Welcome to the Carbonell’s: South Florida’s Biggest Theater Night is a Hit!

I must admit when South Florida Theater Magazine (who I’m proud to say is a sponsor of this prestigious event) first invited me to cover THE 46th ANNUAL CARBONELL AWARDS on November 13, I was somewhat intimidated. The journalist in me immediately googled former Carbonell Award nights (these can be defined as a regional version of Broadway’s Tonys – but far more inclusive of smaller theaters and experimental work). I landed on a short video of my editor, Jessie Dez, as gorgeous and glammed up as any Access Hollywood reporter, conducting pre-show interviews with similarly gowned and evening-wear attired nominees.

Not in my typical journalist-wear wheelhouse, but she assured me that my simple glittery top and black slacks would suffice. And now that they are inviting the public to attend (for a moderate ticket price), I encourage everyone to not miss next year’s chance to rub shoulders and hang out with (before and after) and during (with applause!) your favorite theater company members – the actors, directors, and everyone involved who pour their hearts, souls, and every fiber of their being into creating the unique magic of a theater night out. The industry is incredibly friendly and approachable, and I love how they all support one another. In today’s cutthroat business environment, our show biz people are a true breath of fresh air.

It was fun to see them at their most real and relaxed, yet dressed-up-to-the-nines best. But like our avant-garde plays, it’s also okay to not follow the rules. Ronnie Larson (of POW and WOW, i.e. Plays of Wilton and newly formed Women of Wilton) – who was honored for his meteoric rise in unique and diverse programming at The Foundry – wore a suit of bright colors that would make Joseph in his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat look drab. And to accept the Award for Theatrical Excellence, co-founder and artistic director of Slow Burn Theatre Patrick Fitzwater appeared (alongside co-founder and executive director Matthew Korinko) as if he’d just stepped out from rehearsals (likely) in an untucked shirt and jeans. In other words, it’s okay to come as you are and just enjoy the show. (But if you love dressing up, go for it!)

Despite what may seem, at first glance, like a lengthy list of nominees, winner announcements and thank-you speeches (confined with drum tinkles and beats to a mere minute-a-piece, but miraculously not a single drum warning was necessary), the Awards ceremony was all of that … but so much more. It’s actually a magnificent theatrical production that happens live for just one night, lately at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (LPAC), conveniently located in central Broward County. This year, a diverse group of over 30 experienced judges rated 45 productions (in 20 competitive categories) from 22 participating theaters that ranged from South Miami to Jupiter. Everyone got the thickest and most impressive Program Book (like a playbill) with a schedule, list of nominees, bios and photos of Special Award winners and more – an impressive commemorative compilation by long-serving, crack theater publicist, Carol Kassie. With no annoying QR codes in sight.

Christine Dolen and Nilo Cruz

Several actors in the know who’d been attending for years assured me that with the long-time, Carbonell-award-winning team of Michael McKeever (producer) and Stuart Meltzer (director) at the helm of this evening’s show, it was sure to contain plenty of musical interludes. Which I thought was absolutely fabulous, as no one person, at least not this critic, can make it to everything. So while I was happy to see many shows I’d raved about properly recognized, their list also ignited my FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) instinct. This was somewhat mollified by a complete short synopsis (with visuals) of their final Outstanding Production nominations, alongside various other visual and musical 2022/2023 season highlights. 

And while one actor lamented that McKeever/Meltzer productions tended to focus solely on musicals for entertainment, I was happy. It’s easier to put smiles on the faces of a long-seated audience with a beautiful rendition of a song from a popular musical – and then go back to calling out category nominees and winners – than to present a dramatic segment of a serious play that one would need to sit with and contemplate for a while, if not hours; it would also likely bring down the mood. In other words, a time and place for everything – including great theater – and this place was one to escape worldly cares and simply enjoy the celebration.

Of course, we were reminded of our wealth of local options, including great serious theater, in the comprehensive opening presentation where powerful stage photos of theatrical productions across the counties streamed on a large screen. Interspersed were quotes by names ranging from Harvey Fierstein to Billy Porter on the incomparable virtues of live theater. 

