A Trio of One-of-a-kinds

July 26, 2011

In Washington, you can find lots of choirs and lots of orchestras, big and small. You can find choral societies, string quartets, dance and dance companies. But we also have institutions, organizations and individuals that are beyond category. Here’s three that are Washington treasures:

The Embassy Series

Sixteen years ago, Jerome Barry, a noted baritone, concert singer, teacher, scholar and man of many languages, had the idea to organize a series of concerts at various embassies throughout the city. It was a pretty good idea, small to begin with, but it grew like mad.

“We had six concerts, two or three embassies, and it’s fair to say it was pretty Euro-centric,” Barry said as he prepares to begin the 17th season of what was then called and still is “The Embassy Series in October.” “I thought it was a way for the embassies and people who loved music to meet one another. In the back of my head was always the idea that if it worked, this could turn out to be a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, for bridge building. This is a unique city, after all, we have a whole international community here, close to 200 embassies.”

Initially, European embassies, specifically Austria, Germany, and Poland, were the primary participants — these were the countries of Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and Chopin, after all. The events would feature a concert, usually veteran or up-and-coming musicians from Europe, but also locals (and sometimes featuring Barry himself) to be followed by a reception with food, which provided opportunities for embassy officials and audience members to mingle and meet. It worked.

“We’ve had 58 embassies participate at one time or another so far,” Barry said. “And it has been a great opportunity for homegrown diplomacy, especially in these tense times were cultural gaps are so wide in the world.”

Barry’s Series have not only broadened, increased and widened the audience, they’ve broadened the horizons of the participants. While European embassies remain strong presences and supporters, the scope of the series has reached out Latin America, Africa, Israel, Asia and, perhaps most importantly, the Middle East. “Music is the great door opener,” Barry has said in the past. Last year’s season included a major concert at the very large and new Chinese Embassy, which proved to be a major cultural and social event. There were also concerts at the Embassy of Bahrain and the residence of the Ambassador of Syria, an inveterate blogger and culture consumer, which featured Kinan Azmeh, performing both traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern music with strong and appealing pop strains.

This year’s series begins with two concerts that all but characterize what the Embassy Series and Barry are all about.

The series opens Oct. 1 at the Iraqi Cultural Center with an evening of Iraqi music performed by ensemble of three Iraqi musicians called Safaafir, performing the country’s urban classical music, called Iraqi Maqam, as well as more traditional music.

This will be followed Oct. 17 by a concert at the Embassy of Austria, in which Till Fellner, who performed there last year, completes his major tour of the United States, during which he performed all of Beethoven’s sonatas. The internationally acclaimed pianist was born in Vienna, Austria and has played all over the world.

Taken together, the two concerts represent what the Embassy Series have been all about, a marriage of classical European music with an expansion to the music of the great world out there and here as performed in embassies and ambassadorial residences. It’s probably fair to say that Barry’s lone invention has influenced other recent efforts at cultural diplomacy such as Passport DC and the upcoming EuroKid festival.

The In Series

The In Series — a hard-to-describe series of performing arts events that combine just about everything performance has to offer — is celebrating its 10th anniversary at its 14th Street home at the newly renovated Source Theatre.

It will kick off its season with a double bill of American mini-operas, Leonard Bernstein’s strikingly contemporary and haunting “Trouble in Tahiti” and William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s “Casino Paradise,” beginning Sept. 18 and running through Oct. 2.

It will be a season of so-called “pocket” operas for the In Series, with a pairing of Zarzuela, a Spanish musical in the form of the Cuban “Maria La O,” and the iconic “Pagliacci” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

Carla Hubner, the series’ producing artistic director, is also its founder and heart and soul. Nick Olcott, a veteran Washington theater director, is the series director and Francis Conlon is the music director. Look for a 10th Anniversary Big Birthday Bash Oct. 23 and 24 at the Gala/Tivoli theater, and a music performance by Soprano Fleta Hylton, pianist Tom Reilly and actor Jenifer Deal exploring the music and life of Robert Schuman on the bicentennial of his birth, Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.

