OPENING THIS MONTH
Olney Theatre artistic director Jason Loewith helms this production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the 1961 Frank Loesser musical about an ambitious window washer who sets his sights on corporate glory. Through February 23.
Through February 23 at Theater J, Natsu Onoda Power directs Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang’s 2007 comedy about a playwright named David Henry Hwang who protests when a white actor is cast as an Asian in the musical Miss Saigon but who is then flummoxed when an actor he casts in an Asian role in one of his plays turns out to be white.
Drew Cortese (Studio’s The Motherf**ker With the Hat) returns to Washington to play Richard III at the Folger Theatre. Robert Richmond directs Shakespeare’s drama about the malfeasances of the British monarch. Through March 9.
Kathleen Turner stars as Bertolt Brecht’s battle-ax heroine attempting to survive war and personal loss in Mother Courage and Her Children, running January 31 through March 9 at Arena Stage. Molly Smith directs.
Swinging through the National Theatre February 4 through 9 is Stomp. The percussive-theater show—coming up on 23 years old—has spent the last decade playing in a new theater in Las Vegas, the Sydney Opera House, and the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
February 5 through 23, Cultural DC presents Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Mead Theater Lab. Director Jess Jung puts a contemporary spin on the surreal show about a woman buried in a dirt.
February 5 through March 2, Round House Theatre presents Seminar. The Hollywood Reporter called Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 play about a writing seminar in New York City “tight, witty, and consistently entertaining.”
Woolly Mammoth stages the epically titled We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. One of the New York Times’ top ten plays of 2012, it features six actors telling the story of an African tribe targeted by colonialists. February 10 through March 9.
February 13 through March 9, Spooky Action Theatre presents The Wedding Dress. Rebecca Holderness directs the show by Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues.
February 18 through 23, Signature Theatre stages the world premiere of Beaches, a musical by Iris Rainer Dart, David Austin, and Thom Thomas based on Dart’s novel about two unlikely friends (it also spawned a film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey).
In An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, the two Broadway veterans grace the Kennedy Center with their god-given voices. Do you need to know more? February 18 through 23.
American Idiot comes to the National Theatre February 18 through 23. The punk-rock opera about disaffected youth in Middle America—based on the 2004 album by Green Day—was called “kinetically entertaining” by the Los Angeles Times and received a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
At Forum Theatre, artistic director Michael Dove directs Pluto, Steve Yockey’s play about a mother trying to have a normal day in the face of supernatural occurrences. February 20 through March 15.
February 20 through March 16, Washington Stage Guild presents Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw’s early science-fiction work looking at the span of human life on earth.
The IN Series presents The Cole Porter Project February 22 through March 9. The show pays tribute to the American songwriter, known for such standards as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
It was a good night for one show with an F-bomb in the title but not so much for the other. Woolly Mammoth’s Stupid F**king Bird, a riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull by Aaron Posner, took home eight Helen Hayes Award nominations last night in a ceremony onstage at the National Theatre. Studio Theatre’s The Motherf**ker With the Hat, however, wasn’t so lucky—it failed to claim a single one.
In their last year under the current format before the awards divide into two categories (“Hayes” for primarily Equity shows and “Helen” for predominantly non-Equity productions), the Helen Hayes Awards will still be plenty different this year, with the ceremony moving to the National Building Museum, the awards being presented on two different stages, and the speeches streamlined to a slender 30 seconds (or so TheatreWashington promises). Also new is TheatreWashington board chair Kurt Crowl, who takes over from veteran Victor Shargai after 16 years and almost 30 with the organization.
With all this change afoot, perhaps it’s a relief that the nominations this year, on the 30th anniversary of the awards, are still as intriguing as ever. Posner’s Bird, a critically acclaimed and very funny show, gets top honors with nominations for Outstanding Direction (Howard Shalwitz), resident Play, Outstanding New Play, Ensemble, Lead Actor (Brad Koed), Supporting Actor (Rick Foucheux), and Supporting Actress (Kimberly Gilbert and Kate Eastwood Norris).
Following in its footsteps are Shakespeare Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which got seven nominations, including Outstanding Musical, Choreography, Direction, Ensemble, and Lead Actor (Bruce Dow); and Round House Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which also scored seven. This year’s nominations, in which Round House picked up eight nods, would appear to be an endorsement of new artistic director Ryan Rilette, since the company scored only one nomination in 2013, two in 2012, and none in 2011.
