Follies Comes to the Kennedy Center

July 26, 2011

Believe it. “Follies” is no folly. It’s a big deal.

It’s a big deal for the Kennedy Center, where a ground-up, full-blown revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical is now on stage at the Opera House through June 19. It is the culmination of four years of planning, effort and work.

It’s a big deal for director Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of the Signature Theater, who is practically a Stephen Sondheim godson when it comes to all things music and staging of the reigning monarch and legend of the American musical.

It’s a big deal because “Follies” was a big deal for Sondheim; he took a giant step forward in his creative control for this show, not only writing the lyrics, but composing the music. The net result was a string of musicals that have made Sondheim a giant and innovator of the American musical theater.

It’s a big deal because the content-and-concept laden “Follies,” first staged by Harold Prince in 1971, was a uniquely Sondheim kind of musical, with its story of members of a former Zigfield-type follies reuniting on the eve of a theater demolition, past theater glory, and what happens to divas and stars when the spotlights shut down. It is a musical driven as much by the characters as the music. The original featured song and dance man Gene Nelson, movie star Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. The musical received seven Tony Awards, including Sondheim’s first for best original score.

Ron Raines stars as Benjamin Stone, and longtime Washington favorites Terrence Currier and Frederick Strother grace the stage in this production.

It’s also a big deal for Lora Lee Gayer who plays Young Sally and Christian Delcroix who plays Young Buddy.

Everybody’s heard and read about the ladies of “Follies,” mainly Bernadette Peters, Janis Paige and Jan Maxwell.

You may not have heard of Gayer and Delcroix, but they’re also critical elements of the show, a connection to the past for the main characters, alter egos that drift in and out of the show, sometimes sharing the stage with them.

For Delcroix, the process was probably filled with less angst than facing Gayer. “Danny and I had already worked together in ‘South Pacific’ at the Lincoln Center, so we knew each other, had been on the stage together before,” said Delcroix, who grew up in Pittsburgh and lives in New York. “So we could talk about the parts, who they were, what a young Buddy might be like. We had a pretty good rapport right off the bat. That’s an advantage.”

Delcroix acknowledged that playing the small part of the professor at Lincoln Center in the original cast of the smash hit revival (a touring company played the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this winter), was a big break. “That was a wonderful experience and chance for me. Now I’m in this terrific musical by Stephen Sondheim. You can’t get much luckier than that.”

For Gayer, who plays young Sally, the challenge was a little different. “Bernadette Peters is a legend. She’s one of the biggest stars in Broadway history. So yes, I didn’t know what to expect initially,” she said. “I was a little intimidated, sure. But she is really wonderful to work with. She’d make suggestions about the character, about what she might have been like. She is the expert when it comes to Sondheim”

Gayer graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a BFA in Musical Theater. “I did Rapunzel in ‘Into the Woods,’ so that helped in dealing with Sondheim’s music, which is very difficult and challenging to sing,” she said. Gayer has played Roxie in “Chicago” and Mrs. Gottlieb in Sara Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cellphone.”

For the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser and Schaeffer, “Follies” marks a return to the works of Sondheim, by whom they’ve done very well. “Follies” was one of the few missing entries in the hugely successful Sondheim festival several summers ago, which included “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music.”

Schaeffer put himself and the Virginia-based Signature Theater on the map with a smash production of “Sweeney Todd” years ago, and he and the theater never looked back, gaining a national and international reputation as interpreters of the Sondheim songbook and playbook, while forging a permanent presence with productions of edgy, sharp, contemporary musicals, including the works of Kander and Ebb as well as new shows like “Glory Days.”

“Follies” not only features legends in the flesh as characters, but in some ways it’s a bittersweet tribute to the musical stage. The irony is—as is sometimes the case with Sondheim—the original production had a relatively modest run of 522 productions. But this show, with songs like “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Too Many Mornings,” acquired—as is often the case with Sondheim—a sure footed afterlife with concerts and successful revivals, including a 1985 Lincoln Center Concert version, a 1987 West End production, a 2001 Broadway revival, another West End revival and a New York City Center Concert in 2007. The Lincoln Center concert starred Barbara Cook as Sally, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, and Lee Remick, and also included Carol Burnett, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, Elaine Stritch and Phyllis Newman—one of those wish-you-could-have-been-there casts.

