Welz Kauffman, Alexis Lanier at Fifth Star Awards
  • Deanna Isaacs
  • Welz Kauffman and Alexis Lanier play Ramsey Lewis tunes at the inaugural Fifth Star Awards

Chicago celebrated its first annual Fifth Star arts awards with a public event Wednesday night at Millennium Park that was a combination of weird and wonderful.

First, the weird: The crowds weren’t there. (Swaths of empty seats in the Pritzker Pavilion). The mayor wasn’t there. (Or if he was, he was hiding.) The honorees (still alive, right?) were out of sight.

Distinguished presenters like Twyla Tharp (!) came to the podium one after another, to say how pleased they were to present the awards to these four historic stars and nurturers of the Chicago arts scene:

Hubbard Street Dance founder Lou Conte
Sculptor Richard Hunt
Musician Ramsey Lewis
Former Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg
And to one nonhuman entity, the Auditorium Theatre.

But none of the honorees set foot on the stage.

OK, so the Auditorium Theatre wouldn’t be able to make it. But none of the others did either. No trophy passed from one hand to another. No spotlight or camera swept the audience to find the winners beaming in their seats. Brief videos lauding each one played on the pavilion’s big screen, but nobody got to see the real person stand up and take a bow.

Lois Weisberg, on video

I don’t know how the honorees felt about that. They were given trophies earlier in the day, at a luncheon. But their invisibility at the big event, where they were apparently seated randomly, was baffling to the audience, and disappointing.

On the other hand, it’s probably safe to say that no one was disappointed by the show, which opened with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and included, among others, performances by Kurt Elling, Second City, and a piano duet of Ramsey Lewis tunes by 17 year-old Whitney Young student Alexis Lanier with Ravinia’s Welz Kauffman.

The closing set, by Orbert Davis’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, featured a transcendent rendition of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic “Somewhere” by tenor Rodrick Dixon that brought the awed audience to its feet and eclipsed any quibbles.

Still, if there’s a next year for this event—which seems to have been cobbled together in a hurry, perhaps to fill a slot at the start of Expo Chicago—maybe we’ll get a more transparent selection process for honorees, and maybe the public will get to see them at the awards concert.

In the meantime, the humans in this year’s group are Chicago treasures; it’s a joy to pay them tribute.