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Fourth Annual Onstage and Backstage Honors: Robert's Reviews' 2003 Triangle Theater Awards

January 1, 2004 - Triangle-Wide:

The Fourth Annual Triangle Theater Awards, which salute outstanding achievement onstage and backstage, is the first installment of these yearly honors to be jointly selected by Scott Ross and yours truly. TTA 2003 is an expanded and (we think) enhanced version of the 2000 and 2001 awards published in Spectator Magazine and the 2002 awards in our Jan. 2, 2003 issue reprinted online by Classical Voice of North Carolina at http://www.cvnc.org/th-arch0103.html#TTA.

It is always tough to winnow all the deserving candidates down to five finalists, and then to select a winner in each category. Scott Ross and I separately reviewed all of this year's previews and reviews, and then we spent approximately 12 hours together, on two different days, finalizing the selections without bloodshed or even a single cross word.

Even though Robert's Reviews provides this area's most comprehensive theater coverage, we probably missed a few shows last year due to illness or the unavailability of tickets; and we may have overlooked some worthy candidates in the shows that we did review. If so, we apologize in advance. (Unlike some of the local mainstream news media, we will be happy to print Letters to the Editor that disagree with our choices.) We have done our best to avoid those pitfalls.

The Fourth Annual Triangle Theater Awards, presented below in the form of an abbreviated awards-show script, includes our rationale for each selection, but skips the emcee's lame monologue and inane running commentary, the tacky production numbers, and the endless acceptance speeches. Enjoy! R.W.M.

BEST ACTOR, DRAMA: FINALISTS: Eric Carl in Finale (Theatre in the Park); Vince Eisenson in The Shape of Things (Manbites Dog Theater) and Dream Boy (StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance); John Murphy in Sea Marks (Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions); Christopher Salazar in Shakespeare's R & J (StreetSigns); and Jordan Smith in The Country Girl (Emerald City Productions). CO-WINNERS: Christopher Salazar and Jordan Smith.

In Joe Calarco's look at repressed sexuality and institutional taboo, Christopher Salazar crafted a complicated and unpredictable performance as a Catholic boy's school student reluctantly caught up in an impromptu acting out of the Bard's most famous tragedy. His Mercutio was athletic, playful, and insouciant in equal measure; as Friar Laurence, Salazar's fury over the self-pitying emotional excess of Romeo neatly dovetailed with the schoolboy's own impotent anger as his classmates step over the boundary of play-acting into genuine emotional entanglement.

As Frank, the alcoholic actor on his uppers in Clifford Odets' effective backstage melodrama, Jordan Smith gave a detailed, emotionally complex performance. While swimming in the character's overwhelming sense of self-doubt, Smith limned the role's playful, actorly dimensions; his Frank was no caricature of the washed-up actor but a living presence, contradictory and achingly human. S.R.

BEST ACTOR, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Robert Breuler in Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers Repertory Company); Greg Flowers in The Foreigner (Towne Players of Garner); David Henderson in Tartuffe (Burning Coal Theatre Company); Tom Marriott in "Vile Melancholy" in Two Sams (Shakespeare & Originals); and David Ring in Dirty Blonde (TIP). WINNER: David Henderson.
As the self-righteous charlatan of Molière's timeless (indeed, timely) satire, David Henderson revealed impeccable timing and a kind of histrionic sorcery. His Tartuffe was magnificent in his compleat vulgarity: devouring an entire chicken Henry VIII-style and caressing the face of his benefactor like a lover, whispering endearments and ardent promises a slovenly braggart whose weakness for flesh embraces the human and the potable with equal fervor. Henderson is almost obscenely gifted, and grows greater with each new endeavor. Little can be beyond talent like his. S.R.

BEST ACTOR, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Merwin Foard in Funny Girl (North Carolina Theatre); Dan Seda in Cabaret (University Theatre at N.C. State); Justin Schwartz and Warren Freeman in Mame (North Carolina Theatre); and Ira David Wood III in The Sound of Music (NCT) and A Christmas Carol (TIP). WINNER: Dan Seda.

With his bare chest and garish glitter lipstick, Dan Seda was a polymorphously perverse Emcee. His body a fluid mass of unabashed exhibitionism, his every leer a come-on to some as-yet undiscovered level of Hell, and possessing a voice that floated with seeming ease from high baritone to lyric tenor, Seda gave an account not of evil but of show-biz with a death's-head grin. S.R.

