By Ed Rampell
“I thought it was a great show, all of the presenters were fun, the music was great,” gushed award-winning costume designer Michael Mullen about the 28th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards ceremony. “You could feel the amazing camaraderie of the people as we celebrated each other and Los Angeles’ theatre community,” said Mullen, who scored the Costume Design (Intimate Theatre) Ovation for Siamese Sex Show. Clad in a sparkly crimson tuxedo jacket, the ebullient Mullen had also been nominated for two other awards in that same category.
The two and a half hour observance of theatrical excellence presented by the LA STAGE Alliance took place January 29 at the historic Ace Theatre in Downtown L.A. with Ovation voters – 245 theatre professionals – selecting the winners from 263 eligible productions produced in L.A. County. Although this year’s host Kirsten Vangsness may be best known for portraying Penelope Garcia on CBS’ crime series Criminal Minds, in her opening monologue delivered before a live band and in front of a packed house, the actress insisted: “I’m an L.A. theatre girl.”
After about 10 minutes of kibitzing and laying down the ritual’s rules, Vangsness got down to business introducing thespian presenters Diarra Kilpatrick (American Koko, a series on ABC’s streaming service) and Justin Kirk (Showtime’s Weeds), who announced the evening’s first winner for Featured Actor in a Musical, Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Four Eyed Moe in Five Guys Named Moe (Ebony Repertory Theatre).
Isa Briones next won the Featured Actress in a Musical Ovation Award for her portrayal of the challenged Natalie, daughter of a bipolar mother in Next To Normal. In addition to praising playwright Brian Yorkey for tackling the daunting topic of mental illness, Briones, who is of Filipina ancestry, thanked the Little Tokyo-based “East West Players for giving Asian American artists a voice at the table.”
Presenter Reggie Lee, a Philippines-born actor (The Dark Knight Rises), echoed this sentiment, saying, “I appreciate the diversity of L.A. theatre.” A number of award winners in their acceptance speeches and presenters in their intros also commented on the inclusive nature of L.A.’s live stage world, notably transgender actress Alexandra Billings. Before singing one of the night’s few live songs, the co-star of Amazon’s Transparent series made a point of eloquently, passionately stressing equality’s importance. After the ceremony, mixed race actress Tania Verafield, an Ovation Awards voter and member of the Rogue Machine Theatre Company, observed, “There’s lots of inclusion, it’s really beautiful. A lot of talk about equality, the LGBT community, parity between the sexes. We can change the picture through art.”
This year’s Ovation Awards ceremony wasn’t nearly as politicized as the last one, which Billings had hosted just a few days before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration and felt, at times, more like a rally than a ceremonial event honoring artistry. This, despite an apparent reference to the Trump regime onstage on Monday night by Steven Leigh Morris, Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, who commented on “the bizarre and cruel times” we are currently living through. Nevertheless, the January 29th trophy-giving occasion at the Ace Theatre wasn’t as overtly activist in nature as other recent awards ceremonies have been, including the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Grammy recognitions of talent on live TV.
A montage of nominees and several LA STAGE Alliance public service announcements ballyhooing live theatre in the City of the Angels featuring Jimmy Smits and a Spanish-speaking Rose Portillo were projected on an overhead screen.
Many of the presenters in the 35 various categories spoke for themselves, bestowing honors on L.A. artists who reflected the complexion and composition of their community. The African American cast of Five Guys Named Moe also scored an Acting Ensemble of a Musical accolade. EWP’s Next To Normal won three more Ovation Awards for: Best Production of a Musical (Large Theatre); Nancy Keystone for Best Direction of a Musical; and Deedee Magno Hall for Lead Actress in a Musical.
Black bard August Wilson was lauded by winners for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which scored Acting Ensemble of a Play, while Adolphus Ward snagged Featured Actor in a Play for his depiction of Stool Pigeon in August Wilson’s King Hedley II. This ninth installment in Wilson’s monumental ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle likewise earned Ward’s co-star Ella Joyce the Featured Actress in a Play award. The drag queen-themed The Legend of Georgia McBride, which was mounted by the Geffen Playhouse, walked away with three Ovation Awards for Paul McGill’s Choreography; Joseph Epstein’s Lighting Design (Large Theatre); and E.B. Brooks’ Costume Design (Large Theatre).
Another interesting aspect of the 2017 prizes for stage excellence is that in some categories, the Intimate Theatres with 99 or less seats were pitted against the Large Theatres, which presumably have greater resources, in terms of budget, etc., at their command. Rogue Machine productions such as the racially-themed Dutch Masters and Les Blancs, which were presented in diminutive spaces, were nominated in a dozen categories, losing in 11 of them. Surprisingly, the out-of-the-box company that specializes in edgy plays new to L.A. stages beat out the “big boys” – Center Theatre Group, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and the Geffen, as well as the Echo Theater Company – to win the ceremony’s final award, the coveted Best Season prize.
To use an Academy Awards equivalent, this David and Goliath outcome would be like a modest low budget indie triumphing over studio mega-blockbusters. While Rogue Machine lost in most individual categories, in terms of its aggregate output as an envelope-pushing force on the L.A. theatre scene, it outshone its large theatre competitors.
“I had no idea we might win Best Season,” Rogue Machine’s Founding Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn told @ This Stage in the Ace Theatre’s lobby during the after party. “I was excited to be in that group [of nominees]. I didn’t prepare an acceptance speech,” confessed the thunderstruck Flynn. Asked about losing in all other categories except for the proverbial “big enchilada,” Flynn remarked, “something like this happened to us the year we presented One Night in Miami,” playwright Kemp Powers’ 2013 imagining of then-Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston, with the boxer ruminating with Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown. Like Clay-cum-Muhammad Ali, the underdog Rogue Machine scored a Kayo against the presumed favorite – but, as Morris noted in his remarks, “the biggest prize of all was the gathering of L.A.’s theatre community together” for an expression and celebration of artistic solidarity and excellence.