STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: My 1998 Straw Hat Awards

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: My 1998 Straw Hat Awards Do you know about the Straw Hat Awards, once annually dispensed by the Council of Stock Theatres? They began in 1969, when Butterflies Are Free was named as Best New Play, Betsy Palmer Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Barry Nelson -- who apparently hadn't gone stale after 800-plus performances of Cactus Flower -- Best Actor.

Do you know about the Straw Hat Awards, once annually dispensed by the Council of Stock Theatres? They began in 1969, when Butterflies Are Free was named as Best New Play, Betsy Palmer Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Barry Nelson -- who apparently hadn't gone stale after 800-plus performances of Cactus Flower -- Best Actor.

Sid Caesar (The Last of the Red Hot Lovers), Mickey Rooney (George M), Kay Medford (Light up the Sky), and Eileen Heckart (Remember Me?) were all Straw Hat winners. Then, after the 1974 season, the awards disappeared. By then, most summer stock theaters were merely presenting celebrity one-nighters. You wouldn't want to give Sergio Franchi, Buddy Greco, Sandler and Young trophies, now would you?

But I miss the Straw Hat Awards, and annually take the liberty of giving my own based on the best I saw each summer. So straw hats off, here they come, those beautiful winners:

The Best Comedy also turned out to have the Best Comic Direction, Best Comic and Best Featured Comic Actresses. In Christopher Ashley's fine production of Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors (better than the one that played in London some years ago), Mary-Louise Parker deftly played a British call girl (with an impeccable accent) who kept getting called back and forth to the past and future, thanks to an awfully strange hotel room door. Her mission, whether or not she chose to accept it, was to save Patricia Hodges, whose husband had murdered her. Now she'll try to get back to the day it happened and stop it.

Would you be willing to listen to anyone who just suddenly popped into your private room? Hodges showed us a fair-minded woman who wanted to give the poor soul every benefit of the doubt. The way she listened and digested all the hard-to-believe material from Parker made us see that here was a wonderful and considerate woman. That's a performance! And which, you may ask, was the Best Comic Actress, and which the Best Featured? No, no, no -- that's for you to decide. Each held stage so well while she was on, and Ayckbourn's play seemed to divide the role so juicily, a case could be made for either.

Best Drama was John C. Russell's Stupid Kids, which showed us early in the first minutes that some of today's kids aren't so stupid -- before demonstrating in many of the ensuing moments, that oh, yes, indeed they were. Stupid was smart, no kidding. So were Best Dramatic Actress Mandy Siegfried and Best Featured Actor James Carpinello. And just make this another list on which Michael Mayer shows up as Best Director.

You had to go to Madison, New Jersey to see the Best Dramatic Actor. He was Gabriel Barre as Cyrano de Bergerac. He had the panache for the grand scenes, the vulnerability in the tender ones. What he also had was Cyrano's nose. Not a prosthesis. His very own nose. If you saw Barre in Ain't Broadway Grand, or his Tony-nominated stint in Starmites, then you know the stork (not to mention his parents) bestowed on him a schnozzola that would have made Jimmy Durante appear to have just come from an appointment with the wizard at Park and 73rd.

Best Dramatic Actress is a no-brainer for me, but was a considerable brainer for Uta Hagen in Collected Stories. As she ripped through the role of a famous writer who trusts her secretary a little too much, we had the privilege to watch a legend show us that her skill is still very much with her. Some may carp Hagen was mannered, but her character was grandiose, and so it worked for me. And many others. And, oh -- given that Hagen has been acting for many a summer (spring, winter, and fall), let's award her a Lifetime Straw Hat, too.

Best Musical? That was toughie. For a few minutes, I thought it could have been Jayson, the song-and-dance version of the gay comic strip. Not to be as the evening continued, but Jayson did give us a Best Musical Actor via the charming performance of Brian Cooper in the title role, a guy who's always looking for love and doesn't quite find it's what he expected it to be.

