2 small Howard theaters gain 8 Helen Hayes nominations

Rep State, Toby's noted for high-quality shows

Howard Live

April 17, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County theaters have earned a combined eight nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards, which honor theatrical achievement in Washington, Virginia and Maryland.

Three Rep Stage actors were nominated: Bruce Nelson, as a supporting actor for his role in Faith Healer; Christopher Lane, as a lead actor in The Swan; and Tana Hicken, as a lead actress in The Belle of Amherst.

Toby's Dinner Theatre received a nomination for Outstanding Resident Musical (a show that does not tour) for Jekyll & Hyde The Musical as did Toby Orenstein for her direction of that show, lead actor Russell Sunday and lead actress Janine Gulisano.

Choreographer Ilona Kessell received a nomination for her work on The Jazz Singer at Toby's.

"We're right up there with all the other major professional theaters in Washington," said Valerie Lash, Rep Stage's artistic director.

Against high-profile groups such as John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage, "we hold our own," she said, despite some competitors having million-dollar budgets.

About 60 professional theaters in the Washington area and more than 200 productions have qualified for Helen Hayes Awards consideration.

Six preliminary nominators are assigned to each show. A production chosen in any category by four or more of the nominators is then considered by another five-judge group.

After the final nominations, the judges get together and choose the award recipient.

Rep Stage has earned 28 Helen Hayes nominations in its 10-year history and has won five.

Lash was enthusiastic about this year's acting nods.

Christopher Lane portrayed a swan that turns into a man under the care of a Nebraska woman in The Swan.

"The fascinating thing about it was you get to really incorporate all the different elements as an actor," Lane said.

It was a very physical performance, requiring him to be on stage with no clothing for the first half-hour of the play, leap onto furniture and counters and evolve from swan-like honking to a human voice.

It was Lane's first production with Rep Stage, though he has been acting in the area for about 15 years. He won a Helen Hayes Award for his portrayal of a horse in Equus at Olney Theater Center.

He said it was thrilling to be nominated, but he likes to think of the award as recognizing a performance that stands out in a particular time and place rather than being "the best."

"It's a really wonderful, lovely affirmation of what you do anyway," he said.

Tana Hicken portrayed Emily Dickinson in the one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst.

"Emily Dickinson was a genius," Hicken said. "Her poetry embedded in the piece is so beautifully integrated, it is a pleasure to enter into her life and into her world."

Hicken has been acting for 35 years and has earned 14 Helen Hayes nominations, winning twice.

This year, she was also nominated as outstanding supporting actress, resident play for The Winter's Tale at Shakespeare Theatre.

Faith Healer proved to be a deeply moving experience for Bruce Nelson. He had not planned to act in the fall of 2002, since he had just returned to Columbia to care for his mother.

But the part of the showman who draws crowds to see the faith healer, even as he doubts his own life and his dedication to his self-destructive employer, "was just too perfect a role," Nelson said.

"It really brought together in my mind a lot of the spiritual messages that are dominating my life today," he said.

An actor for 20 years - the last 10 professionally - and an acting teacher at Howard Community College, Nelson has decided to pursue a career in counseling, inspired by events in his life and issues raised in the play.

Nelson has been nominated three times before, and said, "If I won, it would be a lovely way to say goodbye."

Toby's Dinner Theatre had 24 nominations before this year.

"Frankly, we were very proud of Jekyll & Hyde," said Orenstein. "We thought it was artistically one of the finest things we've ever done here."

In her direction, Orenstein focused on the idea that Dr. Jekyll was driven by a deep passion to help his father battle Alzheimer's, to the point that he experimented on himself.

"I think it was a very meaty piece," she said. "The entire cast became very passionate and very imbued with the sense of this work."

This is the fourth Helen Hayes nomination for Janine Gulisano. She played Lucy Harris, a prostitute Jekyll offers to help.

When Russell Sunday, who plays the respected Dr. Henry Jekyll and his murderous alter ego, heard a compact disc of the show, "I was just enthralled by the music and the story line," he said. "It was very passionate and dark and a lot about what we're dealing with in society today."

After such a difficult role, "I know now I can do just about anything out there," he said. "It's the most exhausting thing I've ever done."

Ilona Kessel, a choreographer, has been nominated seven times for her activities at Toby's.

She won a Helen Hayes Award last year for her work on Damn Yankees . This year, she was nominated for The Jazz Singer, which includes her original choreography.

Kessell is director of the dance program at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills and has taught at Goucher College and Peabody Institute.

Sunday, in his seventh production with the theater, said, "Toby's always had a reputation in the community for absolutely superior work that would stand up against, in my opinion, any of the productions that you're seeing downtown."

Orenstein thinks the awards can help bring positive attention to smaller theaters.

"This kind of has validated what I've been saying for 23 years, that good theater can happen anywhere," she said.

The Helen Hayes Awards will be presented May 5 at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

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