Although the Muny copped only one statue at the fourth annual Kevin Kline Awards ceremony two weeks ago, the summer theater in Forest Park was the evening's big winner. Which perhaps is a misnomer for an event that strives to emphasize the celebration of excellence over winning or losing. Yet it's hard to imagine a more feel-good finish than the evening's surprising finale. In case you weren't there, here's what happened:
After all the awards had been bestowed and the ceremony was winding down, Professional Theatre Awards Council executive director Steve Isom called host Lee Roy Reams to the stage for what surely was intended as a perfunctory nod to his standout stint as the evening's emcee. But instead of taking a quick bow and leaving, Reams hijacked the show. As Isom stood looking sideswiped, Reams introduced Isom's eleven-year-old daughter Abigail from the audience. Abigail, it turns out, has been cast in the title role of the Muny's production of Annie this June. (Not a bad venue for your first starring role.) In a very funny ad-lib, Reams said to the child, "I don't want you to feel any pressure, but the success of this entire evening is on your shoulders. Are you up to it?" Was she ever! In a triumphant preview of this summer's production, Abigail burst into a goosebump-inducing rendition of "Tomorrow" that brought the audience to its feet for the evening's only standing ovation. The Muny sold a lot of tickets that night, and many hard-nosed theater cynics were seen leaving the Loretto-Hilton Center wiping tears from their eyes.
Not that there was much to be cynical about. Maybe I don't have my ear close enough to the ground, but I've not heard the usual post-Kevins grumbling. This year's choices seemed to be equitable and mostly defensible. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis fared best, with ten awards. I repeat what I've previously written: The Rep had an outstanding year; they earned their recognition.
It was nice to see a new group like Insight Theatre Company receive attention (as did the Orange Girls after its first season). And, after having boycotted the Kevins for three bewildering years, the belated addition of the Black Rep was immediately felt. Sarafina! was the only Black Rep production to be judged in 2008, yet it won three awards, including Outstanding Musical. How gratifying to see Keith Tyrone, who won a Kevin last year as an actor in the Stages St. Louis production of The Full Monty, win this year as a choreographer at the Black Rep. This kind of cross-pollinating is much to be desired.
At the same time, the addition of new companies to the PTAC consortium carries inherent challenges: As the number of judged shows increases while the number of categories remains the same, in the near future I would expect to see some of the more thin-skinned artistic directors withdrawing their companies from consideration — and perhaps that's not a bad thing. Whining can only be indulged for so long before it becomes tiresome.
I still hear muttering that too many out-of-town actors scoop up the awards. Would that these grumblers all become charter members of the Stick-Your-Head-in-the-Sand Society. Their assertion is not even borne out by the facts. Over the past four years, nineteen Kevins have been awarded to local actors; only fifteen have gone to visiting talent. Perhaps that's why the category that felt most satisfying this year was the tie vote for Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actor in a Musical. Lewis J. Stadlen had starred in The Producers hundreds of times on Broadway and the road, yet he reconceived his performance for the vast Muny stage. Jeffrey D. Pruett was equally effective as the alluring tempter in Stray Dog's intimate staging of Pippin. Both performances were terrific.
Perhaps there are other complaints I'm not hearing. But I left the theater full of enthusiasm — mostly for Annie. And how often can you say that?