After attending my first Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony earlier this year for the non-Equity wing, I attended the Equity-wing ceremony for the first time on October 5. The following are my initial impressions. See the list of recipients here.
The ceremony is hosted by Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace, which is also one of the theatres that applies to be judged for awards. Indeed, that suburban and commercial theatres are so competitive at the Jeff Awards is one of the indicators of the high quality of theatre artistry in the Chicago area (not that Chicago’s landmark theatres or storefronts were left out). The nominees for Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical were all from Drury Lane, Marriott, or Theatre at the Center productions, The Second City’s Panic on Cloud 9 was nominated for the revue category and John Hartman was nominated for his role in it, Anthony Crivello was nominated for his role in Louis & Keely at the Royale George, and the Mercury Theater’s The Addams Family and Ring of Fire racked up nominations in several categories. Suburban non-profits Northlight, First Folio, 16th Street Theatre, and Paramount were also frequent nominees, indicating literally wide-spread support for the arts among Chicago area residents. Being in the hospitality business, Drury Lane provides excellent accommodations, even for such a massive event. I have been told that this year’s ceremony had a higher attendance than most, possibly because of the extensive list of nominees.
This year’s emcees were Cheryl Lynn Bruce and E. Faye Butler, who made a classic comedic duo, with Bruce playing stately and Butler playing sassy. Since Drury Lane’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher is on-going, its rigging and nautical beams provided a backdrop to the proceedings. A lighting design by Lindsey Lyddan provided the mood for each of the night’s musical excerpts, and the show began with musical director Linda Madonia conducting a medley of the nominee’s most-recognized tunes. The first spoken words of the ceremony were “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” eliciting a roar from the audience, and each of the artists demonstrated precisely why they deserved recognition.
When I saw the nominee list, I was struck by how difficult it would be for committee members to pick between so many deserving shows. In particular, I thought it unfortunate that The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic and Lookingglass’s Moby Dick were competitors in several categories, although each wound up receiving the award for Production of a Play, because that category is divided between “large” and “mid-size” companies. (That designation refers to their company’s budgets, which is why All Our Tragic was considered “mid-size” and The Diary of Anne Frank was considered “large.”) John Mossman and Will Clinger presented the first award of the night, for New Adaptation, to The Hypocrites artistic director Sean Graney. It was the first of several awards for All Our Tragic (I reviewed the revised version), and upon receiving the award for Director of a Play, Graney again thanked the Jeff Committee for allowing The Hypocrites to compete, since they originally failed to realize that they have an Equity contract, and therefore, presumably had a somewhat different production process than the other nominees.
A poignant moment was that when All Our Tragic received the award for Ensemble, it was being granted posthumously to Erin Myers, who originated the role of Odd-Job Alice. American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli was also granted the New Work for a Play award posthumously, for The Projects, which he received jointly with Joshua Jaeger and shared with Mat Smart, author of The Gift Theatre’s The Royal Society of Antarctica, in the night’s only tie. The emcees acknowledged that this has been a rough year for the Chicago theatre community. I counted twenty-two people commemorated during the in memoriam section, including the four who were remembered at the non-Equity ceremony. Also among them was my UIUC Theatre Studies program classmate Megan Betti, who was gracious and industrious, and worked as an educator before her death at the age of 25 from cancer.
Chicago’s theatre’s future is still bright, however. Actors John Reeger and Paula Scrofano were honored with the award for Career Achievement, and their friends and admirers detailed their forty-five years of marriage while making their livings and putting their children through college as full-time Chicago stage actors. Their life-stories were clearly framed as inspirations, and many of the other recipients acknowledged Chicago as a place where they were able to achieve their long-held dreams. Ron Keaton, who received the Solo Performance award for his original work Churchill, related that he was inspired to join theatre long ago as a child by watching a one-man show, but had a long, winding career before writing his own play. Midsize Sound Design recipient Victoria Deiorio, of Irish Theatre of Chicago’s The White Road, thanked the Jeff Committee for still recognizing designers, in a clear rebuke to the Tony Awards, and British composer Henry Marsh, who received the Original Music in a Play award for Chicago Shakespeare’s Pericles, thanked Chicago for warmly accepting him.
Several artists also thanked their suburban supporters. Besides The Hypocrites, another prominent newcomer this year was Paramount Theatre, a non-profit company housed in a gigantic newly renovated structure. When artistic director Jim Corti received the Director of a Musical award for Les Misérables, he proclaimed Aurora would be ecstatic at its recognition. Les Misérables also received the award for Large-Scale Musical, and along with Paramount’s The Who’s Tommy, received several large-scale design awards. Corti had worked hard for years to make Paramount Jeff-eligible, and doubtlessly felt vindicated. Host Drury Lane also had a respectable showing. Michelle Aravena received the Jeff for her role in West Side Story, directed by Rachel Rockwell, and Rockwell herself received the award for her choreography of Billy Elliot. In her acceptance speech, Rockwell thanked Drury Lane for not altering a word of the script, a risky move that displayed the company’s artistic commitment. The youngest award recipient was Nick Dantes, who alternated Billy Elliot’s title role with Kyle Halford (only the actor who performs on opening night is eligible, but Halford was present at the ceremony to join Dantes in the song “Electricity”). Dantes impressed the attendees with his composure and maturity during his acceptance speech, which was the night’s clearest sign of Chicago theatre’s bright future.
Even with the logistical complications of such a large audience, I was impressed by what a slick job the Jeff Committee did running its event (many of its members have theatre administrative backgrounds, after all, and Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber directed the ceremony). Each musical excerpt displayed its show at its best, not only because of the actors, but the ceremony’s crew and musicians. Thanks to Porchlight’s Sondheim-themed season, the arrangements cannot have been easy, though Music Direction award recipient Austin Cook took on some of the pressure by accompanying himself on the piano. The spoken-word plays were demonstrated through video trailers, which were not made specifically for the occasion, could be worked in seamlessly. The ceremony is a fine show in itself, and the participation of so many top artists demonstrates the Jeff Awards are highly valued within the theatre community.