John Mauceri

  -Almost from the moment I entered the room to meet conductor John Mauceri, having heard that I was a musician, he sat me down at a desk to show me the particular score of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” which he will be conducting for 12 performances starting on March 20 for Washington National Opera. An enormous amount of research, clearly a labor of love, was evident in what he showed me. The history of “Porgy” signified a remarkable moment in American music. Just acknowledging that it was a real opera has taken a long time. It became popular initially by calling it musical theater and reducing it from three acts to two. He said that most of his life has been committed to what we don’t have access to, and because music exists in the art of translation, you have to take it from the page to performing it. He knew that there was much in Gershwin that we didn’t know because much was unpublished. Gershwin wrote over 20 shows. He said that we know the songs but not the shows. One of the hallmarks of a fine musician is a passion for detail and finding a composer’s original intent; changing markings and changing tempos can make a significant difference. Mr. Mauceri is clearly a scholar, as well as musician. The list of music that he has restored to original intent is breathtaking. He played a section of “Porgy” by a conductor who had not seen Gershwin’s original score and one with different markings. The effect was startling. Cheryl Crawford, of the Theatre Guild, initiated the effort to turn “Porgy and Bess” into a musical theater piece. The three acts were turned into two and the piece became a success. The Theatre Guild finally donated all its material for archival purposes to Yale University where he found what he needed. As much as possible will be used in the coming performance. I can’t wait to attend the show.

DC Goes Green

  -As global warming has clearly been a hot topic (no pun intended) in recent news, this year D.C.’s own Environmental Film Festival will return for its 18th annual season. Boasting a queue of 155 films, the festival will have showings at over 50 venues around D.C., including museums, embassies, libraries, and local theaters. And, although this showcase has grown to be the best of its kind in the U.S., it doesn’t fall short on local flavor. Speaking of which, make sure you show up with an appetite; food is a big part of the festival this year, with films that cover everything from organic produce to world hunger to sustainable farming practices. To kick off the festival, make sure to attend the launch party, set to take place on March 10. The event will have music, film clips, raffle and a silent auction. If you’re feeling really lucky, you could win a trip to Ecuador or London! $10. Warner Building Atrium (1299 Pennsylvania Ave.), 6:30 p.m. “The Green House: Design it, Build it, Live it.” If you’re looking for local inspiration to go green, look no further. In the world premiere of this film, you will see the design and building of a house in McLean, VA from groundbreaking to the finishing touches. The hook? It’s completely carbon neutral. March 17. $10. E Street Cinema (555 11th St.), 7 p.m. The film “Colony” chronicles the mysterious disappearance of bees and beehives all across the country. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this startling trend is captured through the stories of veteran beekeepers and newbies alike, struggling to save the bees and their business. But it’s not just the beekeepers that are in trouble — bees are essential in sustaining our own food supply. March 18. $10. AFI Silver Theater (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD), 7:15 p.m. “Nora!” is the story of one of Washington’s own, chef and restaurateur Nora Pouillon. Nora was doing organic before it was on everyone’s plate; in 1999 her restaurant, Restaurant Nora, was certified not only organic but also biodynamic. Now, it is a popular spot for environmentalists and politicians alike. Since its inception, only 3 other restaurants have become qualified organic. Feast on that! March 23. Free. International Student House (1825 R St.), 7 p.m. Classical music is endangered, but not due to apathetic listeners. “The Music Tree” is a captivating film that highlights the plight of the Brazilwood (pernambuco) tree, highly coveted for its red dye. The tree’s wood is also used to create violin bows and other instruments. Recently however, exploitation of this species has pushed it to the edge of extinction. The film features several prominent violinists and cellists who are dedicated to protecting the pernambuco, as it is essential to the sound and quality of their music. These musicians, among others, have established funds aimed to preserve the trees, and so far 500,000 been planted. But will these efforts be able to save both the trees and the music? March 26. Free. Carnegie Institution for Science (1530 P St.), 7 p.m. For more information and complete film listings, visit

