By Bill Hirschman
The tent-pole theater companies in South Florida took home a majority of the Carbonell Awards for excellence Monday night with one major exception – although several up-and-coming troupes had been nominated in an unusually competitive year.
That exception was the acclaimed play about gay marriage, Daniel’s Husband, produced by Island City Stage, a small but growing company committed to LGBT-themed works, a company that had a similar triumph two years ago with The Timekeepers. Daniel’s Husband won best production of a play for the theater and best new play for playwright Michael McKeever.
McKeever, who won the best new play award last year for Clark Gable Slept Here at Zoetic Stage, said, “This is really important to me….The play is about a gay couple, but it’s really about all of us.” He recently became engaged to his partner, Stuart Meltzer, and thanked him for “letting us put so much of our lives on stage.”
Antonio Amadeo took the best actor award for his portrayal of the partner in Daniel’s Husband who sees marriage as unnecessary until tragedy strikes in McKeever’s play. He honored McKeever for writing such a play at a crucial time in the country’s dealings with LGBT citizens. “I hope that I did justice to it and thank him that he trusted me to it.”
Otherwise, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s epic reimagined production of Les Misérables swept four categories includes best musical, best director for Mark Martino, supporting actor and sound design, while its primary competition, Actors’ Playhouse’s equally acclaimed Ragtime took awards for Melissa Minyard as best lead actress and David Nagy for musical direction.
The event held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts marked the 40th anniversary of one of the oldest regional theater awards after the Jeffersons and Helen Hayes programs.
A sign of the upsurge of sheer quality and quantity evident in the past season were shutouts. For instance, Slow Burn Theatre Company, which moved mid-season from West Boca Community High School to the Broward Center, left empty-handed despite earning 15 nominations – the second most of any company. Similarly, GableStage, usually one of the big winners, only had six nominations this year and took home only lighting for Jeff Quinn for Constellations.
The acting-in-a-play winners were especially popular as four local favorites took the honors: best actress Lindsey Corey as a stripper fighting to keep custody in Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s Stripped; best supporting actress Margery Lowe as the lonely schoolteacher desperately seeking romance in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Picnic; best supporting actor Paul Tei as the mentally-blasted son in Dramaworks’ production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, and Amadeo.
Tei, who showed off a Black Sabbath T-shirt he bought for the occasion, has concentrated on working as a director at his Mad Cat Theatre Company in recent years. Speaking of the bravura acting role, “I am happy to be back in the game.”
Lowe, who has been nominated several times previously, quipped, “I guess this means my Susan Lucci Award is up for grabs.” But then she choked up many audience members by speaking how supportive theater colleagues in the play had gotten her through a tough personal period.
It was a major night for Daniel’s Husband depicting a gay couple deeply in love whose partners differ strongly about the newly-afforded opportunity for legally-recognized marriage. When tragedy strikes, one partner’s reluctance to be wed has profound and devastating consequences.
The work bowed as a staged reading at Jan McArt’s workshop series in Boca Raton in January 2015. The professional world premiere occurred in May 2015 at Island City Stage in Fort Lauderdale, starring Amadeo, Alex Alvarez and Laura Turnbull, and directed by Andy Rogow. It was so successful that it was revived with John Manzelli in the lead role last December at the Levis JCC in Boca Raton. In the past two weeks, Primary Stages, a leading off-Broadway house located in the West Village, announced that it will mount the play at unspecified dates in March and April of 2017. It will follow a production slated to begin Sept. 25 at the Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, a suburb of New York City.
Many artists had been nominated more than once. Some artists won against themselves: J. Barry Lewis won for his direction of Buried Child, chosen over his work on Glengarry Glen Ross at Dramaworks.
Shane Tanner, who just welcomed a new daughter last week, won the best supporting actor award for his acclaimed performance as Jud in The Wick Theatre’s Oklahoma, but he had also been nominated for lead actor in Slow Burn’s Big Fish. After racing down the aisle to the podium, Tanner was gleeful: “I had a really great week!”
The Maltz boosted its wins with its production of the musical Billy Elliot which earned a best supporting actress award for Elizabeth Dimon as the feisty grandmother, and choreography for Greg Graham whose work encompassed dancing miners with policemen as well as a pas de deux between the young would-be dancer and his imaginary older self.
The tea leaves of the winners list can be examined for trends, but any contest of artistic efforts, once you get past the list of nominees, is to some degree a matter of individual taste, the chance of what is in the same category with what, and even simple mathematics.
But the nomination list spoke to a consistency of quality with most of the nominated theaters being tapped for more than one production. In fact, Palm Beach Dramaworks received nominations for work in every single one of its five full-scale mainstage productions during the eligibility period of 2015, and it won at least one award for each with four of those productions.
