Smelling Like Roses: Signature's 'Urinetown' Wins 8 Hayes Awards

Will Gartshore, center, shared the lead actor prize (with Michael McElroy of
Will Gartshore, center, shared the lead actor prize (with Michael McElroy of "Big River") in the resident musical category for Signature's "Urinetown." (By Carol Pratt -- Signature Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A show with one of the ickiest titles in musical-theater history won eight prizes at last night's Helen Hayes Awards, the annual ceremony that recognizes the previous year's achievements from the city's crowded menu of plays and musicals.

"Urinetown," last fall's hit at Signature Theatre about a city so dry it charges its citizens to relieve themselves, took home about one-third of the honors, presented at the Warner Theatre. The irreverent musical, by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, collected prizes for outstanding resident musical, director of a musical (Joe Calarco) and choreographer (Karma Camp).

The show also won for its music director (Jay Crowder), as well as in all four acting categories in which it was eligible. Stephen F. Schmidt and Jenna Sokolowski were singled out for supporting actor and actress. In tie votes, "Urinetown's" leads, Will Gartshore and Erin Driscoll, shared awards with Michael McElroy, who played the slave Jim in Ford's Theatre's "Big River," and Meg Gillentine, the Lola in Arena Stage's revival of "Damn Yankees."

Sounding a theme that would be repeated all evening, a beaming Camp told the audience, " 'Urinetown' was one of those shows where everything clicked."

No other production came close to "Urinetown's" results during the 22nd presentation of the awards, directed by Jim Petosa, Olney Theatre Center's artistic director. The other multiple winners -- receiving two trophies each-- were Studio Theatre's "Take Me Out," the popular Richard Greenberg comedy-drama; Shakespeare Theatre Company's sumptuous staging of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan"; Woolly Mammoth's ethereal "The Clean House," by Sarah Ruhl; and a touring production at the National Theatre of "I Am My Own Wife," the Tony-winning one-man show by Doug Wright.

Two of the city's busiest theater destinations, Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center, received one award each. The Kennedy Center's prize was a nod to Stephanie J. Block, green-skinned Elphaba in the sold-out, inaugural Opera House visit of "Wicked."

Thirteen productions, representing 10 companies in the Washington region, shared the 26 prizes (there were ties in four of the 22 categories). And although the results in some recent years led to inordinate morning-after head-scratching, this year's awards harvest seemed to a very large degree to have located a high proportion of truly deserving recipients. That might have been due in part to a refinement of the Helen Hayes Awards' byzantine judging system. This year, in a departure, judges were given designated areas of responsibility; one panel devoted itself to new work, another to musicals, a third to straight plays.

Last night's two-hour ceremony was hosted by Brad Oscar, a star of "The Producers" on Broadway and "Damn Yankees" at Arena. He set a lighthearted tone for the polished evening, singing show tunes with parodying lyrics. His slickest number was a Billy Crystal-style salute to five nominees for best resident musical, sung to "You Gotta Have Heart."

Among the winners in some of the most competitive categories were "Take Me Out" and "The Clean House," which tied for the coveted award for outstanding play presented by a resident company. (Awards are given separately to productions that come to Washington on tour.) Both, encouragingly, are by living writers who are debuting new works here. Greenberg's "Bal Masque" is in a world premiere run at Theater J, and Ruhl's "Passion Play, a Cycle" was unveiled late last summer at Arena Stage. A new play by Ruhl is part of Woolly Mammoth's forthcoming season, too. Franca Barchiesi, meanwhile, won best supporting actress for her role in Ruhl's "Clean House."

"Take Me Out" won two awards; a second prize went to Rick Foucheux, who to charming effect played a gay accountant who falls in love with the national pastime.

Those were two of the four prizes collected by Studio. Awards also recognized artistic director Joy Zinoman for her masterly staging of Caryl Churchill's short and fascinating play about cloning, "A Number." Eunice Wong, the young star of the hit last summer for Studio Secondstage, "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," was named outstanding lead actress in a resident play.

Matching Studio's four awards was Shakespeare Theatre Company, which also split its prizes among three productions. Michael Kahn's company all but swept the technical awards, winning prizes for the set and costumes of "Lady Windermere's Fan" (by Simon Higlett and Robert Perdziola, respectively) and for the lighting of "The Tempest" (Charlie Morrison). A fourth award was given to Patrick Page, who tied Foucheux as best actor, for a nuanced turn as an insidious Iago in Kahn's "Othello" last fall.

Woolly Mammoth, lately a busy landing strip for new work, secured the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical, for S.M. Shephard-Massat's "Starving," a portrait of the African American denizens of an Atlanta apartment building in the 1950s.

Accepting her award, Shephard-Massat said she'd love to be able to make a living as a full-time writer. "And if anybody has any idea about this, I'm sitting in the third row."

And it was "I Am My Own Wife" that rose to the top in a fairly shallow pool of touring shows. The play and its star, Jefferson Mays, portraying a man who dresses as a woman in communist East Germany, won for best non-resident production and best actor in the visiting category.

Special awards also were handed out to American Airlines, the theater benefactor Arlene R. Kogod, the veteran set designer Ming Cho Lee and his longtime colleague, costume designer Jane Greenwood.

Two other companies were winners. Rep Stage was recognized for Bruce R. Nelson's supporting performance in another Greenberg play, "The Violet Hour." And Round House Theatre was acknowledged for Martin Desjardins's sound design for the world premiere "columbinus," inspired by the shootings at Columbine High School. The play is to start performances next month at the New York Theatre Workshop, the birthplace of "Rent."

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