The Folger Consort

The Folger Consort, a unique group of chamber musicians performing classical music from distant centuries are a unique group, offering yearly consorts focusing that evoke not only gorgeous music but history and historical culture itself.

This year’s season opens with “Pastime with Good Company,” music from the court of Henry VIII, featuring the vocal ensemble “Lionheart,” Oct. 1-3. It’s presented in conjunction with an exhibition on Henry VIII, which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the larger-than-life king’s accession to the English throne. Not coincidentally, there’s also an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theater.

At Christmas Time, the Folger Consort will present “A Renaissance Christmas” at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall with the Augsburg Cathedral Boys Choir of Germany, Dec. 10-12.

“The Merchant of Venice”–Ethan McSweeny

June 29, 2011

Even at 40, Ethan McSweeny looks too young to have done everything he’s done, to be, well, Ethan McSweeny.
He’s casually dressed, has a thin beard which still can’t prevent him from looking boyish, looks nonchalantly handsome, and is finishing up some salad after winding down a rehearsal for his production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Washington Shakespeare Company in the Harman Center, which will open officially three days later.
He’s just said good bye to his parents, Dorothy McSweeny – the emeritus chair of the Washington D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities – and Bill McSweeny – a retired oil man, Kennedy Center trustee and journalist – along with his 7-year-old nephew, who sat in on the rehearsal. Both are prominent figures in the Washington cultural scene.
McSweeny is no longer quite a boy wonder, or wunderkind, as he was referred to back in his 20’s when he not only took a new play called “Never the Sinner” at Signature Theater to a successful Off Broadway run, but directed an all-star cast of theater pros in “The Best Man” on Broadway, making him the first director under 30 to direct a play on Broadway.
“I’m sure that rankled some people,” McSweeny admits. He doesn’t lack for confidence, and his background, which he has described as privileged, did not hurt, but there’s also no question that he’s earned his considerable accomplishments by way of a major talent, a restless imagination, a tireless gift and love for the work.
This year, he’s been especially busy with back-to-back directions of “A Time to Kill,” a world premiere stage play which just ended its run at Arena Stage, and “The Merchant of Venice.”
“You didn’t have to travel much,” he quips. “There was actually an overlap where we were doing final rehearsals for “Kill” and first preparation for “Merchant.”
He’s right at home here, of course, because although he lives in Brooklyn now, he’s a D.C. hometown boy.
“We lived across the street from the Kennedy Center,” McSweeny says. “When I was little, they [my parents] took me to see the opera ‘Boris Gudonov.’ I didn’t understand what was going on, but I was impressed, enchanted, and I think in a way that was it for me.”
He went to school at St. Albans or as he says, “survived it,” but found his true vocation early, becoming the first alumnus of Columbia’s undergraduate theatre department. He came home in 1993 to train under the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn, becoming his unofficial right-hand-man. He was all of 22. “Michael was a mentor, and I could not think of someone who affected me more,” McSweeny says.
Everywhere he goes – the celebrated Guthrie Theater, Broadway, the Chautauqua Theatre in New York State where he served as co-director (with Vivienne Benesch) – his style, his interests and his ideas are eclectic. You never quite know what you’re likely to get. He can go from “Romeo and Juliet” to Shaw to new, boundary-breaking plays.
While he’s built a huge reputation and accumulated over 60 directing credits, he’s obviously happy to be here where it all began and continues unabated. He did a clean, abundantly joyous and passionate production of “Ion” at the Shakespeare Theatre, a raw version of “The Persians” which echoed like a bell in the midst of the Iraq war, and production of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” that was a hallmark of clarity and singular acting achievements.
And now, “The Merchant of Venice,” a play that draws directors (and actors) like trembling moths to a flame. Many get burned and few do it perfectly. Because there’s no standard, the play is not only confounding, but changes for each audience and generation.
“It’s about money,” I suggest. “Of course it’s about money,” he says. “It’s ALL about money. It’s about what’s valuable to people, everything has a value tag here.”
So naturally, McSweeny set the play in 20th century America – specifically the Lower East Side of New York during the 1920s – teeming with immigrants who are trying to get a slice of the American dream. “To me the period and the setting resonate, the crash lies right ahead in time, but nobody sees it coming,” McSweeny says.
“It’s funny, it’s the first Shakespeare play I’ve done here, after all this time,” he says. And the most difficult.
McSweeney’s wide intellectual range is reflected in his family—his sister Terrell McSweeny is Vice President Joe Biden’s domestic policy adviser, for instance—where politics, culture, business and even sports are never mutually exclusive or trivial matters.
There might even be a critic lurking in the family – his 7-year-old nephew was asked how he liked what he saw in the theater. He gave it some thought.
“It’s not ‘Frog and Toad,’” he finally said.
It’s not. But think what Ethan McSweeny might do with “Frog and Toad.”


