Hours after founder’s death, GALA theater wins big at Helen Hayes Awards

Hours after the death of GALA Hispanic Theatre artistic director and co-founder Hugo Medrano, the company’s vibrant revival of “On Your Feet!” won a ceremony-best nine prizes at the Helen Hayes Awards — D.C. theater’s version of the Tony Awards — on Monday night at the Anthem.

Born in 1943 in Argentina, Medrano founded GALA with his wife, Rebecca, in 1976 and oversaw the theater’s development into a staple of the local arts scene, including a move into Columbia Heights’ historic Tivoli Theatre in 2005. GALA announced Monday afternoon that Medrano had died that morning while surrounded by family, and his three sons accepted the award for outstanding production of a musical by leading the audience of about 1,600 in a chant of “¡Viva Hugo!”

“On Your Feet!” a Spanish-language staging of the 2015 jukebox featuring the hits of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, racked up more than twice as many wins as any other show at the Helen Hayes Awards’ first in-person ceremony in four years. The triumphs included two trophies for director and choreographer Luis Salgado, plus awards for actors Gaby Albo and Fran Tapia.

“I dedicate this to Hugo’s artistry, vision and leadership within the Latino community,” Tapia said. “May his spirit continue to inspire us, and may we all carry forward his torch of passion and artistic excellence.”

The Helen Hayes Awards, which were launched in 1984 but haven’t been held since 2020’s virtual celebration because of the pandemic, are split into two designations: “Helen” for smaller shows with mostly non-equity actors — the label GALA falls under — and “Hayes” for bigger budget productions with mostly equity casts.

Signature Theatre’s seismic revival of “The Color Purple,” a stage adaptation of the 1982 novel and 1985 film about a queer Black woman’s feminist awakening in the 20th-century South, led the way in the Hayes categories with four prizes: Nova Y. Payton’s shattering lead performance, Solomon Parker III’s supporting turn, Mark G. Meadows’s music direction and best musical.

“Our first time coming back to the rehearsal room, back to the stage after lockdown, we were a mess,” said “The Color Purple” director Timothy Douglas. “But what I had the privilege of watching unfold was our artists falling back in love with what they love to do.”

Signature led the Hayes categories with six wins overall, as the classic musical comedy “She Loves Me” triumphed twice — for supporting performer Maria Rizzo and costume design — to go along with its “Color Purple” haul. But the big night for “On Your Feet!” powered GALA to an evening-high 11 awards, as its productions of “La Casa de la Laguna” and “Revoltosa (The Troublemaker)” won one prize each.

The Tempest,” a Round House Theatre and Folger Theatre co-production featuring stagecraft from the magician Teller, led all plays with four wins in the Hayes categories. But two of the biggest honors — outstanding play and ensemble — went to Studio Theatre’s “John Proctor Is the Villain,” Kimberly Belflower’s barnburner about Georgian teens wrestling with “The Crucible” and the #MeToo era.

Three productions claimed three prizes apiece: Olney Theatre Center’s “The Music Man” in the Hayes categories, Synetic Theater’s “Host and Guest” in the Helen categories, and the Kennedy Center’s “Guys and Dolls,” which swept the visiting production awards.

“Guys and Dolls,” a splashy revival from the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, triumphed for outstanding visiting production and performances by Kevin Chamberlin and Phillipa Soo, the “Hamilton” alumna who bested her “Guys and Dolls” co-star, fellow nominee and husband Steven Pasquale.

“Host and Guest,” Synetic’s movement-driven adaptation of a 19th-century epic poem, won the Helen category for best play. Olney’s “The Music Man,” which reimagined Meredith Willson’s golden-age musical with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing actors, snagged prizes for its ensemble, co-directors Sandra Mae Frank and Michael Baron, and lead performer James Caverly, who teared up onstage while discussing the loss of his father during rehearsals last spring.

“The show was one of the hardest emotionally I have ever done, and I was able to radiate joy in a really difficult personal time,” Caverly, a deaf actor best known for the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” said via an interpreter. “This award is for you, Dad.”

Monday’s ceremony marked the second Helen Hayes Awards since the show shifted to gender-neutral acting prizes, with two winners chosen from 10 nominees in each category. For outstanding supporting performer in a play (Hayes), three actors took home trophies: Billie Krishawn won for “The Ballad of Emmett Till” at Mosaic Theater, and Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers shared the second win after melding their voices and bodies to jointly play the monstrous Caliban in “The Tempest.”

The lead performer in a play (Hayes) winners were January LaVoy for “Fires in the Mirror” at Theater J and Justin Weaks for “There’s Always the Hudson” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play or musical went to Dani Stoller and Awa Sal Secka’s “The Joy That Carries You” at Olney.

D.C.-area actors Naomi Jacobson, Erika Rose, Christopher Michael Richardson and Holly Twyford co-hosted the festivities. The show’s comedic highlights came when Michael Urie, an actor on the Apple TV Plus series “Shrinking” and fresh off a run in “Spamalot” at the Kennedy Center, repeatedly crashed the stage with his dog, President McKinley. After Twyford ribbed Urie over his lack of a nomination for the Shakespeare Theatre’s “Jane Anger” — “She’s my emotional support terrier,” Urie said while cradling his dog with faux distress — he presented the Helen Hayes Tribute to the show’s founder, Bonnie Nelson Schwartz.

Administered by Theatre Washington, the Helen Hayes Awards are determined by 40 volunteer judges serving on five panels. Monday’s ceremony recognized work from 131 eligible productions presented in 2022.

A list of winners from all 41 categories can be found here.

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