Nashville's Best Honored at Midwinter's First Night

While the rest of Middle Tennessee shivered on the coldest night of 2016, theater artists and their supporters gathered Sunday night at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre for Midwinter's First Night - the annual revelry that celebrates theater throughout the state and includes the presentation of First Night's Top Ten of 2016 and BroadwayWorld Nashville Awards, both of which recognize the best and brightest productions of the previous year.

Eddie George

Nashville actor and NFL Hall of Famer Eddie George, who makes his Broadway debut Tuesday night in the iconic musical Chicago, was named First Night's Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play for his searing portrayal of a former slave haunted by the spectre of abuse in Nashville Repertory Theatre's The Whipping Man. Rene Dunshee Copeland, producing artistic director of Nashville Rep, was named Outstanding Director of a Play, while her three-actor ensemble (which included James Rudolph and Matthew Rosenbaum) were awarded as First Night's Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Play for their rendition of the Matthew Lopez play.

Megan Murphy Chambers and Diana DeGarmo

Studio Tenn's production of The Wizard of Oz - which starred Diana DeGarmo, Megan Murphy Chambers, Laura Matula, Matthew Carlton and Patrick Waller among a huge cast of adults and children - was named First Night's Outstanding Musical of 2015, while the show's director Matt Logan was named Outstanding Director of a Musical.

Two of Nashville's most acclaimed actresses - Rebekah Durham and Amanda Card - shared top honors as First Night's Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play for their performances in Tennessee Women's Theater Project's production of Ginna Hoben's The 12 Dates of Christmas and Nashville Rep's staging of Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn, respectively.

Jens Jacobson

Belmont University alumnus Jens Jacobson, currently on contract in Tampa, Florida, was named First Night's Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical for his performance as Eddie Birdlace in Street Theatre Company's critically acclaimed production of the Pasek and Paul musical Dogfight. STC's Dogfight ensemble of young actors were honored with the award for First Night's Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Musical.

Tonya Pewitt, star of countless Nashville musical theater productions who led the cast of The Larry Keeton Theatre's revival of The Music Man, claimed her initial First Night Award as Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance as Marian Paroo, the librarian of River City, Iowa, in Meredith Willson's legendary musical.

Kinky Boots, the Musical, was named First Night's Outstanding Touring Show; Gregg D. Garner's Alien, the Musical won the award as First Night's Outstanding Original Work; Belmont University Musical Theatre was recognized as Outstanding College Program; and Actors Bridge Ensemble, celebrating its 20th anniversary season, was named First Night's Theater Company of the Year (an award ABE won in 2010, as well).

Cheryl White, Amanda Card and Shannon Hoppe

American Idiot, Circle Players' regional premiere of the Green Day musical, and KB Productions' The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife by Del Shores shared top honors in the BWW Nashville Awards, practically sweeping the categories, with three awards claimed by PACT's embattled production of Rent in Tullahoma.

An audience of 200-plus enjoyed Sunday night's event - the sixth annual Midwinter's First Night event, which is an outgrowth of The First Night Honors, which premiered in 2010, and The First Night Awards, which were launched in 1989 by Jeffrey Ellis, Nashville senior contributing editor to BroadwayWorld.com. Joining Ellis onstage as co-hosts were Justin Boyd (who claimed three BWW Nashville Awards on Sunday night), Britt Byrd, Katherine Morgan and Taylor Novak.

Rebekah Durham

The show opened with First Night reminiscences from 2015 First Night Honorees Kaul Blueston and Darryl Deason and 2012 Honoree Chambers Stevens, who capped off a successful homecoming weekend performing his one-man show It's Who You Know at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre with his Midwinter's First Night performance (with 2013 Honoree Corbin Green) of an earlier performance from a Hollywood fundraiser for Michael J. Fox's charity, featuring a down-home version of "You Get A Line and I'll Get a Pole."