June 23, 2011

Here’s something perfect: Shakespeare, music, The Castleton Festival Orchestra, and renowned Castleton director and conductor Lorin Maazel, all together at the Music Center at Strathmore June 30 to perform “Music Inspired by Shakespeare”.

The concert is a fundraiser for the Castleton Festival, which annually brings together young talented virtuosos and musicians of a superior grade for a season of 20 operas and concert performances around the Washington region, which, of course, includes Maazel’s Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County from June 25-July 24.

The evening at Strathmore promises to be special: Maazel himself will conduct the Castleton Festival Orchestra and the women’s voices of the Castleton Festival Chorus in a program of music inspired by Shakespeare , specifically plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Mirren and Irons are both veteran Shakespearean and stage actors as well as major league movie stars (Mirren won Oscars and Emmy’s for playing both Elizabeth 2 and Elizabeth 1). They will recite verses from “Misummer.”

If classical theater or music isn’t your bag, you might try some of the local stages, and performance arts centers. Something’s bound to please you.

For instance, if you just have to do the time warp again, in terms of oldies but goodies, then the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is for you.

Look here in the next few days: Monday, Hall and Oates, those 70s and 80s mysterious icons and superstars; Peter Frampton comes around June 23, probably with less hair than when he charmed a generation of slackers circa 80s and 70s. Going even further back, there’s a personal favorite, the hard-rocking “Credence Clearwater Revisited”, a treasure chest of 60s rock songs on June 24. Further back yet is “The Ultimate Doo-Wop Show”, June 25. It’s sort of like a class reunion with the music of the Drifters, the Platters, the Shantels and so on. Happy time travel.

The green witch is back at the Kennedy Center for a long broom ride with “Wicked”, which tells the story of the life and times of Glinda and Elfalfa in Emerald City and Oz in big, big Broadway musical style. A tough ticket, but a great, spectacular show with music by Stephen Schwartz
(“Pippin” “Godspell”) Now playing through August 21.

Ethan McSweeny is one of the Washington theater scene’s finest directors and he’s getting a chance to show it, not once but twice and one thing’s true: he’s not afraid of taking chances.

First off, he helmed “A Time To Kill”, an Arena Stage project which is an adaptation of John Grisham’s heated novel about race, the law and sundry other items with a bit cast, which is now winding up its run June 19. Last chance there. First chance to see McSweeny’s take on “The Merchant of Venice” begins June 21 for a nice long run through July 24 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.

“Merchant” is an enticing project for actors—Portia, the merchant, Antonio and various suitors—and it’s often been controversial because of its romantic comedy touches mixed in with a revenge plot that tethers dangerously between bigotry and remarkable tolerance. Could be there’s a cross-pollination between the two plays with concerns about tolerance, ethnicity and so on? Who would have thunk it: Grisham next to the Bard.

