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A Barrymore Profile

WebImage3Excellence should be acknowledged.

Award ceremonies and honors are not about competition. They’re about recognition.

Every season, dozens of fine performances are seen on Philadelphia stages. Within those dozens, some stand out as exceptional. These are noted by critics, peers, and, most importantly, the audience.

In every discipline of the performing arts, awards are bestowed to individuals who do the best work of all. In Philadelphia theater, these accolades are called the Barrymore Awards, after the legendary family that planted roots in Philadelphia and sent three of the most splendid — Lionel, Ethel, and John — to entertain the world.

The Barrymore Award ceremony honoring the top performances, design, and creative work for the 2013-2014 season is to be held on Monday, October 27.  2013-2014 was a year that spawned many worthy productions and portrayals.

Here is a list of preferences and predictions, organized by category, starting with the Best Productions of a Musical and a Play.

BEST MUSICAL

The nominees in this category all have a different flavor and are all worthy of consideration.

“Parade” is of a serious bent. It deals with injustice based on prejudice as it chronicles the murder accusation of conviction of Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a pencil factory in 1913 Atlanta.

Terrence Nolen’s production for the Arden was atmospheric, depicting the entire mise en scene that surrounded the railroading of Frank. It was also quite moving because of the lead performances of Ben Dibble and Jennie Eisenhower, who were surrounded by a magnificent supporting cast.

“The Musical of Musicals” is a constant delight, and Montgomery Theatre, with Stephen Casey directing, found the  humor, and corn, in the work that tells the “Little Nell” story about a landlord coming to get “the rent, the rent,” as it might be written by five contemporary composers or songwriting teams.

“Nerds” was a bundle of non-stop energy and bunch of fun as it satirized the rises of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates with hilarious characterizations and a droll and lively array of songs. It is being prepped for a Broadway run.

Alas, I cannot comment on Inis Nua’s “Midsummer” because I didn’t see it.  My loss, I’m sure.

While I have affection for “Nerds” and enjoyed “The Musical of Musicals,” my preference and prediction is the Arden production of “Parade.”

“Parade” would be my choice for Best Musical of 2013-2014 under any circumstances, but in viewing the nominations, I realized the Walnut Street Theatre and the Media Theatre must not participate with the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance in vying for Barrymores. If they had, the Walnut’s “Elf” and “In the Heights” and the Media’s “Sunset Boulevard” and “Spamalot” would certainly have been viable contenders. People’s Light’s “Cinderella: A Musical Panto” also seems to be an omission.

BEST PLAY

Seven productions are nominated, but the only one I believe is suitable as a “Best” is Theatre Horizon’s presentation of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife.”  It stands as my preference.

I need to think a bit about my prediction.

“Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq” was ambitious and had moments of brilliance. One also had to admire the way author Paula Vogel and director Blanka Zizka collaborated with their cast to build this play from an idea of Vogel’s to model a contemporary piece on Ödön von Horvath’s “Don Juan Comes Back From the War,” which referred to World War I.

Certainly, the play makes a powerful statement about combat’s coarsening of the individual. The often deployed Don Juan has lost almost humanity by the time we meet him in the battlefield and on a Philadelphia street searching for a love he must know he’s lost.

Vogel’s script is too inconsistent and contains several passages that are obviously improvisations or suggestion by cast members and that should have been rejected or discarded.

Zizka managed some searing theatrical effects, by “Don Juan” was too disjointed to work. It bored as often as it fascinated, and it contained scenes and stylizations that were flat out panderings or mistakes. At best, the Wilma world premiere was a succes d’estime, a valiant effort but one that didn’t meet standards of overall excellence.

Theatre Horizon’s other candidate, “Circle Mirror Transformation” works on an interesting conceit in which theater games elicit issues actors and their teachers face in real life. Matthew Decker’s production, blessed with a superb cast, was fine, but Annie Baker’s script took a while to build up steam and doesn’t come up to the quality of “I Am My Own Wife.”

“Down Past Passyunk” was entertaining and beautifully acted, but it pulled several punches and seems contrived in spots.