In terms of institutions, Signature Theatre led the way with 20 nominations, six of which were for its co-production of Hello, Dolly! with Ford’s Theatre. The recent revival of Gypsy scored five, as did Aaron Posner’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. Woolly Mammoth followed with 16 nominations, Shakespeare with 15, the Kennedy Center with 12, Arena Stage and Ford’s Theatre with 10, and the Folger Theatre and Studio Theatre tying with 9.
In any year, there will be surprises. I was gratified to see Shakespeare Theatre’s Mies Julie and the Kennedy Center’s Anything Goes rewarded among the “visiting” productions, but surprised to see not a single nomination for Shakespeare’s stellar The Winter’s Tale and only one (in lighting design) for the Folger’s outstanding Henry V. The awards are heavily skewed by nature to favor musicals, which tend to be less frequently produced by companies around town, but Signature’s production of Company, a terrific ensemble production by Eric Schaeffer, only scored a single nomination, for Erin Weaver as Outstanding Supporting Actress (who mightily deserved it, given the syllables she had to spew out in the frantic “Getting Married Today”).
Weaver was also nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Play for her performance in the Folger’s Romeo and Juliet, and Lead Actress, Resident Musical for The Last Five Years, meaning she and her husband, Posner (nominated for his direction of both shows, as well as Stupid F**king Bird), took home more nominations between them than Theater J (one nomination), Forum Theatre (one), and Synetic Theater (two) put together.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Helen Hayes Awards nominations? Peruse the full list below and let us know in the comments.
Meena’s Dream, a play by Anu Yadav—set to a live, original score by three musicians combining South Indian classical traditions, contemporary jazz, and indie rock—premieres January 8 through 19 in a Forum Theatre production at Round House Theatre Silver Spring. Yadav, an 11-time recipient of a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant, is best known for her 2004 one-woman show, ’Capers, in which she played residents protesting the demolition of a DC public-housing project. Writer Ann Blackman talked with her.
What’s Meena’s Dream about?
It’s the coming-of-age tale of a nine-year-old Indian-American girl whose mother is severely ill and cannot afford the medicine she needs. Frightened that her mother will die, Meena imagines that Hindu God Lord Krishna comes to her to ask for help in fighting a mysterious force known as the Worry Machine, which is threatening to destroy her world. Meena’s powerful actions remind her mother that she doesn’t have to face her health struggles alone.
What prompted you to write it?
My dad passed away when I was 12, and things weren’t easy for my family. My mother had to take several jobs while going to night school, and I worried she would die, too. I had a recurrent dream that Krishna was sitting on my bookcase, but when I woke up, nothing was there. My imagination became a way to escape and cope. I decided to use this as inspiration.
The issues of poverty, trauma, and faith run through your work. What do you want an audience to take away from this play?
We are at a point in our society where wealth inequality is ever-widening. Reality shows are mostly about absurdly wealthy people, when in reality so many are losing jobs and homes and going without. It’s like a sweater unraveling, and right now these stories are not being shared. If, as a child, I had known that other people struggled, I might have coped better, but these were not things we talked about. Even now, we don’t know how to talk about them. So I want to share stories about people’s lives from the perspective of the people themselves. I’m hoping this play can provoke a dialogue about these contradictions. We need community. I want to remind people of that.
Tickets $20 in advance at forum-theatre.com; by donation at the door.
This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Opening This Month
January 2 through 26, Washington Stage Guild has the local premiere of The Old Masters, Simon Gray’s play about an art critic and an art dealer who meet outside Florence early in Mussolini’s regime.
January 8 through 19, Forum Theatre presents Meena’s Dream, a new play by Anu Yadav about a young Indian-American girl who asks for supernatural help when her mother is gravely ill.
At Studio Theatre January 8 through February 23, David Muse directs Tribes, British playwright Nina Raine’s comedy/drama about a young deaf man at odds with his family over the best way to communicate.
Synetic Theater takes on Twelfth Night as the latest work in its Silent Shakespeare series. Company cofounder Irina Tsikurishvili stars as Viola. January 9 through February 16.