Followed by a hilarious original musical sketch written by powerhouse Jeni Hacker (you’ll hear more from her later) poking fun at the endless length of (some earlier) Carbonells in song and dance. All accompanied then, and throughout the show, by The Carbonell Band – great multi-talented music director/program consultant Caryl Fantel (you might recognize her name from my recent FAU review and more) who also played keyboard and served as conductor, her husband Roy Fantel on drums, and Rupert Ziawinski on bass. 

Caryl Fantel at the Carbonell Awards

It was kismet to then see Caryl Fantel step from her seat behind the piano to the mic to accept the well-deserved Outstanding Music Director award. I especially applaud her mentioning a trend I’ve noticed lately of theaters returning to live music and her ironic words of thanks to “those who continue to put live music in musical theater.”

And then, as if to demonstrate the veracity of her words, she was back at the piano with with the band, accompanying the strikingly lovely and hyper talented Aaron Bower (who I’ve been happy to feature many times) in her rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” from her leading role at The Wick Theatre.

Not only do we get to see our favorite actors when they win, we also get to see many more (at times doubled or tripled) onstage in the role of presenters. And because they make their living by engaging an audience, they are uniquely entertaining – even while performing something as commonplace as announcing the six nominated contestants (whose faces and productions are also projected onscreen) – and then opening the envelope for the winner. Lovely superstar Margery Lowe (she’ll forever be Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Emily Dickinson to me) announced the Ruth Forman Award went to Maltz Jupiter Theatre, long-known for superior work, now celebrating its 20th anniversary with their largest project, a $42 million renovation.

 The Vinnette Carroll Award for advancing the cause of diversity, equality and inclusion through their work with South Florida Theatre League and local theaters went to Christina Alexander and Katie Christie. 

I was especially delighted to be attending an awards ceremony that honored my longtime silent mentors. (Silent because, unbeknownst to them, I read their work for years as a model of what a good theater review should be, and continue to be impressed by their breadth of knowledge and writing prowess.) 

When it comes to theater reviews, none can compare to South Florida’s two lions of the industry: Bill Hirschman and Christine Dolen. Each received a full, star-studded page in the program, a photo, and space for their personal comments.

A Carbonell winning line up

The Charlie Cinnamon Award – honoring an individual who contributes significantly to support South Florida art and the Carbonells – went to Bill Hirschman, former SunSentinel theater critic, longtime Carbonell Judge and, for the past 12 years, founder and chief reviewer of FloridaTheaterOnStage.com. I’d also like to thank him for his site’s Calendar which has been a big help in planning my review schedule. Hirschman’s personal statement ends with “It is especially meaningful to receive this award named for Charlie Cinnamon, who set the ultimate example in service to the theater community that we revere.” 

Christine Dolen, described under her program photo as “the award-winning dean of South Florida theatre critics (Miami Herald, SunSentinel, ArtBurstMiami.com) & Carbonell Judge,” was honored with The George Abbot Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts for the second time! Even upon so-called retirement, she continued her review work in a profession that chronicled the evolution of South Florida theater for nearly 50 years. She holds a special history with George Abbot and “spent many hours interviewing him when he was in his 90s and 100s (not a typo). And for many years she would present the Abbot Award with George’s wife Joy, who became a dear friend. Dolen says she’s grateful for all the history, stories and artists that “continue to transport and inspire me.” I’d say anyone who comes in contact with this dear and generous lady will feel inspired and grateful as well. 

Like playwright Nilo Cruz, for one, who upon presenting her award shared how he needed to thank her for when “I thought I would be an actor and Christine gave me a bad review.” So he decided to become a playwright and director instead. And then, in addition to writing a great review of his play, Anna in the Tropics, championed it with the Pulitzer committee where it went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

This year, the play was staged by Miami New Drama, and directed by Cruz himself. On our Award night, it won Saundra Santiago a Carbonell for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Female Role, Play. Her first words were to ask if she gets to keep the beautiful Award, delighting us with a short episode of how she’d been honored with an Emmy for her role in the Soap Opera Guiding Light, and it was then immediately taken away from her backstage. Once reassured that this one was hers for keeps (I love these unanticipated intimate shares), this highly experienced professional actor touchingly thanked the judges for recognizing someone who’s “up there in age.”

