer but not Jim Palmer? The saddest part about this category is that David Shipley, who had to act, play piano, and keep a straight face throughout Souvenir will probably go home empty-handed.

My Pick: Michael Gravois was fantastic as The Seafarer's haunted protagonist but Bill Andrews was Richard Nixon. I'm calling this one for tricky Bill, who opened the show with very little rehearsal after a late-in-the-game cast change.


Who got robbed: Jim Palmer (The Seafarer), and Darius Wallace (Hold Fast) can both probably file an insurance claim.

My Pick for Direction of a Drama: I'm always impressed by Jerre Dye's work as a director, and although Jekyll & Hyde sometimes felt more choreographed than directed it was still pretty stunning. For my money he'd be nominated for his work on Darius Wallace's under-recognized solo show Hold Fast. That said, I'm picking Bennett Wood for Souvenir. It was pure joy, top to bottom.

My Pick for Dramatic Production: It could go the The Seafarer but I'm going with the more offbeat Souvenir.

Who got robbed: I thought Frost/Nixon trumped them all. Even Darius Wallace's Hold Fast, which also belonged among the nominees.

Ensemble Acting: This is a tough call. As far as I'm concerned this is the best award there is but too often it seems to be treated like some kind of consolation prize. Hairspray probably deserves it, and may actually win it. But I have my doubts.

My Pick: Jekyll & Hyde will probably win but I'm calling this one for The Seafarer.

Who got robbed: Frost/Nixon.

I'd love to see other people's picks. And if you'll leave your predictions in comments we can have a little contest. I'll organize a drawing of everybody who beats me and the lucky (hopefully beer-loving) winner gets $60 in trade at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium.

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