For an entire first act, I thought I'd found my Best Musical Straw Hat winner in Mirette, Jones-and-Schmidt musicalization of a children's book. (The Goodspeed audience was the youngest I'd seen in years, so I was thankful to the show for that, too.) Elizabeth Diggs' libretto had little Mirette, living with her single mother, who's been afraid of life since her husband abruptly bolted. This doesn't scare Mirette from taking challenges, but mom works awfully hard to keep her protected -- especially when a handsome ex-circus performer comes to stay at their boarding house.

Alas, the second act didn't deliver the goods, but Mirette yielded a Best Musical Actress performance from Cassandra Kubinski as the young girl who's intent on walking a circus high-wire, and succeeds in doing herself and her teacher a peck of good.

So maybe the Best Musical should be Unzippin' My Doo-Dah, the Capitol Steps latest entry of their political send-ups. Certainly the audience at the performance I attended thought so, as they showered the show with frequent bursts of laughter and applause. And where else could you get music by such Broadway stalwarts as Bernstein, Herman, Kern, Lerner, Lloyd Webber, Porter, Rodgers, and, um, Paul Simon?

The lyrics, of course, were original. Bari Sedar was especially good as Monica Lewinsky in a parody of Paul Simon's "The Boxer." As she testified, she sang the middle-section: "Lie, lie, lie; lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie." She did it with such lack of guile, she's out Best Featured Musical Actress.

Best Featured Musical Actor goes to Doo-Dah's Brad Van Grack, though his biggest impressions were made when he wasn't singing but delivering two monologues that relied solely on spoonerisms. (You know, where two words get their first letters mixed; like when someone says "The Lord is a shoving leopard"?) So imagine what came out when Van Grack said "might be" as a spoonerism.

No, I'd say the Best Musical Straw Hat goes to The Season, as essayed by Kate Jetmore and Brady Schwind. As I walked into a heavily- booked Triad, I saw a number of stagestruck friends, who animatedly and excitedly spoke about the previous nights they'd spent at previous performances. Now I know why. Jetmore and Schwind, with their Sweet Apple faces, look as if they could play Kim and Hugo in any Birdie production. How I love that such young pros (she's 27, he's 22) should care about the Broadway of yesteryear to do a new show each and every week, replete with at least one song from every musical from a given season. Considering that I started theatregoing in 1961-62, I never had the pleasure of seeing 1960-61's Donnybrook's "Sad Was the Day," Tenderloin's "Little Old New York," or three of Wildcat's cut outs performed from any stage. I'm extraordinarily grateful to this dynamic duo for doing them.

Best Solo Performance? Aasif Mandvi, who showed you could have anything you want at Sakina's Restaurant. Mandvi started out playing an Indian immigrant who's willing to serve a slice of pie or melon in exchange for a slice of the American Dream. He then deftly segued into playing the restaurant owner, his wife, son and daughter -- even his daughter's pledged-at-birth fiance. Only thing is, the lad is now visiting a prostitute, and his willing unwillingness is only one of the show's funniest and most endearing highlights. Did his betrothed care? Mandvi shrewdly showed us plenty of insight into her, too. Sakina's Restaurant is as tasty a dish as shark-fin soup or bean cake fish.

The Straw Hats always honored Most Promising Talents, and so shall I: Natalie Duckett, Jason Kaufman, Natasha Marco, Katy Medders, Tracy Mitchell, Sean Powell, Dan Schachner, and Illana Zauderer. They're all from the same cast, too, and represent the entire non-Equity crew of Howard Korder's Boys' Life that's at the Judith Anderson until Saturday. Get there.

Finally, let's not forget the Best Set Design, which those who traveled up in Central Park certainly noticed. Cymbeline was played on a rustic, lawn-and-tree-covered plot of land that was meticulously landscaped, making this both literally and figuratively Shakespeare-in-the-Park. As cleverly designed by Mark Wendland, the set naturally complemented the scenic wonders the park provided as a backdrop. As inspired as Wendland was, he was doubly wise when he chose his assistant -- Mother Nature. Filichiatations to her, too, as well to all of the above.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com