A couple of unusual projects going on right now: there’s the Forum Theatre’s “bobrauschenbergamerica” by Charles L. Mee running through June 25 at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring location 8461 Colesville Road in Silver spring and there’s Scena Theatre’s producing of “Purge”, a new play by young Finnish playwright of Estonian roots, at the H Street Playhouse at 1365 H Street N. Robert McNamara directors, and the cast includes the gifted husband-wife team of Kerry Water sand Eric ZLucas and Colleen Delany through July 3.

We’re not done yet with Georgetown University Glass Menagerie project: it’s full-stage production of “The Glass Menagerie”, with Sarah Marshall as Amanda Wingfield, is back, at Arena Stage’s Mead Center through July 3.

DC Jazz Festival Kicks into Gear

June 16, 2011

Charles Fishman, the executive producer of the DC Jazz Festival, likes to compare jazz to basketball, a sport he loves.

“Watch a game sometimes,” he said. “You’ve got the basic positions: center, forward, guards, and they all have their tasks but operate as a team. Just so, a jazz trio or quartet works the same way. Everybody works off a basic theme, plays together, and then you improvise—like a great shooter, or dribbler or passer—off of that. It’s a team thing where individuals shine, and that’s what your solo is, a riff on what everybody’s working on. The first solo sort of sets the plate, and the next guy works off of that and incorporates and creates.”

Fishman is a huge Celtics fan, and he could probably talk about Red Auerbach and Bill Russell and the Celtic glory teams for hours on end.

If jazz is like basketball, then talking with Fishman about the festival, which kicked off this week and runs through June 13, is a little like jazz itself. The talk inevitably leads to the whys and wherefores of jazz, true stories and tall tales about the music and musicians. In the course of things, you know why you’re here, where you’re going and what you’re going to talk about—like knowing the lyrics to “My Funny Valentines,” then playing off the melody.

That conversation encompasses a lot for Fishman. He can talk jazz history from his longtime stint as Dizzy Gillespie’s manager. He can talk current news and he can talk jazz futures, and the DC Jazz Festival is one of the exemplary and characteristic events of the state of jazz and where it is going.

“The world of jazz today is different,” he says. “In a weird way, it’s sort of happening off the radar, but it’s one hundred percent bigger in terms of audiences and artist, not to mention the range of music and venues, than what it used to be. What you’re seeing now is the international explosion of jazz. It’s a brave, interesting new world, let me tell you. Jazz is being listened to and played in Latin America, in Japan, in the Middle East and Africa. Jazz is different, the music is more expansive.

“But then, it’s always been like that, jazz is fluid. It moves, it soars and it changes, and you can see that in the festival.”

This is a festival that, since it started out as the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival seven years ago, has grown like topsy to the point where an almost inevitable name change occurred last year. “We wanted a national, an international presence,” Fishman said. “It’s about the city, and we wanted the city to be presented as a center of jazz.”

DC is for Jazz Lovers

“One of the things we’ve always wanted to do is showcase Washington as a jazz city,” Fishman said. “It’s got such a rich tradition in the U Street area—back in the days of Ellington, the big bands, the big singers and performers who came here to the clubs and venues. We still have that today.

This year, with a slew of sponsors, one of the key components is Microsoft Bing—a search engine if you haven’t heard—which is joining the festival in bringing new musical education programs to the city and which will co-present the Jazz on the National Mall free concert on June 12, featuring Toby Foyeh and Orchestra Africa, Frederic Yonnet, a local favorite, the great Cuban singer Claudia Acuna, Roy Hargrove and the RH Factor, and the Eddie Palmieri All-Star Salsa Band.

Bing, which supports the festival’s year-round Roberta Flack Music Excellence Program, will also sponsor three master classes and a financial literacy workshop for professional musicians at the Bohemian Caverns, the “official” club for the festival.

