Class Acts

By staff July 1, 2004

There's something about awards that just grabs people. I suspect it's always been that way. Perhaps prehistoric people competed in various categories of cave art: best bison, for example, or most realistic death by spear, dressing up in their finest animal skins to celebrate the handing out of ceremonial plaques etched in soft stone. We all root for winners.

The challenge of choosing those winners when it comes to the Sarasota area theater season never gets any easier. First there's the quantity: Although we did lose the Venice Golden Apple and Theatre Works last year (don't worry, they'll be back in some form or other soon), we gained a full season of the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, so there are still around 50 shows to cover in the main season.

Then there's the quality; from community theater musicals to Equity companies to actors in training, a lot of talent appears on local stages, some of it comfortably familiar, some of it a welcome surprise. Even in a season of government cutbacks in arts funding, which sometimes led to safe or predictable play selection, there were still strong performances and enlightening moments onstage.

As with any awards, you'll agree with some choices here and disagree with others. They are indeed subjective, based on this critic's best efforts to recognize the top achievements in Sarasota-area theater this year. More important than any individual's judgments is that we all continue to support our local theaters, attending enthusiastically and often. In the end, an appreciative audience is any performer or designer's best award.

The season covered here ran from late summer of 2003 to May 2004. We do not include touring shows that appeared at the Van Wezel, and in order to meet our deadlines, summer 2004 shows, including those at the Banyan, Florida Studio and the Golden Apple, were also not included.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:

The late Vicki S. Holden for the Asolo's The Road to Ruin. From dissolute young gentleman to finely finished ingenue to carefully dressed man of business, Holden's designs fit the time and place-18th-century London-as well as the characters.

Holden again for the Asolo's Hay Fever. Holden's 1920s-era house party costumes successfully delineated the differences between class, age and personalities of a veddy theatrical family and their guests.

Cassandra Mockosher for the Players of Sarasota production of HMS Pinafore. Mockosher came up with a boatload of shipshape clothing for the spiffy sailors, upright officers, and lovely Victorian ladies of a light-hearted Neverland.

Mockosher again for West Coast Black Theatre's Spunk.chiefly for those colorful and outrageously suited Harlem pimps.

Nicholas Hartman for the Manatee Players' The King and I. Hartman gave free rein to his costuming abilities in creating Anna's voluminous gowns and the simpler silhouettes of the Siamese court.

The award goes to: Cassandra Mockosher for the Players' HMS Pinafore. All aboard this very tidy ship.

Best Set Design

The nominees are:

Marcella Beckwith for Florida Studio Theatre's The Bully Pulpit. Undoubtedly with some help from actor/writer Michael O. Smith's years of research, Beckwith carefully re-created the study of Teddy Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill home for our visit with T.R.

Steven Rubin for the Asolo's Hay Fever. It was a visit to a home of a different kind with Rubin's English country house set for the dramatic, eccentric Bliss family, circa 1925.

Michael Lasswell for the Asolo's The Road to Ruin. What fun it was to watch the actors spin about on Lasswell's multi-level set, which took us speedily in and out of the narrow homes, dark corners, and labyrinthine streets of 18th-century London.

Lasswell again for his work on Florida Studio's Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins. Here the period was the 1970s, in a working-class family's home dominated by the spreading tree overshadowing them all and the tree house where the youngest son comes of age.

Jeffrey W. Dean for the Asolo's Murder by Misadventure. The set is always an important element, but this murder-mystery-comedy literally couldn't have taken place without Dean's meticulously constructed high-tech house, which was as crucial to the plot as the characters' conflicts.

The award goes to: Michael Lasswell for the Asolo's The Road to Ruin-an original and utilitarian design.

Best Lighting

The nominees are:

David M. Upton for the Players of Sarasota production of Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well & Living in Paris. Upton's range of mood lighting, from dark to gay, immeasurably aided in setting the tone for Brel's bittersweet songs.