Spring 2010 Performance Preview

What does Washington's performing arts scene have in store for the first spring of the decade? Our resident theater experts weigh in with their top picks. Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” Arena Stage at Lincoln Theatre Maurice Hines, a legendary Broadway song and dance performer stars in and choreographs this production, which is a pure, atmospheric act of serendipity of the man (Duke Ellington), the place (The Lincoln Theatre, where Ellington first performed), and show (a stylish, spectacular showcase of the “beyond category” music of an American master and legend). (1215 U St., April 9 to May 30.) “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival,” Theater J The third installment of the “Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival” is being staged by Theater J, this one focusing on “Voice of the Woman,” with six one-night events by female writers, including Hadar Galron’s “Mikveh.” For more information, go to (1529 16th St., May 5 to June 7.) “American Buffalo” and “Reasons To Be Pretty,” Studio Theatre Two new productions of plays by two top American playwrights. “American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s classic, blunt, tough-talk tale of three Chicago grifters and thieves, will be directed by Joy Zinoman, the Studio’s founder and outgoing artistic director, but it also has the prime-time actor Ed Gero heading its cast. (May 5 to June 13). Neil Labute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” is the third play in which the acerbic master observer of contemporary American life takes our fascination with how people look or don’t, the others being “The Shape of Things” and the hugely successful “Fat Pig,” all performed at Studio. (1501 14th St., March 24 to May 2.) The Terrence McNally “Nights At The Opera” Festival, Kennedy Center Three of McNally’s plays dealing with opera, including his latest, “Golden Age,” a bristling back-stage drama about the premiere of Bellini’s “I Puritani.” (Through April 4.) There’s also “The Lisbon Traviata,” about two men’s obsession with a Maria Callas recording of “La Traviata.” (Through April 11.) Finally, there’s a play about Callas herself in “Master Class,” starring Tyne Daly as Callas, no slouch in diva roles herself. (March 25 to April 8.) Visit for details on dates, times and theaters. “Thurgood,” Kennedy Center A new play about the pioneering civil rights giant and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, starring Laurence Fishburne. The production was written by George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, film and television director, producer of the Kennedy Center honors, Georgetown resident, and author and son of Oscar-winning director George (“Shane”, “A Place in the Sun”) Stevens. (June 1 to 20.) The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, Kennedy Center It’s the 15th time around for this landmark festival, with three nights of jazz focusing on women artists and musicians May 20-22 on the occasion of Williams’ 100th anniversary year of her birth. (May 20 to 22.) “Clybourne Park,” Woolly Mammoth Theatre The original and caustically sharp voice of playwright Bruce Norris is heard again in “Clybourne Park”, where Norris’ work has been performed before. This time, Artistic Director Howie Shalwitz directs this off-Broadway hit, in which a Chicago neighborhood suffers demographic and ethnic explosions several times. (Through April 11.) “Hamlet,” Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center That would be the opera version, composed by Ambroise Thomas. “Hamlet” will close out the 2009-2010 WNO season, which includes a famous Ophelia mad scene, as it should. A Kansas City Lyric Opera production in French. (641 D St., May 19 to June 4.) “Fiddler on the Roof,” National Theatre The Jerome Robbins-created musical about a shtetl milkman named Tevye who cares about tradition has by now become a tradition itself, and this time it’s headed up by playwright-actor Harvey Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy”), who carries on a play-long debate with Jehovah, mostly in song. On the other hand, it’s a show that still works, it still has something to say (and sing) to contemporary audiences and it will do so. (1321 Pennsylvania Ave., April 13 to May 9.) “Anoushka Shankar,” Sixth and I Historic Synagogue The Washington Performing Arts Society is known for the world-wide, top-drawer musical and dance talent and groups that it brings to places like the Kennedy Center and the Music Center at Strathmore, but its footprints can also be increasingly found in smaller venues. This time it’s the downtown Sixth and I Synagogue, where the accomplished and high-pedigree sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the renowned Ravi Shankar, will perform “Sudakshini,” a musical journey from North and South India with richly varied musical influences and sounds. (600 Eye St., April 17.) - Gary Tischler --- Laura Benanti, Kennedy Center Let her entertain you. Benanti won a Tony for her role as Louise in the most recent Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” and she’s part of the excellent Barbara Cook’s “Spotlight” series at the Kennedy Center. (Terrace Theatre, April 30.) “Sycamore Trees,” Signature Theatre Ricky Ian Gordon is one of the most interesting and prolific contemporary composers (he’s worked in genres from opera to musicals to ballet), and he’s a recipient of Signature Theatre’s American Musical Voices Project Award. His new work for the company, “Sycamore Trees,” has highly personal and bittersweet roots, as it follows his family from the Bronx to the suburbs in a search of a better life. (4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, May 18 to June 20.) “Genius3,” The Washington Ballet at Sidney Harman Hall TWB’s “Genius3” program promises to live up to its name. Twyla Tharp’s giddy “Push Comes to Shove” and George Balanchine’s coolly modernist masterwork “The Four Temperaments” are about as far from each other in style as you can get, but each is a knockout in its own way. Add Mark Morris’s “Pacific” and Nacho Duato’s “Cor Perdut” and you’ve got the makings of a terrific evening of dance. (610 F St., May 19 to 23,) “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall Morality and money were two of George Bernard Shaw’s favorite triggers for drama, and the two clash in high style in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” The Shakespeare Theatre mounts the story of a young woman who discovers her education was paid for by her mother’s ill-gotten gains, and it’s a work that still has plenty to say about the choices we make — and their price. (610 F St., June 8 to July 11.) “A Man of No Importance,” Keegan Theatre You’ll enjoy this chamber-sized musical, based on the Albert Finney film, about a Dublin bus driver who yearns for beauty in both romance and the theatre. The show should be a good fit for the Irish-focused Keegan Theatre. (1742 Church St., June 10 to July 11.) “Tempest,” Folger Consort The stars have aligned for this production, a combination of Matthew Locke’s 17th-century music for the play with dramatic selections performed by actors, including Sir Derek Jacobi and Lynn Redgrave. Countertenor David Daniels is part of the ensemble. (Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 212 East Capitol St. N.E., June 10; Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda, June 11.) “Zaide” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Barns at Wolf Trap The Wolf Trap Opera Company has a well-deserved reputation as the place to catch young American singers at the start of great careers, and the company’s choice of repertory always offers surprises. This year’s rarity is Mozart’s little-heard “Zaide” (with its shimmering aria, "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben"), and it’s got a gimmick: audiences will choose an ending for this unfinished work. Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” received a beautiful and hypnotic staging a number of years ago, and we can look forward to the company’s new production this summer. (1645 Trap Road, Vienna; “Zaide”: June 11, 13, 15, 19; “Dream”: August 13, 15, 17.) “Babes in Arms,” American Century Theatre “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” “Babes in Arms” has one of Rodgers and Hart’s best scores (“Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Johnny One Note” are among its many gems), but this 1937 tale of youngsters with show-biz dreams is rarely staged. American Century Theatre offers a series of concert performances of the classic musical — and they’re free. (2700 South Lang St., Arlington, June 24 to 27.) - Robert Sacheli [gallery ids="99083,99084,99085,99086,99087" nav="thumbs"]