As for presenting DC as a jazz town, there is the festival’s Jazz in the ‘Hoods program, being presented all over the city with 80 performances at 41 museums, clubs, restaurants, hotels and galleries, and featuring some 70 DC-based jazz groups. “It’s a chance to show off the city and what it is,” says Fishman. “This diverse city of long-standing cultural and jazz history… We have a lively jazz scene here, with lots of gifted, talented young players, which says a lot about what jazz is—a continuing, ongoing kind of music with a rich mentoring and educational component.”

You’ll get to sample jazz as it’s played in the neighborhoods, including Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, Downtown DC, Dupont Circle, Chinatown, the H Street Corridor, Georgetown, the U Street Corridor, Woodley Park and others.

For good jazz in this city, says Fishman, there are a number of standout venues: the Bayou—a new club on U Street—the Black Fox Lounge, Cashion’s, the Grill from Ipanema, Twins and Bohemian Caverns. Bohemian Caverns, a huge supporter and key venue for the festival, will feature Cyrus Chestnut June 3 and 4, Antonio Hart June 8 and 9, and the Heath Brothers June 10 and 11.

As usual, the Festival is not without its big headliners. Bobby McFerrin, a multi-talented, big-name performer with a huge pop hit (“Don’t Worry Be Happy”) to his credit will be at the Warner Theater June 11, performing with the Howard University Afro Blue Reunion Choir.

As always, the festival will pay tribute to legendary performers. This year, two life time achievement awards will be presented, to the brilliant saxophonist Jimmy Heath and the incomparable Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri. Both men have left a legacy of teaching, creativity, composition and respect. “These two men have dedicated their lives to jazz as an art form, educational tool and unifying force,” Fishman said. Palmieri is a nine-time Grammy winner noted for his unique blend of jazz and Latin rhythms, with a career spanning 50 years as a composer, pianist, leader of famed salsa and Latin bands and smaller ensembles. Palmieri will be part of the free Jazz on the National Mall concert June 12.

Jimmy Heath is the second oldest brother of the legendary Heath Brothers. He’s a major composer, artist, performer, mentor and jazz icon who has performed on over 100 recordings with his own group and with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Think jazz isn’t hip or doesn’t hop? Check out the DC Jazz Loft Series, with edgy new national jazz bands performing at such eclectic sites as Red Door, the Fridge (part art gallery, performance space, and classroom and music venue at Eastern Market) and Subterranean A near Logan Circle.

Concluding the festival will be “A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans” at the Kennedy Center, with the HBO Series’ star Wendell Pierce, the Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. Michael White, trombonist Big Sam Williams and trumpeter James Andrews.

“It’s grown, no doubt about it,” Fishman said about the festival. “But you can see what a world it encompasses. There’s so many different kinds of music we now call jazz, and it originated with the legendary pioneers like Gillespie, the Duke and the Count, Bird, Miles, Monk.”

When you listen to Fishman, sitting in his office—which is more like an improvisational shrine to Jazz and Dizzy and clutter—you feel a lot of love for the music. He’s like John the Baptist for the great American musical invention.

We talk about the neighborhood, we told stories about concerts we’d attended over the years, about the great tribute concert to Elllis Marsalis two years ago at the Kennedy Center: “That was maybe one of the best all-time concerts, period,” said Fishman.

And there’s Moses, Fishman’s six-year-old son, a preternaturally charismatic boy who may one day run the festival. “He’s taking piano lessons now,” Fishman said proudly. “He gave up the drums.” For a parent, even one as musically inclined as Fishman, a kid giving up drums can’t be all that bad.

For a complete list of performances, venues, times and dates, jazz buffs should go to the festival website at DCJazzFest.org or pick up a festival program guide which can be found all over Washington.
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Venus in Furs

June 15, 2011

Who knew that Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch could be so entertaining? Especially with a name like that.
Who knew that S & M, named after the very same Sacher-Masoch without the von, could be so much fun?
Readers are not required to answer the last question for the usual reasons, but really, folks, go check out Venus in Furs at the Studio Theatre, where playwright David Ives’ take on the 19th-century novella by Sacher-Masoch of the same title is being staged (by Studio Artistic Director David Muse), with bravura intensity, wit, and high energy.