“Follies” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through June 19.

Girls inc Gala

Girls inc Gala was held October 28th. [gallery ids="99470,99471,99472,99473" nav="thumbs"]

Special Birthday Girl at Peacock Cafe

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated her 63rd birthday at Peacock Cafe, Oct. 26, with her husband. President Bill Clinton had a veggie burger, and his wife, salmon with spinach. “What a great night at Peacock, taking care of President and Mrs Clinton,” Shahab Farivar wrote on his Facebook
wall. “The way they interacted with everyone and the staff was amazing. Thanks, Chelsea, for the recommendation.”– Robert A, Devaney

Capitol File Fetes Its 5th at the Corcoran

Capitol File celebrated its fifth birthday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Oct. 20, and saluted fashion guru Tim Gunn, who is on its current cover. Niche Media boss Jason Binn was on hand as well as Cap File’s new editor Kate Bennett.– Robert A, Devaney

Elizabeth Taylor’s Washingtonian Legacy

Ah Hollywood…Ah Washington. How the denizens of these two cities yearn for each other.

The recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, pre-pixel Hollywood’s last great star, and its coverage around Washington highlighted the nurture-torture nature of this relationship, like an electric wire was connecting the cities. People remember her here; just ask the senator, the gossip writers, theatergoers and the folks at the Whitman Walker Clinic.

She was, heart and soul, a child of Hollywood, since her violet eyes and pitch black hair made their first impact on screen as one of MGM’s child stars in “National Velvet,” when she was just twelve years old. She was a movie star long before she ever aspired to become an excellent actress.

People, of course, still have trouble taking a really beautiful woman seriously, and Elizabeth Taylor was astonishingly beautiful in her youth. As such, it’s much easier to give the wrong kind of credit than to credit the right things. People focus on her numerous marriages, the drama and the diamonds. They focus on her adulteries that broke up first the marriage of Debbie Reynolds, America’s sweetheart, and then her own and those of husband Richard Burton’s.

The local obituary seemed to me curiously snarky and petulant, going out of its way to offer quotes disparaging her acting abilities. The front-page photo showed her in her famous white swimsuit from a scene in Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer,” in which she shared top billing with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, two of the finest screen actors of the time. “Despite Oscar nods,” the caption read, “she was not always taken seriously an actress.”

They could have said it the other way around: “Despite not always being taken seriously as an actress, she won two Oscars—for “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of the Edward Albee play, now enjoying a satisfying production at Arena Stage), opposite then husband Richard Burton.”

It’s fair to say that she was often used for her looks—one of those cases of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” But those looks could be used to heartbreaking effect: Check out that scene when Montgomery Clift (again) first sees her in “A Place in the Sun.” You could see ambition rise in him like a sour soaring, and you could see him hold his breath. The film is one of George Stevens’ finest works, part of what he saw as an American trilogy that included “Shane” and “Giant,” the latter also starring Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, who completed filming and promptly was killed in a high-speed sports car crash.

For someone not highly regarded, she apparently had the regard of directors like Stevens and Nichols, two very serious-minded men who made classic and serious films. I would expect that even Meryl Streep, our most serious and darling film actress, might have liked to have films like “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “Cat On a Hot Roof.” Even “Cleopatra,” in spite of its excess and on-set drama, which almost ruined 20th Century Fox and boss Daryl Zanukc, ended up making money.

She was legendary, larger than life, and lived in the public eye. No need to go into details too much. Like the Kennedys, a political institution, she experienced more than anybody’s share of triumph and tragedy, heaven on earth and hell on wheels all at the same time.

One thing everybody knew: she made friends, and kept them beyond death. She nurtured the troubled and gifted Clift through car wrecks, addictions and emotional troubles. She stood up for Hudson and still loves Burton. If she was at times over the top and with a certain carnal vulgarity, especially in the two bouts of marriage with Burton, well…she was entitled. That doesn’t make her the godmother of Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.

