By Bill Hirschman
Michael McKeever, a beloved and prolific figure in local theater, set a record Monday when he won his eighth Best New Work Carbonell Award for the scorching drama After, but he was unable to accept the honor personally because he was in New York City the night before the opening of his play Daniel’s Husband, which won the same prize last year.
The award was one of the highlights of the 41st annual ceremony at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which recognizes excellence in South Florida theaters, similar to the Jeffersons in Chicago or the Helen Hayes in Washington D.C.
Although After scored three awards, the Best Play award went to GableStage’s highly theatrical indictment of racism viewed through the prism of boxing, The Royale; and the Best Musical award went to Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s rousing revival of the ‘30s-style British musical Me and My Girl.
For the complete list of winners, nominees and statistics, click here.
While many winners were familiar, some new names appeared as well. Among them was MNM Productions of West Palm Beach whose revue of Kander and Ebb showtunes, The World Goes Round, won Best Ensemble. The charismatic Aygemang Clay won Best Actor in a Play for his first professional performance as the proud Jay Jackson in The Royale, which was directed by GableStage Artistic Director Joseph Adler — who also won for his work on the same play written by Hialeah-born Marco Ramirez.
Other fresh names included Peter A. Lovello for his gaudy costumes satirizing 1950s styles in Island City Stage’s Perfect Arrangement. Best Scenic Design went to the inventive alternating forbidding/pastoral double-set for Area Stage’s The Nether, designed by Jodi Dellaventura, who has worked unheralded for several years in scenic design and props.
But otherwise, the roster welcomed back familiar faces. McKeever, the playwright-actor-designer and co-founder of Zoetic Stage in Miami, had previously won for Clark Gable Slept Here in 2015, Moscow in 2012, Stuff in 2011, Melt in 2008, Charlie Cox Runs With Scissors in 2004 and The Garden of Hannah List in 1998. He also won the Best Actor Carbonell in 2014 for his performances as a Jewish watchmaker in a concentration camp in The Timekeepers. He also has five other nominations for Best New Work.
Fellow playwright and Zoetic co-founder Christopher Demos-
Brown accepted the award, saying he had been texting with McKeever. After noting McKeever’s electronic thanks, Demos-Brown said, “He didn’t ask me to say this. But it is really hard to write a play. It’s really exquisitely hard to write a good one. And this guy does it over and over and over again.”
Also adding to a mantel of previous Carbonells was latter-day song-and-dance man Matt Loehr who nabbed the Best Actor in a Musical statue for his ebullient Cockney heir to a noble title in Me and My Girl. Loehr, who leaped up on the stage Monday, was in competition with himself as the title character in the Maltz’s The Will Rogers Follies. The sometime Broadway actor has won the Best Actor award in 2012 for Crazy For You. The following year, Loehr won Best Actor in a Musical for his Harold Hill in The Music Man and also Best Supporting Actor as Cornelius Hackl in Hello, Dolly! – all at the Maltz.
After, which had 8 nominations – more than any other straight play and almost more than any musical – mercilessly examined parenting, perceptions and the unpredictable nature of why bad things happen to seemingly good people. The play mounted by Zoetic Stage depicted the fallout when a 17-year-old boy sent a bullying text to a classmate, setting off a war of the words between two suburban families. The production also resulted in a Best Actress in a Play statue for Mia Matthews and a Best Supporting Actress honor for Jeni Hacker as the battling mothers.
Hacker said, “This play tore us up on the inside, sometimes on the outside.”
Hacker also won the Best Actress in a Musical award for her acclaimed performance as the ailing but love-obsessed Fosca in Zoetic Stage’s mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. That difficult work also won Carbonells for Stuart Meltzer as Best Director of a Musical, plus Best Musical Direction for Caryl Fantel. Hacker, grateful for Meltzer’s courage in choosing the piece, said that Fosca wasn’t on her “bucket list, because who would produce Passion?”
Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Night of the Iguana scored awards for Paul Black for lighting and Matt Corey for sound. Leah Sessa won Best Supporting Actress as one of the snobbish bad girls in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s Heathers. Sessa, referring to characters in the show that the community should embrace love and positivity: “In a world of Heathers, let’s all be Marthas.”
Actors’ Playhouse hosted two winners: former Miamian Dominique Scott as the out-of-control Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, and Ron Hutchins for his choreography in West Side Story. Alex Alvarez won Best Supporting Actor in a Play for his molester in GableStage’s Stalking the Bogeyman.
The competition was unusually stiff this year by all accounts. Carbonell panelists recommended 41 plays and 29 musicals to the judges for further consideration. The number of outstanding plays was so large that six shows were finalists for best production of a play instead of the usual five. Nineteen theaters and 36 shows were named in the finalists list. The actual awards were spread nine theaters and. 12 shows.
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.”