The distribution county by county also illustrated one reversing trend and one puzzling one: The theaters in Broward County – the poor relation of the region – suddenly boosted the county’s total number of nominations dramatically, while the figure dropped in Miami-Dade County. But on Monday, the actual list of winners totaled 13 wins for Palm Beach County theaters, four in Miami-Dade and three in Broward, all of which came from Daniel’s Husband.
The evening was well-attended by nominees and supporters from across the region, who loudly cheered throughout the three-hour program. Because much of the crowd usually dresses in formal wear, they have dubbed it “theater prom.”
Entertainment was provided with an opening number “When I Grow Up” from the musical Matilda, but with the lyrics tweaked by Caryl Fantel, and performed by Lourelene Snedeker, Leigh Bennett, Patti Gardner and James Randolph.
Other performances reflecting the nominated musicals included: “This World Will Remember Us” from Slow Burn’s Bonnie & Clyde sung by Bruno Faria and Jessica Brooke Sanford; “I Don’t Need A Roof” from Slow Burn’s Big Fish sung by Ann Marie Olson; “Make Them Hear You” from Actors’ Playhouse’s Ragtime, sung by Don Juan Seward II; “Grandma’s Song” from the Maltz’s Billy Elliot sung by Elizabeth Dimon, and “Bring Him Home” from the Maltz’s Les Miserables sung by Gregg Goodbrod. The musical director was Caryl Fantel on piano with Roy Fantel on percussion and Rupert Ziawinski on bass.
The show was produced by McKeever and directed by Stuart Meltzer
The organization also bestowed its highest honors Monday night:
Shirley Richardson and Patricia E. Williams, co-founders of The M Ensemble Company, received the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, given to an individual (or team) who has contributed significantly to the artistic and cultural development of the region. M Ensemble lists itself as the oldest continuing African-American theater company in the state.
Richardson, a native of Miami and alumnus of the University of Miami, is the executive director of company, and sometime performer and director. She is a substance abuse prevention specialist with the Miami-Dade Office of Rehabilitative Services. Williams, an experienced actress in all media, serves as the company as associate producer, general manager and occasional stage manager.
Christine Dolen, the dean of South Florida theater critics, received the Howard Kleinberg Award for special recognition for contributions to the health and development of the arts in South Florida. Dolen, a Carbonell Awards judge, was a critic for The Miami Herald from 1979 until her retirement this year. But she continues to review and write for several outlets including artsburst.com whose work is picked up by the Herald and other publications.
Harriet Oser, the actress with more than 200 credits during her career in Chicago, North Carolina and Florida, received the Bill Hindman Award in recognition of significant, long-term contributions to the region’s cultural life and onstage career achievement, by performing artists based in South Florida. Moving locally in 1979, she has worked for nearly every major company, earning 10 Carbonell Award nominations, as well as many other awards.
City Theatre, the Miami-based company that has championed short plays in its expanding schedule or productions, received the Bill Von Maurer Award for Theatrical Excellence, recognizing the theater company that exemplifies excellence for the totality of its programming, productions, educational outreach, developmental programs and audiences served.
Over 20 years, the company has received more than 15,000 national script submissions (with over 900 submitted for this season alone) and produced over 400 original short plays by established playwrights and important new voices in the theater industry. Best known for its award-winning Summer Shorts–America’s Short Play Festival, City Theatre also presents in its annual programming the CityWrights: A Professional Weekend for Playwrights Conference; Island Shorts, free county-wide play readings; and the LGBT-themed Shorts Gone Wild Festival, as well as educational programming.
Passing The Torch
The Carbonell organization uses proceeds from the ceremony and other fund-raising to provide scholarships to graduating high school seniors who plan to pursue a degree in theater or journalism. This year the awards were renamed the Jack Zink Memorial Carbonell Awards Scholarship in honor of the late Sun-Sentinel critic who co-founded the Carbonell program.
This year’s winners who came on stage to receive their awards were: Mary Biggins (Palm Beach County) who attends Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts; Katerina McCrimmon (Miami-Dade County) who attends the New World School of the Arts; and Carlo Felician Ojeda (Broward County) who attends University School at Nova Southeastern University. Each received a $1,000 scholarship for future studies in theater or journalism.
Forty Years of Excellence
The awards were created in 1976 by the South Florida Entertainment Writers’ Association, Inc. (later called the South Florida Critics Circle) led by Jack Zink of the Sun Sentinel, and Bill von Maurer of the Miami News.
The First Annual Theatre Circle Awards held its first ceremony November 15, 1976, drawing about 175 people to the Diplomat Hotel Regency Ballroom. The plays and musical categories were combined and any Equity production was eligible including national tours and road shows.
In fact, all of the nominees that first year were connected to producer Zev Buffman’s touring productions with winners including Angela Lansbury in Mame at the Parker Playhouse.
