2 theaters nominated for 16 Hayes awards

Shows: Toby's Dinner Theatre garners nine nominations, and Rep Stage receives seven.

Howard Live

Howard County

April 01, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County theaters have been nominated for 16 Helen Hayes awards - double their total from last year - making a strong showing against about 60 professional theaters in the metropolitan Washington area.

Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia earned nine nominations for its production of Ragtime, and Rep Stage, a professional company in residence at Howard Community College, earned seven for its shows The Dazzle and The Return to Morality.

"There is some damn good theater in Howard County," said Rep Stage artistic director Valerie Lash. "We were very happy," she said, in part because of a nomination in the category for outstanding play that put the theater "right up there with the big boys."

Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre, agreed it was gratifying to be recognized with such well-known groups as the Shakespeare Theater, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Arena Stage in Washington.

"I don't think people that don't know about these awards and nominations realize the amount of competition that Rep Stage and we have," she said. Judges considered 193 shows in this year's competition.

Orenstein said Ragtime, which was the most-nominated production in the competition this year, "would certainly rank among the top 10 shows" she has done in the theater's 25 years. "It was one of those experiences in life where everything comes together under the right planets and stars," she said.

The musical tells the story of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, immigrants and African-Americans struggling to find their places in a changing society in the early 20th century.

Toby's production earned a nod for outstanding resident musical and for Orenstein as director. (Resident means the show is not a traveling production.) Orenstein won a directing award last year for her production of Jekyll and Hyde, The Musical.

Also nominated were musical directors Douglas Lawler and Christopher Youstra and choreographer Ilona Kessell.

Kessell, of Owings Mills, said she loved the book Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, and the Broadway production. "I wasn't sure we'd be able to pull it off in our space," she said. "The hardest part was to do that opening sequence in the round, where three groups [move] in and out, mesh and unmesh."

Kessell directs the dance program at McDonough School in Owings Mills and has been choreographing shows since 1985 at several area theaters. She has been nominated for seven Helen Hayes awards and won in 2002 for Toby's production of Damn Yankees.

The Helen Hayes judges "view many, many shows," Kessell said. "To be selected, it is a kick."

Ragtime also had a strong showing in the acting categories. Channez McQuay was nominated for best supporting actress. Lead actor nominations went to Tom McKenzie and Rob McQuay, and lead actress nods went to Nancy Parrish Asendorf and Eleasha Gamble.

"It was magical," said McKenzie of his experience with the show.

McKenzie spent 20 years as a vocal soloist with the U.S. Army band before retiring in 1999. At his retirement party, he told his friends he would like to play Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime.

He went to New York and earned a supporting role in a national tour of the show. After a year on the road, the Arlington, Va., resident earned the Coalhouse role at Toby's.

"It is certainly wonderful to be recognized for something you put so much into," said McKenzie, who earned a bachelor's degree in music at Catholic University. "I love the message in this story. ... I think the stage is a wonderful forum to help the world with things that are going on."

Before this year, Toby's had 29 nominations and won three Helen Hayes awards.

Rep Stage previously earned 28 nominations and won five awards. This year's nominations include The Dazzle as outstanding resident play and Kasi Campbell as outstanding play director.

Campbell, of Ellicott City, has been nominated twice before. She said the nicest thing about the award is taking her 13-year-old daughter to the Kennedy Center for the awards event, which will be held May 10.

Campbell has been with Rep Stage since it started 11 years ago and has spent 18 years at Howard Community College. She teaches and is Rep Stage's full-time associate artistic director.

Bruce Nelson earned a lead actor nomination for his role in The Dazzle. It is his fifth acting nomination in six years.

He said the show, based on a true story about two brothers at the turn of the century who hoarded 136 tons of junk in their home, "was a lovely play."

"Going into it, it was such an odd little creature, we didn't think how audiences would react," he said. "They came out in droves for it."

Nelson, who was a full-time actor in Washington for many years before moving to Columbia two years ago, has cut back on performing. He studies applied healing arts at the Tai Sophia Institute in North Laurel and teaches acting at Howard Community College.

He said the awards "do put us and keep us on the map. It's lovely to have that little jewel in our crown."

This year, Rep Stage earned recognition for its technical aspects as well as its acting. The judges nominated Chas Marsh for outstanding sound design and Richard Montgomery for set design for The Dazzle. Also nominated were Dan Covey for lighting design and Milagros Ponce DeLeon for set design for The Return to Morality.

The awards used a new judging system this year to determine the nominees and winners. Ten judges out of a pool of 50 attended each eligible show and turned in numerical scores. The scores were tabulated by an accounting firm to determine the nominees and the winners.

Campbell said the awards can help attract top talent to smaller theater companies. They also mean more recognition from audiences. In Rep Stage's case, she said, it confirms that people can see quality productions in Howard County.

"It doesn't make our performances better," she said, "but I think it helps people be aware of the theater."

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