The Memphis Theatre Awards were called into being by Memphis magazine and the Greater Memphis Arts Council in 1983, but the first award wasn't handed out until 1984, which has led some to speculate that this year's 20th-anniversary celebration is perhaps a bit premature. There have only been 19 ceremonies, right? Well, nitpick all you like, it's been a full two decades since judges began fanning across the Bluff City looking to single out the shows and performances that set the standard for excellence in the dramatic arts.
In 2000, the awards were renamed the Ostrander Awards in honor of Jim Ostrander, arguably the most beloved actor to ever trod the Memphis boards. (Both Jim's career and his life were cut tragically short by cancer in January 2002.) This name change was the first step in reinventing the awards, tailoring them to better reflect the community they honor. Between 2000 and today, a number of other changes have been made to improve the awards and to play up the fact that for local thespians this event is like a happy family reunion for one very large, very strange family. It is not intended to mark the end of a 20-year partnership but rather to celebrate the beginning of the next 20 years of live theater in Memphis.
With a new name, a new attitude, and a new location, this year's Ostranders promise to outshine previous years while offering only a taste of things to come. The ceremony will be held on Sunday, August 24th, at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Local actresses and occasional cabaret duo Jenny Odle and Kim Justis will give a repeat performance as dueling emcees. Last year they won rave reviews for their original song, "I Want to Win an Ostrander." Who knows what inspired silliness they have cooked up for this year's bash? An educational ditty to help those assembled learn to count to 20, perhaps? In the spirit of irreverence, let's hope so.
Now, with all due congratulations to all the nominees, let's move on to the annual picks and pans.
It's been a tough 12 months for this critic, who, having become the father of twins only days before last season's awards ceremony, didn't make it to every show this year. Still, having witnessed the bulk of the performances, I suspect I can peek into my Magic 8-Ball and pick the winners and losers with some degree of authority. There's only one way to find out though, so here goes.
(Due to limited space, not all of the award categories are represented here.)
Musical: 42nd Street, Theatre Memphis (TM): missed it; Smokey Joe's CafÇ, Playhouse on the Square (POTS): Great music and great singers don't always add up to great theater. This narrative-free revue just isn't a contender; The Fantasticks (TM): missed it; Ragtime, (POTS): Both 42nd Street and The Fantasticks had great buzz, but the epic Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow's acclaimed novel, felt like a landmark event not soon to be forgotten. It's my pick and I'm sticking to it.
Play: Copenhagen, Circuit Playhouse (CP): a shocker! They should have called it Boringhagen; Morning's at Seven (TM): Missed it, but word has it this was the sleeper hit of the season. What a cast! Hamlet (TM): a beautiful, timeless production with stunning performances and a fantastic concept. But the role of Hamlet was, in the midst of all the wonderful subtlety, an over-the-top throwback to the days when actors wore pumpkin pants and recited every syllable like it might be their last -- a killing flaw; Proof (POTS): awesome script, great cast. It's a contender; Three Days of Rain (TM): a testament to ensemble acting. Kim Justis, Brian Mott, and Michael Gravois made this soap opera of a script something beyond special. If the Proof ain't in the pudding, Three Days of Rain should win multiple awards, this one included.
Direction of a Musical: Barry Fuller, The Fantasticks (TM): Fuller seldom misses, and when he does, he misses with style. This could be the surprise winner; Mitzi Hamilton, 42nd Street (TM): glitz, glam, and good entertainment; Scott Ferguson, Bat Boy (POTS): a generally disappointing romp through supermarket tabloid culture. Not even on the radar; Kevin P. Hill, Smokey Joe's Cafe (POTS): You've heard about snowballs and hell, right?; Dave Landis, Ragtime (POTS): By all laws of physics, this big show shouldn't fit into Playhouse on the Square. But Landis made it fit beautifully. With Ragtime, harsh social commentary meets big entertainment. Landis is a shoo-in.
Direction of a Drama: Jasson Minadakis, Copenhagen (CP): What this director did to this great script is a crime. The judges must have gotten into the crack stash when they picked this stinker, generally stunk up by bad direction; Joanne Malin, Morning's at Seven (TM): Malin is an attentive director and she had a dream cast. Could be a spoiler; Stephen Hancock, Three Days of Rain (TM): a perfect production but it won't win this category; Rob Satterlee, Proof (POTS): You tell me; Bo List, Hamlet (TM): This was a director's show, and List's fingerprints were all over it. While the production was deeply flawed, this Hamlet still managed to make jaws drop. This trophy belongs to List.
Leading Actress in a Musical: Rebecca DeVries, Honk! (CP): nope; Misty Clark, 42nd Street (TM): maybe; Carla McDonald, Ragtime (POTS): She should be nominated for her turn as Patsy Cline; Leah Bray Nichols, Bat Boy (POTS): In the midst of an underwhelming production, Nichols shined like a new dime in a mud puddle. She gets my vote.
Leading Actor in a Musical: Jonathan Russom, The Fantasticks (TM): The red-headed boy wonder has skills but no trophy. There's too much stiff competition; Kent Fleishman, 42nd Street (TM): It's just not Fleishman's year either; Michael Ingersoll, Bat Boy (POTS): This kid's one to watch, but he was better in Honk!; Jordan Nichols, Honk! (CP): He's talented and charismatic, but Honk! didn't allow for much range; Michael Detroit, Ragtime (POTS): I sometimes have problems with the consistency of Detroit's acting, but it's getting better and he's going home with the gold.
Leading Actress in a Drama: Irene Crist, The Lion in Winter (TM): so she was snarky; Mary Buchignani, Anton in Show Business (CP): Missed it, but Ms. B. rocks the house wherever she plays; Martha Graber, Pack of Lies, Germantown Community Theatre: The potboiler never boils, but the production was solid and Graber gave the performance of a lifetime; Kim Justis, Three Days of Rain (TM): Kimmy, Kimmy, Kimmy is there nothing you can't do? You're going to host the show AND win the big prize. That's gotta feel good.
Leading Actor in a Drama: Dave Landis, Copenhagen (CP): the best performance in a totally misguided production. Landis will win this year, but not for Copenhagen; Christopher Swan, Fully Committed (CP): What a great performance! What a dreadful show! Swan might win on charisma alone. Doubt it; John Maness, Hamlet (TM): Ah, rewarding bad behavior, that's what I like to see from our judges. This performance is a big black mark on Maness' otherwise sterling rÇsumÇ. Excuse me, may I throw up a little?; And the co-winners will be: Brian Mott and Michael Gravois, Three Days of Rain (TM). Both were nominated and both will win.
Ensemble Acting: Copenhagen (POTS): Sometimes a show comes along that is so intellectual and deep that people feel not liking it will prove how shallow they are. That's the only way I can explain all the nominations for this dreadful sleep-inducing piece of never mind; Morning's at Seven (TM): can't comment; Three Days of Rain (TM): The most perfectly realized production of the season. It can't miss.
In the college and university division I suspect that the bulk of the nonmusical awards will go to Rhodes' Hamlet, which was a revelation and in most ways superior to Theatre Memphis' production. The University of Memphis' Into the Woods is likely to sweep the awards for best musical.
But the greatest travesty of this year's judging season is the fact that U of M's masterful take on Jose Rivera's Sueno received not a single nomination. Innovative in terms of both performance and design, this show was one of the most professionally realized productions to appear on a college or university stage since Rhodes produced Nicholas Nickleby in 1985. The fact that it wasn't nominated in the best play category is a joke and the fact that it wasn't given a nod for its spectacular design make me wonder if any of the theater judges bothered to check out this amazingly thought-provoking show based on the Spanish classic Life Is a Dream.