The winners are announced today (Sunday 15 February 2009) in the ninth annual Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, the only major theatre prize-giving decided by the public. Over the past two months, a record-breaking 35,000 people have voted online at awards.whatsonstage.com, the UK’s premier theatre website.

The majority of award recipients – including The Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio, leading American playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage and The Kinks frontman Ray Davies – will collect their prizes in front of a sell-out audience tonight (15 February) at the Whatsonstage.com Awards Concert, hosted by James Corden and Sheridan Smith, at the West End’s Prince of Wales Theatre.

This year’s Whatsonstage.com Awards are dominated by the Donmar Warehouse, with five big wins across three productions (Ivanov, Othello and The Chalk Garden), and Jersey Boys, the blockbuster Broadway musical import telling the story of pop legends The Four Seasons, which has converted all four of its nominations, including Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for on-stage “Frankie Valli” Ryan Molloy.

Donmar domination
The unstoppable force that is the Donmar Warehouse continues its domination of this year’s theatre prize-givings. After securing four wins at both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards, and 13 Laurence Olivier nominations, the Donmar has converted its myriad Theatregoers’ Choice Award nominations into five big victories: Best Actor for Kenneth Branagh for Ivanov (the launch production in the year-long Donmar West End season at Wyndham’s theatre), Best Director for artistic director Michael Grandage for Ivanov, The Chalk Garden and Othello (the latter two at the Donmar’s 250-seat Covent Garden home base), Best Play Revival for Ivanov, Best Shakespearean Production for Othello (which starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor and Kelly Reilly), and Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hiddleston for Ivanov and Othello.

Commenting on the Donmar’s Whatsonstage.com Award success, Michael Grandage said: “I am delighted that so many members of the public have voted for the Donmar's productions. It is clearly a very positive endorsement of what we are trying to do, and it gives us a real boost as we enter a new year of work.”

Speaking from Los Angeles, Kenneth Branagh – who has already won the Critics’ Circle best actor gong for Ivanov but was overlooked in the Olivier shortlists – added: “Thank you London theatregoers for greeting our work with such full-blooded generosity. Michael Grandage’s brilliant vision for his Wyndham's season depends on several elements – the marriage of his superb Donmar team with the wonder workers at Wyndham's, four terrific companies of actors, designers and stage managers, and crucially of course, the audience. Actors and audiences – we’re all in it together - and in that spirit, I accept this award on behalf of all my Ivanov acting colleagues, who like me, will be thrilled by this lovely recognition.”

Institutionally, the Donmar’s closest rival is the Royal Shakespeare Company, resurgent in London thanks to its annual West End residency and last year’s takeover of the Roundhouse with the epic eight-play cycle of The Histories, whose leading lady Katy Stephens is named Best Actress. The other two RSC triumphs come care of Doctor Who star David Tennant, whose return to the stage in Hamlet was declared Theatre Event of the Year; Hamlet, directed by RSC chief associate Gregory Doran, has also won Best Regional Production for its Stratford-upon-Avon run. (The show’s London dates did not qualify for this year’s Awards.)

A musical for all Four Seasons
Original Four Season and composer of Jersey Boys, Bob Gaudio, who has flown in especially from the States to collect the Best New Musical award on behalf of the team tonight, commented: “Frankie Valli and I are absolutely thrilled that Jersey Boys has managed to receive so many Whatsonstage.com Awards this year. It's especially gratifying when an award is voted for by the people. We are all very proud of Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward, and this recognition suggests that the UK audiences just might love the production as much as we do."

Jersey Boys follows four blue-collar boys – Gaudio, Frankie Valli and their friends Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi – on their journey from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey to global success as a pop music sensation. They wrote their own songs, invented their own sounds and sold 175 million records worldwide – all before they were 30.

At the Whatsonstage.com Awards, Gaudio’s on-stage doppelganger Stephen Ashfield collects the trophy for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical alongside Molloy’s for Best Actor in a Musical. As part of tonight’s concert, the two are also performing a string of Four Seasons hits along with the full Jersey Boys company. The musical’s fourth prize is Best Set Designer for Klara Zieglerova.

Two other musicals score double Theatregoers’ Choice wins. The 50th anniversary production of West Side Story, now touring the UK following its sell-out run at Sadler’s Wells in London, nets Best Musical Revival and Best Actress in a Musical for its Portuguese “Maria” Sofia Escobar. And La Cage aux Folles, still running at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre where Graham Norton has recently joined the cast, scoops Best Supporting Actress in a Musical (Tracie Bennett, winning the prize for a second year in a row, last year for Hairspray) and Best Choreographer (Lynne Page).