Midwinter's First Night revelers were also treated to a sneak peek of two upcoming shows: Circle Players' Sister Act, starring LaToya Gardner as Sister Mary Clarence/Delores Van Cartier and a gaggle of raucous nuns performing "Raise Your Voice"; and Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts' Dreamgirls, directed by 2012 First Night Most Promising Actor Matthew Hayes Hunter, featuring Robbyn "Vyrgo" Daniel, Brianna Booker and Ra'Shaun Simon performing "Move" from the show's score.

Nashville newcomer Ashley Wolfe dazzled the audience during Act Two of the awards show with her stunning performance of "I'm The Greatest Star" from Funny Girl.

Tonya Pewitt

First Night founder and executive producer Jeffrey Ellis also revealed the names of the First Night Class of 2016 Most Promising Actors, who will be given full First Night Honors recognition later this spring as First Night continues to evolve. Among the Class of 2016, which represents the very best younger actors in Tennessee colleges, universities and secondary school drama programs, are: Sheridan Hitchcox, Adam LaPorte, Ann Marie Bagge, Nick Mecikalski, Katie Bays, Amanda Leigh Bell, Nelson Tilley, Austin Williams, Caitlyn Porayko, Jack Williams, Chris Lee, Grace Williams, McKenzie Wilkes, Andrew Forbes, Morgan Conder, Kyle O'Connor, Haley Sue Pearson, Darby Kolwyck, Lissa deGuzman, Rebekah Lecocq, Neal Buckley, Cate Jo, Sarah Zanotti, Arik Vega, Steven Griffin, Payton McCarthy and Brandon Hoyt.

First Night's Top Ten of 2016, which recognizes performances and productions during the calendar year 2015, paid tribute to:

THE TOP TEN MUSICALS

  • A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE, Gaslight Dinner Theatre
  • ALL SHOOK UP, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre
  • DOGFIGHT, Street Theatre Company
  • THE FIRST CHURCH OF MARY, THE REPENTANT PROSTITUTE'S FIFTH ANNUAL BENEFIT CONCERT, REVIVAL AND POT LUCK DINNER, by Geoff Davin
  • GYPSY, Studio Tenn
  • THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES, Springhouse Theatre
  • MARY POPPINS, Christ Presbyterian Academy
  • RAGTIME, Circle Players
  • WHITE CHRISTMAS, Belmont University Musical Theatre
  • THE WIZARD OF OZ, Studio Tenn, First Night Award winner: There are certain things audiences have come to expect in a new production from Studio Tenn, the Franklin-based, Nashville-nurtured professional theater company headed up by Matt Logan and Jake Speck: You know it will be beautifully designed, sumptuously mounted and impeccably cast. And with the company's latest spectacle - a dazzling production of The Wizard of Oz that played Music City's Schermerhorn Symphony Center this weekend just past - theater-goers fortunate enough to be in the audience for any of the three performances were treated to a theatrical experience that seems once-in-a-lifetime, but is only the latest such piece from the brains of the imaginative, creative and altogether impressive Messrs. Logan and Speck.

THE TOP TEN PLAYS

  • 12 DATES OF CHRISTMAS, Tennessee Women's Theater Project
  • AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, ACT 1
  • DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • THE NETHER, Actors Bridge Ensemble
  • THE NINA VARIATIONS, Verge Theatre
  • RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF A TRAILER TRASH HOUSEWIFE, KB Productions
  • TWELFTH NIGHT, Nashville Shakespeare Festival
  • VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • THE WHIPPING MAN, Nashville Repertory Theatre, First Night Award winner: Clearly, the provocative subject matter and the way its story is told make The Whipping Man the perfect catalyst for conversation, shedding light on our shared history while evoking comparisons to the world in which we now live; a world where things may have changed exponentially, but which remains cloaked in the prejudices with which we must struggle every day in order to overcome.

