The 29th Helen Hayes Awards celebrate theater in D.C.

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Entertainment,Theater

"A lot of what we do is incredibly risky ... and there's a huge failure rate." Julianne Brienza was honest and direct in her quip as she accepted the Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership in the Washington Theatre Community on behalf of her Capital Fringe organization at the 29th Helen Hayes Awards, held Monday night at the Warner Theatre.

An audience of nearly 2,000 theater lovers and practitioners gathered to celebrate the annual fete -- named after the first lady of American theater -- that honors "extraordinary achievement" in professional theater produced in the Washington area.

The evening opened to very little fanfare, and for a medium that relies upon the magic of live performance, it's surprising that the most entertaining feature of the night was delivered by brief videos sprinkled throughout the ceremony. Former Round House Theatre artistic director Jerry Whiddon helmed this year's show, which felt well-timed, though the peculiar decision to produce the affair without a host meant the evening skipped along, though it never really felt cohesive.

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For a complete list of award recipients, visit theatrewashington.org/hh-awards-nominees

Awards were presented in 26 categories for performance, directing, writing and design. Top honors went to Signature Theatre for "Dreamgirls" (Outstanding Resident Musical) and the Folger Theatre for "The Taming of the Shrew" (Outstanding Resident Play). Perhaps a sign of the times, several recipients read acceptance speeches from mobile phones and electronic tablets, while others seized such golden opportunity by shamelessly lobbying at the podium for their next job.

E. Faye Butler used her time to school the audience on the cultural significance of the Pullman porters in African-American history when she accepted the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress from her non-musical turn in Cheryl L. West's "Pullman Porter Blues" at Arena Stage. And in her acceptance speech for her supporting role in "Legally Blonde: The Musical" at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., Priscilla Cuellar plugged, "Don't forget to tip your waiter, people. Don't forget to tip your waiter."

Perhaps the most stunning moment arrived when Natascia Diaz earned the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a resident musical, a tight category with sterling performances, including Nova Y. Payton (Signature's Effie in "Dreamgirls") and the sprightly Erin Weaver, who danced in roller skates onstage in Signature's campy production of "Xanadu" last summer.

Among the design awards, Frank Labovitz took home the award for Outstanding Costume Design for his jaw-dropping work in "Dreamgirls." He joked that with so many dazzling gowns and a handful of spectacular quick-change feats, he swore to director Matthew Gardiner that he "came in close to budget."

Debra Buonaccorsi and Steve McWilliams from Dizzy Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue enthusiastically received the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, and the evening also featured a moving film tribute to the nearly 100 year-old Actors' Equity Association. Nicholas Wyman, the president of AEA, and former president, actress Ellen Burstyn, graciously accepted the Helen Hayes Tribute award on the union's behalf.

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