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Elliot Norton Awards celebrate Chita Rivera, Boston theater greats

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Elliot Norton Awards celebrate Chita Rivera, Boston theater greats
Chita Rivera (L) and Diane Paulus

John Manzari

Broadway icon Chita Rivera (L) and Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, are all smiles at the annual Elliot Norton Awards, held Monday night at Arts Emerson’s Paramount Center in Boston. (Paul Lyden photos)

One of the most enjoyable evenings of theater in Boston is the show that the local theater community puts on to celebrate itself, the annual Elliot Norton Awards. Held Monday night at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center in Boston, the 31st of these galas was a particularly snappy production, honoring seasoned and emerging talents on Boston’s stages as well as a consummate Broadway trouper with local ties, Chita Rivera.

Singling out the best in Boston theater from April 2012 through March 2013 as chosen by the 11-member Boston Theater Critics Association, the event is named in honor of the late, distinguished Boston theater critic Elliot Norton.

As emcee, association president, arts crusader and critic Joyce Kulhawik kept the two-hour production moving at a lively pace. Honorees’ speeches were warm, witty and brief, inspiring howls, growls, shrieks, rapt attention, and occasionally, standing ovations. Entire casts sat together in rows and readily applauded all, including the stagehands.

Kulhawik introduced the presentations with a video of Mayor Thomas M. Menino accepting his award as the Elliot Norton Champion of the Performing Arts. He has presided over a battery of grand theater restorations in Boston’s downtown, including the gilded Paramount Center.

 Critics and honorees from previous years bestowed a total of 24 awards to honorees drawn from large, medium and small or fringe companies.

Theater is the ultimate people business, and the awards recognize the contributions of professionals both on and off stage. A production can earn up to four awards — for overall outstanding production, for its director, for its cast and/or a solo actor, and for its design, the team of people who devise the sets, lights, music and sound.

Despite its small size, Company One took all four awards for its production, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

Also in force on the small theater front was the Happy Medium Theatre, which took two awards for its production, “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.”

Winning two awards each in the midsize theater category were Lyric Stage of Boston and SpeakEasy Stage Company.

Seven members of Lyric Stage’s “Avenue Q” cast and their puppet doubles performed an infectious medley of songs from the show, a sort of Muppets review for the 30-something set, smartly satirizing underemployment, racial stereotyping and fear of intimacy.

Also among evening’s four choice musical acts was a scene from SpeakEasy’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” performed by nine cast members, including three musicians.

A sensational Chita Rivera Tribute began with a sleek, tango-inflected performance by a 16-member ensemble from Boston Youth Moves, followed by a bravura show of tap art by the Manzari Brothers, teenagers from Washington, D.C. Introducing the young men and pouring praise on his mentor, Rivera, was “Tappin’ Thru Life” star Maurice Hines, who, like his own brother, the late Gregory Hines, is bringing tap to new generations of dancers.

Both tributes were worthy of Rivera, who personifies the down-to-earth, hardworking and gifted people who populate Boston’s stages. While accepting the Elliot Norton Lifetime Achievement Award, she singled out Jeanette Neill, executive director of Boston Youth Moves, for nurturing Boston talent with an exemplary program.

Critic Carolyn Clay closed the evening by awarding her friend and veteran Boston actor Will Lyman the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence. After voicing a father’s pride in his daughter — fellow award recipient Georgia Lyman — he spoke briefly and eloquently about “the quest to keep getting better about what we do.”

What draws people to careers in theater, said Lyman, is “the ever present possibility of magic and the quest to make it happen.” Encouraging young actors in the audience to take risks, he said “If you never make mistakes, you’re holding onto your performance too hard.”

An actor’s challenge, Lyman said, is to fend off familiarity and stay in the moment, grow, and “court disaster.”