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CL's 21st Annual Charlotte Theater Awards

At times, there was an eerie sense of pre-history to the Charlotte theater scene in 2007. Alan Poindexter took us back to his diabolical Innovative Theatre days – before his ascent to Children's Theatre leadership via Rep's notorious Angels -- reappearing onstage in two cross-dressing roles in The Wizard of Oz. Former partner George Brown brought Innovative back for a peep at Spirit Square after a decade of hibernation.

If that didn't take you back far enough, you could toodle down Park Road. That's where Pineville Dinner Theater, shuttered before the Loaf Era began, was reborn. They weren't doing Night of the Iguana down there, but they were paying actors and satisfying many who remembered the original barn. Not to mention their grown-up children.

Rebirths took many shapes. John Hartness and Glenn Griffin, after dissolving their Off-Tryon Theatre Company in 2005, each aligned with new partners. Hartness and Chris O'Neill brought Carolina Shakespeare Company to Theatre Charlotte for the first sprinkling of summer Bard hereabouts since 1991, while Griffin resurrected OTTC's kinky side, partnering with Stuart Williams and Kristian Wedolowski in a new Queen City Theatre Company.

With Miss Coco Peru supplying the fundraising spark, emphasis was definitely on Queen.

Perhaps the most emphatic and triumphant return was Robert Simmons'. Remembered best for his youthful roles in Tracers and Steambath, the son of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre co-founder Michael Simmons had only acted intermittently in Charlotte in recent years -- at CAST or with the dearly departed Moving Poets. That changed big time in 2007, catapulting CAST back to the forefront, dramatically and technically, while sparking its first CL Company of the Year award.

If the new Caro Shakes and QC Theatre were paradigms of how to get a new company on its feet without Arts & Science Council funding, there were also new trails blazed in attracting -- and keeping -- new talent in the city. You could moonlight at Pineville Dinner, as Chris Hull did after making an impressive splash as the conflicted Rev. Hale in Theatre Charlotte's The Crucible. Or you could hang around for the fall season after a devastating debut at CPCC Summer Theatre.

That was the unique path taken by our runaway Newcomer of the Year, Caroline Bower. We gushed over her intensity in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie and were delighted when, instead of disappearing like many ace CP interns, she regressed back into pre-pubescence and adolescence to star in Wizard of Oz and The Christmas Doll at ImaginOn. In leaner years, some other candidates -- including Aisha Dew, Christy Johnson, Jason Mayfield, L-Jae Levine or Tania Kelly -- might have copped the Newcomer crown.

Of course, we ought to note the key role Tom Gabbard and the N.C. Blumenthal PAC are playing. Sure, they're carting in the big names like Cherry Jones and Richard Thomas, along with the hot tickets like Lion King, Edward Scissorhands, Spamalot, and Wicked. But they're also cultivating an audience for more intimate fare, importing such delicacies as Late Nite Catechism, Reduced Shakespeare and Man 1, Bank 0.

At the same time, PAC is fostering the local fringe at Duke Power Theatre, giving artists like Brown their shot and cherry picking mainstream theater excellence. Two prime local cherries would be the revival of Tanya Shuffler's Carrie Ann's Kiss and the PAC's own production of Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Cash Musical. Featuring a bravura performance by Pamela Bob in the title role and notable contributions from two former CL Actresses of the Year -- co-author Angela Bennett and a wondrous Mother Maybelle from Gina Stewart -- Wildwood was artful enough to win our Best Musical honors.

So if the Char-Meck Arts & Science Council continues to look clueless in brokering arts funding to seed the local theater scene, Gabbard and the PAC are quietly fertilizing the soil, becoming the broker's broker.

Here are CL's 21st Annual Charlotte Theater Awards:

THEATERPERSONS OF THE YEAR

Aside from his acting exploits, Robert Lee Simmons built the mighty CAST "boxagon," making the Clement Avenue venue the coolest in town. When Simmons entered the post-9/11 soiree of Omnium Gatherum, he was not only reprising the role he originated at the Humana Festival in Louisville, he was giving us the first production since that premiere to be done on a revolving stage.

