The glammed-up, black tie crowd began arriving at the historic Lincoln Theatre in U Street, NW, 90 minutes before show time. Most of the men were in tuxedos or dark suits. Some of the suits were brocade, at least two men sported tuxes patterned with shimmery silver threads.
Passing through the crowd was a gentleman in an Edwardian cutaway tux and tails with a pristine top hat. People made way for a petite version of his outfit, elegantly worn by a woman – who looked dynamic in the top hat perched on her short coif.
The women wore every iteration of glam, from short, sleek jersey cocktail dresses to lacy gowns with long trains.
There were spangles, beads and baubles. Flappers from the ‘20s, Gatsby Girls, and felines in backless satin gowns inspired by the sirens of the ‘30s. One waltzed by, cocooned in an intricate, beaded spider web that covered her upper body. There was even, this 80-degree evening, a woman with white rabbit fur sleeves.
And, one stunning “lady” in a towering blonde wig.
People kibbutzed in the small lobby as they sipped wine or beer. The noise of their conversation created a din heard half a block away on U Street. The “regulars” at Ben’s Chili Bowl next door, looked on at the passing promenade of elegantly dressed men and women with amazement – and some bemusement.
Most strutted down the theater’s raked aisles, taking a moment to glance up and about at the gorgeous, ornate, gilded décor of the theater. The precisely pleated drapes forming an arch high over the stage were singular in their design and opulence.
It was a full house.
The eight-man American Pops Orchestra, led by Music Director Luke S. Frazier, played throughout the long evening – but they would pause to applaud as lustily as the audience for their favorite awardees. Nicholas Rodriguez and Ines Nassara performed, magically transporting the audience to Broadway.
Host E. Faye Butler led the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Celebrate!”
Co-Host Lawrence Redmond set the tone by noting in his opening remarks that the events of 2016 “increased our desire to double down on the arts.”
Butler said, the evening’s 236 nominations were drawn from 200 productions in the Washington Metro area.
Then came the speeches, most from people who hadn’t expected to win an award. A sign of the times, all nominees had provided a “I’d like to thank” credit list in advance. As a winner reached the stage, their “thank you” flashed up behind them. (Oscar: take a cue!)
Dorea Schmidt, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play-Hayes for Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops at Woolly Mammoth, said, “My favorite part of this show is it celebrates the individual.”
Rachel Leigh Dolan, Outstanding Choreography, Musical-Helen for American Idiot at the Keegan was more blunt: “I feel like I’m gonna puke all over. I feel like I’m gonna die.”
Jared Grimes, Outstanding Choreography, Musical-Hayes for Jelly’s Last Jam at Signature was not present to collect his trophy. He was stuck in traffic.
Amy Austin, president and CEO of theatreWashington stated she’d come out as bisexual earlier in the week and said: “Going to the theater gives me a sense of belonging … Everybody in this business has a part in what ends up on stage.”
During The Helen Hayes Tribute by Ted Van Griethuysen, 82, whose first appearance onstage was a production in 1951, observed “by becoming the ‘other’ we become ourselves.” He said of the awards and the evening “The theater is an art form, not a competition.”
The surprise of the evening was the stately appearance onstage of a real Supreme – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 84, a Supreme Court Justice since August 1993.
“Ruth! Ruth! Ruth!” the audience cheered as they, in unison, rose to their feet. The cameras came out. She was wearing cream trousers and a pale green kimono-style top. Her appearance and speech were brief, but the memory flavored the evening.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play-Hayes for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House, wearing a backless platinum satin dress with an alluring chain of rhinestones down her spine, waved her trophy and bellowed: “This is an important time for us ladies. Let’s kick ass and take names!”
One of the loudest cheers of the evening came when the winner of Outstanding Ensemble in a Play-Helen was announced: Word Becomes Flesh at Theater Alliance. “This is for Trayvon Martin,” one cast member declared from the podium.
Taking his award at Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical-Hayes for his role in La Cage aux Folles at Signature Theatre Company, Bobby Smith noted, “The Pulse Nightclub shooting happened the day we opened this show. It made it difficult to go on …”
Iyonna Black, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical-Helen for Caroline, or Change by Creative Cauldron, stated: “This thing makes me a better mommy. This award is for all the Black Girls. We can do it!”
Tracy Lynn Olivera, 110 in the Shade at Ford’s Theatre tied for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical-Hayes with Felicia Boswell, in Signature Theatre’s Jelly’s Last Jam. At the podium, Olivera showed off her dress, noting “A size 16 girl doesn’t always get cast as the object of affection. I’m a normal-sized woman and we’re HOT.”
The message of Come From Away at Ford’s Theatre, which received Outstanding Production, Musical-Hayes, said one of the awardees of the show that was a hit in Washington and is now a Best Musical Tony Award-nominee on Broadway was clear. “It is a message of unity. Built bridges, not walls,” said the producer.
Audience members teared up as Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah!” was movingly performed and a collage of theater greats and supporters in the D.C. area who had passed away during the past year flashed by on the screen at the rear of the stage.
Victor Shargai, founder of theatreWashington brought the formal part of the evening to a close with the words: “Whether you win or lose, you are all winners. This year’s nominees reflect this amazingly diverse community.”
With that, many streamed down U Street toward the 9:30 Club where the party continued.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with no intermission.
The 33rd Annual Helen Hayes Awards were presented by theaterWashington on Monday, May 15, 2017, at the Lincoln Theater – 1215 U Street, NW, in Washington, DC.