Close play competition
Despite the record voting numbers, many of this year’s Awards categories were decided by just a handful of votes. The closest race of all was for Best New Play, where David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky just nudged ahead of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. Eldridge’s play was first seen in a small-scale premiere at the Royal Court Upstairs in 2000 but only received its West End premiere last summer, in a production featuring Catherine Tate, Chris O’Dowd and Francesca Annis. This is the second Whatsonstage.com Best New Play prize for Eldridge, who won four years ago for Festen.

American playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute (whose Hollywood credits include The Shape of Things, Nurse Betty, Possession) is on hand at the Prince of Wales tonight to collect the Best New Comedy award for the UK premiere of Fat Pig, which he wrote and directed. Robert Webb, Kris Marshall, Joanna Page and Ella Smith formed the original company, with Kelly Brook making her West End debut in the production’s second cast.

Another comedy, Joanna Murray-Smith’s UK premiere of The Female of the Species, earns Sophie Thompson Best Supporting Actress for her turn as the put-upon daughter of Eileen Atkins’ Germaine Greer-style feminist icon.

Other big-name winners
Amongst the other household name winners, comedian Eddie Izzard garners Best Solo Performance for his latest stand-up show Stripped, which launches a UK arena tour this autumn following its sell-out West End season. Former Any Dream Will Do finalist Daniel Boys wins Best Takeover in a Role for Avenue Q. And Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett, who made his professional theatrical debut in the stage adaptation of Rain Man, is named London Newcomer of the Year.

Speaking from Los Angeles, Josh Hartnett said: “Being on-stage in the West End production of Rain Man was a thrilling new experience for me. I'm really proud to have been able to work with such a talented group of actors, directors, producers and backstage crew. Everyone worked incredibly hard, and made me feel welcome throughout the run. I am thankful to the audiences for coming out and supporting us … And a special thanks to Nica Burns who put her money where her mouth is and cast an up-and-coming New York theatre actor with not a single professional credit to his name. I hope to be back soon!”

The Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies, who was nominated in Hartnett’s category for making his musical writing and performing debut in the semi-autobiographical Come Dancing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, is on hand at tonight’s event to collect in another category: the musical premiere was the hands-down winner for Best Off-West End Production.

Other 2009 Theatregoers’ Choice Award winners accepting awards tonight include the company of hip-hop dance extravaganza Into the Hoods (Best Ensemble Performance) and, in the newly introduced Best Lighting Designer category, Malcolm Rippeth (for Brief Encounter and Six Characters in Search of an Author).

Awards Concert
Tonight’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards Concert is hosted for the second successive year by James Corden and Sheridan Smith and will also include performances by Award nominees Elena Roger (Piaf) and Leila Benn Harris (Imagine This); Siobhan McCarthy (giving a sneak preview of the forthcoming Cat Stevens musical Moonshadow); The Phantom of the Opera star Ramin Karimloo; X Factor finalist turned Blood Brothers leading lady Niki Evans; I’d Do Anything competitors Samantha Barks and Sarah Lark; and American diva Kim Criswell; as well as Suranne Jones (a previous Whatsonstage.com Award winner for A Few Good Men), Julie Atherton, Glenn Carter, Ray Shell, Jimmy Johnston and Jackie Marks.

The concert is held in aid of Whatsonstage.com’s adopted charity for 2009, TheatreMAD (Theatre: Make a Difference), which supports those living with HIV, AIDS and other long-term conditions. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and The Sound of Music star Connie Fisher – a former Whatsonstage.com Award winner who was nominated this year for They’re Playing Our Song – will present on behalf of the charity.

Amongst the winners, nominees and other VIPs due at the Prince of Wales tonight are: Anthony Clark, Daniel Koek, Denise Gough, Douglas Hodge, Edward Bennett, Elizabeth McGovern (currently starring in Complicit at the Old Vic), Ella Smith, Gregory Doran, Jayde Westaby, Jason Pennycooke, Joanna Page, Katy Stephens, Kerry Michael, Kevin R McNally, Lesley Sharp, Lesli Margherita, Linda Thorson, Lisa O’Hare, Lorraine Bruce, Lucy Briers, Lynne Page, Malcolm Rippeth, Malcolm Sinclair, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (currently starring in A View from the Bridge), Matt Rawle, Matthew Bourne, Michael Boyd, Micheal Grandage, Michelle Terry, Natalie Walter, Neil LaBute, Nick Reed, Nick Cavaliere, Nicole Faraday, Patina Miller (the new star of the forthcoming musical Sister Act), Phil Willmott, Pip Carter, Rachel Tucker, Rafael Armago, former Kinks frontman Ray Davies, Robyn North, Roger Davies, Rolan Bell, Rupert Goold, Shaun Niles, Sheila Hancock, Simon Curtis, Sofia Escobar, Sophie Thompson, Steven Berkoff, Suzanne Shaw, Terry Johnson, Tom Hiddleston, Tom Piper, David Eldridge, Klara Zieglerova and Tracie Bennett.


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