James D. Sale for the Asolo's The Road to Ruin. Sale's subdued, not to say gloomy lighting effectively re-created the look and atmosphere of a candlelit London.

Sale again for the Asolo's The Diary of Anne Frank. Subtle lighting changes helped mark the passing of time within the cut-off, claustrophobic Secret Annex.

The award goes to: Upton, whose choices meshed so well with Brel's musical approach.

Best Choreography

The nominees are:

Rick Kerby for the Manatee Players' The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Kerby's rollicking moves were true to the folksy spirit of Twain's town and characters and lent the show much of its excitement.

Charlene Clark for the Golden Apple's Singin' in the Rain. Clark built on the famous routines from the MGM movie, adding her own sparkle to numbers both sentimental and funny.

Clark again for the Golden Apple's Bells Are Ringing. Clark provided lively steps for several important ensemble numbers, including a contagious cha-cha.

Reggie Kelly for the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe's Five Guys Named Moe. Thanks to Kelly, it felt like those Moes were always in moe-tion.

Kelly again, for WCBTT's Ain't Misbehavin. Kelly showed a flair for the period and the style of musician Fats Waller's songs, both upbeat and sad.

The award goes to: In the end, I liked Kelly's spirited, sassy work on Five Guys Named Moe the best.

Best Music Direction

The nominees are:

David Nelson for the Players of Sarasota production of HMS Pinafore. Nelson's direction was tight and tuneful, with the bright clarity Gilbert and Sullivan operettas demand.

Chris Petersen for the Manatee Players' The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Petersen's work was enthusiastically supportive of the performers and crucial to propelling the action.

Rick Bogner for Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. Bogner deserves credit for ably guiding his cast through Stephen Sondheim's diverse and sometimes difficult score.

LaTerry Butler for West Coast Black Theatre Troupe's Five Guys Named Moe. Butler and his band were hot, man.

Michael Sebastian for Florida Studio Theatre's The World Goes 'Round. Sebastian kept the Kander and Ebb tunes, whether comic, romantic or poignant, moving with professional flair.

The award goes to: Butler for Five Guys Named Moe. If you weren't dancing in your seat, you were probably dead.

Best Direction

The nominees are:

Scott Keys for Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. Keys made difficult material both comprehensible and compelling.

Sandy Davisson for VLT's Stage II production of Boom Town. Davisson kept every moment of this three-person piece packed with the promise of drama.

Leonard Rubinstein for the Players of Sarasota production of HMS Pinafore. Rubinstein demonstrated a sure understanding of how to stage Gilbert and Sullivan in faithful, sprightly fashion.

Rick Kerby for the Manatee Players' The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This production was a winner in statewide and regional community theater competitions, and Kerby's creative staging was a big reason why.

Isa Thomas for The Asolo's The Crucible. Carefully building up the hysteria of Salem, Thomas made us watch as though we didn't already know the historic outcome.

The award goes to: Scott Keys, for VLT's remarkable Assassins.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees are:

Merideth Maddox in the Asolo's The Crucible. Maddox played scheming accuser Abigail Williams with the right mix of surface innocence and inner duplicity.

Devora Millman in the Asolo's The Diary of Anne Frank. As Anne's mother, Millman's role was generally low-key, until the highly effective moment when she finally stood up for her family.

Judith Thompson in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II show Assassins. As hapless would-be killer Sara Jane Moore, Thompson was anything but a conventional musical heroine. But in her attempts to hold on to a gun long enough to use it, she was hysterical.

Dianne Dawson in Venice Little Theatre's Assassins. Playing "Squeaky" Fromme, Dawson made quite a comedy pair in scenes with Thompson. But she also conveyed the power of misguided adoration in her feelings for Charles Manson.

Sharon Spelman in the Asolo's The Millionairess. The show overall was not Shaw's best, but a scene with Spelman as a crooked, crafty old woman was priceless.

