Singin’ in the Rain Celebrates 60th Anniversary at the Smithsonian

August 10, 2012

Gene Kelly would have been 100 years old this August 23.

“Singing’ in the Rain”, the iconic MGM musical (and best ever Hollywood musical, according to most audiences and critics), which saw Kelly doing a slop-slippy tap dance in the rain, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Here is Pixie-haired Patricia Ward Kelly, widow to Gene Kelly and keeper of the flame for his dance and film legacy.

Here’s Rita Moreno, dazzling at 80 years old, and one of the few still living members of the “Singin’ in the Rain” troupe (along with Debbie Reynolds and co-director Stanley Donen), twirling a signature “Rain” umbrella.

Here’s a wall of momentos and puff and stuff from the Warner Brothers library of films, like Clint Eastwood’s costume-bedraggled cowboy wear from the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.”

Here we are at the Smithsonian American History Museum for a screening of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and marking the arrival of a three-disc ultimate collector’s edition of the movie. This writer is celebrating.

Not only is Kelly and “Singin’ in the Rain” being celebrated, but so is the Smithsonian’s summer portion of its Warner Brother’s film festival, with three movies celebrating the advent of sound: “The Jazz Singer,” “The Broadway Melody” and “Don Juan,” screened last weekend.

Moreno—a triple threat winner of a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar (for supporting actress in “West Side Story”)—looked like a red carpet wowser, at any age. She recalled being “in awe of Kelly. I worshipped him. I was 17 and I had a small part in the movie, and here was this man, already a legend, and it was just astonishing to be there, to be in this movie. I watched all the great song-and-dance segments being filmed: Donald O’Connor in “Be a Clown”, “Gotta Sing Gotta Dance”, Gene and Cyd (Charisse).”

“When I met Gene, he was a man in repose,” Kelly’s widow set. “I think by choice, in some ways. He wasn’t dancing any more, at least not in public, because he wasn’t the Kelly you saw on the screen anymore. But he was still dynamic, smart, handsome. I had a writing job back then on a Smithsonian project, he was doing something for a television show on the Smithsonian. I get embarrassed even now that back then I had no idea who he was.” They met, they eventually married, in spite of a much buzzed-about age difference—he was in his 70s, she was in her twenties. Now she’s everywhere, talking about Kelly, “Rain,” the man and American dance, and working on a biography of Kelly. She’s a Trustee of The Gene Kelly Image Trust, and Creative Director of “Gene Kelly: The Legacy,” a corporation established to commemorate Kelly’s centenary world-wide.

“There’s going to be lots going on,” she said. “Gene was all about dance as an American art form. He was muscular, confident. He embodied in dance, I think, what it was to be an American .”

Moreno remembers how tough it was to forge her career as a Latino actress in the 1950s. “I was always an Indian maid, a Mexican spitfire, something like that. When you were under contract, you had to do what they gave you.”

Washington theater goers will remember her from her entirely convincing and funny portrait as the slob of “The Odd Couple,” a female protagonist version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” also starring Sally Struthers at the National Theatre.

She grabbed an umbrella and started coquettishly twirling. Cameras snapped. “Hey, how’d you do that,” Kelly yelled.

“I’m a pro,” Moreno said.

Kelly. Moreno. The movies.

Unforgettable. [gallery ids="100907,128433,128424,128414,128405,128396,128385,128377,128366,128357,128452,128346,128458,128467,128474,128443" nav="thumbs"]

Fringe Festival: 2 Last-Minute Favorites

August 2, 2012

There is still time to catch a show at the Seventh Annual Capital Fringe Festival, which continues until July 29. With more than 140 productions, the vast selection has performances for all age groups.

For adult audiences, comedienne Vijai Nathan’s one-woman show, “McGoddess,” is grade-A humor with a side of religious insight. As the only American-born member of her Indian family, Nathan grapples with which traditions to embrace and ignore. The main issue is her family’s unabashed love of McDonald’s, which conflicts with her mother’s Hindu beliefs in the sacredness of cows. Nathan, who also wrote and directed the play, expands upon her journey of understanding the concept of God — all while influenced by a traditional Hindu mother, a born-again Christian sister and a cynical, Marxist father. With non-stop jokes and countless embarrassing yet relatable family stories, “McGoddess” is a provocative and clever performance that will have you craving for more laughs and a Big Mac.

