Regional Reviews: Chicago
Two familiar musicals and one U.S. premiere of a British drama were the big winners in the 45th Annual Non-Equity Jeff Awards, celebrating the professional yet non-union work of Chicago theater frequently described as "storefront." Griffin Theatre Company's Ragtime won Best Production of a Musical, while Steep Theatre Company's Lela and Co., a two-hander by Cordelia Lynn about sex trafficking and prostitution that earned raves for its nearly solo performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, was named Best Production of a Play. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's Sweeney Todd, the company's last production in its longtime venue, the No Exit Café, won four awards, tying it with Ragtime. Lela and Co. won three awards.
Both Ragtime and Lela and Co. earned awards for their directors, with Ragtime's Scott Weinstein, also nominated for Griffin's Violet, winning his second Jeff for directing a musical. Lela and Co.'s Robin Witt won her third Jeff for directing a play. Ragtime also won the final award of the evening, the coveted Best Ensemble honors.
For the first time, the Jeff committee combined all performance honors into four non-gender-specific lists, creating the categories Performer in a Principal Role - Play, Performer in a Principal Role - Musical, Performer in a Supporting Role - Play, and Performer in a Supporting Role - Musical. The number of nominees and awards per category was increased so that there would be no reduction in the number of performers honored, but women and men competed equally within their categories. For the most part, gender parity prevailedthough women won both awards for Performer in a Supporting Role - Musical. Katherine Thomas was named for her work as Sarah in Ragtime and Missy Wise won for her Blanche in Kokandy Productions' Bonnie and Clyde.
Honors for Performer in a Leading Role - Musical went to Jacquelyne Jones and Philip Torre for their work in the "meaty" roles of Mrs. Lovett and the titular Sweeney Todd. Gonzalez-Cadel shared Performer in a Principal Role - Play with Michael B. Woods, for his work in the title role of BoHo's Cyrano, a new adaptation of the Rostand classic by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner. Winners in the Performer in a Supporting Role - Play category were Owais Ahmed for Ayad Akhtar's The Invisible Hand and Stella Martin for Melissa Ross's Nice Girl. These honors were the first win for each of the eight awarded performers and the first nomination for all but Woods.
Apart from Jeremy Ramey, whose win for his music direction of Theo Ubique's Sweeney Todd was his fifth in that category, the remaining awards all went to first-time winners. James Kolditz won the first presented of Sweeney Todd's eventual four awards for his lighting design of the musical. Jenna Schoppe's blending of military drill movements with dance homages to 1940s musicals for Yank! A WWII Love Story by Pride Films and Plays won the choreography award. Other first-time winners were Kyle Encinas (fight choreography for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity - Red Theater), Jesse Case (original music in a play for Foxfinder - Interrobang Theatre Project), Justin Glombicki (In the Soundless Awe" - Saltbox Theatre Collective), Beth Laske-Miller (costume design for Shockheaded Peter - Black Button Eyes Productions) and Eric Luchen (scenic design for Foxfinder - Interrobang Theatre Project).
In the categories of new work, The New Colony's The Light by Loy Webbwhich is set for a production by New York's MCC Theatre in the 2018-19 seasonwon the New Play award. The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier by Jay Paul Deratany, Joe Stevens and Keaton Wooden, which is also rumored to have a New York production in the works, won New Musical. That musical, which was produced by Permoveo Productions in association with Pride Films and Plays, is an historical musical about a Civil War soldier who was born female but lived adult life as a man. Dani Shay, a non-binary actor who was nominated for playing the younger version of the title character, took the stage to thank the Jeff Committee for their move to combine performance awards into all-gender-encompassing categories.
The ceremony, directed by last year's winner for Direction of a Musical, Christopher Pazdernik, came in at a brisk and entertaining two hours and fifteen minutes. Selections from all five musical nominees were performed. The best play nominees were each given moments in which a key member of the creative team spoke about their projects. The show was hosted by musical theater actress Veronica Garza, who quipped about the segmentation of the theatrical community into "play people" or "musical people." "I didn't see the plays," she admitted. "I didn't want to. I can fall asleep at home for free." She acknowledged the prejudice of "play people" that musicals don't really feature acting. "Maybe there's one actor in a musical ... and that person can't sing." She and the women nominated in the musical theatre performing categories did an opening number parody of "Let Me Be Your Star" from the TV series "Smash." keeping with the "Me Too" tone set by this year's Academy Awards, Garza announced that all of the evening's presenters would be women. The show included more jokes about recent controversies in the theater community than political humor, but many honorees acknowledged an urgent need for art and its ability to heal divisions in society and give voice and visibility to the marginalized.
The 45th Annual Non-Equity Jeff awards were presented Monday, June 11, 2018, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Production - Play Lela and Co. - Steep Theatre
Production - Musical Ragtime - Griffin Theatre Company
Ensemble Ragtime - Griffin Theatre Company
Director - Play Robin Witt - Lela and Co. - Steep Theatre
Director - Musical Scott Weinstein - Ragtime - Griffin Theatre Company
Performers in a Principal Role - PlayLela & Co. - Steep Theatre Company; Michael B. Woods (Cyrano) - Cyrano - BoHo Theatre
Performers in a Principal Role - Musical Jacquelyne Jones (Mrs. Lovett) and Philip Torre (Sweeney Todd) - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Performers in a Supporting Role - Play Owais Ahmed (Bashir) - The Invisible Hand - Steep Theatre Company; Stella Martin (Sherry) - Nice Girl - Raven Theatre Company
Performers in a Supporting Role - Musical Katherine Thomas (Sarah) - Ragtime - Griffin Theatre Company; Missy Wise (Blanche) - Bonnie & Clyde - Kokandy Productions
New Play Loy A. Webb - The Light - The New Colony
New Musical Jay Paul Deratany, Joe Stevens, Keaton Wooden- The CiviliTy of Albert Cashier - Permoveo Productions in association with Pride Films and Plays
Choreography Jenna Schoppe - Yank! A WWII Love Story - Pride Films and Plays
Original Music in a Play Jesse Case - Foxfinder - Interrobang Theatre Project
Music Direction Jeremy Ramey - Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Scenic Design Eric Luchen - Foxfinder - Interrobang Theatre Project
Lighting Design James Kolditz - Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Costume Design Beth Laske-Miller - Shockheaded Peter - Black Button Eyes Productions
Sound Design Justin Glombicki - In the Soundless Awe - Saltbox Theatre Collective
Fight Choreography Kyle Encinas - "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" - Red Theater Chicago