Some of the best scenes at the Colorado Theatre Guild's Henry Awards Monday night: Donna Debreceni and her band tearing into the evening's songs and musical commentaries. The creators of Assassins -- a show that was put together by Next Stage with gum, safety pins and a treasure trove of talent -- learning they'd won Best Musical over far more expensive productions and bouncing irrepressibly onto the stage. Rhonda Lee Brown clutching her best actress award through the entire evening and smiling as if she didn't know how to stop. William Hahn's quiet acceptance speech as best actor. And some musical interludes: Elizabeth Welch setting her extraordinary voice soaring on Sondheim's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"; Leonard E. Barrett cutting loose as a freaky, stylish Wiz; Nick Sugar snaking through The Rocky Horror Show's "Sweet Transvestite," and afterwards, having won the Henry for best actor in a musical, having his photograph taken in the lobby with everyone he could con into standing still.
The programs were handsome, the booze flowing, the attendees elegant and the spread seriously delicious (no stale crackers or browning fruit in sight). Denver theater legend and impresario Henry Lowenstein, for whom the awards were named, beamed forth upon the proceedings.
All in all, a triumph for the Guild.
There are still a couple of logistical issues to be worked out. The Guild is a statewide organization, but I and the other voting critics (John Moore of the Denver Post, Lisa Bornstein of the Rocky, the Daily Camera's Mark Collins and Out Front 's David Marlowe), cover the Denver metro area -- though John sometimes ventures further afield, and I make a point of visiting Fort Collins. This means that Aspen, Colorado Springs and other significant theater towns don't get a look in. I suppose the Guild could dispatch critics or academics from those areas to evaluate performances, but they would be unable to compare what they'd seen to shows in Denver. And they'd always be outvoted. Unless there were several in each city, in which case the bloc would skew the vote.
Even within the metro area, there are problems. London and New York may have dozens of full-time critics, but Denver has two, Lisa and John. I see some eighty or ninety plays a year, but that still leaves many out. The Guild's decision that to be eligible a play must have been seen by three critics (two if it takes place outside the metro area) is sensible, but it took some excellent productions out of the running. This could be remedied by better communication, with critics letting each other know if they've seen something potentially award-worthy. The Guild also decided that eligible productions must have seen at least twelve performances; it seems to me that a couple of full weekends should be sufficient.
Even if all the logistics jibe, voting processes are difficult. Critics are human, and their judgments are subjective. That means we disagree. Fairly frequently. But for the most part, the numbers game worked for the Henrys (results were tallied by an accounting firm; we've suggested a bit of fine-tuning for next year). I might have quarreled with an award or two Monday, but I still knew to my bones that almost every one of the winners was talented, dedicated and deserving of our cheers and applause.
The ceremony itself was a mixed bag: fabulous in parts, provincial in others. Host John Ashton was a hoot at the beginning, impersonating the Henry mask in blueface, loosening up the audience and delivering a few well-placed jabs at the Denver Center Theatre Company and at us, the critics. But he became less funny as the evening wore on and we fanned ourselves with our programs while listening to endless recitations of the presenters' credentials. In every case, a sentence or two would have sufficed. And after a while the jokes began to sound envious and sour.
While the Henrys were in the planning stages, there was some debate about whether the Denver Center should have its own category. I believed -- and still do -- that it should be judged along with everyone else. There's enough talent in town to challenge the 800-pound gorilla, and it seems to me insulting to imply that an actor or director working for a small theater can't be as good as his counterpart at the center. But there are some categories where the terrain simply isn't equal. Tech, for instance. How do you evaluate the expensive and beautiful set of the Denver Center's A Clean House against the brilliantly claustrophobic jumble David Lafont created for Paragon's The Caretaker or the humor and ingenuity of Buntport's homemade stage devices?
And as for best season award, there again things are unequal. The Denver Center has put on some clunkers this year (September Shoes, Jesus Hates Me), an okay script (After Ashley) and two productions I found overrated (A Clean House, Crowns). But they staged more plays than anyone else, and among them were four absolute stunners: Gem of the Ocean; All My Sons; A Flea in Her Ear and Measure for Measure -- which may be the best Shakespeare production I've seen in Colorado. So it would take a purely Herculean effort for another company to wrest away this award -- though there are years when Curious comes close.
The final balance seemed reasonable to me, though, with the Denver Center winning eight of the twenty categories, while some very prestigious awards went to smaller theaters. It did trouble me that new artistic director Kent Thompson -- who has spoken so often about his desire to work with local theater people -- didn't bother to attend the gala; the date has been known for months.
But still -- a terrific evening. If the Henrys can transcend pettiness and logistical problems, they'll become a pivotal factor in Denver's theater scene. -- Juliet Wittman Winners
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Play) William Hahn - "Frozen," Curious
Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Play) Rhonda Lee Brown - "Bug," Curious
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Musical) Nick Sugar - "Rocky Horror Show," Avenue
Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Musical) Shelly Cox-Robie - "The King and I," Boulder's Dinner Theatre
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Play) Charles Weldon - "Gem of the Ocean," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Play) Kim Staunton - "Gem of the Ocean," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Musical) Todd Coulter - "Assassins," Next Stage
Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Musical) Julie Reiber - "Aida," Arvada Center
Outstanding Lighting Design Jane Cox -"The Clean House," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Scenic Design Alexander Dodge - "The Clean House," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Sound Design Brian Freeland - "Bug," Curious
Outstanding Costume Design Kevin Copenhaver - "Crowns," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Choreography Alicia Dunfee - "The Music Man," Boulder's Dinner Theatre
Outstanding Direction of Play Bruce Sevy - "All My Sons," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Direction of Musical Steve Wilson - "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," PHAMALy
Outstanding New Play (a locally produced world premiers) "The War Anthology," Curious
Outstanding Play "After Ashley," Denver Center Theatre Company
Outstanding Musical "Assassins," Next Stage
Outstanding Ensemble "The War Anthology" Curious
Outstanding Season by a Theatre/Theatre Company Denver Center Theatre Company