As for a family affair, hear ye, hear ye, fair subjects of Georgetown! All ye in attendance at Scott Courlander’s “Medieval Story Land” are in for a treat. Noble and naïve elf Todd must fulfill his destiny by going on an epic quest to save the kingdom of Medieval Story Land from its impending doom. But fear thou not, for this show is the furthest thing from “Lord of the Rings.” With sword in tow, a disgraced knight, an overzealous dwarf, and a wisecracking troll accompany Todd on his pursuit. Along the way, he must wrestle up the courage to slay dragons, fight an evil army, triumph over a mystical wizard and defeat the eerie “dark, black darkness.” Entertaining for both children and adults, “Medieval Story Land” gives a wonderfully effortless twist on the classic renaissance hero story.

Visit for ticket information, or call 866-811-4111. Catch “McGoddess” on July 26, 7:30 p.m., or July 28, 9:15 p.m.; “Medieval Story Land,” July 28, 7:15 p.m., or July 29, noon. Both shows are performed at the Milton Theatre at the Studio Theatre located on 1501 14th St., N.W. [gallery ids="100914,128721" nav="thumbs"]

The Addams Family

July 19, 2012

As a Broadway musical, “The Addams Family” has had its share of tumult, upheaval and critical sneers before it ever went on the road, including the replacement of stars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in mid-run.

The road company—now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through July 29—is not quite the same show that first opened on Broadway: it’s got a fresher feel, new songs added and old ones gone. The show has already hit numerous stops before coming to Washington, but it too has suffered some critical adversity. But there’s another thing that the two productions share: a consistent audience approval in spite of the critics.

The road show also has something else that makes it rise above critical outcries and into the audience’s lap. Sure, it has instantly recognizable appeal of a branded production—in this case the Charles Addams cartoons of a dizzy, death besotten—in a good way—family, a highly successful television series, starring Carolyn Jones as the sexy-pale Morticia and her unto-death, fully in love and faintly toreador husband Gomez. This was followed by two box-office hit versions starring the wonderful Raoul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the leads presiding over the usual suspects, the plodding Lurch, Uncle Fester, offspring Wednesday, Pugsley and Grandma.

It also has—as a big plus—Douglas Sills as the undeniably gallant, springy, elegant—in a weird way—and totally still in desparate love Gomez. And Sills is the kind of guy who can make all the difference in the world. He’s the glue to this show, which can often seem unhinged, and not always in a good way.

Sills—a Broadway veteran, and old-school born-to-the-stage performer—overcomes the show’s situational schtick—daughter Wednesday is in love with a so-called normal guy and his folks are coming for dinner—and some of its lagging numbers in the second act by his sheer joyful, bust-the-seams, gleeful presence.

“Sometimes it feels as if we’ve been across the entire country,” Sills says. “It’s not an easy life—this is a relatively long run, actually, sometimes we’ve been in a city for a week and off we go.”

Sills is what I like to call a member in good standing of the Broadway baby family, actors and performers who are most at homes under the footlights, in front of live and lively audiences, who can do a show a hundred (or more times) and still find a spot of freshness in it, performers who can kill a song, do a soft shoe and make you believe that it’s the first time they’ve ever done it.

“Well, we also have (Director) Jerry Zaks restaging things” Sills said. “He’s a real pro, and I think he’s really helped make this thing go.”

Maybe so. But Sills, whose Gomez has made a promise to never keep anything from his beloved Morticia, keeps something from her to his utter shame, chagrin and pain. His mortification, seemingly endless, while singing “Trapped” twists him up into a man who sounds a little like Ricardo Montalban and feels like Stan Laurel.