“Annapurna” is another work that performs well, especially with Pearce Bunting and Catherine Slusar in its lead roles, even though the play, strongly produced as it was, is based on withholding more than unfolding information and becomes tiresome.

That leaves “In a Dark, Dark House” and “The Brothers Size,” both from Simpatico as the most worthy contenders opposite “Wife.”

Each production had merit. Harriet Power’s production of “In a Dark, Dark House” had the suspense “Annapurna” lacked.  Tarell Alvin McCraney certainly has an interesting voice.  But neither play comes up to the humanity in Wright’s piece or the delicately comic way Kathryn MacMillan presented it for Horizon.

Missing from this category were  Villanova’s “Everyman,” Bristol Riverside’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” People’s Light’s “Pride and Prejudice”  and “Dear Elizabeth,” Wilma’s “The Convert,” Arden’s “Stick Fly,”  Curio’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and Luna’s “The Pillowman,” all of which were equal, if not superior, to most of the nominees.

I think I’ll make my prediction where my preference is and go with “I Am My Own Wife.”

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY

Many top echelon performances are cited among the Best Actor nominees (even if I don’t understand how Peter DeLaurier  missed recognition for his work in “The Train Driver” at the Lantern).

Charlie DelMarcelle embodied so many facets of his cannily eccentric character in “I Am My Own Wife,” it would be difficult to see how he could be denied the Barrymore this season.

Even the way DelMarcelle held his fingers and handled objects exuded the kind ladylike reverence Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf would have for her treasured possessions.

Del Marcelle’s main competition will come from Keith Conallen, who depicted a man stripped of human feeling in “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq,” and Pearce Bunting, who blistered the stage with his portrayal of an impoverished but independent poet in “Annapurna.”

Dan Olmstead was excellent as our 36th President in New City Stage’s “Frost/Nixon” and should receive some consideration.

Allen Radway showed a lot of depth in “In a Dark, Dark House.” William Zielinski was as natural as one can be as a South Philadelphia sandwich man in “Down Past Passyunk.” Akeem Davis was outstanding in “The Brothers Size.”

As I mentioned, this is a wonderful field. It would be difficult to cavil with any of these actors walking home with a Barrymore.

Of the group, Charlie DelMarcelle continues to stand out. In January, he earned my Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award. I’ve seen more than 100 performances since then, and DelMarcelle’s has not been topped. He also earned Phindie’s Critics’ Award. Charlie DelMarcelle is my preference and my prediction for the 2014 Barrymore Award.

Other possible nominees would have been Rinde Eckert for “Dear Elizabeth,” Tony Braithwaite for “Lend Me a Tenor” or “Hotel Suite,” and Richert Easley for “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY

The choice will be difficult in this group. All of the women nominated provided special moments in last season’s plays, but they are so evenly matched, none of them stand out as an obvious Barrymore recipient.

Catherine Slusar made an admirable two-hander out of “Annapurna,” combining with Pearce Bunting to keep what could be a dull play involving and worth watching.

Alice Gatling is an actress of amazing power. She has a way of bringing you directly to her and holding you while her character has her say. She certainly demonstrated this in “Gidion’s Knot” for InterAct, as did her unnominated co-star, Karen Peakes.

Beth Dixon was wise, wiry, and wily as the generous grandmother in “4000 Miles” for Philadelphia Theatre Company. Deirdre Madigan was touching, especially in the telephone scene, as the plain sister,  Sonia, in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” also for PTC.

Katherine Powell was the actress who captivated me as she galvanized Terry Nolen’s production of “Three Sisters” for the Arden. Alex Keiper expanded her range as the angry daughter who embraces change in “Down Past Passyunk.”

I cannot comment on Nancy Boykin because I regrettably missed “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” when Flashpoint presented it this summer. (I keep hoping for a revival of James Ijames’s piece.)

From the performances I saw, I’d choose Deirdre Madigan as my preference and Catherine Slusar as my prediction.

