November 12, 1999

The play's the thing at
L.A. Ovation Awards

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES -- All the essentials were present. Well-known faces presented awards. Musical numbers were interspersed to entertain and enliven. And the usual thank you's to spouses, God and mom made the annual Theatre L.A. Ovation Awards seem like almost any other ceremony. Yet something made it decidedly different.

No one asked anyone what designer they were wearing and whatp's more, there were no TV cameras recording for anyone to care.

Instead, the 10th anniversary Ovation Awards held on Monday night was a ceremony memorable for uniting its artists, famous or not, to unabashedly and unself-consciously honor their shared passion: live theater in Los Angeles.

The gala event took place at the La Mirada Theater for the Performing Arts in order to celebrate and remember the best of theater during the past season in Los Angeles' only peer-judged, competitive ceremony.

Although lacking a traditional emcee because confirmed host Jason Alexander had to back out in late October, the evening started with promise after presenters Alfred Molina (nominated as well for his work in 'Art' and Sharon Lawrence introduced renowned motor-mouth John Moschitta to present 'The Rules.'

Speaking at speeds virtually impossible to achieve, Moschitta gave a speedy account of nominating and voting procedures.

Of the nearly 300 shows registered in the past theatrical season between Sept 1, 1998 and Aug. 31, 1999, five competitors in 26 categories were narrowed down by representatives from different theaters and producers from Theatre L.A. who then voted for the best nominee. Award categories were divided by small and large theaters except for the best male actor, female actor, director and writing categories.

Moschitta was undoubtedly the intended gag, but the spirited and vocal audience loved the American Sign Language interpreter standing on the side of the stage. His hands flying, he seemed to communicate every syllable Moschitta uttered and after the explanation, wiped his brow and took bows himself.

Such levity and good-humored fun characterized the entire show which was well-attended by such celebrities as Carol Channing, Charles Nelson Riley, Annette Bening, David Hyde Pierce, Scott Wolf and Garry Marshall.

But the big story of the evening focused not on these big names but on the underdog nominees, whose shows were garnering the most awards.

'Reefer Madness,' a spoof musical about the evils of marijuana took top honors. Claiming five awards, including best musical in a small theater, the show is based on the cult classic propaganda film made in the pi30s by the same name.

Backstage, the ensemble celebrated its victory with a contagious exhilaration and credited strong familial bonds as the reason for its success.

"We live in L.A. where you do a lot of quick hits (on TV and in film)," cast member John Kassir of 'Reefer Madness' said. "When you get the opportunity to work with a cast like this, you hang on to it. No one is getting really paid bucks to do this; this is sheer love."

Another big winner was the Fountain Theater's production of Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke. The revival captured three awards including best play in a small theater and a best female actor nod for Tracy Middendorf.

Visibly shocked on receiving the award, Middendorf accepted and remarked how honored she was to be nominated with the others in her category to whom she referred to as "amazing and fierce women."

Indeed the actress had faced the evening's most star-studded competition and was in contention with the likes of Bening, Linda Lavin, Phyllis Frelich and Ruby Dee.

In a small triumph for UCLA's Geffen Playhouse, last spring's production of 'Collected Stories,' starring Lavin and Samantha Mathis, was named best play in a large theater.

Producing Director Gil Cates accepted the award, joking that he would keep his speech short since "he had experience with these things," referring to his numerous producer credits of the Academy Awards.

"When you think of how many productions have been mounted in the last year and that the Geffen is only four years old, it's quite remarkable that the award came to us," said Cates after the show. "I'm thrilled for all the people who make the Geffen, The Geffen."

'West Side Story,' the production mounted at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, won best musical in a large theater, toppling stiff competition from big-name touring productions 'Cabaret' and 'Fosse.' (Cabaret, which had the most nods, nominated in nine categories, walked away empty-handed.)

In perhaps the best acceptance speech of the night, 'West Side Story' Executive Producer James Blackman gushed that he first needed to "apologize for praying to God at the last minute for hoping I would win so I could meet Carol Channing. I didn't know he was listening. I would have asked for world peace or something."

The legendary Channing was a delight on stage. Engaging the audience with her famous trademark voice and toothy grin, Channing supplied some of the evening's best comedic moments.

Channing candidly related how the entire Los Angeles theater scene was indebted to her for its existence because of the first show she had done in Los Angeles at the Los Palmas Theater decades ago.

After completing her story, a satisfied Channing told the crowd they could thank her after the show.

And thank her they most definitely would, since every presenter and recipient made a point to express their pride in Los Angeles theater.

Presenter David Hyde Pierce, who recently completed a run of 'The Boys of Syracuse' at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, commented before the show how good it had felt to be back on stage.

It had been eight years since I had been on stage, and I have to tell you I had forgot, said Pierce later during the show.

Dramatically pausing he added the punch line, "I had forgot how many people you could cram into a dressing room. After five weeks, it's not the smell of the greasepaint, it's the smell of the wardrobe."

Another activist for Los Angeles theater, Lee Garlington won the best-featured female actor in a play award for her work in 'Risk Everything,' and vocalized her support for the community.

"The people who say there is no good theater in L.A. I know that they do not go to theater in L.A.," Garlington said.

"I go to 25 plays a year, average, and I just want to say this town has some of the best theater I've ever seen and it is an honor to receive this award."

The rousing response from the audience indicated that they thought so, too.

(C) 1999 Daily Bruin via U-WIRE
Copyright © 1999, University Wire, all rights reserved.


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