When I was cast in The Arlington Players’ production of A Little Night Music last spring, I had been out of the DC theatre scene for so long that I had never experienced the WATCH Awards, and thus I was unfamiliar with the odd sensation of reviving a musical number from a show that closed many months earlier. So when I first learned that my entire cast would be performing at this year’s ceremony, I immediately thought of those recurring theatre anxiety dreams that I am sure my fellow performers understand all too well. You know, the ones in which you are inexplicably asked to reprise your role in some show you did back in high school, and just as you start to protest that you don’t exactly remember any of the lines and blocking, someone in the wings hands you a prop and shoves you onto the stage, assuring you that it will ‘all come back to you?’
Well, I guess the good news is that it does come back to you, at least with a little script review and some brush-up rehearsals! And last night’s 13th Annual WATCH Awards ceremony at The Birchmere was certainly filled with rousing and memorable musical performances. My cast of A Little Night Music opened the awards show with the act one finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” and several hours later, we were rewarded with a thrilling win for Best Musical. Along the way, the audience was treated to four more tremendous performances from the other nominees in that category.
First came the Port Tobacco Players’ enchanting Von Trapp family singing “Do Re Mi.” Decked out in their dirndls and lederhosen, the children executed both their music and choreography with admirable finesse. (Personally, I found myself marveling at the good fortune that Friedrich’s voice had not suffered the indignities of puberty since the show closed in December. His sweet soprano sounded very much intact!)
Later in the evening, the Tantallon Community Players’ cast of The Color Purple performed that show’s title song, a soaring gospel number. The strong ensemble had a lush sound, and as Celie, Andrea Gerald’s fabulous voice was rivaled only by her radiant smile, both of which seemed to fill the room with Celie’s sunny optimism. It was a sublime moment.
When Ryan Burke and Farrell Parker sang “Move On” from Kensington Arts Theatre’s Sunday in the Park with George, some of the emotional weight of the number may have understandably been lost when the nuanced characters of George and Dot were removed from the context of the show. Still, their performance showcased some lovely vocals that blended beautifully during the full, sustained harmonies, while echoing one another with quiet precision in the moments of counterpoint.
The final performance of the night included the lead cast members of Dominion Stage’s Dreamgirls in the boisterous confrontation scene that leads into Effie’s inimitable “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” It was a treat to hear some outstanding voices showcased during the group sequence, and when it came time for the showstopper, Shawnee Louise Coleman-Lining and her powerful instrument did not disappoint. She seemed to belt the lyrics straight from the core of her body, which certainly sold the song dramatically as well as musically.
It will come as no surprise to musical theatre lovers that the shows of Stephen Sondheim were frequently at the top of the winners’ list last night. In addition to five wins for TAP’s A Little Night Music and three for KAT’s Sunday in the Park with George, the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s Sweeney Todd was also honored with a win for Jennifer Lyons Pagnard as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical. Perhaps the highlight of all this Sondheim love was the tie for Outstanding Direction of a Musical between Sunday’s Craig Pettinati and Night Music’s Chris Dykton. That these veteran directors would share the glory of the win seemed a fitting outcome for two such strong shows that were both recognized in a variety of performance and technical achievement categories.
In the category of unusual wins, Gayle Nichols-Grimes was the first nominee of the night who managed the neat trick of simultaneously winning and losing in the same category. She was awarded Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for the role of Vernadette Simms in The Dixie Swim Club at Port City Playhouse, thereby defeating herself for her other nominated performance as Mattie Fae Aiken in Reston Community Players’ August Osage County. Although I am not familiar with either role, just the character names themselves conjure up a certain image – one that seemed well suited to the velvety smooth Southern drawl with which Gayle graciously accepted her award.
Soon thereafter, John-Michael d’Haviland upped the ante with a double loss to himself, as his award for Outstanding Music Direction of A Little Night Music beat out his other nominations for Dreamgirls and Spring Awakening at Dominion Stage. Certainly the odds were in his favor to win something with three out of five nominations in that category. Still, as JM quipped apologetically in his very brief acceptance speech, “I know. I’m sorry. I’m over me, too.”
In addition to the Von Trapps, a few other moments of the night belonged to parents and children. Stephen Deininger, who won Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for his turn as Tateh in Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Ragtime, spoke about the importance of family before bringing his daughter up to the podium for a shout-out to Mama. Later, the father/son duo of Chip and Jimmy Gertzog accepted their joint win for Outstanding Sound Design in a Play for Sideman at the Providence Players of Fairfax. Jimmy gushed with gratitude to his father and the production team for his first learning opportunity, while his dad returned the favor with a heartfelt “thanks to the kid.” Chip, clearly an experienced technician at PPF, also won for Outstanding Lighting Design and shared the award for Outstanding Set Design for the same show, as well as sharing Outstanding Set Decoration for You Can’t Take It With You. All told, PPF walked away with an impressive eight awards for technical achievement in a play, evenly split between those two shows.
The biggest surprise of the evening was orchestrated by Fred Nelson, who served as an affable (if loquacious) Master of Ceremonies for the evening. Near the end of the night, he earned himself even more time in the spotlight when he won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for his turn as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at 2nd Star Productions. After promising the audience that his acceptance speech would be the most memorable of the evening, he pulled out a red velvet box and asked Sascha Anzano to marry him in front of 500 dropped jaws. (She said YES!!) It was a sweet moment, although when the ring came out and the house lights magically came up right on cue, one did have to wonder whether anyone involved had received advanced notice that this proposal opportunity would arise. I can only assume that, had the outcome of that award category been different, the groom-to-be simply would have found another moment to ask his all-important question. Theatre is important, of course, but we cannot have entire marriages becoming contingent upon the whim of the WATCH judges!
I discovered last night that, unlike those pesky anxiety dreams, reviving a musical number for WATCH is hardly the same thing as a faithful reenactment of the original. Sadly, we were not wearing our fabulous “country white” costumes and turn-of-the-century wigs, and we weren’t standing in the breathtaking Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage with a 16-piece orchestra behind us. We were, in fact, crammed on a small carpeted stage with two hazardous podiums (podia?) trying to steal focus on stage right and left. Even so, for a few wonderful moments, my dear friends and I were a cast again, standing shoulder to shoulder and singing our hearts out, caught up in the delight of Sondheim’s glorious music, and grinning in spite of ourselves with that irrepressible joy that can only come from creating live theatre.
Heather Friedman began singing and performing in musical theatre more than 25 years ago. She was very active in the Virginia theatre scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during which time she met her husband Darrin – in a show, shockingly. First came love, then came marriage, then came the all-too-common “parenting sabbatical,” which took both of them out of the performance arena for almost a decade. In the past 12 months, Heather has returned to the stage with a vengeance in TAP’s A Little Night Music and Dominion’s Avenue Q … and already her eldest child has now caught the performing bug. Eventually she hopes to drag Darrin back to the stage so that they can found their own Von Friedman family singers (albeit with far fewer children than the Von Trapps). Before she began filling the dual roles of full-time parent and glamorous stage queen, Heather’s professional life used to involve editing health-related content for medical organizations. And one day, it will again.