Rayna Hirt, Michael Czyz Receive 'George M. Cohan Award'

The 13th Street Rep's "George M. Cohan Song-and-Dance Award"-honoring a triple-threat singer/dancer/actor--has this year been presented to two people: Rayna Hirt and Michael Czyz. Cohan himself-the quintessential song-and-dance man-may have long since gone to his reward. But his great-granddaughter, singer/actress Jennifer Cohan Ross, was on hand to present the awards. The 13th Street Rep's 97-year-old founder/artistic director, Edith O'Hara-a longtime believer in the importance of encouraging fresh talent--was there, too, to congratulate the winners. Playwright Chip Deffaa, whose work has often been presented by the theater, emceed the event.

Jennifer Cohan Ross commented: "I'm proud and honored to hand out a George M. Cohan Award to these two talented up-and-comers. I am always thrilled to see any interest in George M. after all of these years, considering all that he and my other family members have historically contributed to the arts." Her great-grandfather, George M. Cohan (1878-1942), rose to the top of his field as an entertainer, playwright, composer, director, and producer; her great-grandmother, Agnes Mary Cohan, was an actress; her grandmother, composer/lyricist Mary Cohan, collaborated on the Broadway musical "George M!"

The spirit of George M. Cohan was represented for the occasion by performer Giuseppe Bausilio (from Broadway's "Billy Elliott" and "Newsies") who sang and danced his way through Cohan's signature song, "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy"-wearing the boots he'd worn in "Newsies." And veteran song-and-dance man Michael Townsend Wright sang the song Cohan described as "the prettiest song I ever heard," Irving Berlin's "When I Lost You."

In 2014, Michael Czyz co-starred in two shows at the 13th Street Rep. ASCAP award-winner Chip Deffaa's musical comedy "Theater Boys" was the biggest, most ambitious, and most commercially successful show to play at the 13th Street Theater in years. And "The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue"-packed with some 40 spirited musical numbers--drew standing-room-only houses throughout its limited engagement. Rayna Hirt not only co-starred in "The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue," she helped choreograph it. (The photo, from the awards presentation, shows--from left to right--Jennifer Cohan Ross, Edith O'Hara, Rayna Hirt, Chip Deffaa, Michael Czyz.)

Michael Czyz remarked: "Receiving this award was something I genuinely was not expecting, but I am certainly honored to be one of its recipients. Accepting it from the hands of one of George M. Cohan's descendants definitely added a personal touch to the occasion."

Rayna Hirt said: "Being able to work with Chip Deffaa alongside some amazing actors such as Michael Czyz; who also was awarded the George M Cohan Award, was such a privilege. Being honored with this triple-threat award is a reassurance to me to continue my passion of singing, dancing and acting."

Deffaa told the audience he hopes to include both Czyz and Hirt in upcoming shows. He said that Czyz will co-star in his new musical, "Mad About the Boy," scheduled to open at the 13th Street Theater on April 12th, 2015. And he hopes to include Bausilio, Cyz, and Hirt--and Jennifer Cohan Ross, if she's available--in a new show, to be co-choreographed by Hirt, "Give My Regards," later in 2015.

Hirt, 21, studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). Her association with playwright/director Chip Deffaa, she added, actually goes back to when she was 14 and played the role of "Madeline Foy" in the first New York production of Deffaa's "The Seven Little Foys." But even then she'd already made her mark as a dancer, Deffaa noted, earning the title of "Junior Miss Dance of Florida" via Dance Masters competitions. She's been seen in numerous commercials; has done modeling in addition to theater; has assisted Deffaa with various productions; and has toured the US and Canada in shows.

Czyz is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and gives them lots of credit. "There were two teachers I really learned a lot from-Burke Pearson and Janis Powell. They were just very supportive, and they made you think for yourself. They would ask questions and make you think about the scene, rather than impose their own ideas; they would give you a lot of freedom. They really did care for you and wanted you to do your best. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts is a very traditional school. They taught us the Meisner approach; it was so simple, so truthful. The Academy taught me to be engrossed in the moment, and not comment upon it." One theater critic, Rob Lester, complimented Czyz for playing his role in "Theater Boys" so honestly when it would have been much easier to camp things up or perform "with a wink to the audience." Czyz credits that to his A.A.D.A. training. (Deffaa, who also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in his youth, added he's delighted to see they keep turning out such dedicated theater people.)

Danny Coelho-who appeared with Czyz in "Theater Boys"--remarked he admired the way Czyz seems willing to try anything on stage. "He'll wholeheartedly throw himself into every situation, regardless of whether it's comfortable. That takes a lot of balls."

According to Edith O'Hara, the longtime head of the 13th Street Repertory Company, the theater's mission has always been to nurture and encourage young performers, and the Cohan award is in line with that tradition. O'Hara recalls proudly that many accomplished performers have worked at the theater, early in their careers--including Bette Midler, Chazz Palminteri, Christopher Meloni, Giuseppe Bausilio, Amy Stiller, Barry Manilow. A great believer in encouraging young talent, she was happy to congratulate the theater's latest award winners and tell them how much she'd enjoyed their work.

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