January 10 through February 16 at Arena Stage, Daniel Beaty stars in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a show by Beaty about actor/singer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson. Tectonic Theater Project’s Moisés Kaufman directs.
At the Anacostia Playhouse January 11 through February 2 is The Gin Game, Donald L. Coburn’s Pulitzer-winning play about a couple who make friends in a nursing home. Playhouse owner Adele Robey stars.
Constellation Theatre Company presents Scapin, an adaptation of Molière’s comedy about the scheming servant of a wealthy man. At Source January 16 through February 16.
January 16 through March 2, Shakespeare Theatre presents The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Keith Baxter directs.
Rorschach Theatre stages Glassheart, Reina Hardy’s contemporary spin on the story of Beauty and the Beast. January 17 through February 16.
Maurice Hines, who until recently was starring in his own show at Arena, directs Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song at MetroStage, a show he also conceived and choreographed. January 23 through March 15.
At Ford’s Theatre, Jeff Calhoun (Newsies) directs Violet, a musical adaptation of Doris Betts’ The Ugliest Pilgrim, about a disfigured young woman who travels to Tulsa to be healed. January 24 through February 23.
Keegan Theatre presents The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s play about two political candidates going head to head during primary season. January 25 through February 22.
At the Kennedy Center January 28 through February 16 is Peter and the Starcatcher, a Peter Pan prequel adapted from a 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The show won five Tony Awards in 2012.
January 28 through March 9, the Folger stages Richard III, Shakespeare’s account of the monarch’s path to the throne and his short-lived reign. Drew Cortese stars.
January 29 through February 23, Olney Theatre presents How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1961.
January 29 through February 23, Natsu Onoda Power directs David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at Theater J. The show explores notions of race, culture, and identity.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum closes at Shakespeare Theatre January 5. Our review.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner closes at Arena Stage January 5. Our review.
The Apple Family Plays close January 5 at Studio Theatre. Our review.
Elf the Musical closes at the Kennedy Center January 5. Our review.
The Pajama Men: Just the Two of Each of Us closes January 5 at Woolly Mammoth. Our review.
Edgar and Annabel closes at Studio Theatre January 12. Our review.
Our Suburb closes at Theater J January 12.
The King and I closes at Olney Theatre January 12.
Flashdance—the Musical closes at the Kennedy Center January 19. Our review.
Gypsy closes at Signature Theatre January 26. Our review.
January 6 and 13, NT Live screens Frankenstein from the National Theatre in London, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in alternate roles on both dates.
January 17 through 19, the In Series and the Washington Ballet Studio Company join forces for La Vie En Rose, a show celebrating French culture from Berlioz to Edith Piaf.
Performer Natascia Diaz performs in two cabaret shows at Strathmore January 25.
Porgy and Bess is one of the 20th century’s most beloved and divisive works of art. In 1936, it was the first show to play to a desegregated audience at DC’s National Theatre after protests by cast members Anne Brown and Todd Duncan, and though it fell out of favor in the ’60s and ’70s because of concerns about its portrayal of African-Americans, it’s now generally considered the first great American opera.
The composer/lyricist team of George and Ira Gershwin worked with author DuBose Heyward on the tale of a crippled man who falls in love with a drug-addicted woman in a South Carolina tenement. Director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks’s adaptation, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, comes to the National December 25 through 29 after winning two Tonys for its Broadway run—as well as provoking the ire of Stephen Sondheim, who, before previews had started, described the dramatically beefed-up production as “dismaying” in a letter to the New York Times.
Paulus—artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts—says the controversy proved how powerful Porgy is. She started work on the show in 2010 after being approached by the Gershwin estate to helm a revival that would be a musical, not an opera, and that would flesh out the characters and strengthen the plot. “That was the departure point for me, that we weren’t there to portray stereotypes,” Paulus says. “Every performer was asked to bring every ounce of their humanity to their roles, along with researching their history and what it would have been like to live on Catfish Row in the late 1930s in South Carolina.”
Paulus’s version replaces sung recitative with spoken dialogue and trims the show to 2½ hours. “It is simple to the point of primal,” wrote Ben Brantley of the Times while praising the stars for drawing out the show’s tempestuous emotions. Says Paulus: “That’s the job of theater—to plumb the depths of emotion and truth. Porgy gives you such a rich, complicated story of love and self-acceptance and what it means to survive.”
