Two local productions bring home 4 awards

Toby's Dinner Theatre, Rep Stage recognized with Helen Hayes honor


Howard Live

May 13, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County productions won two Helen Hayes Awards apiece this week at an annual ceremony honoring theater in the metropolitan Washington area.

Awards went to lead actor Tom McKenzie and choreographer Ilona Kessell for their work in Ragtime: The Musical at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Director Kasi Campbell and lead actor Bruce Nelson won for their work in The Dazzle at Rep Stage, a professional company housed at Howard Community College.

The theaters were nominated for a combined 16 awards, making a strong showing against about 60 professional theaters, including ones with large budgets and well-known reputations such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Arena Stage.

Toby's Ragtime was the most nominated show in the contest with nine nods, including McKenzie's first. He played Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime musician, in the story of ethnic groups in the early 20th century struggling to find their places in a changing society.

McKenzie, of Arlington, said he brought 16 friends and family members to Monday's awards show, and that he was backstage at the Kennedy Center when the award was announced.

He said he charged out on stage and exclaimed, "You can't be serious!"

McKenzie spent 20 years as a vocalist in the U.S. Army Band and performed in the national tour of Ragtime before auditioning for Toby's.

"I want everyone to understand this award belongs to Toby [Orenstein, who directed the show]. It belongs to everyone who had a part in Ragtime."

Choreographer Kessell lives in Owings Mills and directs the dance program at McDonough School there. She is also a regular choreographer at Toby's.

When she was nominated in March, she said the theater's "in the round" setup was the biggest challenge for choreographing the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel.

"We spent a lot of time working on this," she said, singling out the opening number, in which three groups of people weave among one another.

"It's nice to think that people think that the work that I'm doing is in that caliber," she said.

Kasi Campbell won her first Helen Hayes award for directing The Dazzle, a play about two brothers who horde mountains of stuff in their apartment.

Campbell, of Ellicott City, is associate artistic director of Rep Stage. She said the entire staff was excited about the award, as were her husband and daughter, who accompanied her to the awards show.

"We were the smallest show in the whole list [of nominees]," she said. "I didn't really think we would end up getting the award. It was a wonderful, pleasant surprise."

Campbell said her colleague, Bruce Nelson, was "long overdue" for his acting award.

Nelson has been nominated five times in six years. He said, "It was such a lovely sort of capper, if you will, to a long time - 20 years - in the theater."

Nelson moved to Columbia two years ago from Washington, where he was a full-time actor. He is studying applied healing arts at Tai Sophia Institute in North Laurel and taught acting at Howard Community College.

He said the awards process gives him mixed feelings. "You don't want to believe any one person is better than anyone else," he said. "But it is important to have an evening that recognizes theater and gives it this kind of attention."

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