Three Big Winners in annual Jeff Awards

October 26, 2010

In swift-moving and engaging ceremonies Monday night, the 42nd annual Joseph Jefferson Awards reduced the largest field of nominees in Jeff history--162--to 32 winners in 31 categories.

The three big winners of the night were the classy musical revue "Oh Coward!" at Writers' Theatre, the world premiere drama "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" co-produced by Victory Gardens Theater and Teatro Vista and the epic musical "Ragtime" as staged at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace, the venue for the night's festivities.

The Jeff Awards are Chicago's version of Broadway's Tony Awards, honoring the best work in locally-produced professional theater. As is the usual case with the Tony Awards, the 2010 Jeffs honored shows already crowned with success: the night's big winners were audience and critical successes of Chicago's 2009-2010 theater season. This wasn't the night for daring choices or Jeff Awards honoring brilliant but unpopular work.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," an action-filled yet poetic drama by Kristoffer Diaz, uses rigged professional wrestling as a metaphor for ethnic and racial stereotyping and image manipulation in America. It took home Jeff Awards for Diaz in the New Play category, director Edward Torres (artistic director of Teatro Vista), principal actor Desmin Borges, fight choreographer David Woolley and production of a play at a large theater. It was a joyous night for the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-production, which went on intact to Off-Broadway success in New York, with Diaz himself short-listed for the 2010 Pulitzer and Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association new play prizes. Said Borges, accepting his star-topped Plexiglas Jeff trophy, "You know you've given Jeff Awards to three Puerto Ricans tonight. You know what we're gonna' do to the lobby later on?" referring to the buffet supper and party which followed the awards ceremonies.

Writers' Theatre in Glencoe put a high Art Deco polish on the familiar revue "Oh Coward!" a stylish rendering of the songs of Noel Coward. Audiences responded by sustaining the show for a six-month run, the longest in Writers' Theatre history. Actor/singers Rob Lindley and Kate Fry received Jeff Awards for Actor in a Revue and Actress in a Revue while the entire show took home the Jeff Award for Production/Revue. Writers' Theatre also produced an original cast CD of the show. The third big winner of the night was "Ragtime" as presented by Drury Lane Productions. The largest winner of the night, it took home Jeffs for Production/Musical, director Rachel Rockwell, musical director Roberta Duchak, Principal Actor/Musical Quentin Earl Darrington, Principal Actress/Musical Cory Goodrich, Supporting Actor/Musical Mark David Kaplan and Supporting Actress/Musical Valisia LeKae. The victory for "Ragtime" was testimony to the new respect Drury Lane Productions has earned over the last three years under the leadership of the youthful grandchildren of legendary founding producer Tony DeSantis, who died in 2007 at the age of 93. With Kyle DeSantis heading the organization, Drury Lane has significantly upgraded the style, depth and production values of its onstage offerings, and both critics and audiences have taken note.

If there was a little-engine-that-could story, it was the rare revival of the racy 1930's drama "Tobacco Road," staged as a rogue production by the resurgent American Blues Theater. Founded in 1985, ensemble-based American Blues changed its name to American Theater Company (ATC) some years ago. In 2009, most of the original ensemble walked out in a dispute with the company's new artistic director (P. J. Paparelli), resuming work under the original American Blues name. "Tobacco Road" took home Jeff Awards for costume designers Sarah E. Ross and Kristin DeiTos (sic) and scenic designer James Leaming. In accepting his award, ensemble member Leaming spoke of collaboration and honesty in remarks obviously aimed at Paparelli, who stood just a few feet away as a presenter of the design categories.