This year's Barrymore Award nominees sing the less-sung

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Actors David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell and director of the production, The Cherry Orchard, Abigail Adams in rehearsal room at People's Light & Theatre.

The usual favorites were not in favor at Monday's announcement of the Barrymore Awards nominations for excellence in theater.

Three of Philadelphia's often-nominated non-profit stages - the Wilma, the Arden, and Philadelphia Theatre Company - finished well behind smaller theaters often well-outside the Center City nexus. Among the 105 productions eligible for consideration, those of Norristown's Theatre Horizon took 19 nominations, People's Light in Malvern had 14, Theatre Exile had 14, InterAct Theatre 13 and Bristol Riverside in Bristol 11.

The Wilma followed with nine, while Arden (often the top award magnet) had six and Philadelpha Theatre Company, four.

Often, each of the top-nominated companies had one or two major-hit productions. Most of Theatre Horizon's 19 nominations were for a well-received Into the Woods that had such good advance word-of-mouth that it was nearly sold out before opening.

People's Light nominations were fairly evenly divided among Fences, The Cherry Orchard and Bach at Leipzig. Theatre Exile's were split between The Whale, a new-ish play about a morbidly obsese gay man, and Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? InterAct was dominated by The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane, and Bristol Riverside had a major hit with the musical Ragtime.

"Every theater has different kinds of seasons. Maybe something was close, but with seven nominations in any category, maybe it was the eighth," said Theatre Philadelpha administrative Joel Sumner. "It speaks to how much work there was to consider this season."

Also, nomination numbers don't tell the complete story. Though 11th Hour Theatre Company was not near the top with its eight nominations, the company, which mostly gives short runs of little-known musicals, this year presented a new one by composer Michael Ogborn, best musical nominee Field Hockey Hot.

Flashpoint Theatre Company's seven nominations were dominated by Herringbone, plus a lifetime achievement award for Johnny Hobbs Jr., stage veteran and longtime theater professor at University of the Arts who was featured in Flashpoint's Hands Up. The all-comedy 1812 Productions had six nominations, all for the Jackie Gleason homage To the Moon.

Many of Philadelphia's frequently hired actors were unmentioned Thursday, two exceptions being Scott Greer, who was nominated for both To the Moon and The Whale, and Ben Dibble, for Herringbone. And the others?

"You want to get a spread but you don't want to inhibit something that's really worth of recognition. It's a fine balance that we're trying to strike," said Sumner.

Nominees for the prestigious F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist are Alex Bechtel, Benjamin Camp, Akeem Davis, Katherine Fritz and Bi Jean Ngo.

The multi-tiered nomination system is such that each of the 105 eligible productions was seen by as many as 20 nominators out of a pool of 60, creating a check-and-balance arrangement that's meant to negate personal biases. All nominators are asked to submit conflict-of-interests statements before being assigned to view a specific production.

However, big factors in the musical nominations were the absence of Walnut Street Theatre, known for its lavish productions and huge subscription base, and Media Theatre in Media, which focuses on musicals. Neither company has been part of the recemt Barrymore Awards, and both have declined to comment on why.

Sources close to Walnut's artistic director Bernard Havard say that one concern is the eligibility of productions that pay actors as little as $150 per week. Havard is known in the industry for paying excellent salaries. Media Theatre hires major Broadway talents such as Ann Crumb for productions of Souvenir and Sunset Boulevard. Sumner said he hopes to re-open conversations with the two theaters.

Another factor in the musical nominations was Arden's production of Passion, a Stephen Sondheim musical that has always polarized audiences with its story of a sickly woman's obsessive pursuit of a handsome soldier. Of Arden's six nominations, three were for Passion, only one of them for acting - Liz Filios in one of two leading female roles.

Were there a perfect storm here, it centered on actress Jennie Eisenhower, who had a big season with The Addams Family in Media, Field Hockey Hot with 11th Hour and Passion at Arden, but drew no nominations. Another point of curiosity was the absence of Kristine Fraelich, who played the witch in Theatre Horizon's Into the Woods, and who perhaps suffered comparisons to Meryl Streep in the contemporaneous film version.

Nominations are always controversial, though in last year's lineup, the theater community seemed grateful that the awards were being given at all, for the first time since a complicated hiatus when the Theatre Alliance collapsed several years ago.

The 2015 awards will be presented Nov. 2 at the Merriam Theater.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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