Sills is a jack-of-all-trades—he’s coming off of tours of “Secret Garden” and “Into the Woods”, but made his real mark in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, where he buckled and swashed like an energized, fire-breathing hero in a musical that also had some initial critical backlash but was hugely popular with audiences.

“It got so there would be people that came back time and time again,” he said. “I think it was pretty gratifying.”

Sills was raised in Detroit, in a good Jewish family household, and was trained at famed director Bill Ball’s American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. “That was a great place to work, some wonderful actors went through there—Michael Learned, Ray Reinhardt, Peter Donat, Annette Benning, Paul Shenar. You learned to do every kind of part, which I think has served me well.”

It’s fair to guess that there are few, if any nights, when Sills doesn’t do his best, go all out. He’s earned his respect and deserves it. He has a certain authentic politeness about him especially when talking about actors of yore like Olivier, or the Shakespearean greats or a Pacino. “I think it’s our responsibility to honor the ladies and gentlemen who came come before us, and the best way to honor your heritage is to do the very best you can do.”

He acknowledged that the plot devise of the normal family meeting the not so normal family has been done before: “La Cauge Aux Follies”, “You Can’t Take it With You,” he says. “But in this way, the show becomes a story about family.”

Sills and Sara Gettelfinger make a convincing and sexy Gomez and Morticia, they always seem about to break into a tango when they come with a foot of each other.
The audience members, if not always the critics, perhaps full with more Addams fire than is healthy, get it. They snap their fingers, they laugh at the jokes, get into the dark shadows spirits of the show. Sills helps make that easier by not just acting Gomez but being him.

Revived ‘Music Man’ Finds True Love at Arena

June 18, 2012

There’s a certain air of expectation that hangs over artistic director Molly Smith’s production of “The Music Man” at Arena Stage, now running for a better part of the summer there.

It’s the rarefied air of success achieved by Smith with “Oklahoma,” the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with which she chose to open the newly renovated Mead Center for the American Theater, a grand old musical that has quite a few things in common with “The Music Man.”

Broadly speaking, it’s a show, like “Oklahoma,” which resurrects the spirit of a mostly vanished turn-of-the-20th-century America. “Oklahoma” bristled with western confidence, its characters are swept up by and embrace change. “The Music Man” is carried and buoyed by what happens when a burst of con-man energy lifts a classic Midwestern small town out of its narrow-minded, time-locked lethargy. Smith’s way with classic American musicals is to bless them with a breath of fresh air that is both energizing and engaging. It’s as if she waves a magic wand over things and makes the proceedings both rejuvenating and meaningful for today’s audiences.

Meredith Wilson — book author, composer and lyricist of “The Music Man”— may not have a Rodgers and Hammerstein resume but he has the Broadway musical pedigree. “The Music Man” is at turns energized by spirited dancing, it has bowl-you-over songs that make a perfect sales pitch like “76 Trombones” and “Trouble” and soaring ballads, none more pertinent and moving than “Til There was You.” It has romance, it has conflict, it has a believable and recognizable setting, and it resolves itself, not with schmaltz, but with a believable inevitability.

And so far as entertainment machines go, “The Music Man” delivers. It’s a robust vehicle that never flags and runs right past potential pitfalls, thanks to Smith. It has a deftly selected cast that couldn’t be more gifted, especially in the leads. Kate Baldwin, as Marian the town librarian and music teacher, is slight and dynamic, all blazing red hair with a shining, patient sort of charisma. Burke Moses strikes up the band and revs up the room temperature as Harold Hill, the con man as magician. He’s every bit as high-stepping and high-spirited as the iconic Robert Preston, sweeping almost all before him as he works his con of talking the town folks into the dream of a marching band, complete with lessons, uniforms and instruments.

The number of persons who might have seen the original Broadway production “The Music Man” is probably pretty small, although we have the happy coincidence of Barbara Cook, the original Marian, singing for two nights at the Kennedy Center next month. Our memories, if we have any, are tied to the film, where Preston shares the screen with Shirley Jones.