OUTSTANDING ACTRESSES IN A MUSICAL

  • Megan Murphy Chambers, The Wizard of Oz, Studio Tenn
  • Lissa DeGuzman, White Christmas, Belmont University Musical Theatre
  • Nan Gurley, Gypsy, Studio Tenn
  • Audrey Johnson, Dogfight, Street Theatre Company
  • Corinne Leidhecker, Myth, Blackbird Theatre
  • Erica Patterson, Ragtime, Circle Players
  • Tonya Pewitt, The Music Man, The Larry Keeton Theatre, First Night Award winner Chief among the show's attributes is the exceedingly lovely and tremendously talented Tonya Pewitt, who may have been destined to play librarian Marian Paroo. Pewitt's voice has always been a favorite among Nashville's musical theater leading ladies, but hearing her glorious soprano singing Marian's songs will leave you presuming the score was written expressly for her. Her beautiful voice is exquisitely supported by her onstage presence, making Pewitt's Marian a memorable reiteration of the beloved character.
  • Jennifer Richmond, All Shook Up, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre
  • Linda Sue Simmons Runyeon, A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, Gaslight Dinner Theatre
  • Darci Wantiez, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Springhouse Theatre
  • Sarah Zanotti, Into the Woods, Lipscomb University Theatre

OUTSTANDING ACTORS IN A MUSICAL

  • Devon Buchanan, All Shook Up, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre
  • Matthew Carlton, Gypsy, Studio Tenn
  • Geoff Davin, The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute...
  • Luke Denison, The Last Five Years, VWA Theatricals
  • Jens Jacobson, Dogfight, Street Theatre Company, First Night Award winner Eddie is foul-mouthed and abrupt, lacking in the social graces yet somehow remaining likable and attractive, while Rose's worldview is beginning to change as she quietly pursues her love of folk music and its undercurrent of pacifism and activism. Jacobson perfectly captures Eddie's duality - a little boy becoming a man in the only way he know how is effectively mixed with a genuinely heartfelt sense of honor - and his strong vocals help to bring the Pasek and Paul score to rich, vivid life onstage. Jacobson's shared onstage chemistry with Johnson's Rose is palpable, ensuring the pair's interactions are limned with humor, pathos and a sweet innocence.
  • Wesley King, Godspell, The Larry Keeton Theatre
  • Austin Olive, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Circle Players
  • Joshua Waldrep, Ragtime, Circle Players
  • Patrick Waller, The Wizard of Oz, Studio Tenn
  • Kris Wente, Myth, Blackbird Theatre

OUTSTANDING ACTRESSES IN A PLAY

  • Cat Arnold, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, KB Productions
  • Amanda Card, Rapture, Blister, Burn, Nashville Repertory Theatre, First Night Award winner But if there is a character in the play who very nearly steals the entire show away from her co-stars it's Amanda Card's Avery, the reality TV aficionado, former pre-med student and erstwhile babysitter, who provides the audience with carte blanche to enter the world created by the playwright. Card's intensely personal performance is astounding; she commands the stage with focused authority that is underscored by ample charm and sheer likability. That she is given some of Gionfriddo's best lines and delivers each one with elan is merely the icing on the delectable cake of her performance.
  • Rona Carter, Death of a Salesman, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • Caroline Davis, The Belle of Amherst, In Another Life/Maverick Entertainment
  • Rebekah Durham, 12 Dates of Christmas, Tennessee Women's Theater Project, First Night Award winner One of the region's most capable and appealing actors, Durham is given the opportunity to show off her consummate skill and altogether impressive stage presence in Hoben's perfectly scripted piece about a young woman's search for love amid the realities of life in the 21st century. As versatile a performer as you could ever hope to see onstage, Durham brings all of Hoben's lovingly crafted and well-defined characters to life as she tells the story of a year in the life of Mary, a struggling actress of sorts who's pursuing her career in New York City while maintaining close, if somewhat tenuous, ties with her loving family back home in Ohio.
  • Brooke Gronemeyer, The Taming, Tennessee Women's Theater Project
  • Nettie Kraft, The Nina Variations, Verge Theatre
  • Debbie Kraski, August: Osage County, ACT 1
  • Tamiko Robinson Steele, Twelfth Night, Nashville Shakespeare Theatre
  • Martha Wilkinson, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Nashville Repertory Theatre