BEST ACTRESS, DRAMA: FINALISTS: Dorothy R. Brown in Hedda Gabler (Deep Dish Theater Company); Rowena Johnson in Crumbs from the Table of Joy (Burning Coal); Erica Nashan in The Faraway Nearby (TIP); Tracey E. Phillips in Stop Kiss (University Theatre); and Canady Vance-Tanguis in Handler (Raleigh Ensemble Players). WINNER: Rowena Johnson.

As the elder sibling of Lynn Nottage's Tennessee Williams-esque memory play, Johnson gave a performance of amazing versatility. Her Ernestine was matter of fact, casual, and at the same time endowed with absolute authority a presence we can only call star quality. There was in her acting not a single wrong note or misplaced stress. She is someone to watch, and with gratitude. S.R.

BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Rachel Fowler in Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers); Barbette Hunter in The Dance on Widow's Row (Raleigh Little Theatre); Hope Hynes in "Vile Melancholy" in Two Sams (Shakespeare & Originals); Alison Lawrence in Dirty Blonde (TIP); and Elizabeth London in Tartuffe (Burning Coal). WINNER: Rachel Fowler.

Tackling both her father's blustering misogynist disdain and her own adorably reticent suitor, Rachel Fowler managed to make Maggie, the eldest of the Hobson sisters, both holy terror and curiously likeable. S.R.

BEST ACTRESS, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Jo Brown in Cinderella (RLT); Katie Flaherty in Cabaret (University Theatre); Danette Holden in The Sound of Music (NCT); Rose Martin in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (RLT); and Loretta Swit in Mame (NCT). WINNER: Katie Flaherty.

Katie Flaherty was a spectacularly effective Sally Bowles, exhibiting intensity, overwhelming strength of personality, and explosive vocal ability. The quality of her singing put me in mind of the clarion belt of Bernadette Peters, but that isn't saying nearly enough to convey the sheer, staggering force with which she essayed those familiar Kander and Ebb anthems. When she sang, "I used to have this girlfriend/Known as Elsie," her faraway look suggested she had really just recalled that girl a stand-in for Sally herself who succumbed to "too much pills and liquor." And her movements, increasingly frantic, became a kind of mad invocation; this Sally Bowles was desperate to convince herself that life really was a cabaret, old chum. S.R.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, DRAMA: FINALISTS: John Alexander in Children of a Lesser God (RLT); Sean Brosnahan in Lilies (REP); Ray Dooley in Dinner with Friends and Uncle Vanya (PlayMakers); Tom Marriott in The Price (Deep Dish); and Jim V. Sullivan in The Country Girl (Emerald City Productions). WINNER: Ray Dooley.

Of Ray Dooley's performance as the buttoned-down attorney whose wife paints him as a consummate heel, Robert McDowell wrote, "...there is more than one side to their story, and Ray Dooley tells and shows it brilliantly in word and gesture and overall body language."

In Chekhov's dark comedy, Dooley appeared to breathe Dr. Astrov into being. He embraced all of the physician's contradictions the curdled cynicism and the deep romanticism just beneath, the promises made and thoughtlessly broken in an instant, the level-headed philosopher and the manic drunk somehow finding in their seeming distinctness a coherent whole. S.R./R.W.M.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Michael Brocki in Dirty Blonde (TIP); Jeffrey Blair Cornell in Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers); Kit FitzSimmons in The Complete History of America (Abridged) (Open Door Theatre); David McClutchey in I Hate Hamlet (RLT); and Rusty Sutton in The Foreigner (Towne Players of Garner). WINNER: David McClutchey.

David McClutchey was brilliant, simply brilliant as the pickled ghost of legendary American Shakespearean actor John Barrymore (1882-1942) a.k.a. "The Great Profile." In I Hate Hamlet, a youthful Barrymore dressed all in black as Hamlet and as yet undissipated by years of hard drinking and hard living unexpectedly materializes to instruct struggling television star Andrew Rally (Seth Blum) in the fine points of the role. David McClutchey proved to be the perfect Barrymore a swashbuckling bon vivant and ladies man to school the nebbishy and insecure former star of the small screen and a host of TV commercials. Tall, thin, and athletic, the charismatic McClutchey also brought the good looks of a matinee idol and considerable panache to the part. They served him and the audience well. R.W.M.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: David Bartlett and Kenny Gannon in Tintypes (Peace College Theatre); M. Dennis Poole and Christopher Shields in Cinderella (RLT); and Scotty Cherryholmes in A Christmas Carol (TIP). WINNER: M. Dennis Poole.

