At Helen Hayes Awards, Signature’s ‘Hairspray’ takes musical honors

Signature Theatre’s “Hairspray” stood a beehive above the rest of Washington theater during Monday night’s Helen Hayes Awards at the Warner Theatre. The local revival of the popular show won five prizes, including the top honor as outstanding musical.

The good vibes were liberally shared as the evening’s 26 competitive awards were scattered among 14 troupes. No juggernauts emerged, although an especially good night was had by performers at Theater J. Mitchell Hebert won the Robert Prosky Award as outstanding lead actor for his fervent work as a character very similar to Arthur Miller in Miller’s “After the Fall,” while Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey won supporting actress honors for her alluring turn as the drama’s Marilyn Monroe figure.

Starring in Theater J’s co-production of “Parade” with Ford’s Theater, Euan Morton took the award as leading actor in a musical. The lead actress nod went to Carolyn Cole, playing the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray.”

The Hayes featured local actors Felicia Curry and Holly Twyford as hosts and invited figures from District politics (including D.C. Council member Jack Evans and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton) and the news media (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, NPR’s Nina Totenberg). Stardust was added when Kevin Spacey received the annual Helen Hayes Tribute.

Turning back to D.C. theater: Arena Stage’s lone win for a resident production (as opposed to a nonresident or touring show) was a big one, as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Ruined” was named outstanding play. Taking four awards, the most frequently honored play was the one with the most nominations (15): “King Lear” by the action-oriented Synetic Theater.

Irina Tsikurishvili of “Lear” won for choreography, a category she has dominated for a decade. This year, she shared the honor with co-choreographer Ben Cunis. Seven “Lear” actors were nominated; although none won, the company was named outstanding ensemble.

Directing honors for a play went to frequent winner Aaron Posner, for “Cyrano” at the Folger Theatre. Among musicals, although “Hairspray” garnered the most awards, Michael Baron nabbed the directing trophy for “A Year With Frog and Toad” at Adventure Theatre. (Eric Schaeffer, director of “Hairspray,” also directed “Follies” for the Kennedy Center, which was nominated for four awards and took home none. The show transferred to Broadway and is eligible for next month’s Tony Award nominations. On Monday, “Follies” picked up five nominations for the Outer Critics Circle Awards in New York.)

Honors for lead actress in a play were shared by Erica Sullivan of Studio Theatre’s “Venus in Fur” and Rena Cherry Brown of the Bay Theatre Company’s “Wit.” Brown’s triumph was the first Hayes Award for the 10-year-old Bay Theatre, in Annapolis. Fairfax County’s Hub Theatre claimed its first trophy in its young history, as Marc Acito’s “Birds of a Feather” was named outstanding new play.

In noncompetitive categories, Jane Lang and Paul Sprenger, who led the development of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, were given The Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership. The John Aniello Award for emerging troupes went to Faction of Fools Theatre Company, specialists in commedia dell’arte.

The Hayes Awards are in their 28th year, and the organization presenting them recently rechristened itself as Theatre­Washington. Monday night’s ceremony recognized shows produced during 2011, with 60 trained volunteer judges evaluating 192 eligible productions by 53 theaters.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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