Recognizing the best in local theater

What a year it has been in the theater, both on stage and behind the scenes.

It included the emergence of the Urbanite Theatre as one of the most vibrant and energizing new venues, as well as the loss of the beloved Banyan Theater Company, which apparently could not survive the passing of its founder Jerry Finn.

The Players, the area’s oldest performing arts organization, announced a new name (the Players Centre for the Performing Arts) and plans to move away from its downtown Sarasota home of more than 80 years to a new three-theater complex that will be built in the next few years in Lakewood Ranch. And the Starlite Players found an audience for its monthly productions of short comedies by area writers.

Vote here to cast your ballot in the 2016 Curtain Call Awards

And then there were all the high points (as well as some lows) on stage. The season soared from the opening notes of “West Side Story” at Asolo Repertory Theatre and the excitement surrounding Ben Vereen’s direction of a new production of “Hair” at Venice Theatre. They helped to usher in a year of often brilliant productions and performances at all our area’s professional and community theaters. More importantly, many of the shows had something important to say about how we live, our history and the long struggle for social change and equality in society.

Of course, not every show that was intended to take flight managed to do so. We can’t forget the ill-fated efforts to make “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” fly at The Players.

In reviewing a year’s worth of reviews and news stories to compile the nominees and winners for the 26th (almost) annual Handy Awards, I was reminded once again of how lucky we are to be living in such a culturally rich community. No matter where they might have struggled, all the major theaters managed at least one (usually more) production of which to be proud.

There were so many this year, in fact, that not all of them can be reflected in this year’s Handy Award nominations, which once again include both community and professional productions in the same categories.

These awards were created in 1987 to reflect on the magic and wonder of what I experienced in my first full year as theater critic at the Herald-Tribune. The list and presentation has changed over time, from mentioning a few key productions or performances, to the more formal list of nominees and winners that you see here. I wish that we had the space to publish all the possibilities that made my initial (or at least secondary lists) before they were whittled down further to the six nominees you’ll find. Yes, I know, that several, categories have more than six nominees. I just couldn’t resist.

The list doesn’t reflect, for example, all the shows at Urbanite Theatre that have stuck with me since last summer. And this year’s nominees and winners may be weighted more toward the professional productions than in years past. There was just too much good stuff to overlook.

The best play and musical awards are based on the quality of the productions more than the scripts and scores. I can’t say I was bowled over by “Josephine,” the Broadway-bound musical that had a glittery tryout this summer, but I was certainly impressed by the quality of how it was put together, for example.

These are my personal reflections, not the result of voting by a committee. But you can have your say on your favorite shows in our annual Curtain Call Awards at heraldtribune.com/arts, where you may select among all the plays and musicals presented in the 2015-16 season. They have been divided into professional and amateur productions. Voting is open through Oct. 5. The results will be published in the Herald-Tribune’s Arts section on Oct. 9.

Since the beginning, the Handy Awards were intended to trigger good memories. Hopefully, this list will remind you of some of your favorite productions. And, as I’ve said almost every year, please give all these deserving people a hand for tackling the challenges, learning the songs and dances and telling the stories to keep us engaged, educated and enthralled for another season.

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY

“Alabama Story,” Florida Studio Theatre

“All the Way,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

“Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

“Disgraced,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

“The Drowning Girls,” Urbanite Theatre

“Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

“Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre Stage II

And the Handy Award goes to: At a time of ongoing racial and political turmoil, Asolo Rep’s production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” about President Johnson’s efforts to win passage of the Civil Rights Act was a stark and engrossing reminder of the power of how politics can actually work for the good of the nation, and as a result, for theatergoers.

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL

“The Color Purple,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

“Hair,” Venice Theatre

“Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

“The Secret Garden,” Manatee Players

“She Loves Me,” Players Centre

“West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: The classic musical “West Side Story,” with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, was reborn in this winning and youthfully exuberant production at Asolo Rep.

 

BEST ACTOR, PLAY

Karl Hamilton, Vito, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Tom Harney, Richard, “Ah Wilderness,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Eric Hoffmann, Gen. Benjamin Butler, “Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

Dorien Makloghi, Amir, “Disgraced,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Shane Taylor, Shepard Mallory, “Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

Nick Wyman, Lyndon Johnson, “All the Way,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: It didn’t hurt that Nick Wyman almost resembled President Lyndon Johnson, but it was his gripping, grounded performance that really held this fascinating production together just as the president did with the nation in turbulent times.