It seems to me that “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma” are about change. They’re transformative to audience and characters, and Smith makes change the beating hearts of both shows, especially this one. You could do a “Music Man” that hits all the highlights of song and story and not disappoint a soul, but this production does a little more for an audience that’s plugged into the whole wide world. The first thing you hear is a slow, almost mournful instrumental riff off the usually jaunty “76 Trombones,” accompanied by the sound of a train on its tracks, the rhythmic, familiar syncopated sound of movement and progress. Out of the Arena stages rises a table and seats filled with traveling salesmen, railing musically against change—you can’t give credit, you gotta know the territory, and so on. They gossip about one of their own, the elusive Harold Hill whose specialty is boondoggling small towns with promises of a marching band.

Hill arrives in River City and knows just what to do—he warns against the evils of sin in pool halls, he sings about marching bands—those trombones again—and he lays siege to the often disappointed, but still dreamy, heart of Marian. The townspeople—a generally unfriendly, gossipy and intolerant lot—are quickly undone by Hill’s abundant charms and soon enough he has the kids dancing, the matrons smiling and the town’s long-time enemies pulling together as a barbershop quartet.

“He sure seems to be having a good time,” one audience member said of Moses as Hill, and that’s a judgement that’s self-evident. Once he collides with Marian in a kind of tug-and-pull of romance and energy, the show practically takes wing. Baldwin, as Marian, has the task of singing songs that usually provide a lull in most musicals—the love-proclaiming ballad, the high, high soprano sweet songs that can kill energy like a fly swatter. She, however, knocks them right of the park, and the show never skips a beat. They get help from the high-flying wrong-side of the track kid Tommy played with energetic charm by Will Burton, and the Nehal Joshi’s goofy sidekick Marcellus, and area veteran actors like Donna Migliacco, John Lescault and Lawrence Redmond.

The costumes may indeed be suggestive of no particular period, although the outrageous costumes worn by the local ladies’ culture club are eye-boggling. If that’s confusing, you’re not paying attention. Wilson — born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902 — meant to resurrect his hometown with all of its shortcomings and glories, which are located in Marian’s heart, in the tuning fork hum of barbershop quartet, in the leaps of the dancers, in the whispers of gossip, in the small, but greedy ambitions of the mayor, in a time when kisses, instead of investor money, could still be stolen on the back porch.

“The Music Man” isn’t “Oklahoma,” but it is something just as good. In this show, there really is love all around, and you can hear it singing

(“The Music Man” runs in Arena’s Fichandler Stage through July 22)

‘Nabucco,’ Thou Shalt Be Known by Thy Lavish Costumes

(To read the review of “Nabucco”, pick up the May 2nd issue of The Georgetowner)

Look at it any way you want–and there’s lots to look at–“Nabucco” is a big deal. It is also the nickname for Nebuchadnezzar II, he of the hanging gardens and destruction of Solomon’s Temple.

The source: the Bible and the clash between the ancient Israelites and the ancient Babylonians.

The story: rivals for a crown, queens and kings, illegitimate royals, love, sex and violence.

The music: One of Guiseppe Verdi’s greatest and first hits, this opera includes a famous chorus which became Italy’s unofficial national anthem.

The numbers: 250 costumes, eight principals, a chorus of 68, a cast of 115.

For the Washington National Opera, it’s a first-time production of the epic opera, directed by the electrifying young American Thaddeus Strassberger and conducted by Philippe Auguin, running April 28 through May 21 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

For costume designer Mattie Ullrich, making her WNO debut, “Nabucco” is “a dream assignment.” “I love my job,” she says.
“One of the great things about this is that I’ve worked with Theodore before. So, we know a little bit about each other. So, we can communicate, ” said Ullrich. A vivacious, energetic and articulate redhead (“It’s starting to get a little dark,” she quipped), she likes a challenge.

“And Nabucco is a challenge,” she said. “I mean we have over 200 costumes. So, it’s quite an undertaking.”

“It’s an epic, that’s true, but you have to treat the costumes in individual terms,” she said. “They have to say something about who the characters are, what they do, their role and their personalities.” She moves easily from epic to intimate, from grand opera to off-Broadway plays and onto film.