More presentations were followed by a touching “In Memorium” with Nate Promkul video presentation that zoomed in and lingered on the faces of beloved members of the theater community who’d recently passed. Credit to Steven Covey for his projection mapping throughout.

A couple more Supporting Role presentations (I wish I could include everyone, but just sticking to my most memorable highlights is already way over the standard word count). Followed by a beautiful performance by Josslyn Shaw singing the now world-famous “Part of Your World” from her role as The Little Mermaid at Area Stage. 

Josslyn Shaw at the Carbonell Awards

James Samuel Randolph received well-deserved, full-page honors with The Bill Hindman Award for significant contribution to the region’s cultural life and onstage achievement by South Florida based artists. Few could match this New World School Professor of the Arts who’d appeared in over 100 plays, commercials, TV shows and films. In truly humble educator mode, Randolph reacted with: “In the end, we are all students and sometimes the learning curve is very huge. I had always tried to get ahead of that curve, and I appreciate that in this moment, by being awarded this honor, that I have gotten a little ahead of it. Thank you very much.”

A brief “lights up” recognized standing Carbonell Judges (personally, I don’t envy them having to choose among so much great work) and its Board of Directors for all their hours and skilled effort.

Before bringing down the house, as usual, by her vocal performance, Jeni Hacker acknowledged Dave Corey as the deep, disembodied voice actor from above that kept everything moving at a smooth clip without a wasted second. Hacker’s rendition of “I Miss the Mountains” from Next to Normal at Zoetic Stage made whatever slow moments in this production (and they were few) more than worth the wait. And she’s such a gracious team player. Two presentations later, when she was back on stage as winner of Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Female Role, Musical, the first words out of Hacker’s mouth were, “Aaron Bower, I owe you a drink.” She then went on to list, by name, every single nominee she’d been up against. Adding, “I know you all; I’ve seen your work. I’m so honored to be in your company.”

Thank you’s – especially to her suddenly deceased husband Jim Hacker and the caring response of the theater community who’d rallied to console her in her time of grief – called for a tissue box to wipe the tears. 

There were several more teary eyes that evening at the podium – some in places one wouldn’t expect. Michael McKeever (the evening’s producer and, at last count, writer of 36 full-length plays) broke into tears at accepting a Carbonell for Outstanding New Work, Play or Musical, for American Rhapsody which premiered at Zoetic Stage. It’s heartwarming to see such a talented man so grateful for the life he leads. McKeever could just barely get out: “We are so lucky to work with people we love and do what we love. So lucky.” 

Perhaps to keep us around till the end – though this Awards ceremony had so many fascinating and entertaining moments, it didn’t feel all that long – came the Presentations for Outstanding Direction and Production in both a Play and Musical. Busy, accomplished actor/director Bruce Linser presented the award for Outstanding Direction, Play, to Victoria Collado for Native Gardens at GableStage. Our Carbonell Awards director Stuart Meltzer won Outstanding Direction, Musical, for Next to Normal at Zoetic Stage. He confessed that originally the play was something he didn’t want to do as it was too personal. But was glad in the end – though impossible to live with during the process – that he was allowed complete freedom to engage in what he calls the “art form” of being a director.

The highly talented and adorable mother-daughter presenting duo of Elena Maria Garcia and Emma Garcia Seeger added Hispanic spice and warmth to their alternating winner announcements.  

Emma Garcia Seeger and mom Elena Maria Garcia

Native Gardens at GableStage went on to also win the next Carbonell for Outstanding Production, Play. While Maltz Jupiter Theatre, which had three shows in the running, won the Outstanding Production, Musical Carbonell for their A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (and not Jersey Boys or Oliver!)

And then suddenly it was over and we were invited back into the lobby for complementary glasses of champagne and gourmet desserts. The perfect post-show, pick-me-up for more hobnobbing with South Florida’s theatrical royalty and extending well-deserved congratulations. Still “the show must go on.” Now we can all look forward to a lot more theater and Carbonell Award-worthy productions for the fall 2023/2024 season. 

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