OUTSTANDING ACTORS IN A PLAY

  • Chip Arnold, Death of a Salesman, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • Joel Diggs, Take Me Out, ACT 1
  • Eddie George, The Whipping Man, Nashville Repertory Theatre, First Night Award winner Eddie George, actor. After years of pursuing his dream, of plying his trade, perfecting his craft, it is now apparent that Eddie George - the once and future Tennessee Titan, pro football Hall of Fame member, Heisman Trophy winner, the very personification of professional sports in a town known worldwide as Music City USA - is one of this region's finest actors. He's paid his dues and in doing so, he silences his detractors with his most recent onstage role in Nashville Rep's stunning production of Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man
  • Justin Hand, The Nina Variations, Verge Theatre
  • Phil Perry, The Nether, Actors Bridge Ensemble
  • Rodney Pickel, The Nether, Actors Bridge Ensemble
  • Santiago Sosa, Twelfth Night, Nashville Shakespeare Festival
  • Andrew Strong, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, KB Productions
  • Grafton Thurman, Dog Sees God, ACT 1
  • Bobby Wyckoff, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Nashville Repertory Theatre

OUTSTANDING DIRECTORS OF A PLAY

  • Beki Baker, Dancing at Lughnasa, Lipscomb University Theatre
  • Melissa Carelli, The Belle of Amherst, In Another Life/Maverick Entertainment
  • Rene Copeland, The Whipping Man, Nashville Repertory Theatre, First Night Award winner Copeland deftly maneuvers her trio of actors around Gary Hoff's beautifully appointed and artfully timeworn set (a war-ravaged mansion in Richmond, just after the fall of the Confederacy) with her usual grace. Copeland's gift for completely understanding a script's multi-layered messages and meanings, replete with the sophistries and meanderings of a playwright's mind, pays off splendidly with her interpretation of The Whipping Man. She is neither didactic nor needlessly deferential, rather she allows the story to play out with a heightened sense of drama that underscores the savageries of war, the blatant inhumanity of slavery and the day-to-day minutiae of life in a particular household - even one left barely standing in the aftermath of a seemingly endless wartime siege.
  • Clay Hillwig, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, KB Productions
  • Denice Hicks, Twelfth Night, Nashville Shakespeare Festival
  • Jessika Malone, The Nether, Actors Bridge Ensemble
  • Jim Manning, Dog Sees God, ACT 1
  • Bradley Moore, August: Osage County, ACT 1
  • Joy Tilley Perryman, Take Me Out, ACT 1
  • Lauren Shouse, Rapture, Blister, Burn, Nashville Repertory Theatre

OUTSTANDING DIRECTORS OF A MUSICAL

  • Paula Flautt, Mary Poppins, Christ Presbyterian Academy
  • Greg Frey, A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, Gaslight Dinner Theatre
  • Stephanie Jones Benton, The Music Man, The Larry Keeton Theatre
  • Tim Larson, Ragtime, Circle Players
  • Matt Logan, Gypsy, Studio Tenn
  • Matt Logan, The Wizard of Oz, Studio Tenn, First Night Award winner Logan's boundless imagination has resulted in a Wizard that rivals any Broadway offering making its way across the country and, if I were that kind of man, would lead me to wonder why Studio Tenn's The Wizard of Oz isn't rumored to be headed to New York to show off its Music City starry pedigree on the Main Stem. (Interestingly, last week, someone in a Facebook group about Broadway musicals pondered whether anyone could bring a show like The Wizard of Oz - among other shows mentioned in the post - to the stage in a production that audiences would respond to with enthusiasm and in the affirmative. Who knew the answer would be found in a Nashville-born production? I suspected, but couldn't answer until now.) It really was that good.
  • Kim Thornton Nygren, Motherhood the Musical
  • David Shamburger, White Christmas, Belmont University Musical Theatre
  • Cathy Street, Dogfight, Street Theatre Company
  • Martha Wilkinson, All Shook Up, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLES IN A MUSICAL