“The first thing you do is listen to the music,” Ullrich said. “This is grand, big, operatic music. I immerse myself. I try to feel and memorize the music so that when you sit down, you have the story, the music memorized and you start to think about the characters, the people. That’s how the designs emerge. You think about what fabrics would work, how they look on people and the drawings and watercolors emerge. Then, you work closely with the talented people in the costume shop. You listen to them and their ideas.”

“When I was a young child, I saw a costume shop in a summer theatre at camp and I thought, ‘This is my playground.’ ”

Downstairs below, you walk through the various rooms, where — just a few days from the opening of the opera — it’s a little like whirling through a hallway full of hidden rooms and mirrors. Actors are getting fitted for flowing robes, a crown–designed by Ullrich–lies waiting, dark, green silk is draped over a mannequin, and the warrior-daughter’s breast plate sits waiting.

“The paintings emerge first,” she said. “Then, there’s the hunt for fabrics. I’m hands-on but not in the sense that I do the actual cutting, that’s where the dyers, the cutters, the drapers come in, the wonderfully talented people in the costume shop.” (Marsha Leboeuf is the WNO costume director.)

Down here, it’s a kind of magic–the way silk flows and folds, the dazzling (costume) jewelry, the crown, almost for real. Words hardly ever heard or spoken in most persons’ conversations: the lustrous sound of “silk chiffon,” for instance. It takes you back–thousands of years, in point of fact.

“It’s not Cecil B. De Mille, exactly,” she says. “It’s more soulful than that. But it is big.”
Her husband, John Sharp, runs a gastro pub, rich in high-end beer, called Birdsall House, named after a famous Scottish tavern. The couple live in New York.

“I like big operas like ‘Les Huguenots,’ but I just worked on a film, ‘Year of the Fish,’ that went to Sundance Film Festival,” she says.

Looking at some of the sketches and watercolors of the costumes, you can see her soulful, colorful work–costumes that shine with the music, hearts and soulful story of “Nabucco.”
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The Sorrows and the Triumphs of ‘Werther’

June 8, 2012

If you should happen to have the opportunity to see the Washington National Opera production of Jules Massenet’s “Werther”–and you should, you should–check out your audience compatriots.

On opening night, the mish mash of reactions was almost worth the show itself: a young woman was complaining that all he ever says is “I love you, I love you, I mean give it a rest,” while another woman sitting a few seats down from us wiped tears from her eyes. Later, you could hear cheers and whistles after one of Italian tenor Francesco Meli’s soaring musical expression’s of, yes, “I love you.” At the end, there were more tears, but also bubbles of giggles here and there when Meli’s Werther recouped several times before finally succumbing to death, wearing a white shirt bloodier than that of a mob victim’s shotgun blast.

With “Werther,” some audience members in 2012 might find themselves at sea. The opera is an interior epic about the impossibility of fulfilling perfect love, especially after you’ve found it. But this production–and the opera, itself–is worth opening your mind and heart to precisely because of all of its improbabilities, its strangeness, and yes, even occasional silliness. For myself, I’d like to say “Ich Bin Ein Werther” fan, even if it is sung in French.

“It’s so over the top,” someone complained to me. For some reason, this reminded me of Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in a Robin Hood movie, starring (improbably) Kevin Costner ordering a henchman to tear out someone’s liver with a wooden spoon. “That’s going to hurt,” the henchman said. “It’s supposed to hurt,” the sheriff yells. To which I might add, this is a real opera about a guy suffering from terminal heartbreak: it’s supposed to be over the top.

The source of “Werther” is a ground-breaking, influential novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the 18th-century uber-philosopher of endless, high-minded love. Goethe is one of those Germanic writers whose genius is so great that it’s beyond reproach. The novel depicts a young, gifted poet who falls completely, totally and painfully in love with a woman named Charlotte, already spoken for and taken. He persists and persists in proclaiming his love–idyllic, complete and perfect–and eventually kills himself. Historically, this novel by a 25-year-old Goethe not only inflamed romanticism among its impressionable readers, but reportedly sparked a number of art-imitating-death suicides among some readers.

