Encore!

The Kevin Kline Awards charged up the local theater community.

A month has passed since the first annual Kevin Kline Awards ceremony, yet the afterglow continues to linger. I haven't attended a play in the past month where someone wasn't overheard waxing enthusiastic about that grand night.

Maybe with one exception: Six nights after the Kevins were doled out, at a performance of The Ballad of Jesse James, a woman in the front row asked her companion if she'd attended the gala evening. "I don't even know who won," the friend disdainfully proclaimed for all to hear. "If I want to see good theater, I go to New York."

Although I was tempted to ask, "Then why the hell are you here?" an even greater temptation was to want to tell her who won. The answer was so obvious: Everyone did. Everyone who attended the March 20 ceremony left that theater — maybe not with a trophy in hand — but with something almost as palpable: a sense of pride, a sense of purpose.

Not so many years ago, I asked a friend to tell me about the St. Louis theater community. "What theater community?" was the scornful reply. "There's no community here. It's a caste system, a series of fiefdoms." Despite the cynicism, there seemed to be more than a kernel of truth in that charge. And despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, not much was done to alter the situation — until the Kevin Kline Awards were established.

In the course of little more than a year, what has occurred? Theaters large and small have banded together to form a consortium in which they promote each other's shows, share poster and playbill space. Theater tickets are more easily accessible through the group's Web site, www.kevinklineawards.org. Actors, directors, designers are more actively attending plays produced by companies whose work they've never seen before.

After a year of baby steps and building bridges, the awards ceremony itself finally arrived. If ever there was an opportunity for the accumulated good work to unravel, that was it. What if all the nasty out-of-town actors dominated the awards (and weren't even here to accept them)? What if the large, institutional theaters swept the categories and everyone else was excluded from recognition?

Precisely the opposite occurred. The balance between local and visiting artists was equal. Several of those visiting artists cared enough about their work in St. Louis to return for the ceremony. As for fears of a sweep, of the thirty-seven plays and musicals that received nominations, twelve productions, staged by eight different theater companies, were awarded Kevins — sounds like a balanced cross-section to me. True, the Muny and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis were the biggest winners, each receiving six awards — but that really isn't a lot when you consider that the Muny staged seven musicals in 2005 and the Rep had more than a dozen shows in contention. The Muny's West Side Story, which won more awards than any other single show, deserved its Kevins, for it was indeed the best locally staged musical last year.

Yet the most significant story that night was the Orange Girls, a fledgling troupe with just one show under its belt, claiming three awards. The headline of that story reads: "Quality Will Out." Can smaller theaters be recognized under this judging system? They can, and did — and again, deservedly so.

But the announcement of the awards proved to be almost secondary to the magic of the evening. For starters, the Roberts Orpheum Theater (formerly, the American) was an ideal venue. Although the Orpheum doesn't host much theater these days, a sense of the city's proud theatrical heritage still resonates across the proscenium of the magnificent landmark building. "I believe in theater ghosts," Mike Isaacson, associate producer of Fox Theatricals, said when introducing Broadway producer Rocco Landesman; the ghosts were certainly in evidence that night. And not only the specter of Ethel Merman and Henry Fonda and all the other larger-than-life personalities who'd performed under those lights; there also were reminiscences of times when the American was a cynosure for those who dreamt of a life in the theater. Kevin Kline Award winner Ken Page delightfully recalled having attended his earliest auditions for the Muny on that very stage. Host Jason Danieley pointed to the second balcony and shared his memory of sitting up there when he saw the touring company of Song and Dance and realized that he too wanted to be a performer.

After agreeing to host the Kevins gratis, Danieley was cast in the world premiere of a new musical based on Doctor Zhivago, which debuts next month at the La Jolla Playhouse (the same theater that gave birth to The Full Monty, in which Danieley starred on Broadway). On March 20 he should have been in California rehearsing. But from the moment he heard about this ceremony, Danieley had said, "I want to make this happen" — and he did. Appearing in St. Louis became a condition to his taking the role in Zhivago.

Danieley wasn't the only person to go the extra mile to come to St. Louis. Broadway impresario Landesman and award namesake Kevin Kline, who radiated charm and humility, both helped to defray the evening's costs by paying their own airfares.

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