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Is Bigger Better?

Handicapping the 2012-13 Ostrander Awards at the Orpheum.

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Who's gonna win big at this year's Ostrander Awards, the annual celebration of Memphis' performing-arts community, long-sponsored by Memphis magazine and ArtsMemphis? Although we won't know the answers for sure until showtime, Sunday, August 25th, this year's biggest winner is, without a doubt, the theatergoing community who've been taken on a ride unlike any in recent memory.  

What's rarer than a Memphis theater season featuring even a single institutionally produced show by a Memphis-area playwright? Shakespeare's autograph? A Honus Wagner baseball card in mint condition? Conservatives for Obamacare? Excepting some excellent second-stage work by Voices of the South and other smaller companies, these things are comparatively common. And yet, with 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche by former Playhouse on the Square intern Evan Linder and both The Mountaintop and Hurt Village by Katori Hall, Memphians have been recently treated to three newish works authored by locally connected artists.

If we shift our focus from hyper-local to regional, the number rises to four with the inclusion of Twilight of the Gods, a delightfully frothy comedy, which, prior to its appearance at Germantown Community Theatre, had never been seen outside of Nashville.

With crowd-wowing musicals like A Chorus Line and Miss Saigon, thoughtful dramas like Talley's Folly and Good People, and hard medicine like The Left Hand Singing, Time Stands Still, and the riveting cop duet A Steady Rain, Memphis' 2012-13 theater season was uncommonly diverse and immensely satisfying. Fans who just want to be entertained could drop in on the boy band parody Altar Boyz or a classic slice like Singin' in the Rain. Those who prefer more challenging material had opportunities to sample director Brian Fruits' production of Sarah Kane's difficult 4:48 Psychosis and the New Moon Theatre Company's squirm-filled staging of Bug, easily the most disturbing yarn to slip from the pen of August: Osage County playwright, Tracy Letts.

As one might imagine, in the face of so much variety and good work, for most of the year, it has been impossible to predict which deserving artists the Ostrander judges might favor. But Playhouse on the Square completed a trio of Hail Mary passes and took a clear advantage on all courts with a beautifully realized double production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America Part I and Part II and followed it up with a credible Miss Saigon and an astonishing Color Purple.

There are numerous reasons to be excited about this year's Ostrander Awards ceremony, not the least of which is the annual event's move to the Orpheum Theatre. But how exciting the final outcome may ultimately be depends on whether or not the Ostrander judges think bigger is better.

I've taken a look at a couple of contests that may determine whether or not this year's awards will reflect the richness and diversity of the season, or if it's going to be a landslide favoring Playhouse on the Square.

This year's list of contenders for Best Dramatic Production seems both incomplete and a little off balance. There was nothing wrong with Theatre Memphis' production of Six Degrees of Separation, which made the cut, but John Guare's artificial take on a true story was no better than Circuit Playhouse's more genuinely provocative productions of Good People or Time Stands Still, which didn't. The remaining contenders include the epic Angels; Theatre Memphis' powerful productions of Talley's Folly and A Steady Rain; and Hurt Village, an uncomfortably accurate portrait of Memphis' lower depths, which was given a healthy workout at the Hattiloo.

This year's big winner for best dramatic production is hinted at, I think, in this year's contenders for the Best Leading Actor prize.

Hurt Village is probably out of the running, as the most likely candidates for a Leading Actor nod are both nominated in the supporting category. A Steady Rain was similarly slighted when John Maness was nominated for his performance, while his equally matched acting partner John Moore — giving the best performance of his career — was not. This leaves us with Ekundayo Bandele, who wasn't even the most memorable performer in a mostly forgettable production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Michael Gravois, who was solid in the criminally under-nominated Good People (but much, much better in Time Stands Still); a soft-spoken Gregory Alexander from Theatre Memphis' lyrical Talley's Folly; and (of course) Angels in America's Jerre Dye, who, given the heft and showiness of his role across two long nights in the theater, is surely the odds-on favorite.

I'd like for this to be the year of Hurt Village. But it's probably going to be the year of Angels in America. And there's nothing wrong with that.

This year's Best Musical nominees — Fiddler on the Roof, Singin' in the Rain, Ruthless! The Musical, Miss Saigon, and The Color Purple — were all stamped with indelible performances, but choreography will determine the winner. That immediately takes Ruthless! and Miss Saigon out of the picture and makes this a contest between Singin' in the Rain's nostalgia, Fiddler's tradition, and the narrative, character-driven style adopted by choreographer Emma Crystal for The Color Purple.

As much as I hate to admit it, Legally Blonde was a silly, sugary late-summer joy, and there was no more perfectly cast or executed musical than Altar Boyz on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage. But since neither of those joints were even nominated for the big prize, I'm predicting a big win for The Color Purple and Playhouse on the Square.

I'll post a more complete list of predictions and ask the all-important question "Who Got Robbed?" at the Flyer's theater blog, Intermission Impossible.

The Ostrander Awards

Sunday, August 25th, 6-10 p.m.

The Orpheum

For tickets, go to: ostranderawards.strangertickets.com

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