The opera follows Goethe’s story as Werther visits an idyllic small town full of happy families and children. Here, after soaringly waxing about the beauty of this natural setting, he meets the much-beloved Charlotte. It is the perfect match of souls except that she’s engaged to be married to the somewhat stuffy and momentarily businessman Albert. The would-be-but-cannot-be lovers straddle the thin line between anguish and agony all of the time. You can almost agree with what a 19th-century critic of the opera said: in the first act, the hero despairs, continues to despair in the second act and third acts and becomes desperate in the final act.

So, why should we care about Werther and his extreme and total embrace of doomed romanticism? Here’s a few very good reasons, to my mind: the expression–musically–of the passion, buoyed by powerful storms of brass, by swells of heavy strings, and the singing and performing of a fine cast. While Meri has to carry the opera, Massenet’s music is so gorgeous that it rides right over the things that might otherwise drive you crazy about it. And mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi, with her supporting singing as well as her acting, makes us believe in Charlotte’s qualities, a life-affirming charm that enchants the children’s she’s helped raise for her father, which makes her utterly appealing not only to Werther but to everyone. “How can one not love Charlotte?” Werther sings helplessly.

Charlotte is an ideal, and that’s what Werther is most in love with–idylls and ideals. Werther leaves town and re-appears once, after Charlotte has married the increasingly frustrated Albert, who at one point helpfully lets a servant carry a set of pistols to Werther.

“Werther” is set in a sunny, energetic place where bon vivants drink happily outside the town church, observing the goings on of weddings, anniversaries, children and so forth. It’s a setting Werther finds idyllic, but also, with his stormy expressions of love, is outside of.

The production, directed by Chris Alexander and conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, is updated to the 1920s, which gives it a quality closer to us. The music is a weather vane, and it functions beautifully on its own. In a showcase scene, Charlotte, increasingly worried about Werther, tries to leave a formal dinner at her home, but guests keep arriving with fanfare in a tense, heightened scene with no singing and no words.

Poor Werther. Fascinating Werther. Great “Werther.” [gallery ids="100794,124376" nav="thumbs"]

D.C. Jazz Fest Keeps Cookin’: Check Your Schedule

As fine as any summer day are the remaining offerings of the D.C. Jazz Festival which runs all over the city at various venues.

Of particular interest is today’s “Jazz Meets the Classics” event at the Kennedy Center which will also be a special concert with the presence of bassist Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron who will be honored with the festivals lifetime achievement award. They’ll be part of a concert by the Classical Jazz Quartet (with Stefon Harris and Lewis Nash) performing jazz interpretations of Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. Also on hand are 10-Grammy Award winner Paquito The super-talented new star Anat Cohen from Israel will be at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, performing on clarinet and saxophone with her group on Thursday, June 7, 8 p.m., as part of the expansive Jazz in the Hoods series going on all over town.

In addition, you might want to check out “Jazz at the Hamilton,” running through June 10 with top-drawer performances every night that include the Roy Hargrove Quintet on June 6 and the Jimmy Heath Quintet and Antonio Hart Organ Trio tomorrow, June 5.

The Bohemian Cavern, part of the “Jazz in the ‘Hoods” program, will feature the Marcus Strickland Quintet June 8 and 9..

The Kennedy Center’s free Millennium Stage will include the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra June 5.

For a complete schedule of the remain events and concerts, including all “Jazz in the ‘Hoods” events, jazz at the Howard Theatre, the Capital/Bop DC Jazz Loft series, which includes a daylong mini-festival June 9, you should go to the D.C. Jazz Festival web site — — and also check out Twitter, Face book, Flickr and Four Square.

The Exuberance of the Helen Hayes Awards

May 17, 2012

A circus troupe sat in front of me at the 28th annual Helen Hayes Awards at the Warner Theatre April 23, or at least it felt like that.