The Two Sides of Rich Bloch

Rich Bloch is a 60-something labor arbitration attorney, serving most notably as a neutral arbitrator for the National Football League and other professional sports organizations. Rich Bloch is also a professional magician and a performer. Both things are true. Bloch likes to keep the two things separate. He does not do magic tricks for 300-pound linemen and their agents. Nor does he bill himself as a lawyer-magician when he’s performing at the Woolly Mammoth with his show “Best Kept Secrets,” where story-telling, humor and performance blend with Bloch’s finely honed magical abilities and, for want of a better phrase, bag of tricks, which includes card tricks, the famous Harry Anderson’s Last Monte, the world’s fastest tricks, and the assistance of his wife Susan, who is actually a Georgetown University law professor. “To me, they’re two different worlds, they really are,” Bloch says. He and his wife live on Cathedral Avenue. He has two grown children, both of them attorneys. Also present are a number of pets, cats, a sheepdog, and a giant macaw who reportedly does card tricks. “Both of the things I love to do — being an attorney, practicing the kind of law I do and being a magician — have enormous rewards, but you can also get frustrated. When that happens, you just pass through a door and go into the other world. “I simply tell people that 80 percent of my professional life is being an attorney, and 80 percent is being a magician.” Now that’s magic. Bloch has been a practicing — and it takes enormous amount of practice, too — magician for several decades, and done well at it. He’s highly respected in a boundless community where magic and all the stuff that goes with it — tricks, equipment, professional secrets, show business and uniforms — are an important part of life. He’s performed on cruise ships, in Las Vegas and regularly at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where he’s been a five-time nominee as Stage Magician of the Year. Bloch first got interested when he was seven, which was in New Jersey in a time when cities and towns had magic shops. “I was seven, my father had passed away, and my mother, a remarkable woman, was on the road a lot as a traveling saleslady,” he said. “There was this shop on the corner, and it was a fascinating place, run by this old man, and, because it seemed I had to, I said to him you’ve got to hire me as an assistant. He said, ‘what kind of experience do you have?’ And I said, experience, I’m seven. But then, I remembered I had heard about a magician named Ted Collins, so I said my dad was Ted Collins. He said, ‘that’s impressive,’ and he hired me. And I was walking out, so I asked him his name, and he said, ‘Ted Collins.’ Magic. “It’s a very special world,” he said. “But it’s more than just tricks and mystery. That’s once reason I’ve been doing this hour and a half show, that’s what it is. And that’s a different world.” The Woolly Mammoth Theater is known for its edgy new plays, and draws a very different sort of audience than might be found at magic shows. “It’s a challenge, but that’s what I wanted to do, to entertain, to perform, to involve people in the magic show,” he said. “I love the small space, the intimacy and how you can interact with the audience, make them part of the show. I don’t do huge illusions, you can’t, but I do a varied repertoire of magic. I have a lot of equipment, and I wear a white tuxedo suit, one with a lot more pockets than most suits.” “It’s taking things to the next level for me, and I think the response has been really good,” he said. “Good for me. It’s not the same. It’s not just about tricks, but it is about magic and it is about magic and me.” In conversation, Bloch is self-deprecating, funny, really smart about his two roles and about magic in culture. He’s given considerable thought and feeling to what he does, and what a magician does. “There is a difference between tricking people, deceiving them, and in creating illusions, moments of make-believe that seems real because it is,” he said. Bloch, one thinks, makes magic magical. “Best Kept Secrets” will be performed at the Woolly Mammoth Laboratory Theater March 31, April 1-4 and June 9-13.

