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The Kevins Turn Two 

Sophomore year: Dennis Brown puts the Kevin Kline Awards to the test.

The nominations for the second annual Kevin Kline Awards were announced two weeks ago, and the wailing can be heard far and wide. No question about it: At first glance some of these selections seem perplexing. But they perhaps have more in common with last year's equitable nominations than you might think. Last year, for instance, seventeen theater companies received nods; this year seventeen theater companies received nods. Last year 79 individuals received nominations; this year that figure is 82. Last year seven people received multiple nominations; this year seven people received multiple nominations.

Last year's feel-good story was the emergence of Orange Girls, a fledgling company that received seven nominations and won three Kevins. The company went on to find a home at COCA and now seems well established. This year the attention should shift to another young company, Philip Boehm's Upstream Theatre, which received no nominations last year but has six this year for Marija's Pictures. Boehm runs the most innovative theater company in town. He deserves a boost. Perhaps these six nominations — and even a win or two in March — will prod viewers to sample Upstream's April offering, the offbeat Knives in Hens, whose promising cast is made up of Christopher Hickey and current Kevin nominees Jim Butz and Magan Wiles.

Last year the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis received nine nominations (eight for the visually stunning Tempest); by contrast, the shoestring St. Louis Shakespeare only eked out two. This year the Festival received two nominations and St. Louis Shakespeare received seven. Who would begrudge them their recognition? The same is true of Avalon Theatre, which mounts threadbare shows in a church basement yet secured three nods in highly competitive categories.

If this year's nominations seem out of alignment, to a large extent it's because the Rep got into the musical business. Of the Rep's 49 nominations, 34 went to three musicals (Ace, Urinetown and Musical of Musicals). Something else to bear in mind: Although the award categories are evenly distributed between plays and musicals, local productions are not. Only four of the 30-plus theater companies in the Kline consortium staged musicals in 2006. When you consider that both the Muny and Stages had weak seasons last summer, it's no surprise that the Rep garnered so many nominations. But even under ideal conditions, those categories are going to seem lopsided.

It may well be that these current nominations are in fact a telling reflection of the state of the local theater scene. Consider the technical categories, which the Rep dominates. No surprise there, considering how the Rep loves to lavish money on sets and costumes. Yet out of 22 nominations for outstanding acting in plays, Rep actors only received four nominations. What does this imply?

The fact is that in 2006 competition among actors was stiff. Nine additional theater companies joined the consortium; sixteen more productions were judged than in 2005. Also, of course, performance evaluation is extremely subjective; there are no absolutes here. No one is more disappointed than I am that some sensational work didn't make the cut. Anyone who reads Riverfront Times knows that I thought the outstanding performances of 2006 included Colleen Backer in The Importance of Being Earnest, Kate Baldwin in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kevin Beyer in Broken Glass, Michelle Hand in From Door to Door and Julie Layton in Skin in Flames, none of whom received nominations.

But at least these actors were seen and judged. If any performer should be upset with the nominations, it's Willena Vaughn. Her Effie in last spring's Black Rep Dreamgirls blew the roof off the Sheldon. But by continuing to boycott the Kevins, Black Rep artistic director Ron Himes practices the most small-minded kind of segregation that deprives his actors of the right to join the community at large. So this year Vaughn was denied a shot at a nomination; next year J. Samuel Davis will be denied recognition for his dazzling turn in last month's Ain't Misbehavin'. It's (briefly) dispiriting enough to be overlooked for a nomination. But when your boss won't even allow you to be considered, that's really grounds for wailing.

This is part one of a two-part essay. Next week: Some suggested changes in the judging.

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