Had she been nominated, I would have favored Nancy Moricette for “The Convert” at the Wilma. Other possible nominees are Susan Wilder for “Other Desert Cities,” Ellie Mooney and Denise Whelan for “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” Leah Walton for “Bunny Bunny,” Charlotte Northeast for “Mary Stuart,” Birgit Huppuch for “Twelfth Night,” and Ellen McLaughlin for “Dear Elizabeth.”

BEST ACTOR IN  A MUSICAL

Cut ahead a year, and Ben Dibble already has to be an odds on favorite to score a Barrymore for his bravura turn in “Herringbone” for Flashpoint.

Coming back to the current time frame, the remarkable Mr. Dibble may wind up at the podium this year for his stern and touching performance as Leo Frank in “Parade” for the Arden.

His primary competitor will be Stanley Bahorek, who was a comic wonder and a dancing genius in bold and broad turn as Bill Gates in “Nerds” for Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Rob McClure provided several touching moments when he co-starred with Dibble in Bud Martin’s production of “The Story of My Life” for Delaware Theatre Company. McClure found the deep core of the childlike book store owner reuniting with his best friend, a successful author.

I did not see Charlie DelMarcelle in “Midsummer.” Again, I say “Alas!”

My preference here is for Stanley Bahorek, who received a nomination for the Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award in January and was cited among the Top 25 internationally on the Helen and Morris Zoren Award lists.  My prediction is Ben Dibble.

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

I think the contest is decided here.

I enjoyed Laura Giknis in “Little Shop of Horrors” and thought Lexy Fridell a lot of fun, as both a nerdess and as a business pro in “Nerds,” but Jennie Eisenhower’s sincere and touching turn as a wife committed to exonerating her husband in “Parade” must capture the prize in this category.

I did not see Liz Filios in “Midsummer” but look forward to her performance this spring in “Passion” for the Arden.

My preference and prediction is Jennie Eisenhower.

One truly great performance, Ann Crumb’s portrayal of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” would, I’m sure have been nominated if the Media Theatre participated in the Barrymores.

In another production I know is not submitted for Barrymore consideration, Rachel Camp and Alex Keiper could have earned nominations for their work in 11th Hour’s cabaret rendition of “Side Show.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY

As an award giver, I know that at the end of each season, I have a list of about 100 people who can be considered for nomination and award.

This year’s nominee list includes actors who played a wide variety of characters, from Peter DeLaurier’s grumpy father in “Emma” to John Zak’s amazing innocent turn as the allegedly addled brother in “The Pillowman.”

DeLaurier practically gave an acting seminar in “Emma” as he showed how stylization can be blended with a realistic portrayal. Zak was brilliant as a young man who shows much wisdom and regard for the truth as he talks to his dazed brother in “Pillowman.”

David Bardeen made an impression as an everyday man who decides to try acting to find romancein “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Jered McLenigan singlehandedly redeemed Lantern’s “Julius Caesar” from being a debacle of epic proportion with his stunning performance as Marc Antony.  William Rahill was as realistic as an actor can be in “Down Past Passyunk.”

Regrettably, I did not see Dave Johnson in “Sideway Stories from Wayside School”  for the Arden or Joe Guzmán in “True Story” for Passage.

While having high regard for each of the nominees, I give my preference to John Zak in “The Pillowman” and predict Jered McLenigan will take home the Barrymore for “Julius Caesar.”

Missing from this group are Robert Jason Jackson for “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “Macbeth.” Matteo Scammell from “Other Desert Cities,” and Lance Coadie Williams from “The Convert.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

I don’t know how the Barrymore nominators missed it, but the accolade for the single best performance by any Thespian on a Philadelphia stage last year is shared by Ann Crumb in “Sunset Boulevard” and  Zainab Jah as the versatile Mademoiselle Prudence in “The Convert.”

Jah, who returns to the Wilma stage this spring in the title role of Hamlet, made a remarkable transition as a character and showed facets of Prudence that were always a welcome revelation.

Even had the Barrymore committee had the good sense to nominate Jah, she would have had heady competition from others in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Nancy Boykin was smart and mature in “Circle Mirror Transformation. I liked the reality and intensity she brought to her role.

