Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Ostranders 2018: Picks, Pans, and "Who Got ROBBED?!?!"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2018 at 11:35 AM

click to enlarge Maness 4-ways.
  • Maness 4-ways.
You know what? As long as John Maness wins something, I don’t care about anything else this year. If the Ostrander committee misses all the rest by miles and miles, I’ll be satisfied for the ounce of justice done. Because … holy crap! After this season, the O-committee should consider a “John Maness hardest-working-person in Memphis Theater” trophy. With a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic married to the soul of a magician and escape artist, he hammers out one unique character after another and vanishes inside them. I mean, who the hell does this guy think he is, Erin Shelton?

Nevertheless, the time has come, once again, for shade to be cast and predictions made in regard to this year’s crop of nominees and nominees that might have been if only the universe wasn’t so frequently unfair. It’s the season when the Intermission Impossible team wonders what it is our tireless, too human Ostrander judges might be smoking. When we ask the one question on every right-thinking thespian’s mind — “WHO GOT ROBBED?”

I want to see J. David Galloway take home the set design for New Moon’s lovely, immersive, and necessarily inventive design for Eurydice. I’ve been frustrated in the past by designers who quote or wink at surrealism when what’s needed is something approaching the real thing. Not every aspect of Galloway’s design was as dreamy as it might have been, but the microbudget masterpiece engaged imaginations, enabling the kind of stage magic money can’t buy.
That said, bigger, better-funded companies still have advantages in design categories and I suspect the judges may prefer Jack Yates’ outstanding work on The Drowsy Chaperone or the ordinary otherworldliness of Tim McMath’s design for Fun Home at Playhouse on the Square.

But what about the eye-candy that was An Act of God (also Yates)? What about 12 Angry Jurors, an environment so real yet another confounded patron tried to use the onstage bathroom (also Yates)? If it sounds like I’m arguing for more Jack Yates nominations, maybe I am. But I’m also making a case that there’s been some good design this season, and given a different set of sensibilities, this category might have swung another direction entirely. There might have been nods for the elegant emptiness of Bryce Cutler’s Once, at Playhouse on the Square, or the grubby, unfussy realism of Phillip Hughen’s design for The Flick at Circuit Playhouse. I look forward to seeing how this category evolves as New Moon continues to mature, and smaller Memphis’ companies leverage thoughtfulness against more tangible resources. 
click to enlarge Falsettos.
  • Falsettos.

It’s wrong that Mandy Heath wasn’t nominated for lighting Falsettos but I can live with the slight as long as she wins the prize for Eurydice. That’s really all I have to say about that.

Once is a stunt musical — and what a terrific stunt! It’s part concert, part narrative drama, with the actors doubling down as their own orchestra. The three-chord score’s not Sondheim but casting players who are also, well... players isn’t easy. And pulling off a piece musical theater where the songs feel more like barroom romps than show tunes, requires a different kind of sophistication. I suspect the thrice-nominated Nathan McHenry will take this prize. He should take it for Once.

Who got robbed? Maybe nobody this year.

For excellence in sound design there are a few nominees, but really only one choice. Joe Johnson’s dreamy original score for Eurydice didn’t enhance the designed environment. It completed it.

I was happy to see choreographers Ellen Inghram and Jared Johnson nominated for the wit and wisdom permeating their work on Falsettos. It would be nice to see them win over the flashier entries in this category. No robberies here.

When it comes to the non-musicals, best female lead and supporting roles are almost always the toughest category to call because year after year they are overstuffed with contenders. While Kim Sanders was her usual perfect self in both A Perfect Arrangement and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the double nomination in the supporting category may not double her odds against commanding, emotionally wrenching turns by Jessica “Jai” Johnson in Ruined and Erin Shelton in All Saints in the Old Colony. Kell Christie was the best Emelia I’ve ever seen and a perfect match for John Maness’ woman-hating Iago in New Moon’s Othello. Any other year Christie would be my #1 pick. She’s a longshot compared to Shelton and Johnson and I’m hard pressed to say who’s more deserving of the honor.
click to enlarge Opera 901 Showcase
  • Opera 901 Showcase
Who got robbed? Although FEMMEemphis’ productions aren’t under consideration, basically the entire cast of Collective Rage. Quark’s similarly out of the running but in the young company’s very adult production of The Nether, young Molly McFarland stood shoulder to shoulder with grownup co-stars and delivered a brave, polished performance. As the youngest of the Weston daughters in Theatre Memphis’ tepid August: Osage County, Emily F. Chateau was damn near perfect — as fragile as Laura Wingfield’s glass unicorn and as likely to cut you if broken. ROBBED AS HELL!

Anne Marie Caskey does consistently professional work but she seemed miscast in Theatre Memphis’ not altogether successful production of August: Osage County. Ostrander loves Caskey (as do I) and her inclusion here might seem less bewildering if not for the absence of Michelle Miklosey’s pitch perfect Eurydice  Tracy Hansom's good old fashioned curtain chew in Stage Kiss. Were I one of these two ladies, I’d take The Oblivains strong advice and call the police. Because, ROBBED! OMG ROBBED!