The Duke Comes Home

Serendipity is a word with a lot of letters and a lot of flavors in it. It’s like a stew, a soup, an omelette, about things being brought together by luck, skill, chance, fate and nature itself. There’s a lot of serendipity going on in and around “Sophisticated Ladies,” a big, splashy, stylish love letter to and about Duke Ellington, the man and the music, which commences its April 9-May 30 run presented by Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre at 13th and U Streets. There’ll be a lot of ghosts hanging about and rich memories on hand for many of the participants in this productions, not pale, silent, wandering ghosts, but the kind where women in sassy evening dresses and old bling and big heels sashay down a staircase, where the music is so rich as to make you swoon from the sweetness, where a man in a white tuxedo might sit at a piano like a royal person, and where you might hear familiar songs and the splashing of tap shoes on wood. All of that. Mostly, there’ll be Duke Ellington, and he’ll be everywhere in the building, where, downstairs in the old Colonnade, the Duke first started playing and getting known, and he’ll be in the rest of theater, which first saw the light of night in the 1920s, and he’ll be in the big mural and in the places where he used to live and he’ll be for sure in all the songs that make up this musical paean to all things beyond category and the Duke. The ghosts and memories will be there for choreographer Maurice Hines, who starred in the original Broadway production in 1981, when he joined his brother, the late Gregory Hines. They’ll be there for Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s granddaughter, who also performed in the original production as a Juilliard-trained dancer alongside the great African-American dance diva Judith Jameson. For that run, the neighborhood itself might just revert to what it once was: the place where Duke Ellington made his mark. That’s what “Sophisticated Ladies” is all about, it’s the Duke’s life as a journey through songs, music and dance, as directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, based on musical direction by Mercer Ellington from the original show. “This is a joyous celebration of Duke Ellington and D.C.,” Wright says. “Duke Ellington is D.C. This is where he grew up and where his career began.” “I’d never actually seen the Lincoln Theater until I got involved in this,” Hines says. “It’s a perfect place. You can feel the atmosphere. But I remember the original, too. My brother Gregory was the star of the show, I was trying out at the Kennedy Center, and things got complicated. ‘You gotta get into the show,’ he said. Eventually I did, and we performed together in it. What an experience.” Their father was a drummer, and he knew Ellington, who was by that time a “beyond category” American music legend. “I remember one time dad took us back stage and there was this man in a white tuxedo and a man was putting on a cape over him, and he was sort of above us and he looked down and saw us. ‘Why, you must be the Hines boys, yes, you are,’ he said, and it’s one of those things you never forget.” Hines says that this was an opportunity to focus renewed attention on Ellington and his musical achievements. “I think we’ve kind of neglected his work in recent years,” he says. “That’s not right. His music is embedded in American culture, it goes beyond race, beyond everything.” Mercedes Ellington — her father was Mercer Ellington, who led the Ellington band and suffered from being under the blinding light cast by his father — was an assistant choreographer as well as a dancer in the original production. She serves as an artistic consultant on the Arena Stage production, often talking to the younger members of the cast about the life and times of Duke. “For the longest time,” she said in an interview, “I didn’t know what to call him. My mother said, ‘Don’t call him grand-dad. Ask him.’ So I did and he sort of looked at me, and said, ‘Hmm, let me think about that.” And finally he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t just call me Uncle Edward?’ He didn’t want people to know he was old enough to have a granddaughter.” Mercedes Ellington often went on tour with the band, including the hugely popular Ellington visit to the Soviet Union. “We were in Leningrad and being trained in dance, it was wonderful for me to see the dancers there,” she said. “He was absolutely mobbed by women everywhere he went. It was astonishing.” “I saw him before he died and he had all these flowers and cards in his room, from everyone — Sinatra, Count Basie, absolutely everyone. He had just about everything wrong with him but you don’t imagine him not with us. I read about his death in the papers on the flight home.” “I’ll tell you what he did,” she said. “People stopped thinking about color, race, all of that, when they heard his music, when they saw him perform. He was sophisticated, he went beyond jazz, he composed symphonies, operas, great complicated wonderful pieces of music. He had style, great style, and he was a little vain, sure, but he had this way about him, this charisma. He made people think differently.” The song list for the show alone is enough to make you want to dance, swoon, swing: “Mood Indigo,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Hines, in addition to doing the choreography, will perform too. He’s never stopped cutting albums, performing, tapping, winning Tonys, doing “Happy Feet” with Earth, Wind and Fire, being Nathan Detroit. “You know what tap dancing is about that,” he said. “It looks easy. It’s hard but it’s as smooth as anything.” There are two young teenage boys in the cast of performers. It’s not hard to imagine Hines remembering himself and his kid brother, when they were young, tapping out a beat on a floor, remembering the sound of four feet tapping. “Sure I do,” he said. “I miss him every day of my life, I think about him all the time.” In a way, everybody will be there down on U and 13th at the Lincoln Theater, the people who walked the Colonnade back in the day, the Duke at the piano, the big band playing, fathers and daughters and granddaughters and all of that, those sophisticated ladies parading. There will be ghosts there, it will be all serendipity. "Sophisticated Ladies" runs April 9 to May 30 at the Lincoln Theatre. 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‘American Buffalo’: A Slice of Chicago Style

For Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre’s upcoming production of “American Buffalo” has elements of both a homecoming and a leave-taking. David Mamet’s 1975 play has its roots in Chicago (it premiered at the city’s Goodman Theatre), and for Chicago-born Zinoman, the work holds a special resonance. “I’ve always loved the play,” she says, noting that it appeared “at a seminal time for me”— the period when Studio Theatre was just beginning. Now, as Zinoman prepares to step down from her role as the theater’s artistic director, it will be the final production she’ll direct. Zinoman programmed “American Buffalo” as part of this season’s trio of “Money Plays” at Studio, joining “Adding Machine: The Musical” and “The Solid Gold Cadillac” as works that explore themes of commerce and capitalism. For Zinoman, “American Buffalo” is “the best play ever written about American business.” More than three decades after its debut, the work has also taken on new levels of meaning. “Now it is a play about fathers and sons, loyalty and friendship. It reminds me of a certain Chicago style. It’s gritty, real, and unpretentious.” The plot of “American Buffalo” centers on a crime that doesn’t happen, the heist of a supposedly valuable buffalo-head nickel. As Don, the owner of a secondhand shop and his young protégé, Bobby, spin out their plans to recover the coin from a customer who bought it, they’re joined by the volatile Teach, who offers to pull off the job himself. The scheme devolves into betrayal and violence, with shifting loyalties and suspicion undermining the trio’s relationships. Dark, often profane, yet deeply funny, “American Buffalo” has entered the canon of classic plays of the last century. It’s also a work that offers rich roles, and Zinoman has put together “three amazing actors” to bring them to life. “I’m incredibly excited to work with Ed Gero,” says Zinoman of the well-respected local actor who plays Don. Bobby will be played by Jimmy Davis, who Zinoman had seen in a role light years away from the typical Mamet man: Juliet in the Shakespeare Theatre’s all-male production of “Romeo and Juliet.” At his audition, Zinoman “found his originality intriguing,” and he was selected for the part. Teach is “one of the great American roles,” says Zinoman, and she’s landed an actor who, according to his mentors, “was born to play this part.” “I almost fell down dead” when viewing the video submitted by actor Peter Allas, she recalls. A Chicago-born son of immigrants, she describes him as “rehearsing his whole life” for Teach. It didn’t hurt that in his video the actor who created the role of Don in the play’s first production read opposite him. A Washington audition clinched the part for Allas, and it’s clear that Zinoman is looking forward to the sparks the three actors will create. More than three decades after “American Buffalo” burst onto the scene, the play’s themes have deepened and new contours have emerged — just as the nation’s economic roller coaster rides during the same period have shifted how we look at money and business. “I think it’s a real, human story about petty criminals and their schemes to make money and the greed that drives and divides,” says Zinoman. “It’s also about honor, morality, and friendship.” It’s a play that explores “how good people can get to violent, greedy, and life-destroying places in the name of business.” She hopes audiences “will come with an open mind” and see “American Buffalo” “freshly, as a new play.” “I hope they’ll come to laugh,” she says, since much of Mamet’s work in the play is funny. “And the language is just delicious.” For all satisfaction Zinoman finds in this directing assignment, “American Buffalo” is also a particularly emotional experience. At the play’s first production meeting, she recalls, the director and her long-time design and technical team “found ourselves weeping” with the realization that this would be the very last time they’d work on a show together in the same way. (Zinoman steps down as artistic director on Sept. 1 this year.) “Everyone is highly aware of the significance [of the production] for us, and we appreciate being able to do it together.” So what’s next for Joy Zinoman after the Studio Theatre? “The first next” is a four-month European sojourn in Italy and France, a chance to “create a real breathing space between this great, unbelievable life at Studio Theatre and what is next.” Teaching at the theatre’s conservatory will still be part of Zinoman’s life, and she’s considering offers from other quarters as well. “What’s great,” she concludes, “is a sense of jumping off a cliff.” It’s certain that wherever Joy Zinoman lands after that leap, it will be an interesting place to be. “American Buffalo” plays at Studio Theatre May 5 through June 13. For more information, go to [](

‘[title of show]’

