‘Big River’ comes up big at Suzi Bass Awards

Amid much buzz about how a bad economy has hurt funding and forced troupes to stage more intimate shows, a “magnificent, big, sloppy, huge” musical took two of the plummiest prizes at the fifth annual Suzi Bass Awards.

That’s how Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key described “Big River” following its win for best production/musical at Monday night’s ceremonies, after Key himself won the best featured actor/musical prize. S. Renee Clark’s music direction for the Roger Miller 1985 musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” also was honored.

While Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre and Theatre in the Square took home the most statuettes -- four each -- from the glossy affair at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center, Theatrical Outfit’s trio of “Big River” awards seemed the most resonant. Maybe that’s because that huge cast of 25 was well represented and provided big applause for the victories, or maybe it’s because Key and company crowded the stage for two exuberant and enthusiastically received numbers.

After squeezing into a photo shoot with his elated cast in the lobby after the awards, Key said he was glad the ambitious musical had been programmed before the economy went south, because he felt its message of human bonding despite our differences relevant during the “divisiveness” of last year’s presidential election.

The message he took from the honors was the importance of staying true to an artistic vision, bull or bear markets aside. “There’s a temptation to say, ‘When things return to normal ...’ But it doesn’t work that way with art,” Key said.

“Producing theater is always going to be risky. At the end of the day, a business can say, ‘We didn’t make any money.’ But at the end of the day, we’re a non-profit theater. We have to speak the words regardless. We have to ask, ‘Did we perform our mission?’”

True Colors also had a good night, nabbing the two big cast awards -- best ensemble/play, for “For Colored Girls...” and best ensemble/musical, for “Black Nativity.” The latter also accounted for its two other victories, for costume design (Shilla Benning) and choreography (Patdro Harris).

Theatre in the Square took two big acting prizes -- lead actress/play (Veronica Duerr in “Tradin’ Paint”) and lead actor/play (John Ammerman in “A Man for All Seasons”). Jessica Phelps West won best director/play for “Tradin’ Paint,” and the Marietta troupe scored the big final award, best production/play, for “A Man for All Seasons.”

Atlanta Lyric Theatre received the first Audience Choice Award for Outstanding Season, one of three prizes it collected.

The Alliance Theatre, the Southeast’s largest company, was nominated for 13 awards and scored three. Susan Booth received the best director/musical award, for “Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel.” Michael Mitchell shared music direction honors with Clark for “Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel.” And Janece Shaffer won the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award, for “Managing Maxine.”

But even though some went away empty-handed after 24 Suzis were distributed, there were no losers in the grand scheme of things. “This is all about getting people talking about theater,” host Deadra Moore said, “and getting butts in the seats.”