Some of the best female leads this season did their thing just outside Ostrander’s natural reach. Jillian Baron and Julia Baltz were equally badass in FEMMEmphis’ Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. But let’s be real. All this talk of robbery is purely academic because each of these fantastic performances paled next to to Maya Geri Robinson’s larger-than-life depiction of a Congolese Mother Courage in Ruined at Hattiloo. And Robinson's performance may have only been the season’s second best. I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve ever seen an actor own a show like Morgan Watson owned Sunset Baby, also at Hattiloo.
click to enlarge Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!
  • Emily F. Chateau. The F stands for F-ing ROBBED!

The list for Best Supporting Actor is strong. It’s so strong I’m picking Bertram Williams for Ruined even though I started this column cheering for John Maness in anything. The list of nominees might also have included nods to Jeff Kirwan for his performances in New Moon’s Buried Child, Eurydice or both. It's worth noting (yet again) that every performance in All Saints in the Old Colony approached a personal best and Marques Brown was ROBBED!

I don’t know what the theater judges had against Buried Child but James Dale Green’s Dodge is a glaring best actor omission. So is Emmanuel McKinney, who gave a knockout performance as Muhammad Ali in the uneven Fetch Clay, Make Man. Both of these men should post on Nextdoor.com right away to let everybody know they were ROBBED! Once that’s been done, can we please all agree to give this year’s prize to John Maness? And can we go ahead make it for everything he touched this season? I say this with deep appreciation for and apologies to All Saints’ Greg Boller and Jitney’s Lawrence Blackwell who both delivered special, award-worthy performances in a season where the competition happened to be a little stiffer than usual.

I take it from the sheer number of nominations in the category of Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, the Ostrander judges liked Fun Home. Me too. But maybe not enough to give any category a near sweep. Especially when it might be appropriate to co-nominate Fun Home’s small and medium Alison in order to make room for Falsettos’ Jaclyn Suffel and/or Christina Hernandez who were both ROBBED!

A taste of Once's pre-show jam.
Like I said, Ostrander very clearly likes Fun Home this year with the odd exception of adult Alison, Joy Brooke-Fairfield. So, individual nominations aside, I’m predicting a joint win for the two Alisons. Of course Annie Freres was a force of nature as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone. All else being equal, she was probably the most outstanding nominee in a field of outstanding nominees.

Best Female Lead in a Musical is a heartbreaker category because everybody nominated is ridiculously talented. Nobody in town has pipes like DreamgirlsBreyannah Tillman, who’s also proving to be a formidable actor. But Emily F. Chateau also had an amazing year and may have been better in Falsettos than she was in August: Osage County. Gia Welch is a precocious powerhouse. She was great in Chaperone, but might also have been nominated for work on 42nd Street or Heathers. Meanwhile, Once’s Lizzy Hinton and Shrek’s Lynden Lewis occupy opposite corners of this playing field. The former helped build a complete world out of song and mirrors.The later was almost buried in spectacle but made heart and soul so much more important than green makeup and ogre costumes.

Let me let you in on a secret: Like Lena Younger’s striving son Walter, Patricia Smith was ROBBED! She should have gotten a nod for her work in the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. I’m gonna talk about Raisin later on in this seemingly endless column, but frankly, that whole cast might want to call a personal injury attorney because they were dealt a disservice up front then ripped off by out appraisers!

Given all of Fun Home’s nominations in other categories, the omission of Joy Brooke-Fairfield feels oddly pointed. Fun Home’s a show that might challenge traditional gender divisions in these kinds of awards and when I didn’t see the older Alison included in this category, I so I double checked the whole list to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. But there was no Joy to be found anywhere, and that sentence is every bit as sad as it sounds. ROBBED!

I’d like to see Joshua Pierce win the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category for Theatre Memphis’ superlative take on Falsettos. But I missed First Date and Dreamgirls this season and, truth be told, I don’t understand Shrek’s appeal. Too disoriented by this category to make a fair call. That almost never happens. Y'all tell me.

Best Leading Actor in a Musical is yet another heartbreaker category. Shrek’s never going to be my thing, but it’s very clearly Justin Asher’s, and he was a mighty fine ogre,  loving every second of big green stage time. Stephen Huff was so at home in Fun Home it’s now almost impossible for me to imagine anybody else in his role. And I kinda feel the same about Jason Spitzer’s near definitive take on The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair. But I've gotta say, having been underwhelmed by his pitchy turn in Heathers, I was most impressed by Conor Finnerty-Esmonde's take on the hard-luck musician in Once. But when I filter out personal taste in music and storytelling and just let myself focus on the difficulty and potency of the performances represented here, one actor’s work really stands out. Villains are fun to play but nothing's harder than a complex character who's hard-to-like but can't be allowed to become a villain. Cary Vaughn, in his finest of many fine performances, plowed through Falsettos like a steamroller. Still standing. Still applauding this entire cast.
click to enlarge Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
  • Eurydice — Awfully good looking.
But what about Kortland Whalum? Where is his name? I’ll be the first to admit, Raisin was tragically underproduced. The scenic environment felt unfinished, and in an intimate space like Hattiloo, nothing sucks the soul from musical performances like warm bodies performing to cold tracks. But somehow, in spite of everything the actors had working against them, Raisin’s cast collectively overcame. I can’t blame the Ostrander for not rewarding the production, but when you factor in the odds against, no cast was more ROBBED than this one. I’ll brook zero argument: No actor deserves to this category half as much as Whalum. Folks are welcome to disagree on this point, but folks who do are flat wrong. ROBBED!

