The usual Elliot Norton Awards ceremony is a gala affair hosted annually by the Boston Theater Critics Association at, most recently, the Huntington Avenue Theatre. This year, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the 38th Elliot Norton Awards was a 52-minute virtual ceremony livestreamed Monday evening.
Ten members of critics association announced the winners in segments they had pre-recorded from their homes. As BTCA president Joyce Kulhawik noted, “We’re out of our pajamas for perhaps the first time in several weeks.” But the show was “live” in the sense that the nominees and the rest of the audience were learning who won for the first time. And if the winners weren’t able to make the usual in-person acceptance speeches, they were invited to send their thoughts to elliotnortonawards.com and have them posted on the website.
The late Johnny Lee Davenport was honored with this year’s Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence, and a citation was presented to “Shear Madness,” the popular audience-participation whodunit that opened at the Charles Playhouse in January 1980 and whose Boston incarnation closed this season after a 40-year run and more than 12,000 performances. Adrianne Krstansky and Alex Simoes honored two Boston theater luminaries who died in the past year, Gabriel Kuttner and Margarita Damaris Martínez, and there were recorded clips from the five nominated musical productions.
The top winners were Moonbox Productions’ “Parade” and Arlekin Players Theatre’s “The Stone,” with three awards each, followed by the Nora’s “Cloud 9,” ArtsEmerson’s “Detroit Red,” the American Repertory Theater’s “Moby-Dick,” and the Huntington Theatre Company’s “The Purists,” each with two.
“Parade” was named the outstanding musical production; it also won for outstanding musical direction (Catherine Stornetta) and outstanding musical performance by an actor (Aaron Patterson). Outstanding musical performance by an actress went to Katrina Z Pavao in Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” Ilyse Robbins won the award for outstanding choreography for Greater Boston Stage Company’s “Swan Lake in Blue.”
In the large-theater division, “The Purists” won for outstanding production and outstanding actress (Analisa Velez). “Moby-Dick” took the prize for outstanding director (Rachel Chavkin) and outstanding design. The outstanding actor was Eric Berryman in “Detroit Red”; outstanding ensemble went to the Huntington’s “Sweat.”
In the midsize-theater division, “Cloud 9” won for outstanding production and outstanding director (Lee Mikeska Gardner). Outstanding actor was Kadahj Bennett for his performance in SpeakEasy Stage Company and the Front Porch Arts Collective’s “Pass Over”; Paula Plum was named outstanding actress for SpeakEasy’s “The Children.” Outstanding ensemble went to Underground Railway at Central Square Theater and the Front Porch Arts Collective’s “Black Odyssey Boston.” Outstanding design went to Underground Railway’s “Vanity Fair.”
In the small- or fringe-theater division, “The Stone” won for outstanding production, outstanding director (Igor Golyak), and outstanding actress (Darya Denisova). The outstanding actor was Nael Nacer in Israeli Stage’s “The Return.” Outstanding ensemble went to Apollinaire Theatre Company’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”; the outstanding design winner was Arlekin’s “The Seagull.”
Will Power took the outstanding new script award for “Detroit Red.” The outstanding solo performance was given by Billy Meleady in Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s “The Smuggler.”
The outstanding visiting musical production was David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” which Ambassador Theatre Group presented at the Emerson Colonial Theatre; the outstanding visiting non-musical production was “Indecent,” hosted by the Huntington. Cited for outstanding visiting musical performance was Ben Levi Ross in Broadway in Boston’s “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Citizens Bank Opera House. And outstanding visiting musical ensemble went to the ART’s presentation of “Six” at the Loeb Drama Center.
Midway through the ceremony, BTCA member Carolyn Clay spoke about the “elegant, irrepressible” Davenport, who died in February. She remembered taking two 15-year-olds to see him play Othello at Shakespeare & Company and how “they hyperventilated all the way home.” She recalled his villainous Don John in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” as proof that “if you’re a large enough actor, there are no small parts” and concluded, “we’ll always have that tempest in a tea room.”
Kulhawik finished off the awards by announcing that the critics association is donating $2,500 to the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund, which provides financial relief to artists in crisis in Greater Boston. The evening ended with a musical “We’ll be back” video from the theater community: “We’ll be back, we’re not done, maybe in June of 2020 or 2021,” they sang, and “This is not our final curtain call.”
And even that wasn’t quite the end, because it was Davenport who got the final curtain call, five more minutes of actors and directors paying moving tribute.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.