At this annual bash and awards show for the Washington theater community, actors, designers, directors and entire companies become winners but somehow never losers. Unlike the Tonys, the Oscars or the Emmys, there’s nary a snide comment–certainly not on stage, but who knows what goes on in the bathrooms–or cause consciousness-raising, or political statements. Nevertheless, on Monday evening, there were politicians also on stage, reveling–can you believe it?–in the spotlight.

And there was the cast and company of Signature Theatre’s “Hairspray” (which starred D.C. cultural critic Robert Aubrey Davis as Edna), up for a number of awards, including outstanding resident musical ensemble. One member of said ensemble (she had suffered an injury during a performance of the show) was Kara Tameika Watkins, just dazzling in a red-gown-crutches ensemble which she brought off with remarkable aplomb, with a little help from her mom.

I was sitting right behind them in row Y in the back, and I asked Watkins’s mother, Sheila, if they had thought about what would happen if they would win. Mom shook her head and said, “She’ll be just fine.”

You know how this story ends.

Up on stage, a voice rings out: “And the outstanding ensemble, resident musical is….”

“Hairspray, Signature Theatre.”

They squealed, they yelled, they screamed, they jumped out of their seats, and, what, maybe 50, I don’t know exactly how many, struggled into the aisles as if they had just opened the doors at Walmart for the first hours of Christmas shopping. Right there in the middle, wielding and walking and, I thought, running with her crutches was the vision in red, Kara Tameika Watkins.

They were up there, hugging each other, jumping up and down. Davis, at the mike but not in costume, showered them with eloquence, erudition and theater love, as he thanked them for accepting him in their midst.

It was a Helen Hayes moment–and a “theatreWashington” moment–one of many that seem to become an instant part of the lore and legend of each and every one of the 28 awards nights, all but two of which I’ve attended. I am a lot older than the young Ms. Watkins, but for a shining moment I felt, if not just as young, a little less old.

“Hairspray” was a big winner that night–the show’s super-charged star Carolyn Cole got best actress kudos in a resident musical, and the show itself was named Best Resident Musical

But that noise in the back–including the very loud sound of “The Sound of Music” supporters, is always something that seems unique to these awards, and mark it as a celebration not a competition. Sure, you can grouse about the results, the judges, the critics, the ties, the process and make perfect sense while you propose restructuring plans.

But the night isn’t about making sense. It’s about theater, which hardly ever makes perfect sense–oh, that nicely made play–but beats with the fever of heart, soul and imagination, and in this case, about a community.

“I don’t know, it hardly seems so local any more,” I heard somebody say in the street. “It’s getting a little big.”

Well, here’s a scoop: Washington’s theater world has indeed gotten bigger with 805 productions, 84 theaters, 9,903 performances and 2,261,509 audience members, according to the stats in the program. These numbers do not include dozens, maybe hundreds of critics, writers and freeloaders who have the audacity to take their tickets and still feel free to complain about what they’ve seen.

But I don’t think it has gotten too big for its britches, not even, and especially during the course of the Helen Hayes Awards. There are always ghosts in the house, puns in the air, and all these people to thank. If the first words spoken by a recipient was, “Wow” (I think it was Mark Acito, author of “Birds of a Feather” at the rising Hub Theatre in Virginia), it was not the last time the word was heard. It was topped only by the all-purpose “amazing,” a word–like “dude”–which should be retired or at least allowed to be used only once by each winner.

At these awards there are always luminaries who are honored and present for their star power–in the past we have had everyone from Angela Lansbury to Derek Jacoby. This year, we had Kevin Spacey.

Spacey was the recipient of the Helen Hayes Tribute–sponsored by Washington uber-theater benefactor and philantropist Jaylee Mead–and the man knows how to put on a show.

Spacey has roots here, as he acknowledged, but more than that he is one of those stage actors who became a big movie star (two Oscars), but never abandoned the stage, supporting young actors and now being the American head of the classic Old Vic in London.

