‘Color Purple,’ ‘Dreamgirls’ musicals lead nominations at Helen Hayes Awards

The dish from the Helen Hayes Awards announcement Monday night: The most nominations for a musical went to a show from a dinner theater.

The Toby’s Dinner Theatre production of “The Color Purple” scraped the buffet clean with eight nominations, followed by seven for “Dreamgirls” at Signature Theatre.

Among straight plays, two shows led the field with nine nominations each: Woolly Mammoth’s wrestling-as-American-politics drama, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” and Folger Theatre’s mournful Wild West take on “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“Shrew” and “Chad Deity” will compete for the honor as Outstanding Resident Play, (which, in the Hayes scheme of annually recognizing achievements in Washington theater, is akin to Best Picture). So will the Studio Theatre’s adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” with seven nominations, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s five-time nominated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Holocaust-themed “Our Class” from Theater J. Oddly, “Our Class” had no other nods.

The Outstanding Resident Musical slate might be notable for what’s not included: Arena Stage’s lavish productions of “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady.” Those shows managed five nominations between them, none for the leading performers or for Arena honcho Molly Smith’s direction. The musical nominees include two directors from Imagination Stage, a theater for young audiences: Kathryn Chase Bryer for “Rapunzel” and Janet Stanford for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Making the cut with “Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls” for top musical honors: “1776” from Ford’s Theatre and two works from smaller troupes, the Keegan Theatre’s “Spring Awakening” and MetroStage’s “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

Awards and nominations can be devilishly tricky to interpret, and the Hayes results are seldom easy to read. This year’s intrigues include how Synetic Theatre, the acclaimed movement-based troupe, can go from being so lavishly awarded for the past decade to being entirely shut out of the nominations this year.

Another curiosity: Actor Ed Gero, nominated more than a dozen times and a four-time winner through his long D.C. career, was not nominated for his work as painter Mark Rothko in “Red,” which he played first at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and then at Arena (setting box-office records).

Arena nabbed 18 nominations for seven productions, but probably wishes at least one of its shows were up for best play or musical. “Pullman Porter Blues” was the troupe’s engine, garnering six nominations (though as a play, not a musical, despite its on-stage band and several blues numbers). And yes, Kathleen Turner was nominated for her turn as Molly Ivins in “Red Hot Patriot.”

Woolly was named 10 times, but the new-play advocates there might be vexed that none of their daring world premieres — not even the strikingly imaginative “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” — could find a spot amid the seven nominations for new works.

A most happy fella would figure to be song-and-dance man Bobby Smith, nominated for his performances in two musicals. In the supporting-performer category, Smith was recognized for his turn as the sadistic dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors.” As a lead, Smith got a nod for the revue “Jacques Brel.” And Holly Twyford was also nominated twice for performances: supporting in Folger’s “Shrew,” and leading in Studio’s “Dirt.”

Last spring’s crosstown Eugene O’Neill festival yielded nominations for the epic leading performances by Helen Carey in Arena’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Francesca Faridany in the Shakespeare’s “Strange Interlude,” but nothing else. (Ah, well, “Ah, Wilderness!”) In a non-competitive category, Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, a troupe that adapts classics to original rock ’n’ roll songs, was named top emerging company.

The nominations, announced during a low-key, brightly lighted event (it was live-streamed online) in the National Theatre’s Helen Hayes Gallery, were compiled by a floating panel of 48 judges who evaluated 201 eligible productions during 2012. All shows are now closed, making the affair ceremonial and celebratory — not a Tony Awards-style rush for box-office gold. The 29th annual awards, administered and presented by the service organization theatreWashington, will be April 8 at the Warner Theatre.

style@washpost.com

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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