In their 30th year, the organizers of the Helen Hayes Awards tossed out the old script and started the partying before handing out any trophies.
Did banquet tables full of hors d’oeuvres and open bars outlining the floor of the National Building Museum distract from the on-stage presentations? Yes, but most seemed to enjoy the new format.
After years of putting Washington’s theater professionals and patrons through a long, seated show at the Warner Theatre followed by an after-party in the belly of the JW Marriott Hotel, TheatreWashington moved venues and rearranged the ceremony to allow people to choose between sitting in front of a makeshift stage or mingling with a snack and a drink.
Most chose the refreshments, a fact TheatreWashington’s president, Linda Levy, noted in her opening remarks when she encouraged people to grab a chair instead of clustering around macaroni-and-cheese displays. But there were only a dozen rows of seats, leaving most people hovering around the cavernous atrium to eat, drink, chat, and post photographs on Instagram, which were displayed on large screens during the two intermissions. Levy herself found a spot in the back of the room, holding court from a colossal deck chair placed by Celebrity Cruises, which she said is hosting a theater-themed voyage later this year.
Free-flowing victuals aside, there were many theater achievements to celebrate on Monday night, especially for Signature Theatre, which led all stage companies with eight awards, including three for its Hello, Dolly! co-production with Ford’s Theatre. The critically praised show won outstanding musical (a tie with Olney Theatre Center’s A Chorus Line), choreography, and ensemble in a resident production. Signature also swept the acting categories for resident musicals, with James Gardiner winning for The Last Five Years, Diana Huey for Miss Saigon, Bobby Smith for Spin, and Erin Weaver for Company. Jon Kalbfleisch was named outstanding musical director for his work in Signature’s run of Gypsy.
The Book of Mormon, the demand for which crashed the Kennedy Center’s website multiple times when tickets when on sale last year, won outstanding visiting musical, along with the trophies for supporting performer (Samantha Marie Ware) and lead actor (Christopher John O’Neill).
Round House Theatre’s revival of Glengarry Glen Ross also nabbed three awards for resident plays, including director Mitchell Hébert, lead actor Rich Foucheux, and best ensemble.
No single production dominated the field, but Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Stupid F**king Bird, a cheeky riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, won two of the biggest prizes with outstanding resident play and outstanding new play or musical for playwright Aaron Posner. The show’s title, which doesn’t actually include asterisks, clearly delighted presenters, who emphasized its middle word.
Along with a more convivial atmosphere, this year’s Helen Hayes Awards put a premium on efficiency. Hosts Ed Gero, currently in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Henry IV and Donna Migliaccio, who is about to star in Signature’s Threepenny Opera, were more timekeepers than witty schmoozers.
The ceremony, cut up in to three “acts,” allowed winners only 30 seconds to give their thanks, lest they risk being sung off by the on-stage chorus of Sam Ludwig, Rachel Zampelli, and Ashleigh King, who broke into The Sound of Music’s “So Long, Farewell,” whenever someone ran over, like Dawn Ursula, who won outstanding supporting actress for her work in Woolly’s The Convert.
Only Victor Shargai, TheatreWashington’s longtime chairman until last October, was allowed to speak at length when he was presented with a Helen Hayes Tribute, a segment that included a video message from Angela Lansbury. “I thank Helen with all of my heart for doing this,” Shargai said, his shirt unbuttoned down to his sternum.
Adele Robey and Julia Robey Christian, the founders of the Anacostia Playhouse, were also presented with a special leadership award for opening their theater in Southeast DC.
The new, speeded-up format of the Helen Hayes Awards turned the annual event from a formal ceremony into more of an extended cocktail party that falls on the most important date on the local theater community’s calendar. But people liked it, and it was a good test run for next year, when TheatreWashington splits the awards between unionized and non-union shows, but tries not to double the length of the event.