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Ladies' night at the Barrymores

"The Light in the Piazza" and "Becky Shaw," both about troubled women, are the big winners at the 16th awards, which also salute the faithful theatergoer.

By Howie Shapiro
Philadelphia Inquirer

Two shows about young women with problems - the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of the musical The Light in the Piazza and the Wilma Theater's staging of Becky Shaw - won big Monday night at the 16th annual Barrymore Awards, the region's professional theater honors.

Together, the shows all but swept the awards, Piazza winning seven, including best musical production, and Shaw taking five, including best play production.

About 700 attendees, many in formal wear, gathered at the Walnut Street Theatre, where a red carpet welcomed them to the ceremony. This year's theme was the audience members "who, despite the lousy economy, their own chaotic schedules, and the seductive glow of 10,000 digital alternatives, do whatever it takes to show up," the night's host, actor Fran Prisco, told the crowd.

In fact, metropolitan Philadelphia has enough theatergoers to support nearly 50 professional companies. At the ceremony, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia showed part of a marketing video it has been making this year by inviting Philadelphians to sit on a roving "casting couch" and talk about why they are fans; a few were invited to the ceremony to be award presenters.

In addition to naming The Light in the Piazza best musical production, the Barrymores honored its director, Joe Calarco, and three performers: Sherri L. Edelen as best musical actress, for her portrayal of the mother of a mentally challenged young woman who falls in love on a trip to Italy; Whitney Bashor as the daughter; and Matthew Scott as her Italian swain. R. Lee Kennedy won for lighting the show, and Eric Ebbenga for his musical direction.

Ebbenga's Barrymore is also a tribute to the way Piazza composer/lyricist Adam Guettel reworked the orchestration so it remained true to the Broadway version yet was affordable to theaters without the vast resources of Lincoln Center, which used a conductor and 15 musicians; at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Ebbenga conducted four.

Wilma Theater won five Barrymores for its production of Becky Shaw, a wickedly funny play about a complex young woman who is obsessed with a man she has met on a blind date. The play, by Gina Gionfriddo, had been a hit Off-Broadway.

In addition to best play, the production won a Barrymore for the cast's ensemble acting and for director Anne Kauffman; a best-actor award for Jeremy Bobb as a flinty money manager; and a supporting-actress award for Brooke Bloom in the title role.

InterAct Theatre Company won three awards, one each for three different productions. John Bellomo and Tony "Hitman" Stetson won for their choreography of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a funny, edgy play about a wrestler for which they plotted the movement inside the ring InterAct built in lieu of a stage.

A new Barrymore honor - the Brown Martin Philadelphia Award for a production that shows how theater can illuminate the meaning of diversity - went to InterAct's Black Pearl Sings!, about two women, a white collector of rural folk songs for the Library of Congress and an African American convict. Most Barrymore awards are medallions, but this one also means a $25,000 prize for InterAct.

The company's third award, for new approaches to collaborations, went to City of Numbers, which InterAct produced with Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program. Playwright Sean Christopher Lewis interviewed lifers at Graterford Prison about their work as mural artists, and also performed the one-man play.

That Barrymore, to honor stage work whose creation also involves organizations not normally linked with theater, is annually sponsored by two patrons of theater, Ted and Stevie Wolf, who are winners of this year's lifetime achievement award. The award was presented by Blanka Zizka, the Wilma Theater's artistic director, and Charlie Gilbert, chairman of the theater program at University of the Arts; the Wolfs , who received a standing ovation, have been vital supporters of those institutions and others.

"Through all of their work with educational, historic, and performing arts institutions, a common thread unites their efforts," Zizka said as she and Gilbert presented the medallion. "They do not just give financial support. They lead. They listen, they talk, they think, and they come back with ideas that achieve success."

Versatile actress and director Sarah Sanford, a member of Pig Iron Theatre who is at home both in outré work (last year's Fringe Festival hit Welcome to Yuba City) as well as on the city's main stages, won the $10,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist, the only other monetary award among the Barrymores. She currently is in rehearsal in the cast of Anton Chekhov's classic Uncle Vanya, which opens at Lantern Theater this month.

The Barrymore special-recognition award was presented to longtime Philadelphia actor and director Pete Pryor in August, when the nominees for the other awards were announced. He had just completed a fellowship in the second class of the prestigious Lunt-Fontanne fellows.

B. Someday Productions, of Kensington, won this year's education and community-service award for a program called Of Mythic Proportions, which provides opportunities for high school students in Kensington to create theater pieces and share them with the community.

The Barrymores were chosen by 65 voters - theater educators and administrators as well as artists. A randomly selected eight voters were assigned to each of 145 eligible shows. Each voter gave points from 1 to 100 in each category. The top point-earners became nominees, and those with the most points were the winners Monday night.

The Walnut Street Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof swept the nominations, 13 in all, and won two Barrymores. One went to Mark Jacoby as Tevye, the central character in the musical about an ill-fated shtetl at the outset of the Russian Revolution. The other award went to Colleen Grady for her evocative costumes.

Local playwright Bruce Graham won the award for outstanding new play for Any Given Monday, a joint production of Theatre Exile in Center City and Act II Playhouse in Ambler. The funny, arresting play, about a man addled by changes in his life and his friend who attempts to help him over them, was performed on both stages.

Cheryl Williams received the award for best actress in a play, for her performance as an author who seeks out her husband's former mistress in David Hare's play The Breath of Life at Lantern Theater. Christopher Colucci also won for his original music in the production - and was the sole winner of two awards, the other for his sound design of Azuka Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home.

Arden Theatre Company, often a big winner, received one award, for David P. Gordon's set of the family show If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Peter DeLaurier, Kent in People's Light & Theatre Company's King Lear, won as best supporting actor in a play, and Act II's The Story of My Life won for outstanding musical ensemble - a curious choice as the show's ensemble consists of two actors.

After the program, directed by the Theatre Alliance's Karen DiLossi, the audience, made up largely of theater artists and their spouses and friends, strolled to a reception a few blocks away at the Ben Franklin House ballroom.