The award goes to: For deft comic timing and a fresh face, I opt for VLT newcomer Thompson.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees are:

Dean Chandler Bowden in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Boom Town. As a sleazy banker on the make who gets in over his head, Bowden managed to earn both our contempt and our compassion.

Joel Kipper for the Golden Apple's Singin' in the Rain. Kipper was the perfect comic foil, as well as a bundle of energy as he danced himself into a frenzy on classics like Make 'Em Laugh.

Andrew (aka Drew) Foster in the Asolo's The Diary of Anne Frank. As a growing boy torn apart by his parents' squabbles as much as his confinement and fear, Foster gave a fresh, sensitive performance.

Rodd Dyer for Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. Dyer has played lighter roles around town for years, but his work as anger-propelled would-be killer Sam Byck was a very successful stretch.

Craig Weiskerger for Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. As John Hinckley Jr., a loser with a killer crush, Weiskerger was properly pathetic and all too recognizable.

The award goes to: Rodd Dyer for VLT's Assassins. As with the other performers in this show, he was funny and scary at the same time.

Best Actress, Musical

The nominees are:

Forrest Richards in Florida Studio Theatre's The World Goes 'Round. It's usually hard to single out any one player in a musical revue where the ensemble reigns. But Richards was so on the money in telling the stories behind her songs that she stood out.

Teresa Stanley for West Coast Black Theatre Troupe's Ain't Misbehavin.' With her wide eyes, dazzling smile and powerful voice, it's next to impossible to take your eyes off Stanley onstage.

Kim Kollar in Venice Little Theatre's Guys and Dolls. Kollar gave good comic value as one of Broadway's most oft-presented heroines, the perpetually sniffy Miss Adelaide.

Dina LaVee Wilson for the Players of Sarasota production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. As brothel proprietor Miss Mona, Wilson could belt out her songs with the best of them. But she could also handle the show's more tender moments without getting maudlin.

Eve Caballero in the Players of Sarasota production of Hello, Dolly! Caballero was in full charge of the domineering Dolly from her first scene to her triumphant closer.

The award goes to: A tough one, but I'm giving the nod to Richards for her sure hold on her audience.

Best Actor, Musical

The nominees are:

Drew Foster in the Manatee Players' The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Teen-ager Foster had a demanding job as Tom, appearing in virtually every scene, but he was up to the task of portraying Twain's charming rogue.

Chris Caswell in the Players of Sarasota production of Annie. Caswell was a stalwart for the Players this past season, appearing in several productions. But it was as Daddy Warbucks that he had the most room to embrace a character-albeit a comic strip one.

David Covach in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. Covach was both frightening and funny as the woefully deluded Charles Guiteau, singing fervent hymns as he ascended the scaffold.

Steve Dawson in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Assassins. Dawson was smoothly plausible as "patriotic" killer and Southern gentleman John Wilkes Booth.

Kelly McCollum in the Golden Apple's Singin' in the Rain. McCollum was the definition of insouciance hoofing it to the title tune.

The award goes to: I just can't decide between Covach and Dawson. Both actors made Assassins chilling and compelling.

Best Actress, Play

The nominees are:

Polly Holliday in the Asolo's Free and Clear. It was good to see Holliday return after a long hiatus to the Asolo stage, and her performance as a woman striving to keep her family together was emotionally on target.

Lori Chase in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Boom Town. Chase had just the right deliberate, opaque presence for a cheating wife whose motives are in doubt.

Lauren Orkus in the Asolo's The Diary of Anne Frank. FSU/Asolo Conservatory student Orkus took to the mainstage in the role of adolescent, sometimes effervescent Anne, and had us completely believing in her youth and her vulnerability.

Sharon Spelman in the Asolo's The Road to Ruin. Spelman was a comic delight as a vain, wealthy widow under pursuit by more than one suitor-and loving every minute of it. We'll miss her when she goes on sabbatical next season.