Cinderella's plug-ugly stepsisters, Henrietta (Timothy Cherry) and Gertrude (M. Dennis Poole), are always a scream. To play the Gruesome Twosome this version of Cinderella, each year two galoots don hideous brightly colored dresses and equally hideous oversized wigs that make them look like floats in the Raleigh Christmas Parade. Then they galumph around the stage, keeping the audience in stitches with their preening and headlong amorous pursuit of a horrified Prince Charming. In this year's 20th anniversary edition of Cinderella, Dennis Poole quite literally STOLE the show. He brought the house down with his hilarious facial expressions and shamelessly hammed it up as Gertrude. R.W.M.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS, DRAMA: FINALISTS: Elisabeth Lewis Corley in The Turn of the Screw (StreetSigns); Julie Fishell in A Prayer for Owen Meany (PlayMakers); Lynda Clark and Jeri Lynn Schulke in All the King's Men (Burning Coal); and Hope Hynes in Crumbs from the Table of Joy (Burning Coal). CO-WINNERS: Lynda Clark and Jeri Lynn Schulke.

Lynda Clark was astonishingly effective as the protagonist's enigmatic, social-climbing mother. Secretive, aloof, dry, pretentious yet maternal in her own fashion, Clark painted one of a wholly convincing portrait of a woman whose strength of purpose has come at a terrible cost. Her screams of agonized grief on hearing a piece of insupportable news during the crucial second act of Willie Stark! went straight to the bone. And her gesture to her son at the close of the play was so inspired, moving, and in character you didn't know whether to weep for the woman's anguished inability to express her love, or to smile at this superb actor's resplendently beautiful sense of craft.

In the role of Anne, Jeri Lynn Schulke was utterly perfect. Her lovely face radiated intelligence even as her body indicated a more carnal force. From her exquisitely measured performance it was all too easy to see why Robert Penn Warren's protagonist was unable to forget his passion for Anne. S.R.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Elisabeth Lewis Corley in As You Like It (StreetSigns); JoAnne Dickenson in The Hollow (University Theatre); Meg Dietrich in Morning's at Seven (Towne Players of Garner); Katie Flaherty in Dinner at Eight (University Theatre); and Angela Ray in The Dance on Widow's Row (RLT). WINNER: Meg Dietrich.

As Myrtle, the eager fiancée of Paul Osborne's gentle comedy, Meg Dietrich was stunningly effective. At home with Myrtle's comedy of social embarrassment, she also exhibited a sure grasp of its underlying tension. There was something so sad in Dietrich's Myrtle, so desperately in need of relief from her essential loneliness, that she embodied the playwright's dramatic concerns all by herself. S.R.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Yolanda Batts and Meghan Beeler in Tintypes (Peace College Theatre); Patty Goble in The Sound of Music (NCT); Sheila Smith in Mame (NCT); and Rebecca Johnston in Cinderella (RLT). WINNER: Meghan Beeler.

In a cast of unalloyed brilliance, Meghan Beeler's astonishing, infallible comic artistry and breathtaking aplomb proved her the ablest clown of the year. She had exquisite facial and eye command, her timing was a thing of absolute beauty, her instinct was unerring, and her pauses triumphant. This is not the sort of thing that can be learned, and at times she seemed to me the happy love-child of Jane Curtin and Nanette Fabray. Should she persist in her stubborn pursuit of a psychology degree, I can only remark with a certain sadness that therapy's gain will definitely be comedy's loss. S.R.

BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE: FINALISTS: Chrystal Bartlett in "Unreliable Witness" in Slam It! (N.C. Playwrights Alliance at The ArtsCenter); Julian "J" Chachula; Jr. in Underneath the Lintel (Flying Machine Theatre Company); Heather Grayson in After the Storm (PlayMakers); Scott Robertson in Bucknaked: A Love Story (Manbites Dog Theater); and Jordan Smith in "Krapp's Last Tape" in Accomplices (Wordshed Productions and Ghost & Spice Productions). WINNER: Julian "J" Chachula; Jr.