That cozy stage usually alternates with the previous space at the other side of building. But Simmons was instrumental in breaking that mold, too, co-designing the sets of a technically brilliant Dracula that used both CAST spaces imaginatively. Toss in the fact that Simmons played key roles in three of our Top 10 shows -- with three different theater companies -- and you have to conclude that this young man has truly arrived.

Alan Poindexter won his first Theaterperson crown back in 1993 when he was a wunderkind. Now he's the all-time leader with four triumphs. Creatively, he rejuvenated his acting chops with his scarifying exploits as the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch. But we also need to give him credit, while casting his wicked eye on the realm of musicals, for keeping Caroline Bower so delightfully in town when he directed The Wizard and the world premiere of The Christmas Doll.

We can't keep giving Poindexter points for the pioneering synergy between Children's Theatre and the Char-Meck Public Library, but we can take note of how ImaginOn is becoming a more proactive player under his leadership, both regionally and nationally. Little Wachovia Playhouse hosted regional auditions under the auspices of MTA, and the big McColl Family Theatre hosted portions of the annual gathering of America's community theaters, AACTFest 2007. Thanks in large part to the ImaginOn he helped to shape, Charlotte was more ready for its close-up when the nation's grassroots companies came calling.

DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR

Alan Poindexter becomes the second artist to capture CL's lifetime triple crown of director's honors, winning his first Best Musical Director award to go along with five comedy crowns and four drama wins. Considering what he had to work with, Poindexter's comedy achievement in 2007 with Go, Dog. Go! is every bit as noteworthy as his sugarless trips to Oz and Yuletide London. Three Poindexter presentations are among our top 11. Ho hum, another year at the office.

ACTRESS OF THE YEAR

One of these years, Tonya McClellan will get a lead role she can get her teeth into, but until then, she's Charlotte's go-to gal for screamingly funny cameos and hyper-eccentric supporting comedy roles. What joy she brought to the gems she won with -- in two categories! Like Simmons, she spread it around during 2007, with top-notch performances at Children's, Actor's, and Epic Arts Rep. And if you saw her in Intimate Apparel, you know she can also do drama.

ACTOR OF THE YEAR

There's just a certain visceral charisma when Robert Lee Simmons steps into the spotlight. It was adamantine -- and fiercely explosive -- as he jumped at his dad as Mohammed in Omnium Gatherum. Then there was the glib, suave, devilish dreamboat when he blazed so capriciously at Duke Power Theatre in the title role of Mr. Marmalade. Yet in spite of the jackboot thuggishness he brought to the totalitarian interrogator of The Pillowman, Simmons could morph from bad cop to the airy side of Ariel believably. In a heartbeat.

SHOW OF THE YEAR

Whether you revere art, family, the imagination, or just down-and-dirty police work, Martin McDonagh's corrosive The Pillowman is an equal-opportunity offender. One of the jack-in-the-box horrors of this wickedly condescending, expertly manipulative drama nearly propelled me out of my seat -- and its aftertaste insinuated itself into my dreams. Only something this unforgettable could dislodge BareBones' Mr. Marmalade from the top spot. Superb ensemble with breakout performances from Chip Decker and Billy Ensley complementing Simmons' menace. Fine set by Stan Peal, haunting lighting from Hallie Gray, and phantasmagoric makeup from Michael Simmons. Wow.

COMPANY OF THE YEAR

When they tell you they do "experiential theatre" at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, they mean business. The revolving "boxagon" is the cherry atop the cake, but the Simmons Family ladles plenty of icing underneath -- beginning when you walk into their lobby and pursuing you when you sneak away to the john. In 2007, the main dish experience also rose several notches, particularly onstage with two of our Top 10, plus solid efforts on Topdog/Underdog, Autobahn, and Dracula. Offstage, my fave was the car theming of Autobahn, with driver's license photos for the cast photos in the program and ticket stubs that looked like traffic citations.

Why all the food imagery? Could be those free Fuel Pizza Friday Nights. And can't one of our theaters be tucked away from a big boulevard? The arrival at CAST is more different and rewarding than ever.

