At the Barrymore Awards, a night of cheers, $118,000 and trophies

A part of the ensemble of the People's Light production of

A part of the ensemble of the People's Light production of "Morning's at Seven'" winner of the best play production Barrymore Award on Monday night. Arden Theatre's "Fun Home" won the Barrymore for best musical production. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Productions of a rarely staged 1932 play and a Tony-award winning musical won two well-established companies – People’s Light and Arden — the top Barrymore Awards, the annual honors for excellence in the Philadelphia region’s professional theaters.

The two companies also garnered the most awards in all categories Monday night when Theatre Philadelphia, the umbrella organization of local stage companies, announced the winners at a ceremony with speeches, a memorial tribute to local theater artists who passed away last year, a band and musical numbers.

With lots of cheering and good feeling, an audience of more than 700 theater artists and supporters celebrated work that helps to sell more than a million tickets a year in the region and supports a vibrant theater community. The event and an after-party were at the recently renovated Bok in South Philadelphia, formerly a public vocational school and now a home to artisans, businesses, restaurants and entrepreneurs.

Once again this year, the awards were skewed because the Walnut Street Theatre — the largest in audience and budgets and the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater — chose not to participate.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

People’s Light in Malvern won the award for best production of a play for “Morning’s at Seven,” Paul Osborn’s look at four aging sisters and the ways their families interact. The leader of People’s Light, Abigail Adams, won as best director of a play and the cast – all members of the company’s resident ensemble – won for outstanding ensemble in a play. Scenic designer Luke Cantarella won for his elaborate two-house set.

In all, People’s Light won eight awards, the most. Its production of a new musical, “Lights Out,” the story of Nat King Cole’s fight against racism when he became the first African-American star to host a TV variety show in the ’50s, won three Barrymores — for best musical performance, by Dulé Hill as Cole; best musical supporting role performance, by Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis Jr., and the choreography award for Jared Grimes and Edgar Godineaux. Longtime People’s Light actor Melanye Finister won a best-play performance award for her portrayal as a conflicted factory worker in the People’s Light production of “Skeleton Crew.”

Arden Theatre Company’s intimate production of “Fun Home” – a musical about a Central Pennsylvania girl who comes out as a gay woman and discovers that her late father was also gay – won the Barrymore for best musical production. Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden’s artistic leader, won as best director of a musical. Kim Carson’s portrayal as the girl’s mother won a supporting performance award, and the cast is this year’s outstanding musical ensemble.

The Arden’s “Fun Home” also won the $25,000 Brown Martin Philadelphia Award for a production that demonstrates the ability of theater to shed light on community issues and promote understanding of them. This year for the first time, the committee that determines the award honored two productions: The other is InterAct Theatre Company’s “Human Rites,” a play about the way we understand – or fail to understand – cultural differences. InterAct also will receive $25,000.

Of the Arden’s seven Barrymores last night, another went to Scott Greer as best actor in a play for a commanding one-man performance in “Every Brilliant Thing,” in which his character recounts growing up with a mother who became severely depressed. Beginning Thursday, Greer will resume playing the role in an Arden revival already extended through Dec. 23. For his portrayal of a desperate down-and-out man in Arden’s production of “A Doll’s House,” Akeem Davis won an outstanding supporting actor Barrymore.

The 23d Barrymore Awards cited winners in 20 different categories with trophies, and four more categories with prize money worth a total of $118,000 – about $30,000 more than last year after increased support from philanthropies. Of the 40 professional companies eligible for Barrymores, 10 were producers of shows awarded Monday night. The judges — a volunteer collection of 72 nominators and 12 judges — saw 112 productions during the last season, which ended in June. Eleven of those productions were cited Monday night.

New this year, instead of awarding best actors and best actresses in musical and play categories, awards were gender-free. Two awards were given for best and supporting musical performances and another two for best and supporting performances in plays. In addition to aforementioned performance awards, a Barrymore for best musical performance went to Jamar Williams for his tour-de-force portrayal of a young man springing from his middle-class life in Wilma Theater’s production of “Passing Strange.” Amanda Morton won for her musical direction of that show.

Tina Brock, artistic leader of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, won a best-supporting performance Barrymore for her super-spooky portrayal of a soothsayer in Irish Heritage Theatre’s “By the Bog of Cats.”

Maria Shaplin’s lighting design won for Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of “The Wild Duck” and Mel Hsu’s original music for “Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes.” That show was devised by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre.

