Masterful turn in 'Good Night, Oscar' earns Glen Ellyn's Sean Hayes his first Jeff Award
Emmy Award-winner and Glen Ellyn native Sean Hayes picked up his first Joseph Jefferson Equity Award Monday night for his tour-de-force performance as pianist/composer/raconteur Oscar Levant in Goodman Theatre's premiere of the Broadway-bound "Good Night, Oscar."
"Since I was a theater kid in Chicago, I wanted to win a Jeff Award. I thought that would be the coolest thing in the world," said the "Will & Grace" veteran, whose love of theater was nurtured at Glenbard West High School, Illinois State University and Pheasant Run Theater, where he served as music director.
Thanking Goodman for mounting the play, Hayes praised Doug Wright, describing the playwright as "touched with a talent that is beyond this world," then added, "Thanks to everyone here for loving theater."
Cassidy Slaughter-Mason also received a Jeff for principal performance in a play for her role in Raven Theatre's "The Luckiest."
"Good Night, Oscar" earned Wright, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner, a best new work award for his droll, poignant portrait of Levant, once the premier interpreter of George Gershwin's music.
Wright shared the award with "Relentless" playwright Tyla Abercrumbie.
"Good Night, Oscar" also earned Jeff Awards for large play, set and sound design.
Accepting the award for best large play, Wright thanked Hayes, describing him as the production's "spiritual father."
"Thanks to Chicago for supporting a play that makes the case that humor can bind us all together," said Wright. "In troubling and dangerous times, humor still has a responsibility to provoke."
Composer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca was recognized for her original music for Goodman's "Gem of the Ocean," bringing Goodman's total to six, which tied Aurora's Paramount Theatre for most awards.
Paramount earned all its awards for its exuberant revival of "Kinky Boots," the most honored equity production of the 2021-22 season.
Paramount's September 2021 production heralded the resumption of in-person, indoor theater in the suburbs following the 18-month, pandemic-induced hiatus. The first locally produced production of the musical, Paramount's production received awards for large musical, director Trent Stork, principal musical performer Michael Wordly, supporting performer Sara Reinecke, costume designer Ryan Park and music director Kory Danielson.
Accepting his award, Wordly shared a story about a 60-something man who "did not understand gay people and was not a fan of queer people at all. ... We changed his view. ... We did that," he said.
"A few months ago, I was ready to leave this business," he said. "I feel like God's not done with me yet."
The 54th annual ceremony was the first in-person Jeff Awards celebration since 2019. Established in 1968, the equity Jeff Awards recognize excellence in Chicago area union theater. The non-equity wing established in 1973 recognizes excellence in nonunion theater.
The lifetime achievement award went to longtime Goodman resident director, producer, educator and board member Chuck Smith, whose contributions to Chicago theater span five decades. A Paul Robeson Award recipient, Smith has helmed 22 Goodman productions including: Pearl Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky"; August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"; the musical revue "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the 1993 to 1995 productions of "A Christmas Carol" among many others.
"The off-Loop Chicago theater community I became part of in the 1970s at the Kingston Mines has grown into the Chicago performing arts industry," said Smith. "We have become very good at what we do."
Smith cautioned he fellow theater artists to "be careful swimming out there in the water of the internet ... where negative comments float to the top and stay there."
"Here we are trained as healing agents for change. Let's try to figure out a way to work and come together more often than just to accept awards," Smith said.
This year marked the introduction of a new category for productions running between nine and 17 performances. The Jeff Committee added the categories to acknowledge equity theaters producing shorter runs as well as companies rebounding from the pandemic.
Among the winners in the short run category was First Folio Theatre artistic associate Angela Weber Miller, recognized for her set design for Theater Wit's "Who's Holiday!"
Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "Steel Magnolias" earned a Jeff for best ensemble in a play, which the cast shared with Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy" ensemble. "Steel Magnolias" cast member Elizabeth Ledo and "Choir Boy" cast member Sheldon D. Brown also received awards for supporting performers in a play.
Drury Lane's third Jeff Award went to Richard Bermudez for his principal performance as Che in "Evita."
Accepting her supporting performance as the Mother Abbess in Marriott Theatre's "The Sound of Music," Daniella Dalli thanked the cast and creative team "for making this out-of-towner feel like she belonged."
Oft-nominated choreographer Alex Sanchez earned his first Jeff Award for Marriott's revival of "West Side Story." Christian Kelly-Sordelet and David Blixt were recognized for their fight choreography for Writers Theatre's "Athena," and Bethany Thomas received the solo performance award for Northlight Theatre's "Songs for Nobodies."
Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre received five awards for "The Moors" including mid-size play, director Kirsten Fitzgerald as well as costume, sound and lighting design.
Porchlight Music Theatre's "Blues in the Night" revue earned awards for revue, star Felicia P. Fields, director Kenny Ingram and musical director David Fiorello.