J Chachula played this exquisite Glen Berger monodrama with extraordinary depth of feeling, and his performance as the Librarian was one of transcendent perfection. Chachula let us see how obsession enlivened this gray little functionary in increments, until at last his eyes shone with the fever of discovery, desire, hope, and a desperately human need. This was a performance of such rare acumen, joy, erudition, and anguish it could sear your skin off. S.R.

BEST ENSEMBLE, DRAMA: FINALISTS: All the King's Men (Burning Coal); Shakespeare's R & J and Twilight: Los Angeles; 1992 (StreetSigns); and A Prayer for Owen Meany and Uncle Vanya (PlayMakers). WINNER: All the King's Men.

The cast of director/playwright Adrian Hall's sprawling stage adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren novel was uniformly excellent, lead by Stephen Roten's exceptionally strong presence in the central role of Jack Burden. Roten moved from callow student to cynical newsman to ardent politico to doubting acolyte, making each of Jack's temporal selves distinct and at the same time demonstrably part of an organic whole. Sarah Fallon demonstrated a protean ability to alter herself completely; David Klionsky was equally distinctive in two roles; Carl Martin was splendidly base; Mitch W. Butts cannily underplayed his ingeniously cast dual roles; and Dan Kenney nicely assayed the bifurcated strands of the Huey Long-like Willie Stark's character as he moved from modest, ardent populist to venal, obsessive career politician. S.R.

BEST ENSEMBLE, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Dirty Blonde (TIP); The Foreigner (Towne Players of Garner); Funny Money (University Theatre); Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers); and Tartuffe (Burning Coal). WINNER: Funny Money.

Dorothy Brown surrendered her beauty to the practicality of pre-dinner party barrettes and her dignity to the act of becoming thoroughly soused as the evening progressed, which she did with brio. Danny Norris's comic agony was a joy to behold, and his unexpected yet inevitable first act spit-take was priceless. JoAnne Dickenson was most agreeably blowsy, and David Klionsky gave a dead-perfect performance as an increasingly flummoxed police inspector. Topping them all was Linh B. Schladweiler as a duplicitous ersatz police inspector. In a role that could be done in by sheer smarminess, Schladweiler gave us a cool demeanor and nothing more overtly telling than a perpetual smirk of scheming satisfaction. It was a performance of breathtaking control the still center about which whirled so many comic dervishes. Finally, there was John C. McIlwee. From his first entrance, we were in the hands of a master; he had a way of going from slow burn to accelerated verbal explosion that was utterly unique, and in one terrified reaction a sharp intake of breath, as though the air had forced itself inside his mouth and meant to get down his throat no matter what was the quintessence of comic delirium. S.R.

BEST ENSEMBLE, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Cabaret (University Theatre); Good Ol' Girls, Mame, and West Side Story (NCT); and Tintypes (Peace College Theatre). WINNER: Tintypes.

A protean cast of five (which included the resplendent Meghan Beeler) expertly played out all the contradictions, disparities, joys, and affirmation of Tintypes: Kenny Gannon was by turns wistful, tremulous, abashed, joyous, and altogether endearing as the Chaplinesque immigrant; David Bartlett essayed any number of impressive roles but was at his considerable best mouthing the empty jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt, whose signature song ("I Want What I Want When I Want It") was climaxed by a held "I" that threatened to go on forever; Christian Sineath was a lyric soprano of uncommon beauty, equally adept at putting over a blazing vaudeville turn; Yolanda Batts turned her unerring melismas loose on a hymn-shouter one moment, and built Bert Williams' "Nobody" from a disconsolate lament to a full-fledged battle cry the next, sending her intoxicated audience through the proverbial roof. S.R.

BEST ORIGINAL PLAY: FINALISTS: Loose Lips Sink Ships by Lissa Brennan (Shakespeare & Originals); All the King's Men by Adrian Hall (Burning Coal); Alice Neel by Ann Marie Oliva (New World Stage); A Dress for Mona by Mark Perry (The Drama Circle); and A Paradise It Seems by Matthew Spangler (Wordshed Productions). WINNER: All the King's Men.

Although flawed (as Scott Ross pointed out in his original review), the world professional premiere of playwright Adrian Hall's two-part stage adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's gritty 1946 political novel, All the King's Men, was truly an epic presentation. Ross wrote: "Hall has crafted an effective distillation of the great in all senses of that word Robert Penn Warren novel about a young reporter's corruption under the wing of the backwoods populist Willie Stark.... This is epic theatre, like the Royal Shakespeare Company's Nicholas Nickleby or Tom Hulce's stage version of The Cider House Rules, and almost always engaging throughout its roughly five-hour running time.... [Moreover,] Hall creates some extraordinary images, utilizing sheer theatricality in pointed, potent ways through shifting points of view, simultaneous or repetitive uses of dialogue, two-handed scenes that overlap, each scoring off the other; and narrative strands picked up, echoed, and commented on by other characters." R.W.M./S.R.