Numerous changes occurred over time: A “musical variety” category was added, then dropped. Plays and musicals were put in separate categories, the Equity requirement was dropped, national tours were put in a separate category and eventually dropped all tougher.
The amount of scholarship increased from $500 per recipient, resulting over the decades to well over $100,000 being distributed.
In 1978, the program was renamed, retroactively, the Carbonell Awards in recognition of Manuel Carbonell, the Cuban-born Miami-based sculptor who donated the bronze gold- colored scooped-out eggs to every winner. Other than one year, his family has continued the practice. The late sculptor was honored in a segment Monday night hosted by Carbonell president Don Walters.
A major change occurred in September 2002 when the critics stepped away as the corporate heads of the Carbonells. Critics continued to be involved as judges and administrators, but control of the non-profit corporation was ceded to a board of directors. The reason was that the effort had grown too large to be staffed by volunteers and the number of critics had already begun to shrink to too small a pool. Zink continued as executive director and administrator until his death in 2008.
Local producer Jay Harris had been donating heavily, but now the program sought out corporate and private donors.
The awards have not been without controversy. The highest-profile furor occurred in November 2008 when the board contemplated not holding the 2009 ceremony. The reasons given were the high price of gasoline, Zink’s death, the declining number of critics and a falloff in donations due to the recession. The decision was reversed after an outcry from the theatrical community.
The tenor of the ceremony has changed as well. For several years, the emcee was a national celebrity and the event attracted bold-face names. The board has also discussed for decades how to bring more theater patrons and devotees to the ceremony. But in recent years, the local theatrical community has pressed for the evening to be an insider’s celebration of local theater.
The awards have a decidedly mixed relationship with the theater community. Many revere the honor. It’s cited in resumes and playbill bios when recipients move out of the region, even to Broadway. The theater companies frequently list their total wins in news releases, promotional materials and grant applications. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre displays their statuettes in a glass case in the lobby.
But some resent the awards for making artists competitive, some question the validity of comparing apples and oranges, and some believe the selection reflects prejudices, grudges and hidebound mainstream attitudes of nominators and judges. (Full disclosure: I have been a nominator, assistant administrator and currently a judge.)
While established and well-funded theaters like Actors’ Playhouse, GableStage and the Maltz tend to do well, the Carbonells have also been a boost to small fledgling companies that have later developed into significant forces such as Slow Burn Theatre Company and Island City Stage.
The recommendation panel was: Al Alschuler, Kay Brady, Thomas J. Bruckner, Mark Demeter, Nancy Doyle Cohen, Alvin Entin, Janet Erlick, Jason Evan Fisher, Donna Horkey, David Jobin, Mark Keller, Jill Kratish, Lynn Kobrin, Myrna Loman, Matt May, Andrea O’Connell, Karen Poindexter, Tom Regnier, Jennifer Sierra-Grobbelaar, John Chase Soliday, Joyce Sweeney, Terrie Temkin, Tony Walsh and Michael Yawney.
The judging panel was: Iris Acker, working actress and producer of Spotlight On The Arts on BECON TV; Mary Damiano, editor, critic and the Carbonell’s managing director; Christine Dolen, veteran theater critic for The Miami Herald; Cheryl Dunn Bychek, an actress and former public relations and marketing expert; Hap Erstein, longtime critic for several Palm Beach area outlets; Tony Finstrom, playwright and arts supporter; Bill Hirschman, founder, editor, and chief critic of Florida Theater On Stage; Paul Levine, columnist for Around Town newspaper and president of Famous Faces Entertainment and Special Events Company; Michael Peyton, a former Director of Marketing for WLRN Public Radio & Television and creator of Cultural Connection; John Thomason, entertainment editor and chief critic and reporter with Forum Publishing weekly newspapers, as well as many other outlets; and Betsy Weisman, accounting manager of the Broward Performing Arts Foundation, Inc.; R. Kent Wilson, who has been a assistant director, stage manager, sound designer/technician, dramaturg, script doctor, actor and theater reviewer.
The Carbonell Board of Directors includes Donald R. Walters, Esq, President & Treasurer; Jan Goodheart, Vice President, Vice President of External Affairs, Broward Center for the Performing Arts; Jody Leshinsky, Secretary, Community Development Director, Broward Cultural Division; Linda Birdsey, Marketing Director, Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts; Jerome J. Cohen, attorney, philanthropist and arts activist in Miami; Eric B. Fliss, Managing Director, South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center; Ricardo J. Gonzalez III, Director, Beaux Arts Gallery, representing the Manuel Carbonell family; Marilyn Bauer, Director, Marketing & Government Affairs, Cultural Council of Palm Beach, and Joanne Matsuura Benkö, Marketing Director, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.