The thriving Denver theater scene got a boost two years ago when the Denver Center Theatre Company won the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater Company. It wasn't so much the prestige brought to Denver by this award, but the fact that it compelled DCTC to remove themselves from consideration for the local Denver Drama Critics Circle Awards.
DCTC said, in more diplomatic terms than these, that they were too good for the local awards. Realistic-ally, however, the buzz has been that they felt they were too good to lose to other companies. In any event, the upshot has been a greater emphasis on the thriving local theater scene, where, this year, approximately 150 plays were considered for the annual awards recognizing outstanding performances and productions in the Denver metropolitan area.
The good news from this year's slate of nominees is the surging success of some of the area's miniscule theater companies, some still struggling to find a permanent home for their productions. The Avenue Theater and the Curious Theatre Company led all non-musical theaters with eight and seven nominations respectively, reinforcing the underground theories that most of the best theater is happening in venues with less than 200 seats.
The Avenue's recognition comes as a result of a stellar season that saw the company expand to two theaters, where two shows continue to play to sold-out houses after extensive runs. Eccentricities of the Nightingale, an overlooked play by Tennessee Williams, earned four nominations for the company, including one for Bill Howey's direction and two for Nancy Thomas and John Ashton in supporting acting roles. The best bet to win an award, however, goes to Rebecca Buric in the lead role of Alma.
In a year filled with Williams revivals, nobody did a better job of capturing the playwright's misty Southern sensibility than Buric's stirring interpretation of Alma, the character of all his creations to which Williams said he felt most closely related. The Avenue, which will be bringing a production to Manitou Springs next month, also earned nominations for the ensemble work in Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Dearly Departed, both still running and well worth a trip to Denver.
All but one of Curious Theatre Company's seven nominations came for their hypnotic production of Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive. The play was noted for best play, director, actor, actress, sound and light.
Other notable nominations include the tiny Morrison Theater Company, who turned their 50-seat theater into a brilliant Steinbeck canopy for Of Mice and Men, and Germinal Stage Denver, whose Suddenly Last Summer earned praise as best play and director for the Japanese Noh theater interpretation of the Williams classic. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival received four nominations, three for acting and one for best play for Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and the Theatre Group had three plays recognized, Cell Block Sirens of 1953 for best new play, Execution of Justice for best ensemble, and Food Chain for Carla Keiser's performance in a supporting role.
In the musical categories, the Arvada Center's 10 nominations edged out Boulder Dinner Theater's nine. Best actor nominee Wayne Kennedy is onstage for six more weeks as Tevye in BDT's Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps the best production of the season, but overlooked largely as a result of its contractual obligations to (stunningly) re-create the original Jerome Robbins staging and choreography. Nevertheless, this is the best production to grace a BDT stage in two or three seasons, and Kennedy's Tevye may be the most accomplished performance in his formidable repertoire. On the other hand, his cartoonish depiction of Cervantes/ Quixote in Man of La Mancha dragged down the production, which nevertheless won a nomination as best musical.
The Arvada Center for the Arts has the unique distinction of having three nominees in a single category with Melissa Fahn in Blood Brothers, Susie Leiser in Strega Nona and Joan Staples in Blood Brothers, all competing for best actress. Even more notable is the acclaim given to smaller companies like Trouble Clef Theatre Company, singled out for best musical, best director, best choreography and two best supporting actress nominations for Nine, the musical adaptation of Felini's 8 1/2, and the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League production of Side Show, recognized for Debbie Stark's choreography, Colorado Springs local Don Berlin's direction and Kathleen Traylor's and Katrina Weber's lead acting roles as Siamese twins joined at the hip.
The Critics Circle does not currently consider Colorado Springs productions for their nominations, but there is a definite interest in reaching out beyond the Denver-metro area in future seasons. Springs area plays that would have heated up the competition include Theatreworks' Kiss Me Kate for Kim Crosby's performance; Theatreworks' Titus Andronicus for performances from James Gale, Therese Pickard and Aaron Cabell and direction from Murray Ross; Smokebrush's Slaphead for sets, costumes and play; Theatreworks' Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for sets and costumes; the Fine Arts Center Repertory Theater Company's Phantom for Judith Shays Burns' performance; Smokebrush's You Can't Take It With You for ensemble and set design; Buntport Theater Company's and this is my significant bother for ensemble; and finally, Theatreworks' magnificent A Raisin in the Sun, one of the three best shows of the 100 I've seen this year, for best play and for Nancy Hankin's sets, Katie Damp's direction and performances from A. Lynne Bell, Don Clark Williams and Maris Danielle Hbert. Theatreworks would be a clear contender for best season.
While a few plays are still running, you can catch selections from nominated performances at the awards ceremony Feb. 28 at the Arvada Center for the Arts, beginning at 7:30 p.m., following a 6:30 p.m. cocktail hour. Reservations can be made with Melanie Mayner at 303/433-8646. A $5 donation is suggested.