Her stays in Washington were memorable: she married Senator John Warner of Virginia, the kind of marriage that should probably never happen. Imagine the fights in front of the mirror. But Warner remembers her with affection.

She appeared twice on stage in Washington, both times at the Kennedy Center, to mixed success and reviews. The first was as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” which underwhelmed local critics, as I recall.

Then there was the time when then Kennedy Center President Roger Stevens thought that movie stars might pack ‘em in for theater. This brought us Liz and Dick in “Private Lives,” something this writer won’t ever forget. This is Noel Coward’s sophisticated play about a divorced married couple on honeymoons with new partners who run into each other at the hotel where they’re staying. Sparks fly in familiar ways. But in the middle of the play, Taylor’s Amanda says off-handedly: “You know, I’ve always been afraid of marriage.” This line brought the house down with laughter in a way that had everything to do with Taylor, not the show. Old pro Burton rode out the laughter wisely, and then ignited it again with a drawn out “Yes.”

That’s show biz. That’s legend.

She became, in a very real and practical way, the patron saint in the fight against AIDS, in the public’s recognition of what a dangerous disease it was, and the people it affected. She spoke up for Rock Hudson and everyone else who suffered from it, and she lent her name to the Whitman Walker Clinic. By contrast, the silence in Washington AND Hollywood in the early, devastating years of the disease was deafening. The Reagan, whose roots were in the Hollywood community which was being hit hard by AIDS, offered grief and condolences over the death of Hudson, while not mentioning AIDS at all, as if he had died of some peculiar strain of the common cold?

She opened minds and changed them, and her presence rose above that of the fundamentalists who called the disease the punishment of God at Gay Pride parades. She never wavered in this, and she did it out of life, not boredom or publicity seeking.

God bless her for that, and have no doubt that he and she will.


The annual NIAF Gala in Washington, DC is an opportunity to recognize and honor Italian Americans and Italians in business, science, sports, entertainment and philanthropy who have made enormous contributions to our society.
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Keith Lipert Gallery Showcases “The Gardens of Kabul”

Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large in the Office of Global Women’s issues, was unable to attend the Oct. 28 reception and cultural exhibition celebrating the talents of Afghan women at the Keith Lipert Gallery on Oct. 28. She was superbly represented by Peggy McKean, Senior Exec. Asst. in Amb. Richard Holbrooke’s Office, who spoke eloquently of the efforts to recreate the traditional crafts of Afghanistan. Keith Lipert Gallery on M Street was the obvious venue as a bevy of his savvy shoppers enjoyed a collection of beautiful hand crafted scarves and jewelry from Afghanistan where Artizan Sarai works to support gender equality and fair trade. Kate Spade will be producing specialty items to further the cause of Afghan women. – Mary Bird [gallery ids="102544,102545,102546,102547,102548,102549" nav="thumbs"]

Gods and Conservation: Paul Jett at the Freer/Sackler

Walking down the long staircase and into the galleries of the Sackler, a large stucco Gandharan head of a Bodhisattva from Afghanistan sits on a pedestal above eye level. Sensuous and spiritual at once, its lips are full and it is crowned and has flowing hair. The spiritual dimension is evoked with the semi-closed eyes and the tension of the eyebrows, seemingly meditative. It is many times larger than human scale and must have stood on top of a very large body.

When Paul Jett, head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Freer/Sackler, first saw the piece, it was covered with detritus of almost 2,000 years. Jett related to me, “Pieces you spend a long time working on you get more attached to. I feel very attached to the Bodhisattva. No one would display it because of the way it looked. I thought this piece had potential, so I spent eight months working on it, often through a microscope, as stucco is very delicate. Everyone liked it so much that now it is on permanent exhibition.”

Adjacent to the Bodhisattva is an exhibition of Khmer art curated by Paul Jett and Louise Court, the highly regarded curator of ceramics at the Galleries. The exhibition will later go to the Getty in Los Angeles. The Khmer bronzes displayed are extraordinary in their energy and refinement. They have a certain formal reserve that is very apparent in Khmer stone sculpture, but due to the scale of the pieces they are more intimate. Paul Jett played a major role in this exhibition, mentoring the conservation staff at the Phnom Penh museum in Cambodia where these works are from.