And yes, it is about sado masochism, but it’s also about power and men and women and actors and directors, so just about everyone can have some fun with this, not excluding politicians, but perhaps prudes should attend only if they leave their noses at the door.

Here’s the take: a director named Thomas is holding auditions for a play based on the very same novel in a shabby New York studio, looking for the role of an aristocratic woman named Vanda who engages in a kinky power struggle with a man named Severin Kushemski, who, affected strongly as a boy by tannings at the hands of an imperious aunt who wore furs looks for a special love at the hands of a strong woman.
Knock knock, who’s there, but a seemingly crass pop tart named, wow, Vanda, complete in thigh high, plastic shiny boots, a snarky, loud attitude and a bag full of surprising goodies. Imagine Mary Poppins carrying a big full of whips, corsets and none-such. She wants to read for the part, he wants to go home to dinner with his fiancée. Vanda sounds as if she’s never read anything longer than a parking ticket let alone a 19th-century novel, but she’s also pushy, whiny and bossy in a sort of sexy way.

Thomas gives in and lets her read and lo and behold, something happens: the near-Brooklyn, streisanesque mouthings disappear, and out come rounded vowels, tight enunciations and poetic line readings.
What is going on here? As they continue on, with Thomas taking the male lead, they seem to not only come closer together, but also to inhabit the parts to a degree that’s completely changing our perception of them. There are subtle, and then shocking power shifts going on, with the help of more and more kinky costumes and lighting.

The novel is a story about a man who seduces a woman into doing things she insists are against her nature—i.e., finding ever new ways to torture, humiliate and punish the man she’s obviously attracted to. The course of true love was never this twisted, but it’s also funny, kind of thrilling in its own way, perhaps erotic to some or one and all, you pick.

And quite frankly, most of that is due to the Vanda of this play, a young actress named Erica Sullivan, whose transformative gifts are award-worthy, and awe-inducing. She goes from slutty, bad-mouthing, down-to-earth and off a walk-up apartment struggling actress to svelte, graceful, classy, educated, vaporous Vanda on a dime, back and forth until she makes you dizzy.

The relationship between director and actors is of course all about power as well as collaboration, it’s always about seeing eye-to-eye or succumbing. But it’s the brash, crude Vanda who pushes Thomas into submitting to the novel’s Vanda, and apparently his own predilections.
It’s an often physical struggle—there’s lots of grabbing, pushing, positioning, approximating a rough courtship, with no safe word.

Watching this, with a very involved audience who laughed, apparently in the right places, and were startled in the right places, I kept thinking of an old joke: Masochist to Sadist: Beat me, beat me. Sadist to Masochist: No.

And so it goes: in this play, so tightly paced, without intermission, heading towards a conclusion that maybe isn’t quite the shock or surprise it should be, it’s a real fight for love and glory, a sweaty, rough-and-tumble sexy brawl.

You have to ask, where did Vanda—who said she’d glanced at the script on the subway—get this perfect memorization, this well-spring of motivation, this spell-binding perfection? It looks like a gift from the gods.
Maybe it is. But there’s no uncertainty about Ms. Sullivan. She too, is a gift from the gods.
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Review: Follies” at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

June 2, 2011

Follies”, Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking musical, is one of those great white whales that lurk in the American musical lists waiting for an Ahab to go after it.

Part legend, part work of genius of a particular and singular kind, “Follies” is an almost irresistible challenge for directors, producers and Broadway stars of an equally singular kind, the latter still eager to test their voices, acting chops and imaginations. Let’s not even get into set and costume designers.

It’s been revived and done-over a few times, ever since its critically mixed and financially less-than-overpowering debut produced by Harold Prince in 1971. This production featured genuine movie and Broadway stars like Dorothy McGuire, Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, a book by the best-selling screenwriter and novelist James Goldman, and music and lyrics by the fully-blown and fully-grown, pre-“Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins” master and genius Stephen Sondheim himself.