 

BEST ACTOR, MUSICAL

Berry Ayers, Albin, “La Cage aux Folles,” Players Centre

Michael Bajjaly, Man in Chair, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Players Centre

Chris Caswell, Sweeney, “Sweeney Todd,” Venice Theatre Stage II

Kristofer Geddie, Coalhouse Walker Jr., “Ragtime,” Venice Theatre

Mark Koeck, Tony, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Kenn C. Rapczynski, Archibald Craven, “The Secret Garden,” Manatee Players

Matthew M. Ryder, George, “She Loves Me,” Players Centre

And the Handy Award goes to: This category featured some terrific candidates, from Berry Ayers’ charismatic Albin to Mark Koeck’s sweet-voiced Tony and Kristofer Geddie’s passionate reprise of his “Ragtime” role. But my choice is Chris Caswell, who has rarely been as strong and committed as he was as Sweeney Todd, the vengeful barber seeking retribution for wrongs committed against his family by a powerful judge.

 

BEST ACTRESS, PLAY

Rebecca Caine, Raquel, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Katie Cunningham, W, “Lungs,” Urbanite Theatre

Carolyn Michel, Daisy, “Driving Miss Daisy,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Vera Samuels, Vanda, “Venus in Fur,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jo Twiss, Sharon, “The Roommate,” Florida Studio Theatre

Summer Dawn Wallace, Georgie, “Freak,” Urbanite Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: Among a strong group of nominees, Rebecca Caine, as a heightened version of an opera diva in a romantic battle with her conductor husband, practically floated about the stage with grace and purpose and made audiences fall in love with her through laughter and unexpected heart.

 

BEST ACTRESS, MUSICAL

Michelle Anaya, Amalia, “She Loves Me,” Players Centre

Jenna Burns, Maria, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Apphia Campbell, Celie, “The Color Purple,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Deborah Cox, Josephine Baker, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Dianne Dawson, Florence, “Chess,” Manatee Players

Kim Kollar, Mrs. Lovett, "Sweeney Todd," Venice Theatre Stage II

Gardner, Savannah Sinclair, Ariel, “The Little Mermaid,” Manatee Players

And the Handy Award goes to: As a woman who has been abused and ill-treated most of her life, Apphia Campbell drew you into the story of Celie and let you see inside her mind with a raw power as she discovered a hidden strength inside.

 

BEST FEATURED ACTOR, PLAY

Danny Bernardy, Thomas Franklin, “Alabama Story,” Florida Studio Theatre

David Breitbarth, Nat, “Ah, Wilderness,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

A.K. Murtadha, Martin Luther King, “All the Way,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jim Sorensen, Cary, “Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

Henri Watkins, Toledo, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Allen Kretschmar, Big Daddy, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Players Centre (Two Chairs Theatre)

And the Handy Award goes to: As a pompous Southern military officer, Jim Sorensen, fighting for the return of some escaped slaves, played his role with purpose and a sense of pride that wilted before our eyes as he underwent a grilling from a precise Northern general who made sure every word has a clear meaning.

 

BEST FEATURED ACTOR, MUSICAL

Andrés Acosta, Bernardo, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Chris Caswell, Gerard Carriere, “Phantom,” Manatee Players

Kevin Earley, Jo Bouillon, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Chip Fisher, Adolfo, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Players Centre

Matthew McGee, Joujou, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Amos Wolff, Riff, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: I have strong feelings for all these nominees, each of which created lasting impressions in my mind, but as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, Andrés Acosta let you feel and understand his character’s passion and rage, which exploded in dance and action.

 

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS, PLAY

Ally Farzetta, Iris Peabody, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Bianca LaVerne Jones, Jory, “Disgraced,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jasmine “Jaszy” McAllister, Mrs. Mueller, “Doubt,” Backstage at the Players

Rachel Moulton, Lily, “Alabama Story,” Florida Studio Theatre

Kathryn Parks, Maggie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Players Centre (Two Chairs Theatre)

Peggy Roeder, Lily Miller, “Ah, Wilderness,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: She appeared in just one scene in the intimate production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” but Jasmine “Jaszy” McAllister made her presence felt as an emotionally overwhelmed and concerned mother of a young boy at the center of a possible abuse scandal at her son’s parochial school.

 

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS, MUSICAL

Mary Antonini, Anita, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Sarah Cassidy, Lily, “The Secret Garden,” Manatee Players

Sue Cole, Ilona, “She Loves Me,” Players Centre

Lynette DuPree, Bricktop, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Kyle Ann Lacertosa, Olive, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Manatee Players

Neyce Pierre, Shug Avery, “The Color Purple,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

And the Handy Award goes to: In a show with a lot of flash, glitzy and color, Lynette DuPree brought a dynamic quality and a great sense of comic timing to her role as Bricktop, a bar-owning friend of Josephine Baker. Her powerful voice elevated each of her scenes, as well.