All right, musical theater fans, here’s a multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge. “[title of show]” is: a) a quirky meta-musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical b) a 2004 musical theater festival hit that went on to off-Broadway and Broadway runs c) the production prompting calls to Signature Theatre to inquire what exactly is the title of the show being advertised d) a work bold enough to asks its audiences to contemplate the concept of Paris Hilton starring in “Mame” e) an unabashed valentine to musical theatre. It’s partly a trick question, but if you answered “all of the above” you’re worth your weight in original-cast albums. If you’re still puzzled, don’t worry. Signature Theatre’s production of “[title of show]” begins April 6, and this question and more (such as whether or not the titles of forgotten musical flops like “Kwamina” and “Hot September” make good punch lines) will be authoritatively answered. With music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell, “[title of show]” follows characters named Jeff and Hunter in their quest to write an original musical. In the course of their work, they enlist a pair of actress friends, Heidi and Susan (originally played by Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) to fill out the cast. If you’re starting to feel a sort of hall-of-mirrors vibe to the whole project, you’re absolutely on target. “[title of show]” is indeed self-referential but, says actor James Gardiner, who plays Hunter in the Signature mounting, there’s a deeper theme to the work: “It’s really about why we as artists fell in love with theatre in the first place. Connections between people and the whole collaborative process are what the show is about at its core.” Bowen and Bell have stuffed “[title of show]” with allusions to the whole dizzy, glorious universe of musical theatre. An entire song is crafted from the titles of legendary stinkers, for example, and there are affectionate shout-outs to Comden and Green and Kander and Ebb. Being a musical theatre aficionado isn’t required, though, to fall under the show’s spell. Says Director Matthew Gardiner (James’s twin brother), “Even though the piece is filled with theatre references that more than half of the audience won’t understand, at its root it’s about having a dream and following it.” Though it might seem corny, he adds, “it’s what everybody in the audience can connect with: people putting themselves on the line and making their vision come true.” For Sam Ludwig, who plays Jeff, “[title of show]” is “a celebration of the medium” of musical theatre. “This is a story about people who love that way of telling a story enough to want to tell a story about how much they love it.” Which seems to be a very “[title of show]” way of putting it. Casting Signature’s production of “[title of show],” for which its creators were not only its original cast but also its characters, was a challenge for Matthew Gardiner. “We saw at least 60 people for all the roles.” One decision, though, was easier to make than others: “I think James was a very obvious choice from the beginning, because it’s a story that was very personal to him — he’s written a Broadway musical [“Glory Days,” which originated at Signature] and he knows what it’s like to follow that path.” Gardiner found the rest of his cast late in the audition process: Sam Ludwig and Helen Hayes Award winners Erin Driscoll (Heidi) and Jenna Sokolowski (Susan) were called in together with James Gardiner, and the director found their chemistry “just jelled and worked.” “One of the reasons is that the four of them know each other so well from working at Signature and there was already a sense of camaraderie that wouldn’t be false or fabricated” — a key essential for a show that’s about the bonds of creative friendship. Erin Driscoll finds parallels with her character in her own theatrical life. “Luckily, Heidi and I are pretty similar” as musical theater actresses, she says. Driscoll has the show’s most touching song, “A Way Back to Then,” Heidi’s recollection of first being entranced with performing (“Dancing in the back yard/Kool-Aid mustache and butterfly wings/Hearing Andrea McArdle sing/From the hi-fi in the den”) and of setting off with a U-Haul for New York to make her mark on stage. “I definitely have that experience and know exactly what it’s like,” she says. Though “[title of show]” is a decidedly offbeat project, its charms span both its risk-taking and its firm roots in musical theatre traditions. Sam Ludwig finds the integration of songs and scenes “so satisfyingly musical.” James Gardiner points out that “it follows the musical theatre formula but is so willing to break it every rule in the book while it’s following every rule” at the same time. There’s even the requisite musical theatre romance — of sorts. The cast has joked that “Heidi and Susan are the love story,” says Erin Driscoll. Initially wary of each other’s differences (to Susan, Heidi is “so uptown, and fancy, and Broadway,” while Heidi finds Susan “so downtown and funky and sassy”), they “become good, good friends” in the course of the show. “Their relationship is the one that changes and grows throughout the piece,” she says. For Sam Ludwig, “the guys push the story along and the girls make it more interesting.” In a sense, “[title of show]” serves as a kind of contemporary bookend to Signature’s production of “Showboat” earlier this season. That classic 1927 work also focuses on show folk, and holds up theatre as both a dreamy alternate universe and an escape from real life. “[title of show]” takes real life and makes it into the stuff of musical theatre. Bowen and Bell and company are as enamored of life upon the wicked stage as Kern and Hammerstein, and the depth of that affection gives “[title of show]” its heart. For all its meta-musical smarts, “[title of show]” is for Matthew Gardiner “a simple, honest story about a friendship,” and he and the cast are counting on audiences to embrace the show on that level. “Even if you don’t know the references, you will enjoy it. Guaranteed.” And there will be no quizzes afterward. “[title of show]” plays at Signature Theatre April 6 through June 27. Go to []( for more information.

