Nearing the three-and-a-half hour mark at the Barrymore Awards, one presenter said: "Because of the time, let's forget the script and just get to the names." A good idea, but it was too late.
This October 23, 2006 ceremony was the most tedious Barrymore production ever, and was a half-hour longer than last year's.

It wasn't just that the proceedings were long and without an intermission. They were full of inside references that alienated most of the audience, including me (and I know many of the people involved, so imagine how it must put off the more casual theatergoer).
One main reason for having an awards ceremony is to show off Philadelphia theatrical excellence to the public, to win new friends. This isn't the way to do that.

One example: A series of promotional videos for the nominated plays. When an unidentified face would appear on the screen, yelps and screams would rise from a few dozen delighted attendees. The rest of us didn't know who was on screen or why. Later, during a memorial salute to three members of the community who died in the past year, photos were projected while Rob Evans sang John Bucchino's inspirational ballad, "Better Than I." But nothing was said, or projected, to explain who died, or how, or what they represented. If you didn't know, for example, that Veronica Griego was a vibrant young woman who combined a wicked wit with writing, organizational and promotional talents, and that she died alone in an automobile accident coming home from a play -- then the photo tribute was inadequate.

Vince Marini directed for the second year in a row. He used his contacts to bring in internationally-known figures like Rob Evans, Jarrod Emick, Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy, and he showed creativity and cleverness, as he had in 2005. He also provided a neat convergence of a phrase from the script of Waiting for the Moon,, which he co-wrote, and the Barrymore slogan for the year: "Many Possibilities." But Marini was sabotaged by some long-winded speakers, and the production plodded. Countless spokesmen told us that the Philly theater community is great. Why didn't they shut up and show us what's great?

The clock ticked off 52 minutes before we saw a rousing musical number. (There had been an innocuous opening song.) The Tony Awards learned years ago to use music to entertain the audience. The best directors in the world tried and failed to find ways of excerpting non-musical plays, or of explaining them. So now they avoid that and go to song.

The Kennedy Center also stresses music, even when inducting non-musical artists. They somehow find singers who can illuminate the contributions of the actor or the writer being honored. Watch the Kennedy telecasts and you'll see that each honoree is introduced in a talking segment lasting no more than two minutes; then we're into the music. In contrast, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Barrymores devoted almost 15 minutes to comments about Robert Hedley, then he took another 15 minutes to acknowledge the award. What happened to his sense of timing and theatricality?

Another tedious interlude was the thank-you from ComedySportz Philadelphia for its "Special Recognition" as each member of its board repeated what others already said. They even exhorted everyone in the audience who ever saw one of their shows to stand. I thought I was at a Bat Mitzvah and the kid was going to ask all her friends to please come up and help light a candle.

There were some excellent moments: Ben Dibble winning the Emerging Artist Award and leaping across the stage with palpable enthusiasm. A classy acceptance by Michael Hollinger of his deserved award as author of the year's best play, Opus. Terry Nolen for his consummate professionalism. And, yes, the music:
Jarrod Emick singing "I've Got Things to Say" which showcased the Broadway pizzazz of Waiting For the Moon. Hilarious Scott Greer and adorable Erin Weaver in a number that demonstrated the cleverness of A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage: A Mark Twain Musical Melodrama. Tony Braithwaite reprised his anthem from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. and Nova Payton showed clearly that she was the best actress in a musical (although the voters gave that award to someone else) as she belted, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls. The oh-so-serious ballad from Winesburg, Ohio failed to convince us that the show deserved to be Best Musical or honored for Best Original Music.

Speaking of that, how many audience members noticed that the orchestra couldn't remember anything from the Winesburg score as its victory was announced and, instead, the band played "My Shining Hour," a Harold Arlen tune from a 1943 film?

All of what I've written is moot, however, if the reason for the Barrymore Awards is to cheer for one's friends. Some attendees come to do only that, and they don't care about wooing new fans for Philadelphia theater.
To be sure, there is a certain sweetness in seeing young people who work in theater for meager wages, dressing up in their prom gowns and enjoying a festive occasion. But they whoop indiscriminately for everyone connected to their home team. Host Mary Martello asked the cheerleaders to please "sit on your hands" and withhold applause until all nominees names have been read, but they ignored her request.

Chauvinism among attendees is obvious, while chauvinism among judges cannot be proven. Still, it seems that worthy productions outside the regular center city companies are passed over. In the category of best musical and best original score, the award-worthy Mark Twain show that was directed and co-written by Terry Nolen's friend and colleague, Aaron Posner, with music by Philadelphian James Sugg and starring actors who appear regularly at the Arden. But it was produced in Wilmington!, so it didn't win anything.

Likewise, Frank Wildhorn wrote the best and most varied score of his successful career for Waiting For the Moon, and the show starred world-class singers but, hey, its premiere was in Marlton, New Jersey. Theatrical organizations from Wilmington and from New Jersey are now members of the Theater Alliance of Philadelphia, which produces the Barrymore Awards, but there does seem to be a reluctance for voters to honor their contributions.

This was a subject of much conversation at the party following the awards. One explanation is that these out-of-town productions have short runs, so voters don't get to see them. An alternate theory which I heard there is that A Murder, a Mystery was passed over because it is a comedy and Barrymore voters prefer seriousness. If that is true, it's an interesting reversal of Broadway custom. There, a pattern has existed of Tony voters habitually choosing lightness over darkness -- such as Avenue Q over Wicked in 2004, Contact over The Dead in 2000, The Lion King over Ragtime in 1998, Crazy For You over Falsettos in 1992, even The Music Man over West Side Story in 1958.

Getting back to the ceremony, host Martello was competent. But why can't we go back to a man who seems born to be the emcee? Remember when the Academy Awards used Johnny Carson as its host year after year? Why not bring back Philly's best Carson impersonator, the outrageously funny Tony Braithwaite? He hosted several Barrymores before 2005, and bypassing him seems like a pointless change just for the sake of change.


Key Subjects: 
Barrymore Awards, Philadelphia, Arden, Mary Martello
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and
Major winners: Production of a Play Richard III (Lantern Theater Company) Production of a Musical Winesburg, Ohio (Arden Theater Company) Direction of a Play Terrence J. Nolen - Opus (Arden) Direction of a Musical Terrence J. Nolen - Winesburg, Ohio (Arden) Leading Actor in a Play Pete Pryor as Richard - Richard III (Lantern) Leading Actress in a Play Jacqueline Antaramian as nine Iraqi women - Nine Parts of Desire (The Wilma Theater) Leading Actor in a Musical Brian Hissong as George Willard - Winesburg, Ohio (Arden) Leading Actress in a Musical Rachel deBenedet as Lureena - Adrift in Macao (Philadelphia Theatre Company) New Play Opus, by Michael Hollinger (Arden) Emerging Theatre Artist Ben Dibble Lifetime Achievement Award Robert Hedley
October 2006
A Yawn Through Philadelphia's 2006 Barrymore Awards