Although it was Broadway star Michael Cerveris who headlined Signature Theatre’s Sondheim Award Gala on Monday night, it was Michele (Mee-KEH-lay) Cerverizzo, an incredibly charming and gracious man with a Rat Pack voice, who won over a crowd of 330 at the Embassy of Italy.
The two-time Tony Award winner began his toast by name-dropping his grandfather, an Italian immigrant and his namesake, and by saying in Italian, “It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening.”
The event was Signature Theatre’s annual fundraising gala, but the occasion was to honor John Weidman, the librettist who collaborated with composer Stephen Sondheim on three musicals: “Pacific Overtures,” “Road Show” and “Assassins.”
Past recipients of the award include theatrical boldface names Patti Lu Pone, Bernadette Peters and James Lapine. To Signature’s credit, honoring a a guy best known for his day job as a writer for “Sesame Street” turned out to be an entertaining and elegant evening for grown-ups.
Newly installed Italian ambassador Armando Varricchio kicked things off by botching the name of Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer (Aaron Shaffer?), and then rallied with a cheeky epigram: “Theater,” Varricchio said, “is very close to my own profession, diplomacy. We perform a special kind of drama. It is usually a comedy, but sometimes, unfortunately, a tragedy, and it is always improvised.”
After salad and salmon served “Mediterranean-style,” the guests were treated to a 10-song concert featuring Cerveris, some Signature regulars and two more singers in town for the evening: Claybourne Elder (from the original New York cast of “Road Show”), and Karen Ziemba (who won a Tony for her role as the lady on the swing in “Contact,” another musical co-created by Weidman).
Playwright Marsha Norman interrupted the tuneful proceedings with a humorous monologue about Weidman’s 10 “Lawrence of Arabia warrior years” as president of the Dramatists Guild. “I’m not going to sing,” Norman assured the crowd when she came to the podium looking like a slightly rumpled Juilliard professor — which she is — wearing a pantsuit with her hair pulled back in a clip.
Copyright protection is not exactly a sexy topic for theater galas, but Norman, whose credits include “The Secret Garden” and Pulitzer-winning “ ’night, Mother,” got the crowd roaring when she recounted how Weidman succeeded in overhauling the playwrights union after taking over in 1999. Among other accomplishments, he started the tradition of beginning each meeting with a treasurer’s report, and he went after blatant copyright violators in Norway. “That was a million bucks in the bank right there,” Norman quipped.
When the two paired for a Capitol Hill lobbying trip, they made a surprising discovery: “Every senator we talked to had played Tevye in high school,” she said. “Sheldon Harnick should be president.”
For the featured performers, taking the gala stage during the election cycle was especially surreal. Actor Stephen Gregory Smith is currently performing in the cast of “110 in the Shade” at Ford’s Theatre, yet he found himself backstage rehearsing “The Ballad of Booth,” from “Assassins,” to prepare for his duet at the gala.
“That was so, so weird,” he said afterward, still giddy after singing with Cerveris, who played the role of Lincoln’s assassin on Broadway in 2004. Weidman and Sondheim began working on the musical years before, however, and when the librettist himself came onstage to accept the award, he credited Schaeffer’s 1992 production of “Assassins” with being crucial to the musical’s development.
Cerveris would go on to win his first Tony for playing John Wilkes Booth. The Bethesda native, who grew up in West Virginia, has a total of six nominations, and none are for traditional romantic leads. His second Tony came last year, for his current gig playing the closeted dad Bruce Bechdel in the musical “Fun Home.”
Speaking before the dinner, he called making the day-off trip to Washington “a happy obligation.” Rather than rush back to his hotel, the actor mixed and mingled late into the evening, chatting enthusiastically about Civil War history and his family’s Italian roots.
“It’s so great for me to have a chance to get out of town,” he said. “I’m from West Virginia, and I know there’s great theater all over this country.”
Like many area regional theaters, Baltimore’s Center Stage is eager to bring plays that premiered in New York to broader audiences.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s artistic director, helmed the premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s family drama “Detroit ’67” at New York’s Public Theatre in 2013. Despite a withering review in the New York Times, he has brought the play to Baltimore and now, through an unusual arrangement, will send the show on to Michigan in May.
“Detroit ’67” will close out the inaugural season of Detroit Public Theatre, a troupe founded last year by an ambitious trio of women who want to fill a dramatic void in Motor City.
“Detroit doesn’t have an anchor large regional theater like every other big city,” said Sarah Clare Corporandy, a Michigan native who serves as producing director for the theater and is overseeing the Center Stage partnership. Although the same creative team and cast has worked on the show in Baltimore and Detroit, it’s not technically a co-production because the two venues are so different. Center Stage is currently staging shows at Towson University while its Mount Vernon space undergoes renovations, and the Detroit Public Theatre is putting on shows in a symphony rehearsal hall seeking a permanent home. The two theaters have much in common: Both cities have been crippled by blight, manufacturing job losses and racial tensions. “Detroit ’67,” a play set amid riots, unites both the theaters with a timely plot.
It was Morriseau who found two “angel donors” interested in taking the play to Detroit, Corporandy said. Since then, Center Stage staffers have been amazingly supportive as she seeks to jump-start a new theater in Michigan.
“They’ve taken us under their wings,” she said, adding that there’s no real model for theaters in two cities embarking on a symbiotic partnership like this. “They are just going head over heels to help us.”