The Washington run is notable for other reasons. Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess, is married to pianist Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for jazz, and Sumayya Ali (Clara) is a graduate of DC’s Duke Ellington School.
For the whole creative team, bringing the show to the National—under new management and enjoying a return to its roots as a Broadway-tryout house—feels like paying tribute to Brown and Duncan and their efforts to make Porgy accessible to everyone. Says Paulus: “We stand on their shoulders.”
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, December 25 through 29 at the National Theatre. Tickets ($48 to $98) available at thenationaldc.org.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.
When Deborah Rutter takes over as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next summer, she’ll bring with her a sterling reputation. Over the past decade in the same position at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, widely viewed as one of the two best-run major orchestras in America (along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Rutter, 57, has impressed the Windy City as a straight-talking manager, consensus-builder, and tireless fundraiser with excellent people skills and a heartfelt populist streak.
While it’s unclear how those skills will translate at the Kennedy Center—with its bigger budget, its more varied array of programs and tenants, and the greater prominence of political and society types among its funders and constituents—the feeling in Chicago is that if anyone is up to the task, it’s Rutter.
“She’s absolutely straightforward in a buoyant, positive way—she’s not any kind of a game player,” says Andrew Patner, longtime classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago’s classical radio station, WFMT. “The day she was announced here, she told me, ‘My job is to listen, and once I get to know people and see what they need, I go from there.’ Of course, people in her position always say things like that, but in her case it was true. Ten years later, the main thing she leaves here is a culture of listening. There’s a connection between management, staff, trustees, and musicians at the CSO that’s very, very unusual at orchestras around the country, and that’s largely because of Deborah.”
Most of Rutter’s major accomplishments at the CSO are familiar in arts administration circles: record-breaking ticket sales and fundraising the past three years running; lowering the average age of CSO concert-goers by about 10 years in a time when most orchestras are fretting about graying audiences; and luring the Italian maestro Riccardo Muti to Chicago as music director to replace the departing Daniel Barenboim. The last was no mean feat; Muti was famously skittish about returning to another music-director post after the collapse of his relationship with La Scala in Milan. (Following health issues that forced him to cancel dozens of appearances during his first year on the job in Chicago, Muti has bounced back in the past two seasons and is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with CSO players and audiences alike.)
Less well-known is Rutter’s impressive track record as an impresario. When the frosty Barenboim gave two years’ notice as music director in 2004, he relinquished involvement with all concerts other than his own; Rutter and her staff filled the gap seamlessly, handling the bulk of the artistic side of the CSO season to an unusual degree. At the same time, Rutter continued to function as the principal presenter or co-presenter of performances at Symphony Center and other venues in Chicago, including festivals and other collaborations with theater, dance, classical, jazz, and pop music ensembles around the city.
In an interview with Washingtonian, Rutter emphasizes that interdisciplinary diversity of her experience in Chicago as preparation for the dizzyingly varied mission of the Kennedy Center. She also shrugs off a question about the political nature of the Washington and the Kennedy Center’s funding structure. “It’s true that in Chicago, I haven’t had the opportunity to deal with government funding because we get so little of it,” she says with a laugh. “But a huge aspect of our work at the CSO involves regular interactions with the mayor’s office and the governor here. When I was in Seattle [at the Seattle Symphony prior to coming to Chicago], we had a long-term relationship with the city that led to our raising $30 million a year to build a brand-new concert hall. So the experience of working with government is not new to me.”
Perhaps the least heralded but arguably most significant aspect of Rutter’s career in Chicago is her commitment to community outreach, in particular partnerships with arts organizations, schools, prisons, and other entities. Well before the widely publicized community engagement efforts of Muti and the CSO’s creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma, Rutter was beefing up the orchestra’s outreach efforts and forging relationships with arts-education groups around town.
“Deborah really upped their game in terms of community outreach, the result of which is that the CSO is a lot of places now that they never used to be,” says Nancy McCarty, executive director of Storycatchers Theatre, a group that works with young women and girls in Illinois prisons and detention centers to create original musical theater based on their personal stories. During Rutter’s tenure, the group now works with Muti, who gives regular lecture-demonstrations for the inmates; CSO players, who perform as part of the group’s orchestra in their annual musicals; and members of the CSO chorus, who serve as teaching artists and mentors.