I’ve had both the blessing and perhaps misfortune not to have seen it, one of those quirky things like never seeing “Measure for Measure”. For me, there were the legends, old reviews, rumors, and knowing one theater buff who had seen it dozens of times. “None of them perfect,” he somewhat ruefully told me.

There may be a reason for that. As you can surmise from the current, spectacular, $7 million production staged from the ground-up by the Kennedy Center under Michael Kaiser, it’s obvious that the play and production itself isn’t what you’d call perfect, not even close.

But, it is ambitious, one of a kind, original (after 40 years no less), and it takes turns knocking your eyes and socks off while clenching your heart in a tight grip. When it’s not doing that, Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics are ravishing, especially when performed by the likes of Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell in the two female lead roles. Somehow, “Follies” manages to bring up thoughts of Ziegfeld, Fellini, The Not So Young and the Restless, opera, MGM musicals if MGM musicals could bite all at once. As play (a status it aspires to by way of the script and content); “Follies” is a mess. Even so, you can’t take your eyes off it, tune it out, or ever forget it.

It’s very much a mixed bag, but there a lot of goodies in that bag, and it bristles with personality and originality.

For one thing, it has an ungainly structure: in the 1970s, veterans of a long-ago music revue resembling the Ziegfeld Follies of the 1930s, gather together in a sort of show biz high school reunion on the occasion of the destruction of the theater where they worked, sang, danced and fell in and out of love. That’s the first act set up, in which we meet the quartet of lovers, married couples and apparently ex-lovers who are the principal dramatic or more accurately melodramatic focus here. There’s Sally Durant Plummer (Peters), married to the high-energy salesman Buddy (Danny Burstein) and there’s Phyllis Rogers Stone (Maxwell), married to the successful, lazily charismatic Benjamin.

On hand are other luminaries including the vampish Carlotta, now a movie and television star of some renown, Hattie Walker, performed with aplomb by Linda Lavin, Stella Deems, and Dimitri Weismann, the maestro of the troupe (local veteran David Sabin).

Right away, we know there’s trouble in the Stone and Plummer marriages: Sally still loves Ben, and Ben doesn’t discourage her. Buddy still loves Sally in spite of himself and Phyllis, frustrated, jaded but still full of leggy, sultry glamour, has given up on her husband.

This, folks, is what we used to call soap opera. The rest, on the other hand, is just plain old razzle dazzle, provided by the designers, Sondheim, and the performers. The subject is lost dreams, but the show IS a dream, especially in the second-act’s “Loveland” segment which is like stepping into a Fellini movie where the color on stage is an overpowering red, the numbers, Sondheim at the top of his game, are overpowering, and the feel is like a particular high class carnival.

The show’s fame rests in the songs, in the performers who’ve passed through, in the sheer audaciousness of the concept. This particular production focuses strongly on the relationships, I supposed as it should, without neglecting the brassy glamour. But I suspect it neglects to focus on something fundamental which was the superheated incubator of musical theater where music and looks create a kind of permanent unreality. Sure, past and present intertwine here with the use of younger performers playing the younger selves of the principals, a nice touch that is bittersweet.

That being said, in today’s vernacular, it’s a magnetic show ably kept moving by Director Eric Schaeffer, the Signature Theater impresario who could probably do Sondheim in his sleep, but was obviously wide awake for this one.

Here are some things you don’t forget: Bernadette Peters in full voice, heart and diva singing “Losing My Mind”, one of a series of “Follies” sung by the principals. You won’t forget Maxwell at all as Phyllis, her yearnings, her bitterness—listen to the whip lash belts in “Could I Leave You?”— her fantastic tall, elegant looks. Lavin knocks “Broadway Baby”—a secondary theme here—out of the park, and Terri White does the same for “Who’s That Woman”. Janis Paige, playing the incandescent and forever fabulous Carlotta, does something wicked to the “I’m Still Here” number, often sung defiantly. She makes it a come-on by a woman used to being looked at on that screen, on that stage, when the lights go up or off.

