Regional Reviews: Chicago
At this year's Jeff Awards, one of the opening routine's quips by emcees Alexis J. Roston and Lillian Castillo was right on point. The hosts, both Equity members, said to the actors in the audience, "you may be working as baristas during the day, but you get to create great art. We can only look forward to another tour of Mamma Mia!." An exaggeration, as Chicago has an exciting non-profit Equity scene, but the bigger-selling, higher-budget commercial productions that can afford to pay Equity wages tend to be well-known musicals.
The non-Equity "storefront" scene celebrated at the June 5th non-Equity Jeff Awards ceremony is more about new work, new-to-Chicago pieces and revivals of less frequently produced plays and musicals. The diversity and vibrancy of non-Equity theater in Chicago was well on display in the nominated productions. (Full disclosure: I'm the public relations rep for five of the companies that received awards).
Another difference between Equity and non-Equity theatre in Chicago is the constant change in companies. Though there are a number of venerable institutions among Chicago's non-Equity groups, there are many that come and goand this year's awards gave top honors to some "comers"including two companies that only recently finished the Jeff Awards' two-year waiting period for eligibility.
The top awards of "Production - Play," Director - Play and "Ensemble" (a category with nominees from musicals as well as non-musicals) went to the Chicago premiere of At the Table, a 2-1/2 hour Chekhovian play about a weekend in the country shared by friends who have agreed to remain divorced from their electronic devices and forced to actually converse. Echaka Agba also won Actress in a Supporting Role - Play for her work in the piece. At the Table, which had a brief Off-Broadway run in 2015, was the top winner overall, scoring four awards in total.
In the musical theater categories, the big winner was a revival of High Fidelity by the two-year-old Refuge Theatre Project. Like Broken Nose and their At the Table, Refuge took the top prize in its category with their first eligible production (a remount of a 2016 production presented before the company was eligible for awards consideration). Refuge's High Fidelity was staged in a previously vacant Wicker Park retail store. Michelle Manni won the scenic design award for transforming the space into "The Last Real Record Store on Earth" by finding old display racks for vinyl LPs and coming up with seemingly hundreds of posters and handbills one might see in such a store. Christopher Pazdernik's direction and choreography (winning for direction while Aubrey Adams won for her choreography of BoHo's Urinetown) cleverly moved his cast around the tiny storefront. His cast (also nominated in the "ensemble" category) made the case for this former Broadway flop by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire as a substantial piece of musical theatre.
Henry McGinniss's title role performance in Griffin Theatre Company's Bat Boy the Musical took the award for Actor in a Principal Role Musical. Mcginniss was also nominated for his lead in BoHo's Best Musical-nominated Urinetown and led his castmates in a lively showcase of "Run, Freedom Run" that gave the audience a taste of Ms. Adams' winning choreography. The Actor in a Supporting Role - Musical award went to Urinetown's Scott Danielson for his Officer Lockstock.
Colette Todd took home two Jeff awardsone for Actress in a Principal Role - Musical for her Diana in BoHo's Next to Normal and another for Actor/Actress in a Revue for Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's production of Honky Tonk Angels, a songbook show of crossover country hits by Ted Swindley (Always... Patsy Cline). The supporting actress in a musical award was won by Veronica Garza for her dual role as the mothers of figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera by Underscore Theatre Company.
George Seegebrecht, who played the title character in City Lit's production of John Logan's Hauptman, shared the Actor in a Principal Role - Play award with Gage Wallace, of Taste by Red Theater, a drama of cannibalism that premiered in Los Angeles in 2014. The Actress in a Principal Role - Play and Actor in a Supporting Role - Play awards went to Amy Johnson and Justin Tsatsa for their roles as a mother and her 18-year-old autistic son in Deanna Jent's Falling. Finishing out the performance categories was playwright Philip Dawkins, who won the Solo Performance award for his piece about his family called The Happiest Place on Earth.
The New Play award was shared by Ike Holter (Hit the Wall, Exit Strategy) for his Chicago-set vigilante/superhero fantasy Prowess and Alex Lubischer for his Bobbie Clearly, a drama of a small Nebraska town dealing with the aftermath of a murder, produced by Steep Theatre. Prowess was also honored for its fight choreography by Ryan Bourque. The New Musical award went to Northanger Abbey, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel with music and lyrics by George Howe and book by Robert Kauzlaric.
The award for Music Direction went to Theo Ubique's Resident Music Director Jeremy Ramey for that company's production of the Frank Loesser's self-described "musical with lots of music, The Most Happy Fella, and the Original Music in a Play was given to Natasha Bogojevich for Gentle by TUTA Theatre.
Design awards, in addition to Manni's win for High Fidelity, included John Nasca's wildly inventive designs for Pride Films and Plays's Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Kevin D. Gawley's lighting design for Lifeline Theatre's adaptation of the magical kids novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engel, Stephen Ptacek's sound design for How We Got On by Haven Theatre Company, a story of three midwestern teenage rappers, and Anthony Churchill's projection design for The Body of an American by Stage Left Theatre, a docudrama by Dan O'Brien about photojournalist Paul Watson.
A special award was given to writer-performer-director David Cerda, whose drag-intensive original satirical comedies have been a staple of the Chicago northside theatre scene for years. Cerda's acceptance speech and a tribute to his oeuvre by six performers made this lengthy section of the three-hour ceremony nonetheless entertaining.
Emcees Roston and Castillo provided sharp, satiric humor, taking digs at playwright and recent critic of the Jeff Awards Tracy Letts, but also delicately acknowledging the need to address the issues of (lack of) diversity in the theater he raised in his comments during an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones. With musical numbers from the Best Production of a Musical nominees and scenes from the Best Production of a Play nominees (a scene from Prowess was presented on video), the entertainment quotient of the ceremonyheld for the first time in the 900+ seat Athenaeum Theatreremained high. The audience, mainly nominees, remained jubilant throughout the evening as it celebrated the achievements not just of a few, but of the whole theater community over the past season.
The 44th Annual Non-Equity Jeff awards were presented Monday, June 5, 2017, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Production - Play
Production - Musical
Director - Play
Director - Musical
Actor In A Principal Role - Play
Actor In A Principal Role - Musical
Actress In A Principal Role - Play
Actress In A Principal Role - Musical
Actor In A Supporting Role - Play
Actor In A Supporting Role - Musical
Actress In A Supporting Role - Play
Actress In A Supporting Role - Musical
Actor/Actress In A Revue
Original Music in a Play