BEST ONE ACT: FINALISTS: Linda Eisenstein for "Heart Smart" and Mike Folie for "Dust" in the Ten by Ten in the Triangle festival (The ArtsCenter); Iris Hall for "Big Butt" in Slam It! (N.C. Playwrights Alliance at The ArtsCenter); Taylor Howard for "Looking for Grace" in Slam It! (N.C. Playwrights Alliance at The ArtsCenter); and John Yearey for "A Low-Lying Fog" in the Ten by Ten in the Triangle festival (The ArtsCenter). WINNER: John Yearey.

John Yearley's play was a shattering roundelay: an anguished, elegiac twin soliloquy by two brothers that displayed a control of vivid dramatic imagery, a command of elliptical dialogue, and a feeling for the infinite resonances of the human heart that was as astonishing as it was rare, and was beautifully encapsulated in the compassionate performances of Steve Scott and Larry Evans. S.R.

BEST DIRECTOR, DRAMA: FINALISTS: Trezana Beverley for Salomé (PlayMakers); Adrian Hall for All the King's Men (Burning Coal); David Hammond for A Prayer for Owen Meany (PlayMakers); László Marton for Uncle Vanya (PlayMakers); and Joseph Megel for Shakespeare's R & J (StreetSigns). WINNER: Joseph Megel.

As with the script by Joe Calarco, Joseph Megel's direction of this taboo-busting Shakespearean adaptation resounded with delicious theatricality. Figures of mature authority spoke in staggeringly effective roundelay as the Catholic schoolboys enacting Romeo and Juliet recited together or echoed and overlapped each other's lines, giving the speeches a gravity and a sense of adult propriety lording itself over the students even in their play-acting; at the end of the first act, the boys doffed their school ties and sweaters, a simple act that stood as a metaphor for their increasing rebelliousness a revolutionary pose all too easily retreated from at the close of the play; and while Juliet awaited news of Romeo, two of the boys beat out the hours of the clock. Megel used the play's single prop, a vibrant red cloth, as everything from prince's cape and priest's vestment to Juliet's wedding veil and even as a representation of the blood that flowed so freely throughout the text. S.R.

BEST DIRECTOR, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Lynda Clark for Dirty Blonde (TIP); John Rogers Harris for The Dance on Widow's Row (RLT); Beth Honeycutt in Morning's at Seven, Last Train to Nibroc, and The Foreigner (Towne Players of Garner); Terri L. Janney for Funny Money (University Theatre); and Rod Rich in I Hate Hamlet (Raleigh Little Theatre). WINNER: Beth Honeycutt.

Beth Honeycutt scored a triple crown this year as director. With Morning's at Seven she sped the proceedings along at a jolly clip that somehow never stinted on the play's moments of leisure and introspection. One particular moment struck me as almost unbearably true: mother and son stood, parallel lines, backs to each other at an angle, he growing more positive about the idea of marriage, she weeping with unstated grief at her imminent loss of him. That's more than craft; it borders on genius.

Of Honeycutt's slightly revamped and tightened production of Last Train to Nibroc (which she previously staged in 2001) Robert McDowell wrote: "Rob Smith and Janet Doughty sparkle absolutely sparkle in [this] encore presentation of playwright Arlene Hutton's charming 1998 romantic comedy … a crowd-pleasing old-fashioned comedy smartly restaged... by Towne Players artistic director Beth Honeycutt."

Honeycutt scored a third triumph with her splendid take on Larry Shue's knockabout farce The Foreigner, which she mounted in high style and with an expert eye fully trained on timing, pace, and delivery. Her almost uniformly excellent cast, headed by the voluptuously gifted Greg Flowers, played the thing at full-tilt while somehow managing to nourish the unsentimental sweetness at its heart. S.R./R.W.M.

BEST DIRECTOR, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Deb Gillingham for Tintypes (Peace College Theatre); Paul Ferguson for Good Ol' Girls (NCT); Haskell Fitz-Simons for Cinderella (RLT); Stephen Terrell for The Sound of Music and Mame (NCT); and Jerome Vivona for West Side Story (NCT). WINNER: Deb Gillingham.

