Zoetic Stage, the resident professional theatre company of the Adrienne Arsht Center, dominated the 44th-annual Carbonell Awards last night, winning an unprecedented 12 statuettes. Eight awards went to its exhilarating reimagining of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical, Best Director of a Musical and Best Production of a Musical, though all four its 2019 productions came out victorious in various categories.
It was a year, in large part, celebrating repeat victories. Jeni Hacker scored Best Actress in a both the Musical and Play categories, for her work in “Sweeney Todd” and “Grindr Mom,” respectfully, marking the second time she has won two awards the same year. Terry Hardcastle (Best Supporting Actor, Musical, for “Sweeney Todd”), David Kwiat (Best Supporting Actor, Play, “Ordinary Americans,” Palm Beach Dramaworks) and Amy Miller Brennan (Best Supporting Actress, Musical, “The Spitfire Grill,” Palm Beach Dramaworks) all added additional statuettes to their mantles their year.
But the Carbonell judges, myself included, also concurred on a handful of first-time winners this year, bestowing a Carbonell to Rita Cole for her compassionate contribution to New City Players’ “A Raisin in the Sun,” and to the same company’s Timothy Mark Davis, for his unforgettable performance as an autistic boy in “Falling.”
This year’s announcement of the winners proved to be as newsworthy as the awards themselves. For the first time in the organization’s history, the Carbonells were presented at a virtual ceremony that streamed on the Broward Center’s YouTube page. Produced by Fantel Music, the ceremony opened with a moving video montage of South Florida theatre professionals displaying, in just three words, why theatre is important to them. “It’s My Strength,” wrote the witty Clay Cartland, in a video that included the buff actor bench-pressing; “It’s My Soul,” wrote Wayne LeGette. Daryl Patrice perhaps said it best: “Theatre Changes Lives.”
In some ways, the medium of delivery did not drastically change this year: a typical Carbonell Awards ceremony involves a good deal of projected video, from collages highlighting the year’s productions, to the “In Memoriam” segment recognizing those we lost, to pre-recorded reflections on the five nominated plays. All were presented with the expected professionalism and grace. The winners of the four noncompetitive special awards, who knew about their selections in advance, even got to record acceptance speeches.
But when it came to the announcement and celebration of the winners in the 14 competitive categories, the distanced format did little justice to their extraordinary work. The structure and technological limitations of the presentation allowed for no live acceptance speeches: No rousing applause from the crowd, no stories and tears and bon mots from the winners as they thank their directors and spouses and goldfish. I was excited about the winners, but by the time I processed each revelation, the master of ceremonies had already moved on the next category or announcement. Barbara Bradshaw expressed this dichotomy eloquently in her acceptance speech for the Bill Hindman Award, anticipating exactly what many of us would feel.
Another element that could not attempt to capture the electricity of the in-person gathering was the performances from the five nominated musicals. The contributions were so uneven that I almost wish this tradition was jettisoned this year. The Wick’s “Crazy For You” featured a single-camera video from one of the performances; Slow Burn’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was simply a soundless montage of show clips scored to a dance instrumental.
Two of the companies, however, provided a model for how to successful honor live performance in a sheltered America: In a screen split six ways, three actors and three musicians from Dramaworks’ “The Spitfire Grill” performed a tune from their separate homes, which to my technologically feeble mind looked like magic. And Jeni Hacker performed “The Worst Pies in London” from her own kitchen, complete with rolling pin, dough and a finished pie that did not look like the worst pie in Broward County.
Overall, the producers of this show, which ran an ambitious one hour and 50 minutes, did their best to make lemonade out of situational lemons, doing yeoman’s work that was occasionally transcendent. There was doubtless a learning curve involved in producing a pre-taped version of a beloved live event. Should the Carbonells need to proceed again on video, there will be elements to repeat and others to refine. Let’s just hope it never has to happen again.