Following the model of many regional theatre awards, The Lyrebirds’ member companies and schools fall within strict geographical boundaries in Melbourne’s east. The ‘Birds’ encompass both straight and musical theatre, host an earlier youth ceremony, and recognise design elements in separate categories according to budget. The Karralyka Centre in Ringwood is the ideal facility for the evening’s format, a ceremony in the theatre followed by a sit-down dinner and dancing in the main function room. As glittery and glamorous as The Guilds and The VDLs, The Birds is widely regarded as the most fun major awards night of the year. Tonight’s ‘Behind the Curtain’ themed occasion was to be no exception.

As the houselights dimmed, Musical Director Andrew Houston’s super-tight, eight-piece band performed a polished Opening Show Medley, including a number of tunes from musicals not yet available on the non-pro circuit. Houston and his band were on point all night, and he is to be congratulated for his eclectic choices of acceptance music, and for battling the perennial sound and audiovisual issues of this event.  Congratulations also to Director Trish Carr, Stage Manager Craig Dewar, and all working behind the scenes, for a slick ceremony that ran less than two hours and twenty minutes – quite an achievement given the presentation of over sixty awards and nine performances!

In his President’s Address, Warren Dorling welcomed the capacity crowd, recognised the contributions of the executive, judges and others, and introduced a new youth initiative which will spotlight productions where over 75% of the cast are under the age of 25. The seven Judges of the Drama, Comedy and Musical/Variety sections then presented their personal Judges Awards, mostly in recognition of achievements falling outside the gamut of the regular award categories. Tonight’s recipients were honoured for an array of contributions from special effects and pyrotechnics to entertaining scene changes and foyer decorations.

Bridging the youth and open divisions of The Lyrebirds, the first performance of the evening was by Heidi Dusterwald (2015 Best Actress in a Youth Production Musical) and fellow cast members from Brentwood Secondary College’s Hairspray, performing ‘I Can Hear the Bells’. Nice touch. (And a special shout-out to the lone backup singer who didn’t get to take a bow!)

For the most part, a nice spread of companies and productions took home the honours in the design award categories, although one trend of the evening involving ‘the little company from Cardinia that could’ was already developing.  Beloved members of the theatre community no longer with us were remembered in a touching ‘In Memoriam’ tribute, and Peridot’s Robyn Kelly was inducted into the Hall of Fame by previous recipient Sue Moon, an obviously popular choice with the audience. In regards to both these presentations, I’m sure it has already been noted for future ceremonies that the audiovisual design needs to account for the presence of an onstage band.

In a last minute change to the program, Gina Mets, ably assisted by the evening’s enchanting hostess Melissa Nolan, stepped up to render a powerful performance of ‘Safer’ from First Date. Old Trinity Grammarians’ Theatre variety, Cinematic Broadway, was represented with an energetic performance of ‘Dreamgirls’. Kudos to Frieda Lai for powering through with her big, beautiful voice when her mic cut out. Other standout performances of the evening included Elise Cavallo and Peter Garratt’s moving ‘Legally Blonde’ (CPAC’s Legally Blonde), Nathan Slevin and Mitchell Stewart’s hilarious ‘You Can Play With Your Food’ (PEP’s Honk), and Jonathan Guthrie-Jones and Adrienne George’s sassy ‘Only An Older Woman’ (Babirra’s The Boy From Oz). However, the performance highlight of the evening had to be Keith Hutton and Ed Kennett’s riotous Scrabble squabble excerpt from 1812’s Steptoe and Son.

As mentioned earlier, sixty-plus awards! I wish I could name each individual recipient in this article but time and space do not allow, so I’ll focus on the ‘biggies’.  (And speaking of naming recipients, might I take this opportunity to humbly suggest presenters do a little homework into the pronunciation of nominee, company and production names?) Best One Act Play went to The Hartwell Players’ Tangled Up in Blue. Best Actress nods went to Roxanne Tamlin (Lend Me A Tenor, Peridot), Kylie Rackham (Medea, Gemco) and Elise Cavallo (Legally Blonde, CPAC). Best Actor awards went to Keith Hutton (Steptoe and Son, 1812), Nigel Leslie (Killing Jeremy, 1812) and Jonathan Guthrie-Jones (The Boy From Oz, Babirra). Choreography and Musical Direction gongs went to Robert Mulholland (Legally Blonde, CPAC), Kate Phillips (Suits II, SLAMS) and Ben Hudson (The King and I, Babirra). Best Director trophies were bestowed upon Ryan Purdy and David Woods (Suits II, SLAMS), Loretta Bishop (Vicar of Dibley, Lilydale Athenaeum), John Bishop (Killing Jeremy, 1812) and Lee Geraghty (Legally Blonde, CPAC). And finally, the Gold Awards for Best Production. Best Variety went to SLAMS’ Suits II, Best Comedy to Lilydale Athenaeum’s Secret Bridesmaids Business, Best Drama to 1812’s Patient 12, and Best Musical to CPAC’s Legally Blonde.

Before heading next door to the impressive three course dinner, bottomless drinks and drunken dancing, the ceremony concluded with a high energy performance of ‘We Go Together’ by the cast of NOVA’s Grease. And theatre people do – we go together. As The Lyrebirds celebrate – whether straight plays or musicals, comedies or dramas, behind the curtain or in front of it – that’s the way it should be. A wop bam boom!