  • Alien, the Musical, The Arts at Center Street
  • All Shook Up, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre
  • Dogfight, Street Theatre Company, First Night Award winner Now onstage in a compelling production from Street Theatre Company, directed by experienced Nashville director/actor/producer Cathy Street,Dogfight is an engaging, sometimes confounding and upsetting, yet altogether moving experience that only helps cement STC's vital role in introducing new, cutting-edge material to local audiences. Impressively cast and superbly performed by Street's fresh-faced young ensemble, you're likely to never forget actor Jens Jacobson's Eddie Birdlace, his Marine cohorts or the women with whom they interact on that fateful final night stateside - and Eddie's Rose Fenny may well be the most memorable character living in this startling piece of theater, particularly given the heartrending performance of Audrey Johnson in this confident revival that practically demands you see it.
  • Into the Woods, Lipscomb University Theatre
  • The Marvelous Wonderettes, Springhouse Theatre
  • Motherhood the Musical
  • Nunsense, The Larry Keeton Theatre
  • Ragtime, Circle Players
  • The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Circle Players
  • White Christmas, Belmont University Musical Theatre
  • The Wizard of Oz, Studio Tenn

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLES IN A PLAY

  • August: Osage County, ACT 1
  • Dancing at Lughnasa, Lipscomb University Theatre
  • Death of a Salesman, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • Dog Sees God, ACT 1
  • The Nether, Actors Bridge Ensemble, First Night Award winner Malone and Forrister, who with their other ABE compatriots continue to push the theatrical envelope in Nashville with their bold and illuminating choices, ensure that The Nether is presented in an immersive atmosphere which heightens the play's cerebral yet totally inclusive tone and which ensures the play will continue to be talked about for months - perhaps even years - to come. Malone's taut and focused direction of her five-member ensemble (which includes an electrifying performance by Forrister) brings the play to life with dramatic intensity that is underscored by the physical trappings of the production.
  • Rapture, Blister, Burn, Nashville Repertory Theatre
  • Take Me Out, ACT 1
  • The Taming, Tennessee Women's Theatre Project
  • The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, KB Productions
  • Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Nashville Repertory Theatre

OUTSTANDING ORIGINAL WORKS

  • Motherhood the Musical, by Sue Fabisch
  • Myth, Blackbird Theatre, by Wes Driver, Greg Green and Michael Slayton
  • The First Church of Mary, The Repentant Prostitute's Fifth Annual Benefit Concert, Revival and Pot Luck Dinner, by Geoff Davin
  • Alien, the Musical, by Gregg D. Garner, First Night Award winner

OUTSTANDING TOURING SHOWS

  • Dirty Dancing
  • Bullets Over Broadway
  • Kinky Boots, First Night Award winner There comes a moment, early on in the second act of Kinky Boots the Musical (which opened at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall last night), during which an in-over-his-head Charlie Price is berating and insulting Lola, the drag queen-turned-designer who has been working tirelessly to change the fortunes of Charlie's family-owned shoe business. As staged in the six-time Tony Award-winning show, the moment is at once tremendously uncomfortable and remarkably eye-opening, making the audience squirm in their seats due to their unease and the sense of voyeuristic embarrassment they feel, as if they have come upon such a scene happening in their real lives instead of seeing it play out onstage. And though it may sound cliché: You could hear a pin drop anywhere in that great auditorium, as more than 2,000 people held their collective breath in anticipation of what was to come. It's an especially dark and dramatic moment that occurs amid a cavalcade of visually stimulating and colorful moments in the show that speaks to each and every individual in the hall on their own terms - and it represents the sheer force and awesome power of theater to transport audiences to another time and place, to transform what might have been long-held beliefs into something different, perhaps something they never could have imagined. As chilling as that scene is, as discomfiting as it may feel, it's also something bigger and grander, something greater and infinitely more compelling: it's life-changing. And that is what theater is all about.
  • Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
  • Newsies
  • Pippin


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