“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.”

Holiday Cheer


-The Christmas holidays are upon us and its not even Thanksgiving yet. Everywhere you look — in malls, in television ads, in the streets and storefront windows — ‘tis the season.

That’s especially true for the performing arts, where seasonal favorites of all sorts are being prepared, sugar plum fairies being outfitted, little boys everywhere practicing how to say “God bless us, every one,” venues large and small brightening up their stages and halls with traditional holiday fare searching for a new and all-inclusive way to celebrate the season for their patrons.

Christmas is about pleasing the most people, it’s about sharing in the spirit of the season, and so old stories are resurrected in old and new ways. Music as familiar as a hometown is heard again, the atmosphere and environment become rich and thick with iconic elements, from Scrooge’s nightshirt and the ghosts that haunt him to stars to wrapped packages under a tree to the full-lunged glories of symphonic music and the quieter joys of quieter carols.

We’re offering a sampler of what’s in store in the way of Christmas in the performing arts around the Washington area, and we’ll take a close look at how two institutions are approaching something old and something new, one making a traditional holiday offering new again as an institution, the other attempting to create a new tradition.

An Old Story and a New Scrooge

There is probably no story that says Christmas more loudly, more intensely and with more familiarity than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future have become such a staple of American film, television, and theater that it’s hard to imagine Christmas without it.

Right now, productions are being prepared all over the country and a new digitally created movie starring a facsimile Jim Carrey as Scrooge has already hit theaters.

Meanwhile, the folks at Ford’s Theatre are busy finishing rehearsals for its own production. With some interruptions, “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre is as much a Washington seasonal tradition as the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. As a result, the show has been seen by critics as something of a sentimental chestnut. Audiences, tourists and locals alike flock to it.

This year, it’s a brand new show. “We’ve added lots of music to the show, Christmas music and carols,” new director Michael Baron said. “That’s going to be a crucial element of the show. They say Dickens practically invented Christmas, so we added a true magical, seasonal element with the music. There’s a real flavor and sense of period and place to.”

“The odd thing,” Baron, who directed Signature Theatre’s cabaret series, said, “is that in England they don’t do the show. They do pantomimes and such.”

This production has something else that’s bound to make it fresh. That’s the presence of Edward Gero, one of Washington’s most honored, down-to-earth, natural actors taking on the part of Scrooge. Gero, who’s played everyone from Nixon to Bolingbroke to haunted, drunken contemporary Irishmen, knows that there’s not just the ghost of Christmas past here, but the ghosts of Scrooges past too.

“Oh God yes,” he said. “That dark, really scary Alistair Sims, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and, yeah, Mr. Magoo. That’s a long line, not to mention the people who’ve done it here. It’s a challenge, but you know, performing here at the Ford’s Theatre has always been on my bucket list, and I suppose, yeah, doing Scrooge.”

It’s hard to imagine Gero as Scrooge, or as anyone. He is the least chameleonlike of actors, a regular guy, blunt, funny, of Italian heritage, almost a working man’s actor. His wife is a district elementary school teacher, and while he teaches at George Mason University and does narrations and voice overs and some television, he is the essential great community actor who’s performed with almost all of the theaters in Washington.

“It’s a ghost story, it’s the Christmas story,” he said.”I’m looking forward to being Scrooge, he’s a haunted man long before the Marley and the ghosts come, haunted by his childhood, haunted by the past.”

“A Christmas Carol” begins Nov. 23.

Out of the darkness, into the light

If Scrooge rewards and reassures audiences with traditional material made rich again, “Take Joy!” the big Christmas show at the Music Center at Strathmore, takes a radical new approach to seasonal entertainment.

“It’s different, it’s spectacular, we’ve tried to present something that will be special to people who are living regular lives today, right here and now,” Eliot Pfanstiel, president and CEO of Strathmore and executive producer for “Take Joy!” said. “It begins almost as soon as you walk toward the center, over the bridge, with the sights and sounds of all sorts of music, carolers, people dressed for the season.”

“It’s the solstice, the darkest night of the year,” Pfanstiel said. “It’s a journey from the darkness into the light, a journey taken by a group of people, family and a shepherd in search of a pageant.”

At play is the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson, traditional Christmas music, gospel music, hip-hop, classical, folk and Celtic. “Call it a new kind of holiday show, wholly original, transforming and transporting. It’s not any one thing, just as the holidays don’t mean one thing for everybody. It’s about a community gathering together on the darkest night of the year and coming out into the light at evenings end.”