In recognition of the increasing stage usage of projections, video and digital creations, the Barrymores included a new award for media design. It went to Freckled Sky, Front Pictures and Shawn Sagady for their work in Delaware Theatre Company’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a musical version of Ray Bradbury’s novel that featured sophisticated technology. Also for that show, Theresa Ham won for costume design.

The award for outstanding new play or musical went to Emma Goidel’s “The Gap,” a tantalizing play about one sister who tells another that she’s been overtaken by aliens. It was given its world premiere by Azuka Theatre, and Michael Kiley won a Barrymore for designing the play’s sound.

Taysha Marie Canales, who has appeared on several professional area stages over the past few years and is a member of Wilma Theater’s core troupe called HotHouse, won the $15,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging Philadelphia theater artist. The award also gave $2,000 to each of four finalists.

The Victory Foundation Award for an outstanding theater education program went to the Wilma for its Wilmagination project, which places teaching artists in school classrooms to work with teachers. The children in those classrooms study a Wilma production, then perform their own theatrical response to the play. The award is worth $10,000 and the foundation also gave $2,500 to each of five finalists.

The June and Steve Wolfson Award for an evolving theater company, a $10,000 prize, went to Tribe of Fools, a troupe that specializes in highly physical productions that often skew Philadelphia life. In addition to presenting during the year, Tribe of Fools at times has produced the dark-horse hit of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The Wolfsons also gave $1,000 to each of five finalists. (For the record, I am a judge on the committee for the Wolfson Awards.)

Paul Meshejian, a theater artist long associated with People’s Light and the founding artistic director of PlayPenn, an incubator of new plays based in Center City, received the Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award. Meshejian, whose award had already been announced, is instrumental in making Philadelphia a nationally recognized home for new plays. New work accounts for an ample part of the seasons of about 50 professional stage companies here – and Philadelphians are willing audiences for them.

To qualify for Barrymore awards, a theater company must pay its cast and crew minimums of $150 a week for actors, $500 a show for designers and $750 a show for directors.  For the record, larger Philadelphia-area stage companies holding contracts with Actors’ Equity, the national union of actors and stage managers, must pay more than those minimum scales.

The 2018 Barrymore Award winners

Outstanding Overall Production of a Play

  • “Morning’s at Seven” (People’s Light)

Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical

  • “Fun Home” (Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Direction of a Play

  • Abigail Adams (“Morning’s at Seven,” People’s Light)

Outstanding Direction of a Musical

  • Terrence J. Nolen (“Fun Home,” Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play

  • Melanye Finister (Faye, “Skeleton Crew,” People’s Light)
  • Scott Greer (“Every Brilliant Thing,” Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Leading Performance in a Musical

  • Dulé Hill (Nat “King” Cole, “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” People’s Light)
  • Jamar Williams (Youth, “Passing Strange,” The Wilma Theater)

Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Play

  • Tina Brock (The Catwoman, “By the Bog of Cats,” Irish Heritage Theatre)
  • Akeem Davis (Krogstad, “A Doll’s House,” Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical

  • Kim Carson (Helen, “Fun Home,” Arden Theatre Company)
  • Daniel J. Watts (Sammy Davis Jr., “Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” People’s Light)

Outstanding Scenic Design

  • Luke Cantarella (“Morning’s at Seven,” People’s Light)

Outstanding Costume Design

  • Theresa Ham (“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Delaware Theatre Company)

Outstanding Lighting Design

  • Maria Shaplin (“The Wild Duck,” Quintessence Theatre Group)

Outstanding Media Design

  • Shawn Sagady, and Val Syganevich, of Freckled Skye (“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Delaware Theatre Company)

Outstanding Sound Design

  • Mike Kiley (“The Gap,” Azuka Theatre)

Outstanding Original Music

  • Mel Hsu (“Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes,” Almanac)

Outstanding Choreography / Movement

  • Jared Grimes and Edward Godineaux (“Lights Out: Nat ‘King’ Cole,” People’s Light)

Outstanding Music Direction

  • Amanda Morton (“Passing Strange,” The Wilma Theater)

 Outstanding Ensemble in a Play

  • “Morning’s at Seven” (People’s Light)

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical

  • “Fun Home” (Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding New Play/Musical

  • “The Gap” by Emma Goidel (Azuka Theatre)

Lifetime Achievement Award

  • Paul Meshejian

F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist

  • Taysha Marie Canales

Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award

  • “Fun Home” (Arden Theatre Company)
  • “Human Rites” (InterAct Theatre Company)

June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company

  • Tribe of Fools

Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program

  • The Wilma Theater

(A first version of this article incorrectly reported that Media Theatre did not participate in the Barrymore competition. Shows at Media last season were eligible for nominations that led to awards on Monday night.)

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal