Arts Desk

How D.C. Fared at the Tony Awards

Too bad, "Follies"

We’ll never know what Michael Kaiser planned to say in his Tony Awards acceptance speech, but thank goodness the Kennedy Center’s president still has his Huffington Post column. And thank goodness for the Shakespeare Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, two D.C. nonprofits that both got shout-outs on national television last night. And while the theater’s names weren’t uttered, anyone local who watched the three-hour telecast knows that Signature and Studio were also indirectly honored for their very good taste.

The Kennedy Center had been a morning line favorite to take home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical for Follies, the glitzy 2011 production directed by Signature’s Eric Schaeffer and starring Bernadette Peters. Instead, the prize went to Porgy and Bess, a reworked version of the Gerswhins’ classic that critics have found problematic and Steven Sondheim decried.

Follies, shut-out at locally at the Helen Hayes Awards, took home just one trophy: best costumes, in theory because the musical about fading vaudeville stars required far more sequins than the pub-musician get-ups in Once. The charming film adaptation of the 2007 film took home eight awards, including best new musical.

But for the staffs of Shakespeare and Woolly Mammoth, it was a night to celebrate. When playwright Bruce Norris accepted the best new play award for Clybourne Park, he thanked the many regional theaters around the country that staged or planned to stage the show. The first name out of his mouth was Howard Shalwitz, and then Norris had to pause for a minute, because the cheering in Beacon Theatre was so loud after he said, “at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.”

Clybourne Park, a sequel of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, ran at Woolly in 2010; the theater brought it back again for a sold-out run last summer. A concurrent production ran off-Broadway in New York in 2010, so D.C. can’t claim to have hosted the world premiere, but we certainly knew the show was good before the American Theater Wing did.

There was no suspense involved for Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company. Last month, the American Theatre Critics Association announced that the troupe would receive the annual regional theater Tony. This marked the second time in three years that a D.C. theater took home that honor. Signature won in 2009, and it’s probably not a coincidence that in 2007, when Arlington County hosted the theater critics group for its annual conference, Signature and Shakespeare both held posh dinners and treated the scribes to showings of The Visit and Antony and Cleopatra, respectively.

The telecast aired just a snippet of Kahn’s acceptance speech, but the director said it was an honor to be accepting the award “on a night when so many of the shows being honored started in the nonprofit theater.”

In addition to Clybourne Park, those honored shows included David IvesVenus in Fur, a two-person S&M comedy that Studio Theatre produced last year. Best actress winner Nina Arianda gave one of the night’s most charming acceptance speeches of the night when Christopher Plummer passed her the trophy for playing the dominatrix actress who shows up for a nontraditional audition.

“Sir, you were my first crush,” Arianda said to the Oscar-winning actor. “Everytime you blew that whistle on the Sound of Music, you made my day.”

Signature Theatre was likely disappointed that Follies went just one for seven. At the Helen Hayes Awards, the Kennedy Center production was beaten out for best musical by Signature’s own production of Hairspray. So the theater had to be consoled by Tony's horrific kowtow to corporate sponsorship: a cruise ship performance of Hairspray, streamed live from the Royal Carribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, that was far inferior to our local production.

The costumes were tacky, the sets were chintzy, and the actress playing Tracy looked about 45. The audience appeared to be half-full—perhaps because, as Post theater critic Peter Marks speculated on Twitter, the boat’s passengers were all at the 10 p.m. buffet. The montage marked a low point in a broadcast that was in many ways better than the Oscars, full of sincere and entertaining moments. Accidentally, the Tony Awards may have justified its own existence, and proven that there’s nothing like a night of live theater. And that unless you’re staging Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, your stage should never float.

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