Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Red And Green For The Color Purple

There's an interesting kerfuffle happening on the DC theatre scene this week. A local musical is causing some to see red, and others to feel green. 

The annual Helen Hayes Award nominations were announced last week, and a local production of The Color Purple made the biggest haul. 
The Color Purple at Toby's Dinner Theatre

I'm not sure why, but the musical nominations, and ultimate awards, seem to cause a whole lot more consternation than the straight play categories.  Perhaps that's true everywhere, I don't know.  But the big concern this year seems to be that The Color Purple was produced at a dinner theatre.
Located well out in the Maryland suburbs, Toby's produces lots of "comfort theatre," interspersed with fare a bit more unusual.  For every Oklahoma or Sound of Music, there may also be a Jekyll and Hyde or The Color Purple.
Toby's Dinner Theatre has a long history of Helen Hayes nominations, which seems to cause chagrin for the other musical houses in the area.  Particularly when they win.  This year, for example, they are in direct competition with a production of Dreamgirls over at DC's premiere musical theatre, Signature.  Dreamgirls received only one less nomination than did The Color Purple, so in essence, they are competing neck-and-neck.
The critic in question is a big cheerleader for DC theatre, unless dinner is served.  He was properly asked if he had actually seen The Color Purple at Toby's Dinner Theatre. No, he hadn't.
Earlier this week, the leading theatre critic from DC's newspaper of note tweeted a rather snarky comment:  

"You cannot credibly make claim to being America's no. 2 theater town if most nommed musical comes from dinner theater."

It should be noted that the critic in question, a former writer for the NY Times, has often been accused of being too NY-centric in his theatre coverage here.  He does seem to care a great deal about how DC is viewed, as a theatre town, by the rest of the country (or at least by Manhattan).

Linda Levy Grossman, the president and CEO of TheatreWashington, who sponsors the Helen Hayes Awards, responded with a very well-considered blog, which I encourage you to read here
Linda Levy-Grossman defends
the multiple HH noms awarded
to dinner theatre.

She suspects that it really doesn't matter where art is made, that the building does not influence the quality of the work.  On that point, no one can really disagree.  It seems that our critic's comment was concerned with how our region is perceived.  I think it's time our region stopped trying so hard to impress New York and got on with making our own kind of theatre.  Hell, our region is home to THREE theatres which have won the Regional Theatre Tony Award;  we've already been recognized by the New York theatre establishment for our own homegrown work.  I think we can agree that DC theatre has arrived.
Signature Theatre, one of our Tony-winning theaters, had its beginnings in very humble surroundings.  For years, they produced award-worthy work in a converted garage with faulty plumbing, bad floors, and a neighborhood which smelled of gas and oil.
I mentioned last year that I felt the Helen Hayes Awards are guilty of this obsession with national perception, at least a bit.  Several of our Helen Hayes Awards are reserved for productions which only visit the area.  This made sense decades ago, when DC was struggling with its own theatrical identity and it was beneficial to recognize productions which appeared here but originated elsewhere.  These days, though, I think those awards are a waste of time, and deflect the true reason for the Hayzies, which is to honor our own theatrical excellence.

Our story does not end with Ms. Grossman's note.  Others in the local community have piped up, some pointing out that, as Toby's Dinner Theatre is non-union and a dinner theatre, its credibility as a producer of award-worthy work is questionable.  Others have pointed out that Toby's has always been, and continues to be, a great training ground for musical talent which has gone on to higher profile venues (several former performers are currently on Broadway).  The aforementioned Signature Theatre has a close-knit stable of musical actors which they use over and over again in their productions, actors who spent time and gained exposure at Toby's.  Are we to suggest that those actors were not talented enough to create worthy theatre until they left the dinner theatre?
Toby's productions are in the round.
It's an interesting discussion which will probably continue as long as this competition survives.  I did not see the show which ignited this year's controversy, in fact, I've only seen two shows at Toby's Dinner Theatre, plus a performance for kids. 
The Purple gang may be disappointed. The original film
earned a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, losing them all.

There is a pretty lousy clip out there of The Color Purple in rehearsal, which I bet does not do the finished product much justice, so for this week's Dance Party, we turn back to the source material for the musical, the acclaimed Spielberg film which introduced us to Whoopie Goldberg.  That film was not a musical, but as it includes a musical sequence, let's take a look.