Pfanstiehl, sometimes the perfect example of CEO as inventive boy, nurtured this project with Director Jerry Whiddon, Composer Roger Ames and Producer Jeff Davis. They all worked together at Street 70 in the 1970s, a homegrown theater which evolved into the Roundhouse Theater.

“Take Joy!” which includes the wondrous F. Faye Butler, Jennifer Timberlake and Robert Quay in the cast, will be performed Dec. 18 and 19.

Nutcracker, Nutcracker, Nutcracker

If you look long enough during the holidays, you’re going to find a Nutcracker. Here’s three for everyone.

For the Washington Ballet, no less a personage than George Washington is featured in Septime Webre’s beautiful, lush imagining of “The Nutcracker,” with Washington in full uniform taking on the role of the heroic Nutcracker and King George III donning the role of the Rat King. It’s a Washington tradition that’s presented at the THEARC Dec.3-5 and at the Warner Theatre Dec. 10-27.

At the Kennedy Center, the Pennsylvania Ballet comes to town for seven performances of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” Nov. 24-29.

What’s special about this production is that it marks the D.C. premiere of the Balanchine version, which the Pennsylvania Ballet has performed since 1969. It’s a spectacular production with 192 costumes designed by Judanna Lynn and new sets by Peter Horne. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra will accompany the production, which will feature the Norwood Middle School Chorus.

Meanwhile, the Puppet Company at Glen Echo Park will present its puppet version of “The Nutcracker” through the holiday season.

Christmas at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art will have caroling in the west building rotunda with families and visitors singing along with guest choirs and ensembles Dec. 12, 13, 19 and 20. In addition, there will be holiday concerts on Sundays in the west garden court of the west building Dec. 13, 20 and Jan. 3.

Music, music and other occasions

Washington Revels presents its annual Christmas Revels December 12 and 13 at Lisner Auditorium, featuring Renaissance Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci and celebrating Italian holiday traditions with music and dance.

The Dumbarton Concerts in Georgetown present one of the most alluring, beautiful holiday concerts in town with its annual “A Celtic Christmas” with the Linn Barnes and the Allison Hampton Celtic Consort

It’s at Georgetown’s historic Dumbarton Church December 5, 6 and Dec. 12 and 13.

The Folger Consort will be celebrating the Christmas holidays in the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library Dec. 11-20 with “In Dulci Jubilo,” a concert of the festive Christmas music of 17th-century composer Michael Praetorius, considered to be the man responsible for creating the German Lutheran chorale tradition.

The 21st Annual Christmas Concert for Charity at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be performed on Dec. 4, featuring the Catholic University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra and other artists.

Discovery Theater will present its seasonal extravaganza “Seasons of Light,” celebrating the holiday traditions of Sankta Lucia, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and Ramadan in December.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop brings a very different version of Handel’s “Messiah” with a re-envisioned gospel version “Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah” at the Music Center at Strathmore Dec. 13.

At the Kennedy Center, there’s the NSO Pops with “Happy Holidays,” conducted by Marvin Hamlisch Dec. 10-13 and the National Symphony Orchestra performing the “real” Handel’s Messiah Dec. 17-20.

The Waverly Consort brings its performance of “The Christmas Story” to the Terrace Theater with its eight singers and five instrumentalists Dec. 16.

There’s also free stuff: the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center will include performances by the U.S. Army Blues performing Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite” on Dec. 1, a “Merry TubaChristmas” on Dec. 13, holiday vaudeville on Dec. 26-27 and an all-star Christmas Day jazz jam.

Plus there’s the annual “Messiah Sing-Along” performed since 1972 in the Concert Hall.

Finally, there’s the annual holiday doings at Union Station, featuring all things Norwegian, including a tree-lighting ceremony of a 32-foot Christmas tree on Dec. 3 and Toys for Tots and a model train ceremony Nov. 24.

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.

Explore “Maximum India”

Here is India, according to stats provided by the embassy: 1.2 billion people, 24 languages, 1,600 dialects, 28 states, a rich variety of regional cuisines, 330,000 gods and goddesses, and 300 ways of cooking a potato.

The Kennedy Center’s huge, month-long festival celebrating Indian culture (March 1-20) is thus called “Maximum India.” And as it would seem, there are thousands of reasons for that.

