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November 25, 2002

Secession passes at theater awards

From: Calendar Live, CA - 25 Nov 2002

* "Big River" and Road Theatre Company's "Napoli Milionaria" score big at this year's Ovation Awards festivities.

By Don Shirley, Times Staff Writer

L.A.'s theatrical spotlight shone on San Fernando Valley theaters at the annual Ovation Awards ceremony Sunday night. Deaf West Theatre's "Big River" and Road Theatre Company's "Napoli Milionaria," which were produced at tiny venues next door to one another in North Hollywood, won six Ovations each, more than any other single productions.

"I remember a time when people tried to discredit theater in the Valley," Road Theatre artistic board member Marci Hill said after the ceremony. "Now, it's wonderful." Hill won an Ovation for the "Napoli Milionaria" costumes and was an Ovation voter.

Burbank's Colony Theatre also took home six Ovations for three productions. The only other theater that matched the three pace-setting Valley companies in total number of Ovations was Center Theatre Group, also with six.

"The boring Valley has suddenly become hip and cool," said Barbara Beckley, producing director of the Colony, at the party after the ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A.

"Big River" and the Colony's "The Laramie Project" took two of the top production honors, for best smaller musical and best larger play, respectively.

The others were won by Fountain Theatre's "After the Fall," for best smaller play; the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' revival of "Crazy for You," for best larger musical; and the road company of "The Full Monty" that launched its tour at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre, for best touring production.

Ten of the 29 awards categories produced either two or three winners this year because of changes in the Ovations rules that allowed more than one winner in highly populated categories. Three of the four lead actor categories yielded three winners apiece -- and even though only one trophy emerged from the fourth category, lead actress in a musical, it was shared by two actresses, Julie Dixon Jackson and Misty Cotton, who played Siamese twins in the musical "Side Show."

The ceremony at the renovated 1926 Orpheum suggested a few echoes of the building's vaudevillian past. Robert York played the theater's Wurlitzer organ before and after the program. Actress Jane Johnston, costumed in a clown outfit, periodically emerged from the wings with a giant vaudeville-style hook in an attempt to curtail long-winded acceptance speeches.

In most cases, she simply brandished the hook, using it as a visual incentive to the speakers to cut short their remarks. But on several occasions, she snagged award winners with the hook and guided them into the wings as they delivered their final few words.

All three winners of best actor in a musical -- David Engel, Michael A. Shepperd and R. Christofer Sands -- got the hook, which prompted award presenter and Geffen Playhouse producing director Gilbert Cates, who is producing the Oscar ceremony next spring, to say, "I may try that out next year."

This year's ceremony, emceed by Alfred Molina, eliminated the musical production numbers that had lengthened previous Ovations shows. After the ceremony, director Don Hill said his goal was "to keep the train moving." In past years, he said, it was sometimes difficult to reassemble casts from nominated musicals that had already closed in order to do one number at the ceremony. Of this year's nominated musicals, only "Big River" is still playing, and, during part of the ceremony, it was being performed simultaneously at the Mark Taper Forum, a few blocks away.

Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet, accepting the "Big River" production prize, delivered some of his remarks through sign language while an interpreter translated. Then, after directing the interpreter to step aside, he reached out through gesture to a wide swath of the audience and then brought his hands back inside his jacket, close to his heart.

Probably the biggest upset of the evening was the victory of South Bay's "Crazy for You" over the Tony-winning revival of "Into the Woods" and the premiere of the current Broadway hit "Flower Drum Song." "Crazy for You" producer Steve Ullman noted that the production opened eight days after Sept. 11, 2001, in the context of many observations that "events had made what we do seem trivial." Yet the show, he said, "gave people permission to laugh again ... to get away from Fox News."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times