Amanda Kearns made her mark as the woman who brings a young deaf man out of his shell in “Tribes” for Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Marcia Saunders had an incredible 2013-2014, even to the point of making “Cherokee” watchable at the Wilma. Saunders could have received a nod for her work as Mrs. Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” but she is cited for her turn as the angry nun in the Arden’s “Incorruptible.”

Charlotte Northeast was luscious in both of her parts in “Emma” for Lantern. Mary Elizabeth Scallen scored as the formidable Lady Catherine de Burgh in “Pride and Prejudice” at People’s Light. Her  nomination should also include her fine playing of the same role at Bristol Riverside. Mary Beth Shrader was a convincing teenager and a fine foil in “In a Dark, Dark House.” Karen Peakes was deliciously sarcastic as the discarded wife in “The Real Thing” for the Wilma.

In a difficult decision, my preference is Marcia Saunders, although more for her entire body of work than “Incorruptible” alone. My prediction is Amanda Kearns.

In addition to Zainab Jah, I also miss the women who played the Mundy sisters in Curio’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,”  especially Jennifer Summerfield and Trice Baldwin, and the stunning Karina Arroyave, who broke my heart with her portrayal of Odessa in the Arden’s otherwise misbegotten “Water by the Spoonful.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

In at least two instances during the Arden’s production of “Parade,” Derrick Cobey stopped the show cold with his theatrical pleading as the man whose testimony seals the fate of Leo Frank.

Cobey is beyond peer among  the nominees in this category, who are Michael Philip O’Brien for “Parade,” Carl Clemons-Hopkins for ‘Little Shop of Horrors,” and Benny Elledge for “Nerds.”

My preference and prediction are for Derrick Cobey. The only performances that could make me rethink that would be Jeff Coon’s in “Parade” and Christopher Patrick Mullen’s in “Cinderella: A Musical Panto.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

“Parade” had a wonderful ensemble, but the performance that always stood out among others was Sarah Gliko’s as the governor’s wife. Gliko was all silken graciousness and easy sophistication in the role, and I appreciated the subtlety of her acting.

Two of Gliko’s co-stars, Alex Keiper and Kenita Miller, vie with her for this Barrymore. The other nominee is Candace Thomas from Bristol’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”

My preference is for Sarah Gliko. My prediction is Alex Keiper.

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY

Ironically,  my preference in this august group is for the nominee whose plays was not included among the candidates for Best Production.

It’s Samantha Bellomo, who in a year that saw several dramatic adaptations of novels by Jane Austen, found the perfect tone, sensibility, and look for her rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” at People’s Light.

Joe Canuso kept his production of “Annapurna” taut and watchable even as the play becoming more and more annoying in its purposeful but obvious delay to get to its point.

Kathryn MacMillan, in a prolific and successful year, endowed “I Am My Own Wife” with class and charm.

Matthew Decker got past the games in “Circle Mirror Transformation” to get the human core of Annie Baker’s characters.

Whether acting or directing, James Ijames always seems to find the right touch for a scene or a situation.

Matt Pfeiffer aimed for and hit the target in providing “Down Past Passyunk” with reality and credibility.

I unfortunately missed Damon Bonetti’s direction of “True Story” for Passage.

My preference is for Samantha Bellomo.  My prediction is for Kathryn MacMillan by an eyelash over Canuso and Decker.

Absent from the category are Susan D. Atkinson for taking “Tuesdays with Morrie” from being likably sentimental claptrap to a truly moving and poignant portrait of a dying philosopher, Gay Carducci for the lovely ensemble work she accomplished in “Dancing and Lughnasa,”  Michael John Garcés for keeping “The Convert” fascinating when it gets dense, Terrence J. Nolen for a crisp “Three Sisters,” and Walter Dallas for the smoothness he gave to “Stick Fly.”

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Terry Nolen has this in a walk for Arden’s production of “Parade.”

None of the other musicals had as much going on or needed to make as many elements work equally.