“It’s not just showing up for a one-hour assembly in high school and you never see them again,” McCarty says. “They’re embedding themselves in community organizations to make it a deep, committed, worthwhile experience. Our kids get to know the musicians who work with them, and our young composers form valuable peer relations with the CSO people. And it wouldn’t be happening if Deborah weren’t making those resources available.”
Rutter seems likely to build on that legacy at the Kennedy Center, where community outreach is a top priority. “I think this will be a way for Deborah to go national with her ideas, including notions about community engagement,” Patner says. “There are people who find their niche and want to stay in it, and then there are people who want to go on to bigger challenges every ten years or so. Deborah is in the second group; she wants to spend the last decade of her career riding that beast. She’ll be missed here, but it’s certainly good for the Kennedy Center.”
At this point in December you’re almost certainly sick of year-end lists, and that’s OK: We are, too. They’re arbitrary, entirely subjective (like all criticism is), and biased toward art that was produced in the second half of the year and is still easy to remember.
So with the above as a disclaimer, we’re trying something a little different this year. All of the below are shows that Washingtonian’s critics loved in 2013, and because we’d rather not rank them since they were all superb in so many ways, we’ve given them random and nonsensical (and imaginary) awards instead. Congratulations, Washington theaters, on producing so much great work this year. We can’t wait for 2012, I mean 2014.
Best Production of a Shakespeare Play: The Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare Theatre
Rebecca Taichman’s production of one of the trickier Shakespeare plays (love! tragedy! bears!) was memorable for its “starkly elegant” modern design and its immensely powerful performances from Mark Harelik, Hannah Yelland, and many more.
Best Touring Musical: Anything Goes at the Kennedy Center
Doubtless everyone will say this should go to The Book of Mormon, and maybe it should, but like we said, subjective. Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony-winning production of the Cole Porter classic was de-lightful, de-licious, de-lovely, and just on the right side of de-luded.
Best Dysfunctional Family Drama: Other Desert Cities at Arena Stage
If there’s one thing we learned about families, it’s that “long-buried family secrets, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, barbed endearments, and bourbon” are no combination for a happy holiday. Jon Robin Baitz’s spectacular play made for “gut-punching theater” nonetheless.
Best Riff on Chekhov With Profanities in the Title: Stupid F**cking Bird at Woolly Mammoth
Aaron Posner’s spin on The Seagull might have led to an overuse of asterisks among area publications, but its magical, moody commentary about love and art made up for it.
Best Riff on Chekhov Without Profanities in the Title: Man in a Case at Shakespeare Theatre
Mikhail Baryshnikov is magnetic in this brief but gorgeous adaptation of two short stories about love (currently playing at the Lansburgh Theatre). And yes, he dances, although not in the way you might expect.
Most Entertaining Use of Profanities: Glengarry Glen Ross at Round House Theatre
David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play might be a cynical and downright bleak look at humanity, but his four hungry salesmen were impeccably portrayed in this Round House revival.
Best Performance of a British Royal: Henry V at Folger Theatre
Zach Appelman’s portrayal of the former Prince Hal made the hero “so eloquent, so engaging that it’s hard not to leave the theater thinking of him as one of the greatest male characters Shakespeare ever wrote.”
Best Swordplay: The Three Musketeers at Synetic Theater
We’ve come to expect dazzling choreography from the Arlington physical theater troupe, but in this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, the swordplay stole the show.
Most Charming Revue: Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage
Maurice Hines is a charmer. That’s all. And this 90-minute look at his life and career on the stage is so endearing it could make even Grumpy Cat smile, not to mention his magnificent, all-female backup band, or the tap talents of the Manzari and Heimozitz brothers.
Best Play You’d Never Want to See With Your Parents: Mies Julie at Shakespeare Theatre
This sexual chemistry between the two leads in this tragic, frantic South African adaptation of Strindberg might be sufficient to light up the Verizon Center’s exterior for a week. So, not really something you’d want to watch sitting next to an elderly relative, or a boss, or even a stranger.