Deb Gillingham's staging of this ragtime oratorio was immaculate in every way clean, uncluttered, swift, and brimming with invention. It was difficult to say where her direction left off and her inspired choreography began; her sense of movement was zippy, wonderfully alive. She depicted the backbreaking, mind-numbing (and soul-stealing) nature of repetitive industrialization with piquancy and a sense of how even that contains within it a kind of musicality. Yet moments later she created, with little more than a rubber sheath pressed into service as a steering-wheel, the uncanny illusion of an Oldsmobile filled with terrified joy-riders. The exhortations of three soapbox orators melded together, summoning up a cacophony of rhetoric turned to rhythmic expression; a challenge dance became a struggle for political power; and a seemingly impromptu game of musical chairs attained the quality of metaphor. These moments may be scripted, but it takes a special sort of genius to pull them off with the concision Gillingham exhibited, and she did it time and again throughout this show, which for me was the year's best. S.R.

BEST CHOREOGRAPHER: FINALISTS: Deb Gillingham for Tintypes (Peace College Theatre); Cindy Hoban for Cabaret (University Theatre); Stephen Nachamie for West Side Story (NCT); Stephen Terrell for Mame (NCT); Matthew-Jason Willis for A Christmas Carol (TIP). WINNER: Stephen Nachamie.

The North Carolina Theatre's spirited production of the Tony® Award-winning 1957 Broadway musical and Academy Award®-winning 1961 motion picture, West Side Story, was a high-kicking homage to original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-99). NCT guest director Jerome Vivona and guest choreographer Stephen Nachamie took great pains to recreate Robbins' stylish staging and high-flying dance routines; and Nachamie really showed NCT's young and very, very talented cast how to kick up their heels in one of the most exuberant productions ever to grace the stage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. R.W.M.

BEST COSTUME DESIGNER: FINALISTS: Marianne Custer in Salomé (PlayMakers); Amanda McElray for Dirty Blonde (TIP); Vicki Olson and John Franklin in Cinderella (RLT); Russell Parkman for Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers); and David Willem Serxner for Twelfth Night (Cary Players). WINNER: Marianne Custer.

Marianne Custer outfitted the cast of Salomé in awesome array of splendidly detailed African and Middle Eastern period costumes, circa the First Century A.D. These eye-catching costumes brilliantly complemented set designer Corey Shipler's exceptionally vivid and impressively detailed version of Herod's opulent court. R.W.M.

BEST LIGHTING DESIGNER: FINALISTS: Terri L. Janney for Cabaret (University Theatre); Jeff Koger for West Side Story (NCT); Stephen J. Larson for The Faraway Nearby (TIP); Chris Popowich for All the King's Men (Burning Coal); and Cailen Waddell in Cinderella (RLT). WINNER: Chris Popowich.

Chris Popowich's lighting for this piece of epic theater was somewhat minimalist, making any sudden changes all that much more effective. His contributions were considerable and included a spookily illumined nightmare of minstrels in stocking masks festooned with wide eyes and huge lips, wearing tuxedos with white gloves, and singing racist ditties like "Ol' Dick Coon" to banjo accompaniment and a fateful gridiron accident implied through the use of brilliant white light. S.R.

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTOR: FINALISTS: Julie Florin for Cabaret (University Theatre); McCrae Hardy for West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, and Mame (NCT); Billy McCormick for Killer Diller (Ride Again Productions); Diane Petteway for A Christmas Carol (TIP); and Brett Wilson for Tintypes (Peace College Theatre). WINNER: McCrae Hardy.

McCrae Hardy, the North Carolina Theatre's resident musical director/conductor, could probably win this category every year. He wields a mean baton and is equally comfortable conducting any of the eclectic choice of scores of NCT puts before him. R.W.M.

BEST SCENIC DESIGNER, DRAMA: FINALISTS: Bill Clarke for A Prayer for Owen Meany (PlayMakers); Sonya Drum in All the King's Men (Burning Coal); Rob Hamilton for Shakespeare's R & J (StreetSigns); Michael Levine for Uncle Vanya (PlayMakers); and Corey Shipler in Salomé (PlayMakers). WINNER: Michael Levine.