COMEDIES

Best Comedy: Mr. Marmalade – BareBones Theatre Group

Best Actor: Robert L. Simmons – Mr. Marmalade (Mr. Marmalade)

Best Actress: Beth Yost – Mr. Marmalade (Lucy)

Best Director: Scott Ripley – The Clean House

Best Supporting Actress: Tanya McClellan – Natural Selection (Yolanda, Penelope and Ms. Fjeldstad)

Best Supporting Actor: Jeremy DeCarlos – Natural Selection (Zhao Martinez)

DRAMAS

Best Drama: The Pillowman – Actor's Theatre of Charlotte

Best Actor: Billy Ensley – The Pillowman (Katurian K. Katurian)

Best Actress: Kim Watson Brooks – Intimate Apparel (Esther)

Best Director: Craig Kolkebeck and Thom Tonetti – American Buffalo

Best Supporting Actress: Elise Wilkinson (Abby) – Fiction

Best Supporting Actor: Robert L. Simmons – Omnium Gatherum (Mohammed), The Pillowman (Ariel)

Best Cameo Appearance, Female: Tonya McClellan – Holes (Madame Zeroni)

Best Cameo Appearance, Male: Matt Cosper – Holes (Trout Walker)

MUSICALS

Best Musical: Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Cash Musical – N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center

Best Actor: James K. Flynn – Smoke on the Mountain (Burl)

Best Actress: Pamela Bob – Wildwood Flowers (June Carter)

Best Director: Alan Poindexter – The Wizard of Oz, The Christmas Doll

Best Conductor/Music Director: Drina Keen – Junie B. Jones & A Little Monkey Business, The Christmas Doll

Best Choreographer: Delia Neil – Go, Dog. Go!, The Wizard of Oz

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Cook Carter – South Pacific (Bloody Mary)

Best Supporting Actor: Vito Abate – South Pacific (Luther Billis)

THEATER CRAFTS

Best Costume Designer: Courtney Burt Scott – Junie B. Jones & A Little Monkey Business, The Wizard of Oz

Best Lighting Designer: Michael R. Simmons – The Pavilion, Dracula

Best Set Designer: Jayme Mellema – The Wizard of Oz

Best Sound Designer: Red Davies – Omnium Gatherum

Best Special Effects: Pete Wennerstrom and Peter Smeal – Go, Dog. Go! (Water Dogs, Sea Creature Puppets, Doggie Cars)

BEST ORIGINAL SHOW

Goddess and the Magdalene by Stan Peal – Epic Arts Repertory Theatre

BEST ONE-PERSON SHOW

Drew Allison in Salsa Cinderella (Pepper Prince/Godmother Gazpacho, etc.)

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR

Caroline Bower – Thoroughly Modern Millie (Millie Dillimount), Children of Eden (Snake), The Wizard of Oz (Dorothy Gale), The Christmas Doll (Lucy Wolcott)

SPECIAL AWARDS

Purple Heart to Robbie Jaeger – Fine performances in three pitiful productions (Charlotte Squawks, Smokey Joe's Café, and Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings)

Continuing Studies in German Eccentricity to Scott Ripley – Hanging his grungy portrait of Hedwig in the Actor's Theatre revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch beside his definitive Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife

THEATER EVENT OF THE YEAR

Royal Shakespeare Company Residency – Davidson College

SWEET 16 FOR 2007

1. The Pillowman – Actor's Theatre

2. Mr. Marmalade – BareBones

3. Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Cash Musical – N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center

4. American Buffalo – CAST

5. The Clean House – Actor's Theatre

6. The Wizard of Oz – Children's Theatre

7. Goddess and the Magdalene – Epic Arts Repertory Theatre

8. Thoroughly Modern Millie – CPCC Summer Theatre

9. The Christmas Doll – Children's Theatre

10. Omnium Gatherum – CAST

11. Go, Dog. Go! – Children's Theatre

12. The Great American Trailer Park Musical – Actor's Theatre

13. Orson's Shadow -- BareBones Theatre Group

14. The Sublet Experiment – Collaborative Arts

15. The Eight: Reindeer Monologues – Theatre 650/Actor's Theatre

16. Fiction – Collaborative Arts

DA BOMBS

1. Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings – CPCC Theatre

2. Charlotte Squawks: Fourth and Going for It – N.C. Blumenthal PAC

3. The Commedia Robin Hood – Children's Theatre

4. Dearly Beloved – CPCC Theatre

5. Smokey Joe's Café – Theatre Charlotte

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