STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997 Straw Hat Awards

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1997 Straw Hat Awards All I know is that my performance as Daisy at the West Willingham Mountain Playhouse in the summer of '91 -- no, summer of '89 -- won the Straw Hat Summer Circuit Award for Best Actress."

All I know is that my performance as Daisy at the West Willingham Mountain Playhouse in the summer of '91 -- no, summer of '89 -- won the Straw Hat Summer Circuit Award for Best Actress."

So said Bette Davis last month at the Sanford Meisner Theater. All right, not the real Bette Davis, but the one that Robert Kahan portrayed in Bette and Kate Join the Line, the offbeat, outrageous farce he wrote with Chuck Blasius. He plays Kate Hepburn.

Their concept: What if Bette Davis and Kate Hepburn didn't make it as stars, but only as workaday actresses, who have no idea where their next on-stage job is coming from? Or if one will ever come again?

So there's Bette, dayjobbing at the Bells Are Ringing Answering Service, and Kate, auditioning for the grandma in Theatreworks USA's Little Red Riding Hood before running off to waitressing. Imagine the scene in which Kate speaks Spanish to the offstage busboy Jesus, or the one where Davis must phone a sandwich order to a nearby deli ("Pita! Pita!"), and you'll have an idea of what these guys and their able director John Alban Coughlan were up to. Despite their getting too serious at play's end, let's give Bette and Kate Join the Line its own Straw Hat Award as The Funniest Experience of the Summer.

Did you know that there once were official, bona fide Straw Hat Awards, annually dispensed by the Council of Stock Theaters? They began in 1969, when Butterflies Are Free was named as Best New Play. Indeed, Butterflies' route to Broadway wasn't the usual New Haven and Boston first-class houses, but the less costly Connecticut and Massachusetts stock barns. This would be one of the few times that this more modest tryout system produced a Broadway hit. But two months before the triumphant Broadway opening and a 1,000-plus performances at the Booth, Butterflies had already won the Straw Hat Award as Best Play. In 1969, Betsy Palmer won 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, was Best Actor. Most Promising New Acting Talent was Susan Bracken in a new production of You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, that she shared with famous father Eddie.

Ms. Bracken must have been terrific to beat out Butterflies' Blythe Danner, playing a tender nonconformist who falls in love with a blind man, got a Tony a mere seven months later. More ironic: Three years later -- when Butterflies returned to stock after its long Broadway run -- Erin Connor was named Most Promising New Acting Talent for playing Danner's role.

Some Most Promising Straw Hat winners never achieved fame. (Who were Benjamin Slack and Joan Bassie, who each won for See How They Run?) Other Best Actors and Actresses had already been household names -- Sid Caesar (Last of the Red Hot Lovers), Mickey Rooney (George M.) -- for the summer circuit was always the province of the old pros.

Kay Medford won a Straw Hat for Light up the Sky. Do you think her trophy nestled next to her Funny Girl Oscar nomination?

Eileen Heckart won for Remember Me? which no one remembers now. Do you think HER trophy nestles next to her Oscar for Butterflies Are Free -- in which she did NOT play Danner's role, but the blind man's mother? (For the record, though Heckart did Butterflies on Broadway, she didn't do the stock tour. Maureen O'Sullivan did.)

One final irony: Do you know who won the first Straw Hat Lifetime Achievement "for a career that began in summer stock"? No less than Bette Davis.

The final Straw Hats were in 1974. By then, most everyone saw that summer stock theaters were going the way of single-celebrity one nighters. The lucky ones, anyway. Many gaily colored tents were dismantled and their land used for shopping malls. Reconverted barns were RE-reconverted into barns.

I miss the Straw Hat Awards, so I'll take the liberty of giving my own. Here's the best I saw this summer, regardless of venue, be it on Broadway or on another coast. So straw hats off, here they come, those beautiful winners:

1776 gets Best Musical Revival, Actor (Brent Spiner) and Supporting Actor (Gregg Edelman). On the Town had the Best Featured Actress (Lea DeLaria as Hildy) and Best Cameo (Mary Testa as Madame Dilly). So who was Best Actress in a Musical? Why, 18-year-old Mary Beth Fritzsky, playing the Liza Minnelli role in The Act.

Where was this, you ask? Hackettstown, New Jersey, at the Centenary Young Performers Workshop. Under the direction of Michael Blevins (Mike in the Chorus Line movie), the Workshop does full productions of musicals -- with children 8-17 playing the roles. They've done Grease and Godspell, sure, but do you know what else they've done? The Rink, 'Nine,' Anyone Can Whistle, A Chorus Line (Fritzsky was great as Sheila), Sweet Charity (Fritzsky was terrific in the title role), "Stop the World, "Company, (I'm serious) "Pal Joey -- all with children! Yes, hearing a minor sing, "Vexed again; perplexed again; thank God I can be oversexed again" does make one take pause, but I like Blevins' philosophy that if you ask kids to do the impossible, they just go out and do it.

This year's Straw Hat Best Actor starred in the Best Play, which was staged by the Best Play Director.Michael Emerson was a terrific Oscar Wilde in Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency under the author's direction, as all made a smooth transition to Off-Broadway.

Meanwhile, the Straw Hat Best Actress starred in the Best Comedy, which was staged by the Best Comedy Director. J. Smith-Cameron, in Douglas Carter Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, played Alexa Vere de Vere, con-woman extraordinaire. Getting the smarm and charm wasn't the really tough part (or was it that Smith-Cameron made it seem that way?). Her real achievement (thank you, too, director Mark Brokaw) occurred in the second act during a flashback. There, Smith-Cameron showed the rough-edged but already dangerous girl Alexa was before she invented the character.

The Most Promising New Male Talent could be found at the Dayton Playhouse during its annual FutureFest -- Joe Hynes, who, in The Starfish Scream, played the straight boy who loved his best friend so much that making love seemed like the right thing to do. Hynes also superbly directed the work. He is, by the way, all of 24.

Meanwhile, the Most Promising New Female Talent was Bridget Ryan, for her cabaret act, Rant Control. Nice title for a woman who puts a Joplinesque (meaning Janis, not Scott) touch to show tunes.

And the Best New Song? "Camp Broadway," by Ralph Affoumado. At a hamburger/ice cream lunch at Sardi's, the dozes of kids who'd been studying theater with Frank Ventura rousingly sang the upbeat song: "Everyone's a star at Camp Broadway, Camp Broadway, USA." It was a song that made you want to grab a straw hat and strut. That's what the Camp Broadway Campers and all the other Straw Hat winners did in their own way. Filichiatations to all.

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