“What you will find in this festival is a celebration of India’s diversity,” said Ms. Meera Shankar, the Indian Ambassador to the United States since April of 2009, in a small press gathering at the Cosmos Club, showcasing parts of the festival.

“India,” she said, “is a great kaleidoscope of cultures, ethnicity, religions, geography, languages, literature, music, dance, paintings, architecture, festivals, cuisine and customs going back thousands of years. And you’ll find much of that in this festival.”

The festival is another in a series of festivals that has focused on geographical regions of the world at the Kennedy Center, including China, the Middle East and Arabia, the Silk Road and others. “Maximum India” is presented in cooperation with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which has brought and sponsored several of the attractions in the festival to the United States.

“The arts create a unique platform for understanding each other,” Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said. “This festival will highlight India’s magnificent arts and culture offerings on the Kennedy Center’s stages and throughout the building.”

Much of India’s cultural offerings—its literature, music, dance and performance arts—are rooted in the ancient past, so that even modern creativity in India has a flavor of the old Gods, of religious practices, of re-inventing old arts and understanding them anew, and of enduring faiths in a contemporary setting.

“You’ll find similarities through the regions of India—it’s the cradle of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which are known as the Indian religions. But there’s also Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and the Bahai faith, which makes the country a hotbed of inter-faith activities and cooperation.”

“The past is always a part of the present here,” the ambassador said. “But there is also Bollywood, with its very modern cinematic pulse, which is now exported all over the world. We have western pop music, as well as traditional music. We are at once very modern and very old.”

Not all of that may make its way into the enormous festival with its many free events, but there is definitely a flavor of a vast nation at work in the offerings of the festival.

Here are some highlights:

Madhavi and Alarmel Valli fuse two classical dance forms in a joint creative experience called “Samanvaya: A Coming Together.” Valli is the leading choreographer of one of the oldest dance forms in India, the classical bharatanatyam.

On the other hand, there’s Tanusree Shankar, a choreographer and artistic director of a company that specializes in contemporary Indian dance.

Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar, and who accompanied her father on tour recently, will be performing with the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Rhythm of Rajasthan, a group of musicians and dancers, perform a diverse program that includes folk music and ecstatic Sufi music. Want a mix of the modern and the old? Try the Raghu Dixit Project from Bangalore, an Indo-World-Folk-Rock Band.

Naseereuddin Shah will bring his Motley Theater Group from Mumbai (the setting for the popular Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaires”) to the festival. The group is famous for its storytelling abilities and for performing western plays in Hindustani, including “Waiting for Godot.”

The Kennedy Center has also created for this festival the Monsoon Club in the Terrace Theater, where contemporary Indian musicians and other artists will be performing

India is of course a center of the world film industry, and many key films from India over the last 50 years will be screened in the Terrace Theater throughout the festival. There will also be a major discussion of the Indian film industry and Bollywood.

The grand halls of the Kennedy Center will be filled with images and objects reflecting the arts of India, transforming the center into more than a little piece of India.

In terms of cuisine, the Kennedy Center will be serving up the tastes of India in the KC Café and the Roof Terrace Restaurant. Chef Hemant Oberoi, Executive Grand Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers in Mumbai, will lead a team of 12 chefs from around India to introduce festival-goers to the cuisines of India.

For all the details of maximum India visit Kennedy-Center.org/India.

The Kennedy Center

Maximum India Festival
March 1-20

New York City Ballet Three mixed Repertoire Programs: April 5, 8 and 10; April 6 and 9 and April 7 and 9.
April 5 – 10

Paul Taylor Dance Company
March 22-24

Peter Brook’s “Fragments”
April 14 – 17
The acclaimed genius focuses on five short works by edgy, bare-bones genius playwright Samuel Beckett (“Rough for Theater 1,” “Rockabye,” “Act Without Words II,” “Neither” and “Come and Go”) at the Eisenhower.

Barbara Cook’s Spotlight Vocal Series
March 25
Actress and singer Ashley Brown (the original “Mary Poppins”) at the Terrace Theater.

The National Symphony Orchestra presents “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” based on a book by E.B. White, with music by conductor Jason Robert Brown.
March 27
Starring John Lithgow, trumpeter Christopher Vendetti and DC actors like Craig Wallace, Michael Willis and Naomi Jacobsen. Two concerts.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”
May 7 – June 19