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Brian d’Arcy James Feted by Sarah Siddons Society and School of Communication

A night set aside to celebrate two Broadway stars turned into a tour de force for one. Brian d’Arcy James, star of stage and screen (with his recent role in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight), delighted the capacity crowd at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on May 16 with his talent and kindness.

The annual Sarah Siddons Society Actor of the Year celebration included testimonials about the winners (d’Arcy James and actress Sutton Foster), the announcement of scholarship honorees, and a variety of music theater performances. But the night belonged to d’Arcy James, the 1990 School of Communication alumnus who graciously accepted his honor but also performed three numbers, including “Who I’d Be” from Shrek the Musical in place of Foster, who was unable to attend.

Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication, acknowledged the good works of the Siddons Society, which bestows scholarships and “honors great actors for their career achievements, something we care a lot about.”

She heralded the “long and robust friendship” of the Society and Northwestern and talked about how happy she was that the University could co-host this year’s event and celebrate “two individuals with such deep roots in our community.”

D’Arcy James “is an alumnus, a four-year member of the Waa-Mu cast and crew, and someone who was featured in several plays and musicals … when he was a student here,” O’Keefe said. In addition, Foster recently had served as a visiting artist in the Department of Theatre.

While Foster wasn’t present, she sent along her thanks. It was “such an honor to be recognized in this way and to share this with my friend and colleague Brian d’Arcy James,” she wrote, calling it “humbling and truly an honor.”

Dominic Missimi, artistic director of the Siddons Society, emeritus professor of theatre, and a fixture in the Chicago music theater scene, offered his own high praise Monday night, saluting d’Arcy James as “a great artist.”

The primary mission of the Siddons Society is to raise money for deserving music theatre students at four Chicago-area schools: Columbia College, Roosevelt University, DePaul University, and Northwestern. But its annual award event is what brings in the crowds.

After performances from Northwestern theatre students and alumni, including former Siddons scholarship winners Christine Mild and Michael Mahler, theatre alumna Kate Baldwin took the stage to introduce d’Arcy James, whom she called “the nicest man in show business.”

“I love Brian d’Arcy James, but who doesn’t love Brian d’Arcy James?” wondered Baldwin, currently starring in the Lyric Opera’s production of The King and I.

When he arrived on Broadway, she said, he earned a string of major roles from Titanic (“Where he sang that ‘marry me’ song, and every woman in the audience said ‘OK.’”) to his Tony-nominated performance now in Something Rotten.

“I’m proud and maybe a little embarrassed to say that I saw every one of those performances because before I called Brian d’Arcy James a friend, I was his biggest fan,” she said.

D’Arcy James was humbled and gracious in accepting his award. He proudly noted that all the performers on stage that evening, from the singers to the orchestra, “were either students or alumni of Northwestern University.”

He said that Foster would have loved to be here and that “anything I say in recognition and thanks for this honor, she echoes that.”

As both a recipient of a Siddons scholarship and now its highest honor, he “speaks with authority” in saying that scholarships such as these are life-altering. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t taught how to act,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be an actor.”

D’Arcy James singled out three people to thank. The first, his sister Anne James-Noonan, is the performing arts coordinator at New Trier High School. He said she “paved the way for me” and is now teaching students “how to think like an artist; how to be an artist.”

He then thanked Missimi, who gave him his first professional acting job in Chicago and helped him learn “what that meant, to be a professional.”

Last, he thanked his acting teacher, Bud Beyer, longtime head of Northwestern’s Acting Program, and now an emeritus professor. “Hi, Bud. I love you,” d’Arcy James said affectionately, directing his gaze to where Beyer sat. “I learned how to act because Bud Beyer taught me how to act. … But if you want to be an artist, to be an actor, you have to have someone to help shape that, shift that and give you the tools to become an actor. Because of that time in that class with this man, because of my time with Dominic, because of my sister … I’m able to stand here and say thank you.”

Fittingly, the evening ended with d’Arcy James’ soaring rendition of “Let It Sing” from the play Violet. As the song concluded, the audience rose up and cheers cascaded over the “nicest man in show business,” and one of its most talented, too.

By Mark Wollemann