Marriott's 'Ragtime' named best large musical at 2018 Jeff Awards
By Barbara Vitello
Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire ended Paramount Theatre's three-year winning streak Monday when the Joseph Jefferson Award Committee named the former's lauded revival of "Ragtime" 2018's best large musical.
Marriott's production also earned three-time equity Jeff winner Nick Bowling his fourth directing award.
"'Ragtime' is about change. It's about progress for women, for immigrants and for the African-American community," Bowling said. "For me, that production was about how we haven't come very far. Sadly, I'm the 100th white guy standing up here tonight."
"You've been so kind to me over the years and I appreciate it. But it's time to change and this is where it starts, right here," he said pointing to Lili-Anne Brown, who is black and was named best director for a mid-size production for American Blues Theater's "Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story."
The near capacity crowed responded with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
Now in its 50th year, the Jeff Awards recognize achievement in Chicago-area equity theater. Monday's event at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace was punctuated by archival footage from past ceremonies and well wishes from former winners including Hollis Resnik, E. Faye Butler and Deanna Dunagan. Dunagan, who received Jeff and Tony Awards for "August: Osage County," encouraged her fellow artists to be patient, pointing out that it took her 23 years to win her first Jeff.
Accepting his first equity Jeff for supporting performance as Big Daddy in Drury Lane's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Matt DeCaro one-upped Dunagan, remarking it took him 40 years.
"It's been the great joy of my life to be part of this community," he said. "I'm so proud to be a Chicago actor."
Aurora's Paramount had two productions among the five large musical nominees -- "Cabaret" and "Million Dollar Quartet." The latter earned singer/actor/musician Gavin Rohrer an award for supporting musical performance. Rohrer paid tribute to his fellow nominees calling them phenomenal people.
"I'm honored to be considered a peer," he said.
Matt Crowle also won a supporting performance Jeff for his work in Drury Lane's "South Pacific."
To advance diversity and inclusivity, the Jeff committed introduced gender-neutral designations for principal and supporting acting categories for both plays and musicals. Each of the four performance categories had 10 nominees and two recipients, meaning the number of winners in the performance categories remained the same. Two other categories -- solo performance and performance in a revue -- have long been gender-neutral as have directing and artistic design categories.
The outcome may not have been what the committee intended, however. Of the 48 nominated performers, 28 or 58.3 percent were male and 20 or 41.6 percent were female. Among the winners the percentage was even higher with 10 male winners vs. three female winners.
Leading all theaters was Chicago's ABT whose "Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story" received five awards, including the Jeff for mid-size musical and musical ensemble. Brown, musical director Michael Mahler and principal performer Zachary Stevenson were also honored for their work on the show.
"I'm only up here because the cast is so incredibly talented," said Mahler who thanked his wife, actress Dara Cameron, who "makes our life possible."
Stevenson, a transplant from Canada, thanked the community for its warm welcome. Also earning the award for principal actor in a musical was Jason Grimm, who won for Marriott's "Murder for Two."
Goodman Theatre received four awards for its remount of Belgian director Ivo van Hove's visceral "A View from the Bridge" which earned nods for direction and best large play. The cast of Goodman's "The Wolves" was named best play ensemble.
Ellen Fairey's "Support Group for Men" was one of three best new work award winners. Writer/lyricist Dan Collins and composer Julianne Wick Davis earned a new work award for "Trevor the Musical," which premiered at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Boo Killebrew also received a new work award for "Lettie," which premiered at Victory Gardens Theater and earned Caroline Neff a Jeff for her principal performance in the titular role.
Tara Mallen was also named best principal performer in a play for "The Cake" at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Kate Fry received the solo performance award for playing poet Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" at Court Theatre. Lorenzo Rush Jr., of West Chicago, was named best performer in a revue.
Christopher Kriz received the mid-size sound design award for First Folio Theatre's "Mary's Wedding" whose cast "made it easy for me to bring this story to life," said Kriz who received the same award for the Oak Brook theater's 2012 production of "The Turn of the Screw."
Paul Kim's work on "The Explorers Club," for first-time nominee Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest, earned him a Jeff for mid-size costume design. Jared Grimes picked up the choreography award for his electrifying dances moves for Drury Lane's "42nd Street."
A suburban mainstay for nearly 80 years (the last 34 in Oakbrook Terrace, the first 45 in Evergreen Park), Drury Lane was among four Chicago-area theaters recognized for their longevity during Monday's ceremony. Other honorees include Goodman Theatre, a 93-year American institution; Court Theatre, founded in 1955 as a summer drama festival at the University of Chicago; and The Second City which has emerged over 59 years as the nation's pre-eminent sketch and improv comedy training ground.
Representing 294 years of theater, they've collectively received more than 1,400 nominations and 350 Jeff Awards.