 

BEST DIRECTOR, PLAY

Peter Amster, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jason Cannon, “Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

Emily Sophia Knapp, “All the Way,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Kathy Pingel, “Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre

Chuck Smith, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Summer Dawn Wallace, “Dry Land,” Urbanite Theatre

Kelly Wynn Woodland, “Venus in Fur,” Venice Theatre Stage II

And the Handy Award goes to: “Living on Love” may not be my favorite play among these nominees, but Peter Amster brought his special touch for theatrical magic and emotional humanity to this light romantic comedy that made it seem almost brilliant, with performances that radiated personality.

 

BEST DIRECTOR, MUSICAL

James Harkness, “The Color Purple,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Rick Kerby, “The Secret Garden,” Manatee Players

Jeffery Kin, “La Cage aux Folles,” Players Centre

Joey McKneely, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Bob Trisolini, “She Loves Me,” Players Centre

Ben Vereen, “Hair,” Venice Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: Joey McKneely staged a great classic that was more than a revival. With a fresh eye, he brought new life to a show that we know so well and yet could experience as if for the first time.

 

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

Geena Ravella, “Hair,” Venice Theatre

Joey McKneely, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Charles Logan, “La Cage aux Folles,” Players Centre

Joey McKneely, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jared E. Walker, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Players Centre

Vanessa Russo, Bob Trisolini, “She Loves Me,” Players Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: Joey McKneely, who evoked the spirit of the original Jerome Robbins dances for “West Side Story” while giving them a fresh lift and driving energy that made them seem brand new.

 

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Moria and Isabel Curley-Clay, “Butler,” Florida Studio Theatre

Paul Tate dePoo III, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Robert Perdziola, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Lee Savage, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

James Schuette, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Tim Wisgerhof, “Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre Stage II

And the Handy Award goes to: I had a tough time deciding among the many varied possibilities from the period simplicity of “Butler” to the lavish glamor of both “Living on Love” and “Josephine.” But I settled on James Schuette for his gorgeous living room set for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with its wide view of the Golden Gate Bridge that made you want to move in.

 

BEST COSTUMES

Erin Colleria, “La Cage aux Folles,” Players Centre

Nicholas Hartman, “Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre Stage II

Ann Hould-Ward, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Riley Leonhardt, “The Drowning Girls,” Urbanite Theatre

Robert Perdziola, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Eduardo Scicangco, “Josephine,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: Both “Metamorphoses” and “The Drowning Girls” featured impressive designs that had to work in and out of the water, but I won’t soon forget the designs of the always inventive Eduardo Scicangco, who brought color, glitzy and a sense of period style to “Josephine,” a musical with Broadway ambitions about stage star Josephine Baker.

 

BEST LIGHTING

John Michael Andzulis, “Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre Stage II

Ryan Finzelber, “The Drowning Girls,” Urbanite Theatre

Chris McVicker, “Macbeth,” FSU/Asolo Conservatory

Brian Nason, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Joseph P. Oshry, “Chess,” Manatee Players

Michael Pasquini, “The Little Mermaid,” Manatee Players

And the Handy Award goes to: With a pool of water as his backdrop, John Michael Andzulis’ lighting created shifting moods from mystery to happiness in this modern adaptation of classic myths.

 

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Rick Bogner, “The Secret Garden,” Manatee Players

John Bronston, “The Color Purple,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Aaron Cassette, “Phantom,” Manatee Players

Donald Chan, “West Side Story,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jay Dodge, “The Sam Cooke Story,” Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

Michelle Kasanofsky, “Ragtime,” Venice Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: We’ve known the songs for nearly 60 years, but Donald Chan led a strong cast in making every note sound fresh, inspiring, moving and funny all over again.

 

BEST DUOS, TRIOS AND ENSEMBLES

“The Drowning Girls” at Urbanite Theatre (Carley Cornelius, Nicole Jeannine Smith, Katherine Michelle Tanner

The cast of “Metamorphoses,” Venice Theatre Stage II

Matthew McGee as Bruce; Roland Rusinek as Eric, “Living on Love,” Asolo Repertory Theatre

Jordan Boyer as Ester; Ellie McCaw as Amy, “Dry Land,” Urbanite Theatre

Barbara Redmond as Alida; Brittany Proia as Beth, “Breadcrumbs,” Urbanite Theatre

And the Handy Award goes to: Matthew McGee and Roland Rusinek who enlivened every moment they were on stage in “Living on Love” with humor, surprise, anguish and pathos as a pair of comical and efficient butlers working for a musical couple who thrive on dramatic exaggeration, even from those working with them.