As we walked through the exhibition, Paul Jett recalled his early career: “I grew up in New Mexico, where I pursued interests in photography, painting, and sculpture. I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in New Mexico. I worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts doing a post-graduate fellowship and came to D.C. and got the job at the Freer/Sackler. I studied bronze casting at Glen Echo. When I started working at the Freer/Sackler, I realized that I had prepared for it by studying Mandarin, as well as Chinese philosophy and history.”

Working with Asian bronzes has involved Jett in precarious, technical studies with gold and silver. Asian bronzes often have silver as inlay or are coated in gold. The philosophy of conservation today, according to Jett, is “Do no harm to the object, make repairs unobtrusive, though not exactly invisible. And importantly, all repairs have to be able to be undone.” In looking at art in museums he says, “I do notice how it’s been restored, it’s hard to turn that part of me off.” He says of his work on pieces, “It will last for hundreds of years. We make decisions sometimes on our own or will consult with curators or directors depending on the piece.”

The work with the Phnom Penh Museum started in 2005, setting up the conservation lab. Most of the training took place in Phnom Penh. Jett says, “There was a blank slate for most of the students.” He says that this was an advantage, as he did not have to deprogram anyone. Jett became close to his colleagues and students who did most of the work on the pieces in the exhibition. “They are doing fine on their own,” he says.

One thing he did as a demonstration was to fill in a bit of the Nandi, a large 12th- to 13th-century bronze. It is discernibly not an Indian Nandi, yet having a similar languor. Many of the figures of the gods in the show are based on Indian prototypes, but have evolved into their own distinct Khmer-ness. The Ganesh has none of the earthiness found in his Indian prototype, even though it has a similar physique.

Being with Paul Jett at the Gods of Angkor show made me look harder at how the pieces were put together originally and through restoration. We stopped to admire an incredible bronze crowned Buddha from the 12th century. Holding up its arms in abhaya mudra it blesses this beautiful show. [gallery ids="99168,103020,103009,103017,103014" nav="thumbs"]

What’s Red, White, Blue and Black: American Modernism and Rothko

At the National Gallery of Art, early American Modernism from the Shein collection is featured on the first floor of the East Wing. The National Gallery does not have a strong showing of works from this critical period in American art, and the Shein collection will help fill in the gap. There are some very strong pieces here by major players, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Stuart Davis. But it is the lesser-known artists that can sometimes surprise.

One such surprise is Patrick Henry Bruce’s “Painting (Still Life)” that rivals a similar piece by Davis. In many ways I prefer the Bruce, which has a quiet energized classicism. Bruce’s “Painting” was completed in 1919, in the heat of the fray. Davis’ “Unfinished Business” was finished in 1962, toward the end of Davis’ career. Bruce was a much more important painter than Davis in 1919. He was a friend of Sonia and Robert Delaunay and possibly influenced the stark reductivism Matisse adopted in the ’30s for his large “Dance” murals. Unfortunately, Bruce, a descendant of Patrick Henry, killed himself in 1936. Though Davis achieved more and left a greater mark on American abstraction, Bruce deserves to be remembered.

I recall James Rosenquist remembering his teacher Edwin Dickinson, who said that the light was all off in New York studios, since north in New York City was not true north. If there is a northern light, it exists in Dickinson’s work, including “South Wellfleet Inn,” circa 1950-60. It is off every beaten track as a painting, coming close to a kind of obscurist realism. It is playful and morbid, like most of the work of Dickinson’s I have seen.

One cannot escape the fact that O’Keeffe’s “Dark Iris No. 2” and Hartley’s “Pre-War Pageant” eclipse most of the rest of the show, with the exception of Marin’s “Written Sea.” The Marin is one of the most restrained I have ever seen. It is more of a drawing than a painting, but masterful. The O’Keeffe and the Hartley are both at the center of their respective identities. O’Keeffe’s “Iris” is resplendently sensual. With Hartley, I quote Georgia O’Keeffe on his shows at Steichen’s gallery and say it’s “like a brass band in a small closet.”

