At Monday night's 2017 Barrymore Awards at the Merriam Theater, the big winners were 11th Hour Theatre Company's Lizzie, a rock musical about an ax murderer; and Wilma Theater's When the Rain Stops Falling, on climate change and its human cost. With refreshing balance and eclecticism, the awards reflected a diverse, energetic, independent theater scene.
Lizzie took five awards (outstanding musical, Kate Galvin for direction of a musical, leading actress, music direction, and ensemble in a musical), and Rain took four (sound design, lighting design, ensemble in a play, and Blanka Zizka for direction of a play). Reflecting those numbers, 11th Hour and the Wilma were the winningest companies on Monday night, with five awards each. In third place was the Arden Theatre Company with four. Outstanding-play honors went to The Seagull, a much-praised rendering of the Chekhov classic by EgoPo Classic Theatre Company.
The awards show was a chance to dress up, tell inside jokes, and applaud the best in Philly theater. From the red-carpet scene to the deafening pre-show chatter to the stage antics, all the way to the after-show party, theater flamboyance was in evidence. Dito Van Riegersberg, the far-famed drag chanteuse Martha Graham Cracker, opened the festivities with "Wig in a Box" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, packed with jokey references to 2016-17 standouts such as Hand to God at Philadelphia Theatre Company, The Seagull, and InterAct Theatre's How to Use a Knife.
When Caroline Dooner walked through the doors of the Merriam, she had no idea she'd win best supporting actress in a musical for her turn as Louise in Gypsy at the Arden. She said before the show, "I feel pretty good. I had to come here earlier to do tech" – a rehearsal for the mid-show medley of tunes from the year's musicals – "so that was a good warmup."
Minutes later, she was at the mic, a winner, face all surprise, asking the audience, "Is my dress still on?"
Many winners spoke of the privilege of having a theater career.
The night's first winner, Hillary Parker for best supporting actress in a play for You for Me for You at InterAct, said, "I'm a better performer, a better person for being here."
David Bardeen, who won for best supporting actor in a play for Grand Concourse at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, said, "I couldn't wait to get to work every day." He also mentioned the show's community connections via the Imagine No Hunger program.
Among the technical awards, Michael Cosenza won best choreography/movement for his work in Antihero by the physical theater troupe Tribe of Fools. How did he find his niche? "I did a lot of Shakespeare in school, and there were always fights," he said afterward. "I was good at it, and I had great mentors who taught me that what I thought was the fun stuff could be a career."
Recipients also stressed the social commitment involved in theater.
EgoPo Classic Theatre, which relocated to Philadelphia in 2007 after losing its New Orleans playhouse to Hurricane Katrina, won the June and Steve Wolfson Award for Evolving Theatre Company ($10,000); founder Lane Savadove said to his fellow professionals, "Thank you for putting your ideas into action."
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Penelope Reed, director emeritus of Hedgerow Theatre Company. After musing on her family's history in the theater, she told the 1,800 assembled that "a life in theater is worth it. To be idea generators. We can share ideas that go far beyond us. We can help change and transformation – and what better place than Philadelphia? Not the Big Apple or fighting-itself D.C."
Theatre Philadelphia, which administers the awards, has expanded and diversified its corps of nominators, whose reports guide the choices of a dozen judges.
The awards show the results: The storefront theaters that define the Philly scene were as well represented as biggies such as the Arden or the Wilma. Of 39 companies participating, 10 won awards; of more than 100 eligible productions, 14 took home honors. Individual prizes fell equitably among men (13) and women (10). The hardworking Mary Tuomanen won two cash awards totaling $25,000. Alex Bechtel showed range, with awards for outstanding leading actor in a musical and for original music, both for The Light Princess. (He shared the music award with Anthony Lawton.)
Local philanthropists supported $77,500 in cash awards to artists and organizations. The Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award ($25,000) went to Peaceable Kingdom by Tuomanen; the four other finalists received $2,500 apiece. Tuomanen also won the F. Otto Haas Award for Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist ($15,000); five other finalists, all of them women, received $2,000 apiece. And the Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program ($7,500) went to the Curio Theatre Company.