Nolen was able to tell the sad personal story of Leo and Lucille Frank while showing the politics of 1913 Georgia and including the needed overtones of anti-Semitism and injustice. He served Alfred Uhry’s excellent book and Jason Robert Brown’s music well. He also elicited a fine collection of performances, as this year’s Barrymore nominations bear out.

The always reliable Stephen Casey kept “The Musical of Musicals” lively and refreshing. He was also aided by a marvelous cast led by Michael Doherty.

Aaron Cromie, who has “Ondine” and ‘Oedipussy” to his credit as well as “Man of La Mancha” is creative and a fine storyteller. His “La Mancha” stands out for well Cromie blended the prison setting with Miguel Cervantes’s classic story. Such inventiveness deserves recognition.

Once again to my regret, I did not see “Midsummer,” but have faith, based on “Other Desert Cities” and a recent cabaret mounting of a 1997 musical, “The Life,” that Kate Galvin did a splendid job bringing it to the stage.

With some lingering stares at Cromie, I will go with Terrence J. Nolen as my preference and prediction.

BEST SET DESIGN

Thom Weaver’s trash heap of a broken down trailer in “Annapurna” and Dirk Durossette’s breakaway Southern Gothic home in “Skin and Bone” provided excellent atmosphere for those plays at Theatre Exile and Azuka, but nothing this season can beat the mulit-use kinetic set that could levitate or tilt at Blanka Zizka’s will that Matt Saunders designed for “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq.”

My preference and prediction for this Barrymore is Matt Saunders.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Tossing a coin between Rosemarie E. McKelvey for “Parade” and Marla Jurglanis for “Pride and Prejudice,” I’m going to give my preference to McKelvey because her show required more variety. Jurglanis created beautifully clothing for the Regency period in which her plays is set. McKelvey created a community and gave each member a unique identity.

McKelvey is also my prediction.

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Separately nominated for “Parade,” “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq,” and “4000 Miles,” I think Thom Weaver has this award sewn up, unless his multiple nominations somehow cancel him out from real competition.

My preference is he is given the Barrymore for “Don Juan.” My prediction is the same.

BEST SOUND DESIGN

Christopher Colucci and Daniel Perelstein each have multiple nominations.

Though I predict Perelstein will triumph individually and take home the Barrymore for “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq,” my preference is that the award go to Colucci and Perelstein jointly for their teamwork on “The 39 Steps” for Theatre Horizon.

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY AND MOVEMENT

In a crowded field, Joshua Bergasse stands out by at least a head and maybe a shoulder for his truly creative and energetic dances for “Nerds.”

Bergasse choreographed and made dance while most of his colleagues, Stephen Casey excepted, settled for movement even when dance was called for.

Bergasse is my overwhelming preference (and not just because I continue to sail on the wave of his wonderful choreography for Broadway’s current “On The Town”).

Samuel Antonio Reyes put spunk and sass into the 11th Hour’s “Altar Boyz,” enough so that his dances were the outstanding part of that show.

For that reason, I predict Reyes will be given the Barrymore.

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A PLAY

As much as I enjoyed the way the characters interconnected in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” I thought Sebastienne Mundheim’s overall concept for the Dylan Thomas piece a general disaster.

In terms of ensemble play, the casts of “Pride and Prejudice” at People’s Light and of “Circle Mirror Transformation” at Theatre Horizon interact the best for the best effect.

My preference is for “Circle Mirror Transformation.” I expect the Barrymore to go “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq” even though many characters do not share scenes or intersect.

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

This is a great category in which Barrymores should be given to all en masse.

Terry Nolen populated “Parade” with an outstanding company, and the troupe in “The Musical of Musicals” had to be in synch to get the tight parody they accomplished.

“Nerds” was constant fun while in “Man of La Mancha,” characters moved neatly between their prison personae and the figures in Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.”

I admire all. I give my preference to “Man of La Mancha” and my prediction to “Parade.”

Kudos to the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia for conferring a Lifetime Achievement Award on the marvelous Carla Belver, soon to appear as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” at Act II Playhouse.

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