Michael Levine's masterpiece of a set gave us a country home in defiant disrepair, surrounded without by mud and planks and represented within by a dreary chaos. The use of a single electric light bulb, which got moved from hanging cord to reading lamp, was a perfect metaphor for the very real penury to which Vanya and his niece are so thoughtlessly consigned. S.R.

BEST SCENIC DESIGNER, COMEDY: FINALISTS: Roger Bridges for I Hate Hamlet (RLT); McKay Coble for Hobson's Choice (PlayMakers); Scott Honeycutt in Morning's at Seven (Towne Players of Garner); Corky Pratt for The Hollow, Funny Money, and Deathtrap (University Theatre at N.C. State's TheatreFest 2003); and Rick Young for How the Other Half Loves (RLT). WINNER: McKay Coble.

McKay Coble's minimalist design was a thing of beauty in its own right. This spare set stripped away the overfed clutter of Victorian verisimilitude, replacing it with a striking simplicity which provided just enough detail to place the action and allow us to revel in Harold Brighouse's splendid stage language: a ladder, some curved stools, a rack of display shoes, a fitting seat, a large hanging boot icon, and a trapdoor, below which the bootmakers toiled in anonymity, represented Hobson's bootery while a brick façade hung above, which fused with a rising cellar to create the impoverished storefront of Hobson's eventual rival. A beautifully detailed period street along the upstage wall, complete with plank fence, worn advertisements and the residue of old posters, completed the rapturous detail. S.R.

BEST SCENIC DESIGNER, MUSICAL: FINALISTS: Stephen J. Larson and Carol Winstead Wood for A Christmas Carol (TIP); Thomas Mauney for Tintypes (Peace College Theatre); Corky Pratt for Cabaret (University Theatre); Rick Young for Dames at Sea, The Fantasticks, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (RLT); and Rick Young and Bill Rodgers in Cinderella (RLT). WINNER: Corky Pratt.

Corky Pratt's marvelously tatty and inventive sets contributed mightily to the success of this production. Efficient and striking, these designs placed us immediately wherever the show demanded: the peerlessly seedy Kit Kat Klub, a faded rooming house, a train car, a fruit shop, or the limbo area in which the Emcee reigned and to which Sally Bowles finally retreated. S.R.

BEST BUS-AND-TRUCK SERIES: FINALISTS: Broadway at Duke of Durham, NC; Broadway Series South of Raleigh, NC; The Carolina Theatre of Durham, NC; Duke University Institute of the Arts of Durham, NC; and N.C. State University Center Stage of Raleigh, NC. WINNER: Broadway Series South.

With the biggest budget and widest array of the best of the best of current National Tours of recent Broadway and Off- Broadway hits, Broadway Series South wins hands down for a year in which it brought Blast!, Chicago with Gregory Harrison, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, Riverdance, Saturday Night Fever, Seussical the Musical, Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis, Stomp, and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium and Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change to the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. These gala productions are an important element in revitalizing moribund downtown Raleigh, NC. R.W.M.

BEST COLLEGIATE/COMMUNITY THEATER: FINALISTS: N.C. Central University Department of Theatre of Durham, NC; Peace College Theatre of Raleigh, NC; StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance of Chapel Hill, NC; University Theatre at N.C. State of Raleigh, NC; and Wordshed Productions of Chapel Hill, NC. WINNER: University Theatre at N.C. State.

This brand-new category includes collegiate theaters that regularly feature some of the Triangle's best professional and community theater performers in their productions. This year, University Theatre at N.C. State was a runaway winner in this category for reasons that Scott Ross details in his write-ups for Best Actor, Musical winner Dan Seda for Cabaret; Best Actor, Musical winner Katie Flaherty for Cabaret; Best Ensemble, Comedy winner Funny Money; Best Scenic Designer, Musical winner Corky Pratt for Cabaret; and Triangle Theater Man of the Year winner John C. McIlwee (see below). R.W.M.

BEST COMMUNITY THEATER: FINALISTS: Actors Comedy Lab of Raleigh, NC; Cary Players of Cary, NC; Raleigh Little Theatre of Raleigh, NC; Theatre in the Park of Raleigh, NC; and The Towne Players of Garner, NC. WINNER: Raleigh Little Theatre.

Raleigh Little Theatre scored big points early and often with a banner year that included outstanding main-stage productions of Children of a Lesser God, Cinderella, Dames at Sea, The Dance on Widow's Row, The Fantasticks, How the Other Half Loves, I Hate Hamlet, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. R.W.M.