Most Adorable Puppets: Baby Universe at Studio Theatre
Who knew infant universes were so cute they could have their own BuzzFeed vertical? Baby Universe, portrayed adorably by Wakka Wakka Productions in this dystopian puppet show, charmed, as did the show’s fusion of fantasy, video, music, and sci-fi.
Best Play the Government Shutdown Stopped People From Seeing: The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre
Press night for The Laramie Project was moved from Ford’s Theatre to a Woolly Mammoth rehearsal hall after the government shutdown booted performers and audiences from the space where Lincoln was shot. Even with the new location, this show’s outstanding ensemble gave “heartfelt, fierce, committed performances” exploring the circumstances of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Best Musical About a Perplexed Bachelor: Company at Signature Theatre
Some say Bobby’s gay, some say he’s just greedy. Whatever your take, Signature’s production of Sondheim’s 1970 musical about a confirmed bachelor facing all his paired-off friends was a triumph.
Best Portrayal of a Dead President: Mary T and Lizzy K at Arena Stage
All of the performances were spectacular in Arena Stage’s world premiere of Tazewell Thompson’s play about Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. But in a year in which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for playing Lincoln, Thomas Adrian-Simpson’s portrayal stood up to the competition admirably.
Best Encapsulation of Our Post-Recession Era: Detroit at Woolly Mammoth
Lisa D’Amour’s play, a “morality tale of philosophic ambition and massive symbolism about the destruction of the American middle class,” incorporated comedy, tragedy, despair, and “the closest thing to 3D thrills” our reviewer’s seen in a theater.
Most Engaging Neurotic: Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theatre
Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn moved across town to Studio Theatre to direct Harvey Fierstein’s masterpiece and Brandon Uranowitz came from New York to play Arnold, a fussy, needy, funny, tough, and entirely lovable drag performer.
Best Heroine to Root For: Good People at Arena Stage
Johanna Day’s portrayal of Bostonian Margie in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play was “nearly flawless, communicating years of strength and struggle, pride and vulnerability cloaked in every snarky remark or blunt admission.”
OPENING THIS MONTH
December 5 through 22, Mikhail Baryshnikov comes to Shakespeare Theatre with Man in a Case, an experimental work adapted from two short stories by Anton Chekhov. Read our interview with Baryshnikov about the show.
December 6, Patina Miller, who recently won a Tony Award for her performance in the revival of Pippin on Broadway, comes to the Kennedy Center for the Barbara Cook Spotlight series.
December 10 through January 5, manic and unpredictable comedy duo the Pajama Men returns to Woolly Mammoth with Just the Two of Each of Us. The show follows In the Middle of No One, a hit at Woolly last year.
December 11 through January 5, Studio Theatre kicks off its New British Invasion Festival with Edgar and Annabel, a dark comedy about life in a surveillance state by 30-year-old playwright Sam Holcroft.
December 13 through 29, Keegan Theatre reprises An Irish Carol, its annual staging of Matthew Keenan’s riff on the classic Dickens tale.
December 14 through 22, the Washington National Opera presents The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, a new work based on Jeanette Winterson’s children’s book about the nativity, narrated by the donkey. Music is by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change).
December 17 through January 5, Elf the Musical sets up shop in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The show is a musical adaptation of the Will Ferrell movie about a well-meaning oversize elf named Buddy.
December 17 through January 19, Joe Calarco directs Gypsy , Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne’s 1959 musical about Gypsy Rose Lee, at Signature Theatre.
December 19 through January 12, Theater J presents Our Suburb, a world premiere by Darrah Cloud about an interfaith teenage romance in 1970s Illinois directed by two-time Tony-winner Judith Ivey.
December 25 through January 19, Flashdance comes to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Thirty years after the movie about a dancing steelworker in Pittsburgh, the musical revives hits such as “What a Feeling” and “Maniac.”
December 25 through 29, the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess stops by the National Theatre. The production is a new adaptation by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks.
The question continually posed by If/Then, the strong yet unfinished musical trying out at the National Theatre before it heads to Broadway, is what if? To what extent can a decision made in the blink of an eye impact the course of a life? This concept—not exactly an unfamiliar one thanks to movies such as Sliding Doors, from which If/Then appears to borrow a substantial amount of its story—can start to feel gimmicky throughout the course of the show, particularly given the heavy-handed lighting used to clarify the narrative. But these are just minor quibbles compared to the showstopping performances on display. As far as opportunities to see stars belting out songs go, this one goes gangbusters.
