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At the 2006 Theatre World Awards...

Every year, some two hundred men and women make their New York stage debuts on or off Broadway. Some of them are established performers in other media. Some are complete newcomers. And every year, the seven members of the Theatre World Awards committee must select from among those two hundred actors six men and six women to be honored for making the most impressive debuts of the season. This year's Delightful Dozen were honored on June 6th at Studio 54 in a star-studded gala filled with nostalgic memories of Broadway debuts, and joyful optimism for Broadway's future.

That sense of future began immediately as Andrea McArdle, winner of a Theatre World Award in 1977 for Annie, performed her signature song, "Tomorrow." Host Peter Filichia (otherwise known, he quipped, as "Man at Podium") welcomed the crowd and congratulated the honorees before introducing Kate Burton, who won a Theatre World Award in 1983 for her performances in Present Laughter, Alice in Wonderland, and Winners. Ms. Burton warmly presented her co-star in The Water's Edge, young Mamie Gummer, with the first award of the evening, recognizing the youngster's remarkable performance in Mr. Marmalade.

LaChanze, a winner in 1991 for Once on This Island, gave a lovely speech as she prepared to give her The Color Purple co-star Elisabeth Withers-Mendes the next award, only to discover that Ms. Withers-Mendes could not make it to the ceremony. Harry Groener recreated much of his TWA winning performance in the 1980 revival of Oklahoma!, including a lariat trick, before presenting The Threepenny Opera star Nellie McKay with her award. Ms. McKay's speech, like her performance in the show, was both sugar and spice as she warmly thanked her friends, family and colleagues, and then cheerfully mocked the overcommercialism of Broadway.

Broadway Legend Tammy Grimes (winner for Look After Lulu in 1959) earned a loving ovation when she entered to present Drowsy Chaperone star Bob Martin (whom she described as "not Canada Dry, but Canada Droll!") with his award. The gracious and charming Mr. Martin described his Broadway debut as "not the typical immigrant experience." Jonathan Pryce boasted that his heavy Theatre World Award for1977's Comedians has shattered his two light Tony Awards when he presented an award to The Lieutenant of Inishmore's David Wilmont.

After a warm introduction from Mr. Filichia, John Rubinstein sang "Corner of the Sky,"effortlessly recreating his Theatre World Award winning performance in 1973's Pippin. After the song, he provided a few anecdotes about Bob Fosse's staging ideas for the iconic show, and how challenging it is to perform on a raked stage completely enveloped in mist. (It becomes much more challenging once Ann Reinking has poked a contact lens out of one's eye, he added.) When John Lloyd Young accepted his award for his performance as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, he spoke of using the Theatre World annual to help guide his career, and how the award meant that he had truly arrived on the scene.

Lucie Arnaz (winner for They're Playing Our Song in 1979) gave a lovely speech honoring her The Witches of Eastwick co-star Maria Friedman, who had delayed her return to England to attend the event and be honored for her work in The Woman in White. Ms. Friedman, Ms. Arnaz said, was a survivor of many obstacles, and it was with all the grace and dignity of a survivor that Ms. Friedman accepted her award.

Presenting a Theatre World Award to his Faith Healer co-star Ian McDiarmid, Ralph Feinnes (winner in 1995 for Hamlet) referred to the honor twice as the "World Theatre Award," and Mr. McDiarmid wittily returned the favor by mispronouncing Mr. Feinnes' first name. Ken Page, winner in 1977 for the revival of Guys and Dolls, brought down the house and raised the roof with a magnificent "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" before presenting a Theatre World Award to a gracious and emotional Felicia P. Fields of The Color Purple.

Patricia Neal, winner in 1942 for Another Part of the Forest, earned the only standing ovation of the evening when she presented an award to the always reliable Jayne Houdyshell of Well, who tearfully praised Ms. Neal in her acceptance speech. Tryst star Maxwell Caulfield, who received his award in 1980 for Class Enemy, presented an award to The History Boys star Richard Griffiths, who shared anecdotes of adventures in customs while touring with the show.

Finally, Liza Minnelli described her own arrival on Broadway, and her own win in 1963 for Best Foot Forward (the ceremony was held in a church basement, she recalled, between AA meetings). She added that while famous parents can help get an actor's foot in the door, once on stage, an actor is on his or her own. Many performers earn a Theatre World Award at the beginning of their careers, she continued, but the exact opposite was true for the ceremony's final honoree, Harry Connick, Jr. When he took the award and the microphone, he jovially thanked Ms. Minnelli for helping him end his career. He went on to praise John Lloyd Young, and to predict that Mr. Young would take home the Tony on Sunday evening.

To end the evening, Mr. Filichia had the presenters, winners and audience sing a joyful "Happy Birthday" to Theatre World Award founder John Willis, who will soon turn 90. It was the perfect finale for a celebration of Broadway's best and brightest from yesterday and tomorrow.

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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)