If Jamel “JS” Tate doesn’t win Best Featured Performer in a Drama for Jittny I’m personally calling in the FBI. Annie Freres is likely to win Best Featured in a musical for her flashy roll-on as the Dragon in Shrek. Or maybe it will go to Breyannah Tillman, who stuck the landing in her role as The Drowsy Chaperone’s show-stopping aviatrix. But James Dale Green stopped time with nothing but his weatherbeaten tenor, a strummed mandolin, and a compelling story to tell. That sounds like a winner to me. Who got Robbed? Once’s Chris Cotton, that’s who.

I’m totally happy if the Ensemble award goes to All Saints in the Old Colony, Falsettos, Fun Home, Jitney, or A Perfect Arrangement. All are deserving, though Jitney may be just a little bit more deserving than all the rest. But how in the blankety-blankblanblank did Once not make this list? The cast doesn’t just act together, they also make music together — acoustic music. Music largely unaided by electronics and amplification. Music so thoroughly human it connects past and future like a time machine made of skin, bone, wood and string. I’m happy if the award goes to any of the fantastic nominees, but no matter who wins the judges lose on this account. Once was the season’s ultimate ensemble show, and POTS’s ensemble crushed it. The pre-show hoedown was worth the price of admission. BOO!

As long as I’m complaining about the judges, OMG! Why is Tony Isbell nominated for excellence in direction of a drama for Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf? Don’t misunderstand, I come to praise this year’s lifetime achievement honoree, not to dis him. Isbell absolutely should have been nominated in this category, but for his work on The Nether (not eligible). Or his work on Years to the Day (also not eligible). Or maybe even his work on Stage Kiss (eligible and solid but fuck-you ignored). I’d go so far as to say he got ROBBED! in spite of bing nominated. This insubstantial work is a jarring inclusion next to Dr. Shondrika Moss-Bouldin’s unflinching approach to Ruined and the inventiveness of Jamie Boller’s Eurydice. Not to mention the hyper-detailed character development, and ensemble work Jeff Posson oversaw for All Saints in the Old Colony and the flawless world-building of Steve Broadnax’s Jitney. I’m calling this one for Posson, but it could go in almost any direction.

Best production of a drama? I like Jitney, though I’ve not pegged it as a winner in many other categories. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the case here, though the parts were also quite good. Should All Saints in the Old Colony win, it’s every bit as deserving and, being a new script and the underdog here, maybe even more deserving.

I’m betting the darkhorse for excellence in Direction of a Musical and calling this one for Jerry Chipman and Falsettos. Everything else was bigger or flashier or more current in some way or another, even the stripped down Once. But life’s about balance, and Chipman’s production had nary a hair out of place that wasn’t supposed to be out of place.


Looking at the nominee spread, my gut tells me Fun Home was the judges’ favorite musical this season, and why wouldn't it be? It was flawlessly cast, and beautifully performed. But this wasn't the best work I’ve seen from director Dave Landis. I saw the performance with two companions. One wept openly, responding to the story and the characters. The other complained all the way home about the musical’s almost complete lack of action and visual/physical dynamics. I became the most unpopular person in the car when I said I thought they were both 100-percent right to feel the way they felt. Up to this point I’ve been #TeamFalsettos but I’m calling this one for Once. The other shows were great, but they were shows. Once was an event.

“Theaters not actively engaged in creating new material are passively engaged in their own obsolescence.” — Me.

Yeah, I totally quoted myself, but there’s not much I believe more than that. It’s one of the reasons I think the Ostrander Awards for Best Original Script and Best Production of an Original Script, may be more important than nice. In the future, judges might even consider beating the bushes a little on this front, and looking beyond the usual qualifying companies. All Saints in the Old Colony is a fantastic new script. It will win these categories, and it will know productions and awards beyond Memphis. But now would be a good time for all the folks who contributed words and music to Opera Memphis’ all-original 901 Opera Festival to cancel their credit cards because they have been ROBBED! OM might not be under consideration, but if we’re looking for superlatives, I can’t recall a more impressive example of new musical theater in the 901. Not 
Tony Isbell in "Red"
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"
since OM’s 2014 production of Ghosts of Crosstown heralded the rebirth of a neighborhood.

That may not cover every category, but it’s all I’ve got for now. Who did I forget?

Also, stay tuned for a Q&A with lifetime achievement honoree Tony Isbell.

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