Theater Shorts

If you know about and love the loosely bordered Great American Songbook, you probably know about her. If you like women who are smart, witty, and talk your ears off in a good way, you should know her. If you miss the lost art of scat singing, you’ve heard her. If you’ve ever watched “The Nanny” originally or in reruns, and can’t get that theme song out of your head, you know a tiny sliver of her work. If you like jazz, even if you call it blues, if you remember running across an old Nina Simone song on a jukebox that’s never there any more, or remember Ella Fitzgerald racing like a piano player on a keyboard through a Cole Porter tune, you need to know about her. We’re talking about Ann Hampton Callaway — chestnut hair, Chicago dynamo, versatility-plus, singer, songwriter, living the hectic life of both a performing singer and a recording star, traveling this way and that way, from San Diego to Moscow to Spain to D.C., not to mention her heart-felt home in New York. Callaway, who did indeed write the theme song of “The Nanny,” will be at the Warner Theater May 15, in a great jazz double bill with legendary jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. It’s a good time to find out about her if you haven’t. We talked to Callaway on the phone recently while she was riding in a car driven by her sister Liz, herself a Broadway star and singer in San Diego, where they were doing a concert. “It’s hectic being on the road, the different kinds of venues, the traveling,” says Callaway, whose latest album “At Last” includes the Etta James classic as its title track. “But I’ve settled too. New York is where I live, where my life is.” But she’s also a Chicago lady, a singer from the town of blues. For the best introduction to Callaway, check out her album “Blues in the Night.” “It’s about the blues, not necessarily blues songs,” she said. That’s why it’s hard to categorize her, to label her as a kind of singer although she’s richly known for her interpretation of the Great American Songbook, those songs that come from Porter by way of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and so forth. She’s also in the world of cabaret, jazz and pop. “I don’t like labels,” she says. “I know I’m a jazz singer, but I have no problem singing pop. “She gets a kick out of the Nanny theme thing. “We were in Berlin during a concert,” she says. “I called out to see if anybody knew the Nanny song. And you wouldn’t believe it. Everybody did, they hollered in unison.” The singers you remember, of course, are the originals. Never mind for a moment her monumental output of songwriting — some 250 or so. Callaway seems to know, having made her way from Chicago, to college wanting initially to be an actress and discovering her true self and packing up for New York, that no two good, let alone great, singers are alike. And she appreciates the long list of originals. She wrote as fine an appreciation of one singer by another this year in a jazz magazine, a tribute to Blossom Dearie, the whispery-voiced break-your-heart jazz singer who passed away this year. “There was nobody like her, nobody at all,” she said. The bet is that there’s nobody like Callaway either. Just check out her scat-fueled numbers on “Blues in the Night,” the lively, anthem-like, breezy “I’m-Too-White-To-Sing-the-Blues Blues”, or “It’s All Right With Me.” She’s a Tony Award winner, songwriter and been-around-a-while force of musical nature. Check her out. --- Zinoman's Successor David Muse, the young gifted director who has also been associate director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company since 2005, has been chosen to succeed founder Joy Zinoman at the Studio Theatre beginning with the 2010-2011 season. He’ll direct the season opener, Annie Baker’s off-Broadway hit “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Zinoman, who is directing David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at the Studio with Ed Gero, said that “David’s story is the classic American story of a smart, talented kid from a small town who finds his passion, pursues it with dedication and intensity and manages to win friends and admirers by virtue of his charm, sensitivity and intelligence.” Muse called his new job “the dream of a lifetime.” He’s no stranger to the Studio either, having started his directing career here in 2005, and directing a successful production of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” here most recently, as well as David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” which won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Production in 2008. At Shakespeare Theatre, he directed the recent highly acclaimed production of “Henry V.” --- The International 2010 VSA Festival Very Special Arts, the international organization on arts and disability, will host the 2010 International VSA Festival, featuring more than 600 artists, performers and educators from all over the world June 6 through 12. The festival will feature theater, literary readings, film screenings, sculptures and paintings, all by eminent and emerging artists with disabilities, as well as educators who will shares innovative instruction strategies. Venues will include the Kennedy Center, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Atlas Performing Arts Center , Busboys and Poets, DC Improv, GWU’s Lisner Auditorium, Union Station, Smithsonian’s International Gallery and Discovery Theater, The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall and Lansburgh Theatre, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the H Street Playhouse. For more details and information, go to --- Ashley Does Shaw Noted actress Elizabeth Ashley returns to the Shakespeare Theatre Company to star in the company’s final play of the season, George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” beginning June 8. Ashley, who performed to acclaim in “August: Osage County” on Broadway, is joined by Amanda Quaid, Ted Van Griethuysen and David Sabin, under the direction of Keith Baxter. --- Knuffle Bunny “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” is now at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, with Tony Award nominee Stephanie D’Abruzzo and music by composer Michael Silversher. The production is based on the prize winning children’s book “Knuffle Bunny,” adapted by author Mo Williams. “Knuffle Bunny” is about a toddler named Trixie who misplaces her beloved stuffed bunny, and goes on a journey to find him. The musical runs through May 23.

Studio’s ‘American Buffalo’

David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” premiered 25 years ago, assuring the playwright’s reputation as an American master, a man who had written an enduring theater classic. Today, it still seems fresh in its language and feeling, in its inarticulate expression of the importance of the American business ethos in the nation’s life, even its dankest, smallest, lowest places. At the Studio Theatre, where outgoing Artistic Director Joy Zinoman shows again that she get the essentials of familiar material, in which the three petty thieves and low-lifes get to cry out and trumpet their own “attention must be paid,” their own plea for importance. You’d think that in a contemporary play where a cellphone doesn’t ring, there would be a whiff of the anachronistic, that rust might have settled on the play. But in the 1970s world of Don, Teach and Bobby, ineffectual small-time crooks, thieves and hustlers, the time is now, and it’s not going to get any better. By now, Mamet’s way of writing dialogue — repetitious, stinky with street debris, loss, and the fallout of small dreams ill considered, has acquired a cachet all of its own, it’s often imitated — like Hemingway’s sparse style and his tough private eye imitators Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald. In fact, it’s often parodied. It sounds hard-nosed and earthy, virtually real, except that its rhythms aren’t real at all, and they have a kind of jazzy musicality to them. Repetition is a way at arriving at the point of a conversation for this trio. Don is a small lookout for the next opportunity, not the main chance. He runs “Don’s Resale” shop, a place that’s half storage house for stolen goods, a quarter junkyard, and a quarter pawn shop, with a bit of accidental antique shop thrown in. The three — Don, slow, empathetic, patient; Teach, a jacked-up, nervous man with nothing in his life except for his time in the shop; and Bobby, the hyper junkie who acts as if he’s burning up all the time — are thieves of one sort or another. They operate on the fringes, and mostly outside the law. But to them, boosting a truck, breaking into a house and working with other crooks is all part of the great American enterprise of going for the dollar, of a business where everyone’s entitled to a share of the proceeds. This one time, they’ve convinced themselves that a man who bought an American buffalo nickel from Don is loaded with rare coins which they plan to steal from his house. Easier said than planned, let alone done. Theses are guys frozen with inaction, jealousies, insecurities, drenched in bad habits attained in poker games and too much time spent together. Their talk doesn’t get results, and they improvise bad notes like a drunk sax player. Ed Gero, who plays the frustrated, often flummoxed Don, is the glue of this production. He’s the shaky sun around which the other two roll as they vie for his attention, for his approval, for the go-ahead. Gero has a soft solidity here, an exasperation that comes from owning junk, but also from love. Peter Allas as the gun-toting Teach looks like one of those guys who’s always stirring the pot where trust lies buried. And Jimmy Davis is disturbing as the needy, skinny, pushy junkie Bobby. Russell Metheny’s shabby, rich set of a shop is a wonder. It looks lived in, like an ornamented prison. Zinoman lets the actors have their way with the words, where the heart and shabby souls lie. “American Buffalo” is often funny, but it’s always tense, dangerous and touching, sometimes all at once. Try to imagine the “Seinfeld” cast of folks as low-lifes, and you get the idea. “Don’t forget, we gotta do the thing?” “The thing? What thing?” “You know, the thing, we gotta do it.” “Oh yeah, the thing. We gotta do the thing.” Which isn’t exact. But you get the drift. It’s like smoke and music from the past coming into the here and now. (“American Buffalo” runs through June 13.)

