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Let the suspense end here: Liza Minnelli still doesn’t have any high notes.
She does still have the unmistakable aura of a superstar, though; her arrival onstage at Monday’s Helen Hayes Awards, at which her old friends and collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb were honored, sent a charge through a crowd grown restive at the gala’s glacial pace.
Actually, what with Minnelli’s contributions and the deft, droll Tyne Daly at the podium, the Washington theater community’s annual awards orgy didn’t seem to drag quite as badly as usual, though writer Ron Geatz did his best, with inane presenter patter and stale, smutty jokes about White House scandals and Tidal Basin beavers, to make it feel as interminable as last year’s landmark torture-fest.
Certainly, Minnelli packed as much energy into her solo turn (in Kander & Ebb’s “The World Goes ‘Round,” from the film that also gave us “New York, New York”) as the cast of Signature Theatre’s The Fix was able to generate with “Simple Words,” the big gospel-lite production number from that overpraised and exceptionally uneven musical. Yes, it was good to see Sal Mistretta win for his supporting-actor performance as a shrewd political Svengali, but no one needed a reminder of how banal some of that show’s lyrics were.
Except for Mistretta’s award and another to leading man Stephen Bienskie, The Fix was given the cold shoulder, which is pretty much as it should be, though Anne Kennedy’s garish-chic costumes certainly deserved their nomination. But it’s nice that Helen Hayes voters weren’t seduced by the money Cameron Mackintosh threw at the showor by the glamour that has accrued to Signature’s Eric D. Schaeffer in the past couple of years. Schaeffer is an undeniable talent, and he’s led Signature to a number of triumphs, but best-musical winner Thunder Knocking on the Door, even with the flaws it showed at Arena Stage, was the better production. And Washington Shakespeare Company’s Jesse Berger, honored as best director of a musical, had the more complicated challengethough how Peter Weiss’ fierce and fetid Marat/Sade got to be a musical is anyone’s guess.
What Schaeffer and Signature did clearly deserve was the glory they got for their one-man show Nijinsky’s Last Dance, top honoree with four awards. Director Joe Calarco and his light and sound designers, Daniel MacLean Wagner and David Maddox, respectively, were saluted, though somehow the show’s one man, actor Jeremy Davidson, was snubbed for best actor. (Lear-ish local Ted van Griethuysen took that prize for Studio Theatre’s The Steward of Christendom.) Nijinsky was also Outstanding Resident Play of the season, but perplexingly enough its script wasn’t worthy of the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play, which went to Arena’s Lovers and Executioners, by John Strand. (Perhaps the judges didn’t want to further alienate the Washington Post’s lead critic, who had written a valentine to The Fix but dismissed Nijinsky in the same peremptory way she once brushed off Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, which promptly went on to win the Pulitzer.)
Shafted: Nijinsky’s Karma Camp, whose subtle and powerful choreography was passed over in favor of Debbie Allen’s energetic but unexceptional work in the Kennedy Center’s kids musical Brothers of the Knight. Also Nancy Robinette, whose serenely wacko turn in Woolly Mammoth’s Freedomland was possibly her best work ever. Good for Rena Cherry Brown, though, who stole the prize from Robinette with her role as an acerbic drunk in A Delicate Balance for American Century Theatre; aside from Edward Albee’s script, her performance was the one first-rate element in an otherwise lackluster production.
Most tasteless: 1998 winner L. Scott Caldwell, who pulled a Whoopi while reading names of nominees for best nonresident production: “… and The Vagina Monologues, also known as Tales from the Clit.”
Most dubious: The assertion, promulgated by the Helen Hayes organization and repeated this year, that Washington is “the nation’s second largest theater town.” Ummm, Chicago, anyone?
Most warm and fuzzy: The endless rhapsodizing about what a sweet-natured and cozy bunch are the actors and others who populate the D.C. theater community. No bitchery and backstabbing here, oh, no.
They leave that to the critics.Trey Graham