The 27th Annual Ostrander Awards show began at 7 p.m. on Sunday, August 29th with a live performance by the cast of Hank Williams: Lost Highway
Oh wait, that wasn't the Lost Highway cast. Sorry about that but my camera misfired and I missed the one number I wanted most to preserve. This group of actor-musicians fronted by Tim Greer transcended a messy script and put the lanky, cranky ghost of Hank Williams Sr. in front of some surprised and truly appreciative audiences. They might as well have been the real thing.
The fake Drifting Cowboys were followed by a monologue in which Janie McCrary the theater awards tireless organizer made many amusing if not always accurate comments. La Cage director Mitzi Hamilton wasn't the first Memphis director to cast Jonathan Christian in a drag role, silly goose. Way back in the 1990's a reluctant Christian, who was new to Memphis and worried that he might be typecast, signed on to play a grotesque yet strangely MILFy old gypsy woman in New Bridge Theatre Ensemble's production of Tennessee WIlliams' 10-Blocks on the Camino Real at TheatreWorks. Christian was brilliant although some of the credit has to go to a young visionary director whose name escapes me although I seem to recall that he became some kind of theater blogger for The Memphis Flyer, whatever that means.
McCrary—who didn't hurt my feelings at all with her drag dis— went on to describe the shoddy state of state of theater journalism in Memphis right there in front of her co-sponsors the Journalists. It wasn't the most elegant way to transition into into a pitch for ArtsMemphis' own stable of critics, and a website where readers can find reviews written by a show's producing angel. In fact, it was really kind of awkward but Janie's always a hoot and the weirdness passed quickly enough.
Well, like the sister asked, are you ready for some rewards?
Unsurprisingly AGYG is beautifully designed and the cast boasts a goodly handful of genuine talents. But director Jason Spitzer—a fabulous actor who also helmed GCT's unconscionably awful production of Gorey Stories— has stripped the show of anything that might pass for humanity or style. There's too much mugging, not enough choreography, and punchlines are delivered directly to the audience with a corn pone attitude reminiscent of Hee Haw, but less authentic.
It's a shame that this old warhorse has been given the old warhorse treatment. The gun-totin', rootin'-tootin'-ness of it all should really appeal to the Sarah Palin-loving, immigrant-hating TEA party crowd. And God knows those folks could all stand to learn a little bit about Irving Berlin, who escaped from Russia with his family at the turn of the last century and grew up to compose the all-American anthem “God Bless America.” Although it may seem dated on the surface, there's plenty about this show and its back story to recommend it to contemporary audiences.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Character actor John McFerrin plays opportunistic hotel proprietor Foster Wilson with all the quirk and detail of a Preston Sturges character while Jeffrey Brewer is a smaller-than-life Buffalo Bill who disappears beneath his Big Gulp hat and luxurious hair. Ashley Bugg Brown, a gifted comic performer who seldom disappoints, seems to be hamstrung by the production's hollow, presentational style and is only occasionally effective as the shrewish bigot Dolly Tate. Shawn Brian Reed is often quite good as Sitting Bull although he's been painted brown and his biggest laugh comes from a gag so offensive my few drops of Native American blood started ghost dancing in my veins.
Kent Fleshman's Frank Butler, the vain, macho gunslinger ousted by Annie Oakley from his position as the star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, is a little wooden. He's also the only authentically human presence currently appearing on stage at Theatre Memphis. In other words, he sometimes seems completely out of place, as though he might be doing another show. He is paired with Kirie Walz, a vastly gifted performer with a personality that explodes off the stage. But in this production Annie Oakley is never allowed to be much more than a clownish hayseed and there's not enough chemistry between her and Fleshman to fill a test tube.
Theatre Memphis' Annie isn't all bad. The orchestra sounds great and the songs are all lovingly sung. But take that away and there's really not much left. Hopefully for Theatre Memphis that will be enough. It was often enough for an opening night crowd that sang along with every number.
The Great White Way has produced some real crap over the years. You can revel in some of it here.
Also remember that I'm having a little contest of my own. My Ostrander predictions are here. If you can outguess me and everyone else who enters there's $60 worth of beer (or food if that's what you're into) from The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium with your name on it. In case of a tie we'll have a drawing. The deadline for predictions is Saturday, August 28.
And speaking of Hairspray...
When I saw Hairspray I sat near a chatty theater judge that I've known for years. He complained to me that The Emerald Theatre Company—a small TheatreWorks-based group dedicated to producing works aimed at gay audiences— had petitioned to be judged. He said—and with due concern— that he didn't know how a judging team already responsible for 40 shows could add any more companies to their viewing schedule. I told him I didn't know how they could refuse a group that's been around as long as Etc. Then again— and in spite of all protestations that will surely be made in comments to this post—in practice there has never been a completely satisfying policy regarding to who gets to play with the big kids and who rides the bench. The now-defunct Memphis Black Rep was up for awards after its first season while the similarly-focused Hattiloo has waited five years. 2009-10 was also the first season of consideration for Voices of the South, a different kind of professional company founded in the 1990's and dedicated to creating and adapting new work. Who knows when (or if) the (also professional) Tennessee Shakespeare Company will be included in the process?
I don't pretend to know how to reorganize the system to insure that the judging process is fair for everybody (including—and perhaps especially— the judges) but I do know that local theater is expanding. The alternative scene stabilized and grew after the founding of TheatreWorks. It stands to reason that the availability of the new Evergreen Theatre (the old Circuit Playhouse) will allow a whole new crop of companies to take root and flourish. And somehow, over time, The Ostranders must figure out how to make sure that everybody who wants to play by the rules gets a shot at all the fabulous prizes.
This year's nominees do, for the most part, represent the best of what Memphis' 2009-10 Theater season had to offer. There are, however, some glaring oversights and a handful of real head scratchers. So without much ado (literally... will that show be eligible next year, or did it exist in the limbo of "special summer offerings?) here are my predictions for this year's Ostrander Awards.
The Ostranders is an annual awards ceremony honoring excellence in the Memphis theatre community. This will be the 27th year of the awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, August 29th, from 6-11pm in Hardin Hall at the Memphis Botanic Garden.
There will be cocktails and hors d'oeuvres from 6-7, awards ceremony at 7, followed by an after party with music and dancing.
The full list of nominees can be found here.
Use the PayPal link below to purchase tickets to this year's awards ceremony.
UPDATE 8/29/10 10:15a
Advance ticket sales have ended. You may still purchase tickets at the door for $10 each.
This year's nominations all seem fairly obvious, although there is at least one name missing from the list below that has me absolutely stunned. Can anybody else guess who that may be? Hint: He was in a show that received several nominations and he could have been nominated for either best leading or supporting actor depending on how the judges wanted to call it. I'll go into greater detail about this in a later post. Meanwhile, talk among yourselves. Tell me who you think was left out, and who you think should go home with an Ozzie.