The current Broadway hit “Come From Away” landed top musical honors Monday night at Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards at the Lincoln Theatre, adding some mojo to the feel-good musical’s race for next month’s Tony Awards.
The Tonys are vastly more competitive than the Hayes Awards, of course: The commercial New York shows are still vying for customers, while the Washington productions came and went during the previous calendar year. That generally makes the Hayes, now in its 33rd year, a celebratory event — doubly so, since the awards expanded into the largely Equity “Hayes” and largely non-Equity “Helen” categories.
On the Hayes side, Folger Theatre’s frisky Jane Austen play “Sense and Sensibility” matched the four awards nabbed by “Come From Away,” the musical at Ford’s Theatre about airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland immediately after 9/11. Each swept up prizes for outstanding production, ensemble and director: Eric Tucker for “Sense and Sensibility” and Christopher Ashley for “Come From Away.”
Another four-time winner: “Jelly’s Last Jam” from Signature Theatre, which included the only tie as “Jelly’s” Felicia Boswell and Tracy Lynn Olivera — star of “110 in the Shade” at Ford’s — were both named outstanding lead actress in a musical.
“A size 16 girl doesn’t always get cast as the object of two men’s affection,” Olivera said of her “110” role. (Boswell was not on hand.) “This goes out to all the normal-sized women.”
The most frequent winner came from the “Helen” side, with five wins for Theater Alliance’s highly choreographed production of the hip-hop “Word Becomes Flesh,” Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s all-male companion piece to Ntzoke Shange’s famed “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” (The two shows ran in repertory last summer at Theater Alliance.) Hayes voters again bestowed a trifecta of outstanding production ensemble director (Psalmeyene 24), plus honors for William K. D’Eugenio’s lights and the supporting performance by Justin Weaks.
“A beautiful rebellious war cry that used theater as a weapon to fight for the lives of black people,” Psalmeyene 24 said of “Word Becomes Flesh” in the sharpest speech among several that had a political edge.
Top prize among “Helen” musicals was Keegan Theatre’s “Next to Normal,” which also won for the joint direction by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith and for David Landstrom’s supporting performance.
Bumping up to nearly 50 prizes two years ago led to a high-strung, high-speed debacle at the Lincoln, though dignity has since been restored to a standard awards show format featuring Washington’s American Pops Orchestra and with familiar D.C. artists hosting and performing, and with local artistic directors presenting. (First song: Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” sung by hosts E. Faye Butler and Lawrence Redmond.) The annual Hayes Tribute — which used to go to national figures to add marquee buzz — went to seven-time winner Ted van Griethuysen, the longtime Shakespeare Theatre Company and Studio Theatre actor now starring in the dementia drama “The Father” at Studio.
The tribute was presented by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was greeted by the longest ovation of the night — until van Griethuysen himself took the stage — and chants of “Ruth! Ruth! Ruth!”
“The theater is sanity,” van Griethuysen said. “The arts are the least defended and the most important aspect of a civilized country.”
Two new companies beefing up the city’s increasingly topical edge and new-works infrastructure earned prizes. Mosaic Theatre Company of D.C., formed after Ari Roth was fired as Theater J’s artistic director at the end of 2014, won the John Aniello Award as outstanding emerging troupe. And the Welders, D.C.’s playwriting collective, notched its first new play win for Stephen Spotswood’s pugnacious “Girl in the Red Corner.”
The acting awards often went to familiar faces in big roles. On the Hayes side, Bobby Smith won for his proud, funny leading performance in Signature’s “La Cage aux Folles”; accepting his award, Smith soberly noted that the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando occurred the day Signature’s “La Cage” opened.
Round House Theatre’s sturdy revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” earned a supporting trophy for Rick Foucheux’s Big Daddy and a lead prize for Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan’s Maggie the Cat. The versatile Keegan also shared in the ensemble win for “Come From Away,” since she was in the Ford’s cast (though not with the show as it opened in New York). “Come From Away’s” Jenn Colella, currently Tony nominated for her turn as real-life American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, took the supporting actress prize.
“ ‘Come From Away’ is a daily reminder that kindness is accessible at all times, not just in the wake of tragedy,” Colella said. “Kindness begets kindness, and we are starting a movement.”
The small Falls Church troupe Creative Cauldron made a splash with “Helen” wins for the musical “Caroline, or Change”: Iyona Blake took leading actress honors, and Tiara Whaley was named outstanding supporting actress. Matt Hirsh was best actor in a musical for “Catch Me If You Can” at Herndon’s Next Stop Theatre Company, and illustrating that the “Helen” and “Hayes” categories are determined show by show, not company by company, Studio scooped up both leading actor in a play awards. Liam Forde won for his performance as the anxious young puppeteer in the Hayes entry “Hand to God,” and Studio’s Helen-eligible, two-character play “Constellations” earned leading awards for both its actors, Tom Patterson and Lily Balatincz.
In another rules wrinkle (though hardly cause for kerfuffle), “Come From Away” was eligible as a “resident” production while the Lynn Nottage drama “Sweat” — now in the running for best play at the Tonys — was slotted as “visiting,” even though both shows were launched at West Coast theaters. “Sweat” appeared at Arena Stage, which commissioned the script with eventual producer Oregon Shakespeare Festival, early in 2016, and Nottage won this spring’s drama Pulitzer. “Sweat” took one award, for Jack Willis’s supporting performance.
The Hayes Awards are administered by Theatre Washington, with 40 judges divided into small panels — Helen/Hayes, musicals/plays — analyzing a total of 200 shows.