Awarding theater in 2008

You’re all winners (except for the losers)

No <i>Doubt</i>: We saw double.

No Doubt: We saw double.

As a farewell is bid to 2008, here are a few year-end citations and recognitions.

The Rush to Judgment Award: Presented to candidates too numerous to mention, some out of town, who leapt to conclusions during this fall’s controversy involving California Musical Theater’s artistic director Scott Eckern. Eckern quietly (and unwisely) donated $1,000 to the “yes” on Proposition 8 campaign, infuriating advocates of equal marriage opportunities for same-sex couples. Within days, the furor spilled into the national media, and Eckern stepped down. California Musical Theater accepted his resignation—when your artistic director becomes a lightning rod in a much larger social-political debate, it’s almost impossible for him to remain. But we wish that cooler heads had prevailed. Having known Eckern for some years, we believe he’s not the villain that some painted him to be—even though we don’t agree with his donation. This was a situation where more consideration, maybe even forgiveness, might have produced a better outcome for all involved.

The Dogged Persistence Award: Given the tough economic conditions that all performing-arts groups faced this year, there are many deserving candidates. But we’ll give the nod to Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City just for hanging in there through considerable travail from August through December. Rather than throw in the towel, Foothill decided to go forward with a three-show “demi-season,” hoping to survive. If its lean, six-actor version of Hamlet (staged this fall) was any indication, there’s plenty of artistic vitality remaining.

The Seeing Double or Triple Award: This was a year of Doubt—with two productions of John Patrick Shanley’s riveting morality play staged within months of each other. Now there’s a movie version, too.

The B Street Theatre was first with its February production on the B3 Series, which highlights more cutting-edge theater. And Foothill Theatre Company followed with its May production. We’re not sure if two productions of a relatively new, provocative play in the same ’hood helps or hurts at the box office. But it’s a treat for reviewers to see two powerful yet different versions of the same fascinating story so close together. We got to witness talented actors taking on the same roles, highlighting them with their own nuances; directors painting with their own palettes; and production crews determining how to strengthen the story with their myriad of set, sound and lighting decisions.

We lucked out twice in this regard, as the last of three productions of Urinetown, the Musical made it to town this year as well. Foothill Theatre’s March production of this delightful, thoughtful and sassy musical was a treat, made even more fun if you saw the proceeding productions at River Stage and UC Davis staged in ’07. Three wonderful productions of the same musical, all different, all powerful, all fascinating, all a treat to see so close together.

The Young Talent Award: This year, two young men stood out above the rest: When these fellows’ names are on the program, relax and get ready for a treat.

Joshua James takes top honors in the musical production category. James walked away with the show in Runaway Stage’s outstanding production of Cabaret last spring, playing the lascivious, graceful Master of Ceremonies. But that was just his warm-up. Since then, we’ve seen him as the young-man-in-love in Anything Goes (also Runaway Stage), the young-man-in-love-with-party-drugs in Bare (Artistic Differences) and the young-man-in-obsessive-love-with-murder in Assassins (also Artistic Differences). James has that most delightful combination of a good voice and serious acting chops, which is the backbone of musical theater.

Our other pick is Romann Hodge, a regular at Celebration Arts and a young man with a gift for characters. He kicked off the year with an outstanding supporting performance in August Wilson’s King Hedley II as Stool Pigeon, played as griot meets grumpy old man. Next up was a multirole performance in The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, where Hodge played all the male roles, which meant stretching from an up-and-coming black exec to an ancient white racist (played in whiteface, it was a revelation). He wrapped it all up with Blues for an Alabama Sky, in which he respectfully explored the life of a gay costume designer during the Harlem Renaissance.

Hodges and James are two young actors worth making a special trip to see onstage—and we’ve got a feeling they may be bound for larger audiences before long.