The opening number entitled “The Last 40 Years” was a medley of lyrics from nearly every Carbonell-winning Best Musical Production from the past four decades. The wittily constructed mash-up by Music Director Fantel stitched together one or two lines sung by Irene Adjan, Lindsay Corey, Conor Walton and Mark Sanders. Numbers from each of the nominated musicals was interspersed among the award presentations.
Meltzer and McKeever, who have directed and produced the ceremony for six years, plan to hand off the duties next year to director-choreographer Kevin Black, who has helmed several revues for Broward Stage Door Theatre. The evening usually hosted by McKeever was led by Black. Caryl Fantel led the band that included Roy Fantel and Rupert Ziawinski.
An unexpected surprise was the unveiling of a new award in the name of legendary publicist and Carbonell champion Charlie Cinnamon who died in November. The award is “to be given periodically to an individual who not only contributes significantly to the support of the arts in South Florida, but also for dedicated service to the Carbonell Awards organization.”
The inaugural award was given to Jerome J. (Jerry) Cohen, a long-time patron of the arts and Carbonell Awards judge and board member. Cohen not only is a regular attendee at a wide range of arts-related productions, he and his wife, Rita, generously support numerous programs.
Cohen, who had not been told of the impending honor, said, “I am choked up, maybe for the first time.”
The organization’s most prestigious honor, the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, was given to Judith “Judy” Mitchell, CEO of the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. The award is given to an individual or team who contributed significantly to the artistic and cultural development of the region during the previous year or over a lifetime.
Between 1982 and 1989, Mitchell served first as director of development and later as vice president and general manager of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Mitchell joined the Kravis staff in 1989 as director of development. She was largely responsible for raising capital campaign contributions, enabling the Kravis Center to open its doors fully funded. In 1992, Mitchell became CEO, one of the few women in the United States to hold that position in a major performing arts center in the United States.
Mitchell wrote earlier, “My dedicated staff, our board leadership and our devoted supporters have all contributed to make the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts such a wonderful community gathering place for art and entertainment in our region and it is they who have all worked tirelessly over the past 25 seasons – and before – to create the institution we are today.”
Florida Children’s Theatre, formerly known as Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre, received the Ruth Foreman Award, which recognizes contributions to South Florida theater development by an individual or group, for singular achievement and/or career contributions. In this case, the 65-year-old group, which has served hundreds of thousands of youngsters and their families, was honored for its “dedication to teaching the art of life through the magic of theatre” as the oldest children’s theater in the state.
Janet Erlick, executive artistic director for the past 19 years, wrote in a statement, “As a cultural pioneer, FLCT served this community since 1952, and this award reflects that long and rich history. It’s made even more special because our producing director, Sean Cutler, worked with Ruth in her youth program years ago, he and the staff of FLCT now mentor the theater leaders of tomorrow. Many of our alumni have been nominated and honored by the Carbonell Awards through the years.”
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. The awards were renamed last year 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: Alexandra Chicco (Palm Beach County) who attends Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts who won $3,000 ; Brooke Sterling (Miami-Dade County) who attends Miami Palmetto Senior High School, $1,000; and Sofia Ubilla (Broward County) who attends American Heritage School, $2,000. Each student is pursuing studies in theater.
Four Decades 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.
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.
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 a smaller 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 when they work on Broadway. The theater companies frequently list their nominations and wins in news releases, promotional materials and grant applications. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre displays its statuettes in a glass case in the lobby.
But some resent the awards for making artists competitive, some question the validity of comparing wildly different productions in the same category, 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 I am 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.
Behind The Scenes
The recommendation panel was: Al Alschuler, Kay Brady, Thomas J. Bruckner, Mark Demeter, Nancy Doyle Cohen, Alvin Entin, Janet Erlick, Robert Holtzman, Donna Horkey, David Jobin, Mark Keller, Jill Kratish, Lynn Kobrin, Myrna Loman, Matt May, Teri Solomon Mitze, Ileana Oroza, 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, actress and host of BECON TV’s Spotlight on the Arts; 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, 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; Andrea O’Connell, actress and instructional design consultant; Michael Peyton, a former Director of Marketing for WLRN Public Radio & Television and creator of Cultural Connection; John Thomason, Florida Theater Onstage and Time Out Miami; and Betsy Weisman, accounting manager of the Broward Performing Arts Foundation, Inc.; R. Kent Wilson, who has been an assistant director, stage manager, sound designer/technician, dramaturg, script doctor, actor and theater reviewer.
The Carbonell Board of Directors includes Jody Leshinsky, incoming Carbonbell president and Community Development Director, Broward Cultural Division; Donald R. Walters, Esq, lawyer; Jan Goodheart, Vice President of External Affairs, Broward Center for the Performing Arts; 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; Joanne Matsuura Benkö, Marketing Director, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts; Leslie Fordham, Public Art & Design Administrator, Broward Cultural Division; Bama Lutes Deal, Cultural Council of Palm Beach County; and Javier Siut, Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council.