BEST PROFESSIONAL THEATER: FINALISTS: Burning Coal Theatre Company of Raleigh, NC; Manbites Dog Theater of Durham, NC; North Carolina Theatre of Raleigh, NC; PlayMakers Repertory Company of Chapel Hill, NC; and Raleigh Ensemble Players of Raleigh, NC. WINNER: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

PlayMakers Repertory Company earned Best Professional Theater honors with an exceptionally strong year of shows that included Dinner with Friends, Hobson's Choice, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Salomé, and Uncle Vanya. No wonder American Theatre Magazine saluted PRC as "one of America's leading theatre companies" and The Drama League of New York selected PlayMakers as "one of America's 50 Best Regional Theatres." R.W.M.

TRIANGLE THEATER MAN/WOMAN OF THE YEAR: FINALISTS: Actress/director/playwright Lissa Brennan of Dog & Pony Show, PEEP, and Shakespeare & Originals; actress/director Beth Honeycutt of the Towne Players of Garner; actor/director C. Glen Matthews of Raleigh Ensemble Players; actress/director/designer John C. McIlwee of University Theatre at N.C. State; and actor/director/playwright Ira David Wood III of Theatre in the Park. WINNER: John C. McIlwee.

Robert and I could easily have nominated John McIlwee, the director of theater for University Theatre at N.C. State, in at least four categories. In fact, that was our original intention. During our deliberations, we initially cited him as a finalist for Best Actor, Comedy for his riotous yet utterly true performance in Funny Money; Best Director, Musical for his astonishingly beautiful Cabaret; Best Costume Designer for his stunning ensembles in Dinner at Eight; and Best Scenic Designer, Comedy for his fabulous Art Deco-inspired set for that same show. We only revised our thinking on this matter once it became clear that McIlwee was clearly our Triangle Theater Man of the Year.

We did come up with seven nominations for University Theatre shows or personnel, six of which were for productions McIlwee himself directed: The Hollow and Cabaret. And we awarded McIlwee's Cabaret stars Dan Seda and Katie Flaherty highest honors for acting in the Best Actor and Best Actress, Musical category and that show's designer, Corky Pratt, for his sets in the Best Scenic Designer, Musical category. In addition, we chose University Theatre at NC State as Best Collegiate/Community Theater.

You might assume from these citations that John McIlwee had an extraordinary year. Certainly, the quality of his work was exceptional. But this was merely a typical year for McIlwee.

Where John McIlwee is concerned, I admit to a prejudice. We have collaborated on four productions in the past eight years and expect to work together again on a pair of projects in 2004. When I praise his own work to him, his standard response is, "Well, you're biased." For several years now, I have been engaged in an uphill battle to convince him that others regard his work with the same devotion. This struggle has been made more difficult by the sneering attitudes of certain members of the local critical fraternity. If a McIlwee show is panned, the fault is entirely his; if, on the other hand, the production is praised, he had nothing to do with its qualities the show apparently directed itself. Because of his multifold talents, it's easy for some critics to dismiss one or the other of them. His skill as a designer of sets and costumes apparently leads them to assume that design is McIlwee's sole arena of expertise. Yet he was awarded two (or is it three?) degrees in the areas of stage direction and acting in addition to those he holds in design.

What these puzzling hostilities toward McIlwee overlook is what University Theatre was like before he arrived: moribund, stodgy, unsurprising dull. During his tenure, McIlwee has quietly presided over a creative renaissance that has produced consistent wonders: the emergence of Terri L. Janney as an important director; the importation into the program of the gifted Fred Gorelick as acting coach and director; the use of Stewart Theatre as a platform for student productions; the polishing of NCSU's annual summer TheatreFest into a repertory as fine as it is popular; the introduction of diversity in subject matter and performance; the bringing together in working contact of local theater professionals and students, allowing both groups to benefit from the shoulder-rubbing; and the direction, design, or support of numerous superb productions (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Pippin, The Heiress, and Cabaret) that I believe are the equal of any offering from the area's professional companies.

Most important, as an educator, he has nourished and trained a plethora of promising students Dana Marks, Deborah Lederer, Sean Rivenbark, Linh Schladweiler and, more recently, Den Seda and Katie Flaherty whose work deepened and grew under his tutelage.

Ladies and gentlemen: John McIlwee, Robert's Reviews' Triangle Theater Man of the Year. S.R.