Directed by Michael Greif, If/Then stars Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked) as Elizabeth, a 39-year-old city planner who moves to New York after ending her loveless marriage, and whose life subsequently splits into two forks after she decides whether to listen to a musician (Sexy Guitar Guy, a title Tyler McGee needs to put on his résumé) play in Madison Square Park. Carefree, stop-and-smell-the-roses/listen-to-the-music Elizabeth becomes Liz, who’s still neurotic and obsessed with quantifying all her options but lets loose enough to go on a date with Josh (James Snyder), a handsome doctor back from his second tour with the Army. Uptight Elizabeth becomes Beth, gets a fantastic job, falls into an unhappy relationship of sorts with her bisexual best friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), almost dies in a plane crash, and ends up successful and miserable after all that leaning in.
Liz/Beth’s different stories are illustrated by lighting effects—cold blue for Beth, warm red for Liz. It’s a device that feels like it was added last minute for clarity, and it detracts a little from the spectacular set by Mark Wendland, above which trees loom over the stage and stars and neon maps of the New York City subway appear as if from nowhere. The show is at its strongest when Liz and Beth’s worlds collide, as they do at the end of the first act at a birthday party on a rooftop when both versions of Elizabeth find themselves pregnant by a different man (again, Sliding Doors).
Early in the show, the character of Elizabeth feels clichéd, what with her extreme anal retentiveness and her constant attempts to calculate decisions out of numbers. “I’m not sure how to quantify sexy,” she tells her friend Kate, plated by the spectacular LaChanze, who won a Tony for her role in The Color Purple. But as Liz and Beth emerge, Menzel does a good job showing how each character changes—Liz becoming more open and accepting, and Beth hardening to the point where she impulsively kisses her boss (Jerry Dixon). Decisions have consequences, we’re told over and over again, and Liz/Beth’s different paths demonstrably affect not only her own life but also the lives of those around her.
If/when the philosophizing gets a bit much, the songs are ample compensation. The music and lyrics are by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind the Tony-winning show Next to Normal, and while there are a few duds (through no fault of Rapp’s, “Ain’t No Man Manhattan” is a dullard), Lucas’s “You Don’t Need to Love Me” is a genuine heartbreaker, as is Liz’s “Learn to Live Without.” Rapp, best known for playing dorky Mark alongside Menzel in the Broadway and film versions of Rent (the former of which was also directed by Greif), is unexpectedly charming as even more dorky Lucas, a hapless and crunchy housing activist whose happiness is intertwined so tightly with Liz/Beth’s own. And as winsome and kindhearted Josh, Snyder is exceptional, managing to save his too-good-to-be-true Army doctor from becoming boring and delivering his solo numbers—especially “Hey Kid”—with chops galore.
But it’s Menzel’s musical, and everyone else is just living in it. The Idina superfans you’ll almost certainly run into in the ladies’ room at intermission already know all the lyrics, and understandably so—the way she delivers her songs is just thrilling to watch, even if she seems to be holding back a little in the first act. One imagines it’s hard to play a character as unshowy and awkward as Liz/Beth while simultaneously winning over the whole of the audience in the National’s 1,676-seat theater, but Menzel does it, and also manages countless costume changes while flitting between Liz and Beth. If/Then is a long way from perfect—the choreography by Larry Keigwin in particular feels alarmingly clunky—but it’s definitely captivating at moments, thanks to some lovely songs and a deservedly acclaimed star.
If/Then is at the National Theatre through December 8. Running time is about two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($58 to $228) are available via the National Theatre’s website.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner once told National Geographic that what got him his role as Theo on The Cosby Show was his ability to take direction. It’s a skill he’s been using a lot during rehearsals for Arena Stage’s upcoming production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a new theatrical adaptation of the 1967 movie that starred Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. Warner plays Poitier’s character, John, a doctor who arrives to meet the parents of his white fiancée and is obliged to deal with the fallout over their interracial relationship from both sides of the family.