“Follies” is a kind of high, without blacking-out, because you can’t forget what you’ve seen.

“Follies” runs through June 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

Q&A with Michael Kahn

The Shakespeare Theatre Company began planning for what’s now the ongoing Leadership Repertory of “Richard II” and “Henry V” nearly a year and a half ago. We recently talked with Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who directed “Richard II,” about the plays and the process.

“We planned to do this for some time and were in the early stages during the presidential election,” Kahn, who is tackling “Richard II” for the second time here, said. “We wanted to look at leadership, what makes a good king and leader, how does he behave in a crisis?

“Richard doesn’t know how to be a king until he’s lost his crown, Henry has to overcome the dissolute reputation of his youth to lead men into battle. And more important, it’s about the humanity of leaders, and that issue is paramount in both plays.”

Kahn directed “Richard II” with Richard Thomas a number of years ago at Lansburgh.
“What makes this different?” he said. “Well, I’m a bit older, and you learn more, I’ve learned more about myself and Richard both, I hope.”

Washington National Opera

Change — big and transforming — seems to be a part of just about any human endeavor
these days.

Major change is coming to the Washington National Opera. Placido Domingo, the world-renowned
tenor, who has been general director of the company since 1996, helping to launch it to another level of respect, stature and accomplishment, will be leaving his post as of June, 2011.

If you read the public announcements from both Domingo and the WNO board, the change was mutually arrived at, and apparently under consideration in recent times. The statements sound a lot like those surrounding the news of the breakup of a much-beloved couple who have come to a convivial agreement to go their separate ways.

Herewith: “We appreciate all that Placido Domingo has done for our great company. He will be missed, but all good things come to an end,” WNO President Kenneth R. Feinberg said. “Placido’s association with WNO was essential to the company’s artistic development and helped it to gain recognition nationally and internationally. We are looking forward to him being with us in Washington this spring to sing in ‘Iphigenie in Tauride’ and to conduct performances of ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Don Pasquale.’ While today’s news may mark the end of the formal marriage, we are looking forward
to artistic collaborations in the future.”

Domingo brought the white heat of star power to the company, by way of talent, reputation and international appeal, giving it something it probably did not have before — glamour. In addition,
he brought innovative programs to the company including free simulcasts of season-opening operas, the WNO’s Center for Education and Training, international tours, and, essential for the future, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program

Domingo at 69 remains a busy director and performer, and is still the General Director of the Los Angeles Opera. Under Domingo, who took over after Martin Feinstein, the company experienced international growth and saw the arrival of star conductors, directors and performers, including Jose Carreras, Renee Fleming and Franco Zefferelli. The company also embraced newer American works like the recently acclaimed “A View from the Bridge.” But there were also problems and some critical grousing as a result of difficulties in the current economic climate.

It will be interesting to see which direction the WNO will be headed with the departure of Domingo, a decidedly marquee big name brand. The possibility that the company might merge with the Kennedy Center, where it pays rent for its use of the Opera House, has already been bandied about.

The Music Center at Strathmore

Among many offerings, there are:

Hilary Hahn performs this Sunday at 4 p.m.
February 27

Itzhak Perlman comes to town with Rohan de Silva on piano.
May 1

Bryan Adams and his “Bare Bones Tour”
March 11

Comic writer David Sedaris
March 31

Jazz songstress Nancy Wilson
April 22

The Shakespeare Theater

Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”
March 8 – April 10
Oscar Wilde will get the full treatment by the Shakespeare Theater Company under the veteran and able direction of Keith Baxter. The threat of scandal, an obsession during Victorian times, buzzes over an upstanding and rising aristocratic type in this Wilde gambol through British social mores.

“Old Times”
May 17 – July 3