No Slowing Down for Denyce Graves

A week ago Tuesday, Denyce Graves was in a car, talking on the phone, heading toward Dulles International Airport to catch a plane that would take her to Turkey. Graves, the mezzo-soprano superstar of the opera and recital world, had just left the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, where she would be doing a recital on June 13, singing everything from Schumann to Handel to Gershwin. Meantime, she would be jetting to Turkey to appear in the Mersin Music Festival where, accompanied by the Bikent Symphony Orchestra on May 28, she would sing arias from operas by Bizet and Handel. The weekend before, she had just completed a grueling three-performances-in-a-row stint in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony’s production of Bartok’s one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” a production that included sets by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. “It’s something I don’t usually do,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s exhausting, it’s hard on the voice. I’m used to a busy schedule, but you have to be careful, you really do.” Graves, in mid-career at full voice, busy with recitals and opera roles, is as close to an international performing icon as the world of opera and classical music has right now. It’s not just that — she all but owns the leading roles in “Carmen” and “Samson and Delilah,” and is the go-to voice and singer for historic and state occasions, such as the recent funeral for the renowned civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height at Washington National Cathedral. Her meteoric rise from what’s been described as an “under-privileged neighborhood” in Southwest Washington still resonates as a shining example of dreams-that-come-true success stories. She’s a triple threat — local D.C. girl makes good, wows them in her debut as at the Metropolitan Opera, travels constantly all over the world to perform at renowned and classic opera houses and concert halls. She’s the proud mother of five-year-old Ella, and last year married (for the third time) Dr. Robert Montgomery, a renowned John Hopkins heart surgeon, in a spectacular five-day wedding, preceded by a traditional Masai blessing ceremony in Kenya. She has grown into her fame and status, something that wasn’t always easy to handle. Being a role model is in the mix too: young African Americans look up to her as a measure of just how high you can reach. “That’s important, certainly,” she said. “I remember looking up to Leontyne Price in just the same way, or thinking of Marian Anderson, and everything she had to go through to persevere. And I love working with young people, and make sure they can come and see my performances.” Probably the biggest role model for Graves remains her mother, now the doting grandmother, who you could hear her talking in the background. “My mom raised us (there were three children) by herself, our father left us, she worked at UDC, she was the single mother, let me tell you,” she said. “There was no chance of us straying from the straight and narrow. I was a bit of a loner, kind of awkward, I wasn’t what you would call a cool kid.” But getting into Duke Ellington School for the Arts changed all that. She blossomed there, discovering the wide world of opera and classical music. “Duke Ellington and Judith Grove, one of my teachers there, was and is a huge part of my success. I discovered myself there, I am eternally grateful for that school,” she said. Part of the last year’s wedding celebration, in fact, was a day-after picnic on the school grounds in Georgetown. She and her husband live in Bethesda. She still seems to relish and enjoy compliments, or if someone has a memory of her performances, like seeing her at Mayor Anthony Williams inauguration, Dr. Height’s funeral or a production of “Carmen” at the Washington National Opera last year, where she was a vivid, fiery presence. Other people’s memories are even better. Here’s a Washington Post response to Graves when she sang at the 70th anniversary celebration at Marian Andersen’s historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial “Many of the tourists seemed oblivious to the operatic royalty in the midst. But Graves’ voice was so powerful it drew gasps from the audience as she sang.” She sang at the National Cathedral in a stirring and powerful rendition of “America the Beautiful” at a memorial service honoring the 9/11 dead, only three days after the event. “Mom spoils my daughter rotten,” she said over the phone. “Yes, mother, where’s that drill sergeant we all experienced?” she laughed. “She is a remarkable woman.” Her summer schedule is hectic. Following the June 13 recital at Strathmore, there’s the Cincinnati Opera 90th Anniversary Gala Concert (June 19), a performance of “Carmen” in Warsaw, Poland, (June 26), and in July there’s the Hohentwiel Festival in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany, followed by another “Carmen.” If you start looking over her list of accomplishments, performances, honors and pit stops- — she lived in Paris for a time — you’d think she could even think about resting on her laurels a bit. “No, no,” she said, shaking off the suggestion strongly. “Let me tell you, I’ve got a very big wish list of things I haven’t done, things I want to do, performance-wise, and many other ways too, roles, music to explore, life experience.” We wrap up the conversation quickly. “I have to go,” she said. “We’re at the airport.” The Washington Performing Arts Society will present Denyce Graves at Bethesda's Strathmore Center on June 13 at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here.