'Carmen Jones' Tops Lortel Awards for Off-Broadway

Carmen Jones Still - Publicity - H 2018
Joan Marcus

The rarely produced Bizet update scored four prizes, including revival and lead actress Anika Noni Rose, while 'Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future' took musical honors, 'Pass Over' was named best play and Phoebe Waller-Bridge's 'Fleabag' won for solo show.

The 34th Annual Lucille Lortel Awards hummed a lusty "Habanera" Sunday night, with the honors for best of the 2018-19 off-Broadway season dominated by Classic Stage Company's acclaimed chamber production of the rarely staged Bizet update Carmen Jones, by Oscar Hammerstein II. 

The 1943 tale of hot-blooded passion relocated to World War II America with an all-black cast won in four of the six categories in which it was nominated, including for outstanding revival, lead actress in a musical Anika Noni Rose in the sultry title role, featured actress in a musical Soara-Joye Ross and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier.

Outstanding new musical went to writer-performer Andrew R. Butler's sci-fi folk concert Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, produced by one of the off-Broadway community's most fertile creativity incubators, Ars Nova. It beat out competition from shows including Conor McPherson's Depression-era drama set to the songs of Bob Dylan, Girl From the North Country, and the viral teen sensation from composer Joe Iconis and writer Joe Tracz, Be More Chill, which has since transferred to Broadway. The latter production translated only one of its four nominations into a win, for featured actor George Salazar.

Antoinette Nwandu won outstanding play for Pass Over, an existential drama about two poor young black men in a modern American city resembling Chicago, with echoes of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 production also won featured actor in a play for Gabriel Ebert, who doubled as the two white characters in the piece, one a supposed benefactor with a sinister purpose, the other a sadistic cop.

Writer-performer Phoebe Waller-Bridge won outstanding solo show for Fleabag, the 2013 confessional monologue that spawned her hit Amazon series of the same name, which played a sold-out run at the Soho Theatre earlier this year. The Killing Eve creator recently announced that she will return to London's West End in August with a limited run of Fleabag before putting the sexually omnivorous, relationship self-sabotaging character to rest. Annapurna Theatre serves as a producer on both sides of the Atlantic, along with Waller-Bridge's DryWrite company and Soho Theatre.

Other key Lortel Awards went to lead actor Steven Skybell, scoring the sole win out of four nominations for Joel Grey's revelatory revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish; director Lee Sunday Evans for Clare Barron's play about female adolescence, Dance Nation; lead actress in a play Quincy Tyler Bernstine for Marys Seacole, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Fairview; and lead actor in a play Juan Castano for Lucy Thurber's Transfers

The new musical project from Spring Awakening collaborators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, Alice by Heart, won for Rick and Jeff Kuperman's choreography, as well as for Paloma Young's costume design, the latter sharing that honor with Montana Levi Blanco for The House That Will Not Stand. Featured actress in a play went to Crystal Lucas-Perry for Ain't No Mo'; scenic design to Arnulfo Maldonado for Sugar in Our Wounds; lighting to Lap Chi Chu for Mlima's Tale; and projection design to Tal Yarden for the musical Superhero.

Among the most surprising shutouts were Girl From the North Country, which went into the ceremony with four nominations; and writer-performer Heidi Schreck's intensely personal, timely and raw political reflection, What the Constitution Means to Me, which became a must-see sensation downtown and has since moved to Broadway, picking up 2019 Tony Award nominations for best play and lead actress Schreck.

The 2019 Lortels were presented at NYU's Skirball Center in a ceremony hosted by comedian Mike Birbiglia, a nominee for outstanding solo show with The New One. Presenters included Jeff Daniels, Reeve Carney, Judith Light, Tim Blake Nelson, Lily Rabe, Annaleigh Ashford and Charles Busch.

As previously announced, special awards went to Bill Irwin's show On Beckett at Irish Repertory Theatre for outstanding alternative theatrical experience; and to leading casting agency Telsey + Company, while distinguished Cuban-American avant-garde dramatist Maria Irene Fornes, who died last October, was inducted into the Playwrights Sidewalk.