He’s also an FOB–Friend of Bill–former President Bill Clinton who showed up in the form of a video tribute to Spacey. Spacey could have done it himself–he gave a wicked, thickly corn-pone accented impression of Clinton.

We remember Spacey here at the early stages of his stage career: awkwardly as the son to Liv Ullman’s mother in Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the Kennedy Center (“My first Broadway play,” he said.); splendidly as the son to Colleen Dewhurst’s actress mother in Peter Sellars’s pitch-perfect “A Seagull” at the Kennedy Center; superbly as the son to Jack Lemmon’s father in Jason Miller’s strange version of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the National Theatre; and winningly as the mobster uncle in Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers.”

Spacey–he won Oscars for “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty”–was mindful of giving back. “I learned that from Lemmon, my mentor, my friend,” he said.

He was eloquent, funny, inspiring and profane–he managed to drop the F-word not once but twice, tying Robin Williams’s old record from the Mark Twain Awards, or maybe not.

The F word is easy. Pronouncing the names of many of the Synetic Theater performers and artists of the theatre company which specializes in a form of silent and action theatre created by the company’s directors Irina and Paata Tsikurishvili is not so easy, nor is spelling them. Nevertheless, the company’s production of “King Lear” (silent Shakespeare) won several awards, including outstanding ensemble.

There were outsiders here: elected officials and media types like Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who read the city-council official proclamation for theatreWashington’s theater week, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

But mostly, there were these our players, our magic makers, such as Mitchell Hebert, who won best actor for Theater J’s quasi-Arthur Miller substitute in “All Fall Down,” Ted van Griethuysen, for “Dogberry,” praising his comrade-in-arms Floyd King. “Ruined,” the great play at Arena grabbed only one award, but it was the one that really counts — “outstanding resident play.” Adventure Theater under Michael Bobbitt continued its amazing rise with several awards. Holly Twyford was singing and hoofing her heart out. There were the ghosts of Helen Hayes and James MacArthur.

And, of course, the girl in red, her mom, all the kids screaming and yelling their hearts out. [gallery ids="100754,122616,122599,122612,122607" nav="thumbs"]

“It’s a Grand Night for Singing” with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the Washington Savoyards (photos)

The Washington Savoyards, the professional light opera company, begin their 40th Season performing the music of the celebrated team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to positive reviews at the Atlas Theater in Washington DC. Performances continue thru May 6. For information about performance times and ticket prices, visit the Savoyards website at

The careers of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II parallel the coming of age of the American Musical Theater. From their first collaboration, Oklahoma! in 1943, to Carousel, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song, Cinderella and the Sound of Music, the pair continued to break new ground with innovative plots and exotic settings. Prior to Oklahoma, most hit shows were essentially vehicles to showcase the talents of its stars. They had little serious to say and there was no need to integrate the songs, dances, comedy routines and the spectacular chorus girl numbers. In “Oklahoma!” the musical found a new form. This “integrated musical” marked a revolution in American theater. “Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging.

The heart of every R&H show are of course the songs, many of which became American standards, including the title song of this production which was written for the movie musical “State Fair”. This Savoyards musical review includes many of R&H’s well know tunes, mixed in with some relatively obscure gems from lesser know works such as Me and Juliet, Allegro and Pipe Dream. The cast of three women and two men includes Scott Russell, Emily Levey, Nick Lehan, Dorea Schmidt and Maria Egler.

View our photos of the show by clicking on the photo icons below.

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Preppy Pink Party Benefits Komen Race for the Cure

Running and walking enthusiasts, supporters of breast health and breast cancer research and generally fun individuals gathered at Hudson Restaurant on M Street May 2 to support the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and register for the June 2 event if they had not yet. At and around the National Mall, the 5K race will raise funds for breast health and breast cancer education, screening and treatment programs and involve more than 40,000 participants from across the country, including more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors.

The Preppy Pink Party, sponsored by Miss A aka Andrea Rodgers, offered prizes from Neiman Marcus, Washington Nationals, SimplySoles, Coup de Foudre, Sylene and Sushiko along free food and refreshments and a performance by the Joke’s Wild.](

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