Carolyn Michel in Florida Studio Theatre's Rose. Holding the stage all by herself as an aging survivor of communal and personal loss, Michel conveyed both humor and horror with skill.

The award goes to: Carolyn Michel, for what may be her best work yet.

Best Actor, Play

The nominees are:

Michael O. Smith for Florida Studio Theatre's The Bully Pulpit. Smith started out with the advantage of looking a bit like his character, Teddy Roosevelt. But the enthusiasm and art of this one-man show went beyond mere physical resemblance.

Murray Chase in Venice Little Theatre's Stage II production of Boom Town. As a man on the verge of an explosion, Chase kept us watching him intently every moment he was onstage.

David S. Howard for the Asolo's I'm Not Rappaport. Howard has played the role of aging rabble rouser Nat several times before, but there was nothing tired or rote about his touching and very funny portrayal.

Bryant Mason for the Asolo's Free and Clear. Mason's well-timed build-up of tension was just perfect for the role of a man whose wounds at the hands of his parents have festered past the point of healing.

Steven Clark Pachosa in the Banyan Theater Company's The Price. Pachosa was instantly believable as a working-class guy with conflicting feelings about his dead father, his educated brother, and his own choices in life.

The award goes to: Murray Chase, who faced down the competition with a brutally honest portrayal.

Best Play

The nominees are:

The Asolo for The Crucible. Still timely in its look at the anatomy of a witch hunt? You bet-and highly charged dramatically, too.

The Asolo for The Diary of Anne Frank. The Asolo assembled one of its strongest ensemble casts for this haunting yet hopeful piece.

Venice Little Theatre's Stage II for Boom Town. For those who know of actor-writer Jeff Daniels primarily for his film roles, the intensity of his look at a threesome caught up in deception was a revelation. So was the tautly directed cast.

The Asolo for Free and Clear. A pleasant surprise as the company breathed new life into an almost forgotten Robert Anderson play about a family reluctantly facing the truth about their relationships.

The Banyan Theater Company for The Price. The Banyan gave Arthur Miller's work about fathers and sons a production both emotional and honest.

The award goes to: A close call.but for sheer emotional impact, the winner is VLT's Boom Town.

Best Musical

The nominees are:

The Players of Sarasota for HMS Pinafore. Bright, funny and lively, Pinafore was the very model of a Gilbert and Sullivan outing.

Venice Little Theatre's Stage II for Assassins. It took guts for VLT to stage Stephen Sondheim's often dark look at the troubled misfits of history. It took talent to convey the wide range of song styles and the impact these tragicomic figures have had on all of us.

West Coast Black Theatre Troupe for Five Guys Named Moe. There's not much of a plot to this Louis Jordan tribute, but the performers were so engaging and the songs so infectious that the good times definitely rolled.

The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre for Singin' in the Rain. Even before the famous splashing number, this high-energy production evoked MGM movie memories while making a few of its own.

Florida Studio Theatre for The World Goes 'Round. A sometimes playful, sometimes poignant reminder of why we love the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb, performed with style and polish.

The award goes to: Venice Little Theatre's Assassins. When it came down to what stayed in my mind the longest, this one was it.

And here are a few special awards that didn't fit in the usual categories:

The "Cute Without Overdoing It" Award: To Trina Rizzo, a fourth-grader who tackled the demanding role of Annie with great aplomb in the Players of Sarasota production.

The "Staging a Story" Award: To Dennis Courtney for his work in directing and choreographing several shows for Florida Studio Theatre's mainstage and cabaret. Courtney has a rare gift for making musical revues mean something.

Best "Rediscovered Play" Award: A tie for two Asolo productions: Robert Anderson's family drama Free and Clear and Eberle Thomas' adaptation of Thomas Holcroft's 18th-century comedy The Road to Ruin. Let's hope future buried gems turn up to surprise us in seasons to come.

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