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THEATER | Theater Notes

Who Needs an Emcee for the Ovations?

November 14, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

In the days just before the Ovation Awards ceremony last Monday, the show's executive producer, Farrell Hirsch, was in a dither about who would be the emcee. The previously announced Jason Alexander had backed out. Hirsch asked Martin Short, but the taping of Short's TV show wouldn't allow him to get to La Mirada Theatre, site of this year's Ovations, in time. Other names came and went.

Finally, the event proceeded without an emcee. Sharon Lawrence and Alfred Molina began the ceremony, Annette Bening ended it, and an unseen announcer introduced the presenters. The musical numbers all were introduced by Brian Beacock, playing the role of dinner-theater mogul Carol Ann Knippel from "When Pigs Fly."

After it was all over, Hirsch declared that "we proved a host isn't necessary. The Tonys didn't have a host this year, and they weren't as successful. But even though it wasn't what we planned, it worked well for us."

An informal survey of Ovations watchers brought general agreement that the ceremony was, under the direction of Michael Michetti, a bit sprightlier than usual.

Conspicuously absent were any speeches by the brass of Theatre LA, which sponsors the Ovations. "In the past, they would make a state of the union address," Hirsch said. "But to most people it's not that entertaining."

Nonetheless, the voting procedures were explained from the stage Monday--through the rapid-fire delivery of motor-mouth John Moschitta, best known for his Federal Express commercials. As he spewed out the convoluted rules, he interjected editorial comments that got big laughs: for example, the corporate sponsors of the Ovations "just coughed up the dough and were not actually required to see any of the god---- shows that were nominated."

The pacing slowed somewhat during a wry acceptance speech of a lifetime achievement award by veteran playwright Jerome Lawrence, which went on so long that his fellow honoree Robert Fryer was cut off with no comment. The audience sounded restless as Lawrence went on; but later, when writing winner Doug Motel made a joking reference to Lawrence's remarks, he was hissed.

Fryer finally got his moment in the sun when Carol Channing made a point of recognizing him before she presented a later award. In a move unexpected by the producers, Channing also gave what she called her own "Diamond Award" to the show "The Last Session," which didn't win the main award for which it was nominated.

"Live theater is wonderful," Hirsch reflected the next day. "If she wants to say something, she has earned that right."

The spoken introduction of another presenter raised a few eyebrows. Scott Wolf, said the unseen announcer, will star in an upcoming L.A. production of "Side Man." The play's co-producer Joan Stein said, before and after the show, that an L.A. production, not to mention any casting, is not settled. The writers relied on Wolf's publicist for the information for his introduction, Hirsch said.

At any Ovation ceremony, some awards catch everyone by surprise--when relatively unknown local artists upset the big guys from New York, London or even the Music Center. This year's prime examples were "West Side Story" in Redondo Beach, "Reefer Madness!" director Andy Fickman and actress Tracy Middendorf. Such upsets often lead Ovation watchers to speculate on who decided the final award. Only those voters who have seen all five nominees can vote in the final round of a category, and with nearly 300 eligible shows, it can be difficult to catch all five in any particular category. Occasionally, previous final votes were said to be decided by only one voter.

This year, however, the rules required at least five voters to have seen all five shows in a category before a final vote is held, Hirsch said. If five voters haven't seen all five nominees, the award goes instead to the nominee who got the highest scores in the first round of voting. So the chances that only one voter makes the final decision in a category are considerably diminished.

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