The adaptation by Todd Kriedler (based on the original screenplay by William Rose) was first staged in a 2012 production at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre directed by Broadway and television regular Kenny Leon. While some of the original cast members remain, Warner is a newcomer to the show, along with director David Esbjornson. We talked with Warner about reinventing a classic 50 years after it first reached audiences, returning to theater, and how his cultural heritage helped him prepare for the role.
When did the opportunity of being in this show come up, and what appealed to you about it?
It was a couple of months ago, back when Kenny Leon was still involved, and it was one of those situations where there really isn’t a whole lot to think about. It’s kind of like, Yeah, sure, I’ll read the script first but I’m probably going to say yes anyway. It’s a great opportunity to take this classic movie and reprise it onstage, and of course having grown up with and been so inspired by Sidney Poitier, it’s an honor to be able to do a role of his.
In the film your character, John, is pretty much beyond reproach—he’s this amazing ideal of a man. Is he the same way in the play?
I think those attributes still remain in terms of his accomplishments as a doctor. But we also have an opportunity [to do more], because the racial climate when the movie came out meant there was only so far they could take it, and they had to tread lightly with the subject matter. Though we’re not making it a heavy story, exactly, we do have the opportunity to deal with the seriousness of the issue and the seriousness of everyone’s reactions to it. With my character in particular there’s the chance to go a little deeper into his life and his relationship with his father, so there’s another dimension to it. Here’s this guy with all these accomplishments, but his parents’ approval is still very important to him. There’s a great dynamic that we get to deal with in his having to stand up to his father in terms of the personal decisions he makes, and there’s a great emotional journey we get to take with the character that we didn’t get to see in the movie.
Fifty years ago, when this movie came out, the culture was obviously enormously different. Have you talked together as a cast about how you not necessarily keep it from being dated, but how you can make it connect with contemporary audiences?
I think what makes it more compelling is the fact that we’re not treading lightly with the material or the subject matter. Though the humor and the wit is still there because it’s in the script, we’re not playing anything for comedy.
Then again, 50 years ago people probably would have hoped we’d be a lot further along than we are now.
Definitely. We still live in a world where people claim to be liberals, but then when they come face to face with something it turns out they’re not as liberal as they purported to be.
What’s it like being back in the theater world?
I love it. Theater is definitely my favorite platform. Television is definitely my favorite paycheck, however. But the concept of being able to actually spend time developing a character with the same actors, and to have a couple of weeks together on the floor—there’s a certain texture that happens that you can’t find written on the page, or in the way sitcoms are shot with one day of rehearsal.
When was the last time you did theater?
About six years ago. I started out in theater. I think every actor worth his salt revisits theater every few years.
What have you taken from the rehearsal process so far?
Some of the cast did the production in Atlanta, but because David [Esbjornson] has come in, he’s coming at it with a very different approach from the movie and from the earlier stage production of the play. Even for cast members who’ve done the show, there’s a deprogramming to do to work with this new interpretation.
Did you do anything in particular to prepare for your role?
Of course I’ve watched the movie again, and I’m watching different movies from that time period in the ‘60s, and listening to music, and doing some research in terms of reading. The ’60s are really a period that I’ve spent my life reading about. My father named me after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal, and from six, seven years old he was making me read about Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Marian Anderson, because he wanted me to have a real sense of my history and where I came from. So the ’60s are a very familiar period for me.
You talked a little bit about David Esbjornson coming in and taking over from Kenny Leon. Was that disruptive at all?
It’s not disruptive so much as it’s exciting. On the one hand, the cast who’ve done the show before have a slight advantage, but with David’s different take, everyone’s at square one. It’s really evened out the playing field.
How are you liking being in Washington?
It’s great, but I see the theater, my apartment, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Target. That’s the extent of my Washington visit so far. But my band has played here several times, and I have friends here, so I’ve hung out in the city before.
What’s next for you after this?
I’m in the middle of finishing up this third CD with my band, so between this show and the music I’m pretty focused. Then, when I finish up here it’s back to LA for the pilot-season grind.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
I think people who are familiar with the movie are going to be pleasantly surprised with the depths to which David’s taken it. I think people will definitely be able to relate to the concept of a liberal being forced to face how they may not be that liberal after all. I think the play still speaks to that issue.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is at Arena Stage November 29 through January 5. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.