Going into the tower where Matisse’s cutouts used to hang is now as Zen a place as I have been in D.C. It’s the home of several of Mark Rothko’s darkest work in as perfect an installation as possible. Somehow the off-rectangle of the tower with its high ceiling could not be a better setting.

The intermittent playing of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” makes it complete. Feldman has written of his music that, “I envisioned an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.” A friend of mine recalled what Rothko said, on visiting a temple in Greece, “I’ve always been painting them, now I am in one.”

Darkness is not a metaphysical state much in favor these days. The medical industry is making huge amounts of money as a result. But facing darkness — and rendering it — is tough. Shostakovich did especially in his 14th and 15th quartets, as did Beethoven in his late quartets. In painting it is rarer. I recall Turner’s “Peace – Burial at Sea,” who, when he was questioned on the black sails he had painted, replied “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”

Reflecting on Rothko’s pictures, they do seem to me to bear some relation to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings — though unlike Rothko, Reinhardt was ironic in his black pictures. Rothko is closer akin Gerard Manley Hopkins’ in his poem “Carrion Comfort”: “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

“American Modernism” runs through January 2, 2011. [gallery ids="99176,103189,103193" nav="thumbs"]

At Kennedy Center, ‘Poppins’ Cleans Up House

Call me sentimental, call me plebian, call me irresponsible, call me a sucker for flying nannies, if not nuns.

I am not in the least embarrassed to admit that I really, really enjoyed myself at a recent performance of “Mary Poppins,” the Cameron Mackintosh Disney musical now ensconced at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through August 22. And at my age — why, any self-respecting 40-year-old theater critic would drum me out of the ranks. Luckily, I’m older than that, like 10 going on … well, you know.

For many critics, it’s easy to flaunt the smug gene when merely confronted with the name Disney, let alone by a musical that insists that “just a spoonful of sugar will make the medicine go down,” when considerably less than a spoonful makes them gag.

For myself, I admit to a weakness for big and small musicals if they’re affecting, if you’re not walking out humming the scenery, and if they include some variations of a big tap dance number. These are usually enough to overcome soft-pedaled life-affirming messages, the presence of cute children and unnecessary special stage effects designed to wow the eyes, if not the heart.

In short, I loved Gavin Lee as the good-hearted high-energy chimney sweep and man of many parts Bert, as nimble and more appealing than Dick Van Dyke. Bert leads the sweeps, Mary and assorted others in a rousing “A Step in Time,” which is a tap dance by any other name, and made me very happy indeed. Always does.

In short, Mary Poppins, while ably and sternly performed with prim, brisk energy and lovely voice by Carolyn Sheen, is not really the star of the show. Instead, they are Bert, the Banks children, the Bird lady, the whole big show. Mary, in red suit, tiny hat and open umbrella, is a familiar figure standing still, singing, dancing or flying, but it’s the show itself, with all of its components, that engages the audience, especially children. This is a family-friendly show if there ever was one, and it delivers in more ways than one.

With all spectacle of rooftop dancing, flying acts, gypsies, statues that come to life and a truly terrifying anti-Mary nanny, the intimacy of the show is bound to appeal to the whole family, because it’s about a family and families, about what happens when fathers spend little or no time with their children, all wrapped up in work, when wives have their dreams thwarted, when children are spoiled rotten.

You need a little and a lot of magic.

“Mary Poppins” has plenty of magic, but its Victorian shoes are also firmly planted on the ground so that the characters are recognizable to even small children. For adults, one of the terrific rewards of this show is to watch children reacting to it. I saw a grandfather and his three grandchildren sort of submerge into the proceedings, all four at one point trying to grab projected stars.

Corny? Sure enough. But a good kind of corny. This being a Mackintosh-Disney enterprise, “Mary Poppins” delivers the entertainment goods in a big and lavish way, and it delivers its not-so-subtle messages about parents and children without leaving you with a hit-with-a-frying-pan headache. Take the kids, the wife, the husband, the grandparents, the nanny (legal and registered, of course), and the dog, if they let you. It’s super-califra— sorry, not in spell check. Finish it yourself.

“Mary Poppins” runs through Aug. 22.

Read Gary’s interview with Tour Director Anthony Lyn.