- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Count ‘em: A record number of eight Helen Hayes Awards out of 22 categories were given this year to honor a zany musical named, improbably enough, “Urinetown” — the hit show put on last fall by Arlington’s tiny Signature Theatre.

That choice, and the talent it embodies, shows how far Washington’s theatrical community has come in the past few decades in terms of variety and sophistication. Longtime theater benefactor Arlene Kogod best expressed the positive spirit after accepting a special award for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community before a packed house Monday in the Warner Theatre.

“My addiction is the theater,” she said, deadpan. “I have turned my life over to a higher power — drama.”

There was plenty of drama onstage and off to highlight a sense of mission and community often missing in Greater Washington’s other endeavors. The awards ceremony, with actor Brad Oscar, a Rockville native, in the role of high-energy M.C., was preceded by a buffet dinner and reception in the nearby JW Marriott Hotel.

Both events were fundraisers supporting outreach programs of the sponsoring awards organization, chaired by Victor Shargai. A “cast party” celebrating nominees and guests took place later in the same hotel.

“We have more productions here than any city except New York,” Mr. Shargai said, emphasizing what he called the “cross-pollination” of the local theatrical scene. “Lots of people come from such places as New York and Seattle to settle here because of it.”

His sentiments were echoed by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Fifty-six productions done on a professional scale (mostly qualified by length of run) at 25 theaters (out of nearly 75 total in the area) received 140 nominations from the 50 (mostly secret) award judges chosen by committee. Judges — eight of whom see every production — perform without pay.

Special guests at this 22nd annual gathering included Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson; awards co-founder Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, just back from directing an innovative media training venture in Africa; honorary chairmen Deborah Middlesworth and Robert Ourisman; and James MacArthur of Los Angeles, son of the late, renowned actress Helen Hayes, after whom the awards are named.

Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, other longtime benefactors, were sponsors of a special formal tribute award to scenic designer Ming Cho Lee and costume designer Jane Greenwood, both New Yorkers who have worked for many of Washington’s theatrical venues. They were the beneficiaries of cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

Ann Geracimos

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