On the scene: 2011 Equity Jeff Awards
Over the course of Monday's Jeff Awards ceremony, presenters and winners constantly reiterated that Chicago is the epicenter of American theater. Praising a community that's willing to take chances on new work (28 new shows premiered in Equity theaters last season) while constantly striving to reinvigorate classic works, the event was an inspiring, albeit predictable celebration of Chicago's theatrical talent.
The evening got off to a shaky start with David Girolmo filling in last minute for absent presenter Desmin Borges, and The Original Grease co-creator Jim Jacobs forgetting to announce the second winner of the evening's first award: Best New Work – Musical or Revue. It gave the ensemble of Second City's Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting) some solid material for their acceptance speech, and the group of improvisers proved to be a reliable source of comedy throughout the night.
Goodman's Candide and Chicago Shakespeare's The Madness of George III dominated the awards, claiming the majority of honors in their respective categories. Candide scored every acting award it was nominated for, while Jessie Mueller won the sole remaining musical acting award for She Loves Me. Mueller was unable to attend due to tech rehearsals for her upcoming Broadway debut, opposite Harry Connick, Jr. in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Even critics got their chance in the spotlight, as the Tribune's Chris Jones presented Hedy Weiss with a special Jeff Award for her commitment to the community as the Sun-Times' head theater writer. The friendly rivals shared stories while again emphasizing the massive talent of the theater community and the importance of the stage in contemporary pop culture.
Performances from the evening's Best Production – Musical or Revue nominees broke up the acceptance speeches with laughs (Spamalot, Sky's the Limit), dance (taptastic 42nd Street) and rousing solo performances (Porgy and Bess, King and I). The acceptance speeches went smoothly, although most winners refused to stop at the one minute mark, with Melissa Veal singing the end of her speech as she accepted the Artistic Specialization award for her wig and make-up design on George III. While the Jeff Awards recognize talent over the past theater season, here are a few awards of my own recognizing the best moments of Monday's ceremony.
Best dressed: Looking sleek in 1950s fashion, Best Choreography winner Tammy Mader wore a black and grey plaid patterned dress with a high-waisted circle skirt and a simple ponytail. Simple, adorable, and completely stunning.
Best acceptance speech: After receiving the first standing ovation of the night, Best Actor in a Supporting Role winner Mike Nussbaum joked about regretting having that second drink he had and how impressive it is that he can even memorize and move around at his age. Equal parts self-deprecating, grateful, and complementary to the entire community, Nussbaum showed why he's one of the city's favorite actors.
Best performance: In a stunning rendition of "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy & Bess, Bethany Thomas left the crowd speechless with her intense emotion and powerhouse vocals. How she was beaten by Hollis Resnick for Best Actress in a Supporting Role was, for me, one of the evening's biggest head-scratchers.
Loudest cheering section: The Madness of George III had the numbers, but The Original Grease takes this one for sheer enthusiasm, erupting in cheers and tears when they took home the award for Best Midsize Musical.
Best vanity moment: Best Actor in a Supporting Role Larry Yando, who revealed his initial surprise when Mary Zimmerman didn't know who he was before casting him in Candide.
Best anecdote: In one of her brief forays into acting, Hedy Weiss cast herself as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the 9th grade, performing the "hump the hostess" monologue for her class.
Best victim: Musical director Linda Slein, who was the target of many a joke to get her to stop playing the cut-off music. Harry Groener even pulled a finger-gun on her and demanded she "step away from the piano" so he could thank everyone he wanted to.
Most overlooked: The "gay plays," About Face's The Homosexuals and Route 66's A Twist of Water, told original, emotional stories about family and romance in contemporary Chicago but went largely unrecognized in the performance categories (Twist's John Boesche claimed an award for Projections/Video Design). Despite all the praise for the amount of new works produced, most of the awards went to productions based on pre-existing scripts.