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Topper awards a ‘validation’ for military theater troupes

By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 21, 2013

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — They’ve got glitz and glam, red carpets and big-name stars, but there’s one thing you won’t find at the Tony Awards: a singing general.

For that kind of entertainment, you have to be part of the military theater community in Europe, where the heat of the spotlight can induce even high-ranking military officers to burst out a few bars from “Godspell.”

“I am sorry. I have no idea where that came from,” Brig. Gen. Paul Benenati, commander of the 7th Civil Support Command in Kaiserslautern, told the crowd filling a cramped ballroom at Vogelweh’s Armstrong’s Club on Saturday at the kickoff of the 2013 Installation Management Command Europe Tournament of Plays. “It’s gotta be something in the air tonight here, obviously.”

Hundreds of theater types from across Europe attended the event, a nearly three-hour, high-energy show where gleaming gold “Topper” awards were presented and the audience was treated to a review of some of the top plays and musicals produced across the Continent by troupes of volunteers.

There were 17 shows up for consideration, each seen by a panel of judges who scrutinized every aspect of the productions.

None of the nominees was revealed before the show, stoking an air of mystery and anticipation. It had the hundreds of attendees on the edge of their seats throughout the evening as nominees were read and winners announced just seconds later for each of the more than 60 categories.

“I think that there’s a lot of nerves in this room,” said Cheryl Navo, who worked on two shows up for awards, including Baumholder’s production of “God of Carnage,” which she directed.

She didn’t win the director’s award, but the show snagged four Toppers, among them an award for Navo for best set design for a comedy.

“It’s validation for all the hard work, all those hours that go into planning and thinking about” the productions, she said. “I mean everyone you see here in this building are people who come and they do theater. It’s being recognized in front of your peers. It’s pretty amazing. It’s wonderful.”

Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Strickland was new to the whole scene, having stumbled into theater after taking singing lessons with his wife. He wound up trying out for Aviano’s production of “Seussical” and landed a leading role as Horton, a role that earned him a Topper for best debut performance in a musical.

It was the experience of the other cast members that helped him keep his nerve during his first-ever show, he said, and he never would have been here if his wife hadn’t wanted them to take singing lessons together.

“Every time I got up on stage, I sang to her and for her.”

Cara Broel wasn’t new to theater, but she hadn’t performed since college almost a decade ago before trying out for “Man of La Mancha” at SHAPE, Belgium, and “met this amazing family of actors and crewmembers” who welcomed her into their family, she said.

Broel was stunned when she won best actress in a musical for her role as Aldonza, taking her hand away from her mouth just long enough for a photographer to snap a shot of her with her award.

“It’s on my award!” she said, looking at her name on the statuette. “I kept having to check it because I wasn’t sure that was really my name.”

“This has been the highlight of my year and a half in Belgium, quite frankly. Well, maybe the second-place highlight. The first place would definitely be when I was onstage,” with the rest of the cast, Broel said. “Doing that show every night felt like being a part of something bigger than yourself.”

millham.matthew@stripes.com
Twitter: @mattmillham

 

Brig. Gen. Paul Benenati, commander of the 7th Civil Support Command in Kaiserslautern, and others cut the cake at the end of the 2013 Installation Management Command Europe Tournament of Plays on Saturday, April 20, at Armstrong's Club on Vogelweh in Kaiserslautern. Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes
MATT MILLHAM/STARS AND STRIPES