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Dress Warm

Date: Aug 23, 2007


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“Isn’t it a shame that all awards shows can’t be this warm?” said director Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray) as he presented the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design to his colleague, British designer Bob Crowley (Carousel, The History Boys). The occasion was the 15th annual tdf/Irene Sharaff Awards, held at New York’s sumptuous Hudson Theatre on Mar. 27, and a star-studded audience of costume designers, artisans and miscellaneous theatre folk turned out for this annual awards show recognizing achievement in costume and theatre design.

Warm it was indeed, with a handful of gratified honorees and a lovely memorial film tribute to the awards’ revered namesake, Irene Sharaff herself. The evening began with TDF Executive Director Victoria Bailey introducing the new director of the TDF Costume Collection, Stephen Cabral. Bailey pointed out that the Collection, an indispensible storehouse of vintage and contemporary theatrical costumes and accessories with a warehouse in Chelsea, last year helped to clothe 850 productions in 29 states. For his part, Cabral expressed his hope that the Collection might prove especially helpful in a strained economy.

As if to bolster Cabral’s point, the first honoree—Clint Ramos, accepting a Young Masters award for his work Off-Broadway (most recently, Red Bull Theatre’s Women Beware Women) and regionally—told the audience, “There are a number of moments in my career that I’ve avoided financial meltdown thanks to the Costume Collection.” Ramos went on to thank the theatre in general for providing him “the only way I feel like I belong,” though he humbly confessed that amid so many “legends” of the field, “I kind of feel like Natasha in The Three Sisters.”

Embodying O’Brien’s sentiment about the evening’s warmth was the recipient of the Artisan award, Sally Ann Parson of Parson-Meares Ltd. Designer Willa Kim introduced her glowingly as someone who was always “excited by the difficulties presented to her.” And in recounting her career in costume construction, Parsons generously named all of her company’s employees, ever—and the audience generously indulged, not least because she offered some telling, heartfelt stories from her career. Recounting how she began as an aspiring performer, she said, “I thought I wanted to be an actress, but I just kept making things.” And after mentioning a First Hand named Alexander Pope, she quipped, “He didn’t speak to me in rhymed couplets.”

The evening’s centerpiece was a 10-minute film about Sharaff, the legendary designer who made a splash during the Depression with eye-popping designs for Eva La Gallienne, Irving Berlin and George Balanchine and went on to costume such iconic Broadway shows as West Side Story and The King and I, as well as a series of indelible MGM film musicals. Introducing the film was its maker, costume designer Suzy Benzinger, who said that for many of her colleagues, the thought when in a bind is still, “What would Irene do?”

If anyone could follow such a stirring tribute, it was director Jerry Zaks, who presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to William Ivey Long (Chicago, The Producers). Zaks, who began in the business as an actor, recalled a costume of Long’s that made him feel “not frightened anymore. He takes these schmatte and fashions them into clothes that make actors feel good.” For his part, Long gave a lovely acceptance speech that included visual aids: a signed portrait from the late Natasha Richardson from the opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire, an original print of Sharaff’s and a nearly life-sized drawing of a “heritage tree” that detailed all of Long’s influences, patrons and supporters over the years. One choice bit of advice from Long, recounting his charmed childhood among theatre gypsies: “I used to sleep in the costume scraps. Parents, keep your eye on your children!”

Jack O’Brien began his presentation of the Tobin award, also a lifetime acheievement honor, as a near-roast of Bob Crowley, recalling their initial meeting as fraught because of their shared heritage. “To the Irish, friendship is a blood sport,” quipped O’Brien. “He thought I was cold, I thought he was arrogant.” But O’Brien quickly warmed to his subject, calling their resulting collaboration “one of the most thrilling ongoing conversations of my professional life.” Crowley quoted his friend, actor Stephen Rea, as asking him why he loves New York so, and Crowley said, looking at his Tobin award, “Because New York loves me.”

Indeed, if you had to come up with a theme song for the Sharaffs, you could do worse than that power ballad from The Lion King, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Once a year, in the midst of a tough and competitive business, the Sharaff Awards ceremony gathers likeminded peers and makes them feel the love.