Tuesday, April 7, 2009

2009 Carbonell Awards ceremony: Downsized by necessity, and better off for it

Beth Dimon, who won a Carbonell
for her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins
in ‘Souvenir’ (above), sang at the awards ceremony.

By Hap Erstein

You can argue all night long about the relative merits of the winners at Monday evening’s 33rd annual Carbonell Awards — and don’t think that members of the South Florida theater community won’t expend the energy to do exactly that. But that irresolvable issue aside, the awards ceremony at the Broward Center was the best that I can recall in my fifteen years of covering the arts here.

All that time, and probably long before then, there has been a debate over how locally focused the event should be. One school says that to attract corporate sponsorship for the awards show, and thus keep the program afloat and generate a profit that can be used for theater scholarships, the Carbonells need to feature nationally known performers and slick production values.

The other school rejects that philosophy, saying that the awards are of, by and for the local community, and that is what the show should reflect.

This year, largely because of the downturn in the economy, the Carbonells ceremony had to pull in its belt and downsize its awards show. And the results were refreshing.

There were no cruise ship choreography production numbers. There was no 10-piece orchestra whose job it was to play a superfluous overture and to interrupt award recipients when their acceptance speeches ran too long. There were no bold-face name celebrities who may have played South Florida at one time, but are now long gone from the area, and who do not take the time to find out how to pronounce the award nominees’ names.

Instead, there was a three-piece combo, conducted by pianist Caryl Fantel, whose sound fit the Amaturo Theatre well. There was no imported master of ceremonies, but instead all of the presenters were from the area and well tied to the theater community. The entertainment was restricted to musical numbers from the five nominated, usually performed by the original cast members. And when those original cast members were unavailable — as with Florida Stage’s Mamas and the Papas show, Dream a Little Dream — the title song was sung by Lake Worth’s Elizabeth Dimon doing her best Mama Cass Elliot crossed with Kate Smith, and accompanied by longtime South Florida actor Barry Tarallo on guitar.

The results were unpolished, frequently spontaneous, with plenty of inside jokes, like the opening number Not Recommended Today, about the flaws in the Carbonell awards system, with specially written lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s Not Getting Married Today from Company.

Some of the slide projections that accompanied the reading of nominees were fun-loving, if not outright silly. And the whole evening — which ran a relatively brief two hours and 20 minutes, thanks to the tight schedule set and adhered to by executive director/producer Amy London — had a tone that celebrated the professional theater community of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties more clearly than it had since as least the early ’90s.

Were there awards given to individuals and shows that were less deserving than others? Yes, in my opinion, but awards shows are by definition highly subjective and possibly inherently unfair. Will there be disgruntled theater companies that will feel overlooked once the glow of the evening of togetherness wears off? Unquestionably, but there is no single equitable system for giving out competitive awards, and never will be.

But at least, perhaps by accident, the Carbonell ceremony format has been solved. It is enough to make us hope that the recession continues indefinitely.

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