Raising the curtain at Kennedy Center

Theater: The center returns to `self-producing theater,' starting with six classic Stephen Sondheim musicals.

March 02, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There will be a lot more than a little night music at the Kennedy Center next season. The Washington performing arts center will celebrate the work of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim with six new full-scale productions of classic Sondheim musicals performed in repertory over 15 weeks beginning in May 2002.

"The Kennedy Center is going to be returning to self-producing theater," the center's newly installed president, Michael M. Kaiser, said yesterday. The six productions - "Sweeney Todd"; "Company"; "Sunday in the Park with George"; "Merrily We Roll Along"; "Passion" and "A Little Night Music" - will mark the center's first major theatrical producing effort in more than a dozen years.

The Sondheim celebration will also include the American premiere of the New National Theatre of Japan's production of "Pacific Overtures," coming here at the suggestion of the composer; a Sondheim concert starring Broadway and cabaret singer Barbara Cook; and an exhibit on the life and career of the 70-year-old songwriter, a 1993 Kennedy Center honoree. The six new revivals are expected to cost $7 million to $10 million, according to Kaiser, and will feature an ensemble cast of 100.

The celebration's artistic director will be Eric D. Schaeffer of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., a widely respected Sondheim interpreter.

Kaiser said Sondheim is "overwhelmed" by the celebration and "has been incredibly helpful."

The Sondheim extravaganza is just one facet of the full 2001-2002 Kennedy Center season, which was unveiled in a news conference in the center's Terrace Theater. (More information is available at www.kennedy-center.org/newseason or at 800-444-1324.) Highlights include:

Ballets by the Kirov ("The Sleeping Beauty" and George Balanchine's "Jewels"), the Bolshoi ("Swan Lake" and "La Bayadere") and Ballet Nacional de Cuba ("Coppelia" and "Giselle"). The Cuban company last appeared at the Kennedy Center in 1979, and, to the center's knowledge, this will be the first time the Kirov and the Bolshoi have performed in the same city in a single season.

Performances of Mussorgsky's "Khovanschina" and Verdi's "Macbeth" by the Kirov Opera. The appearances of the Kirov Ballet and Opera are the first in a decade-long series supported by Alberto W. Vilar, a businessman and arts patron who donated $50 million to the center two weeks ago.

Billy Taylor's 80th birthday celebration - a program honoring the pianist whose perennially popular jazz series will be in its eighth year at the center.

"More Drums Along the Potomac," a new version of last year's festival featuring percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the National Symphony, and including premieres of commissioned percussion concertos by Joan Tower and George Tsontakis.

The National Symphony will also give the world premieres of four more concertos during the season, including a left-hand piano concerto by Richard Danielpour for pianist Gary Graffman.

The NSO's new "Journey to America" Festival will explore works by composers who visited or emigrated to this country, including Dvorak, Delius and Stravinsky. Lots of offbeat fare will be included, such as a double-bass concerto by famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky and at least eight arrangements of the national anthem, including one by Kurt Weill.

The festival also offers a program of concert music by leading European-born Hollywood film composers, including Korngold's Cello Concerto, which was premiered in 1946 by Slatkin's mother, cellist Eleanor Aller, and will be played here by his brother, Frederick Zlotkin.

"Queen Amina," a commissioned musical theater piece based on a Nigerian legend. Directed by Broadway veteran George Faison - choreographer of Center Stage's forthcoming production of "Dinah Was" - "Amina" will be part of the February 2002 Treasures of Nigeria Festival.

"The Next Ice Age," a return engagement by the Baltimore-based company that translates the principles of ballet onto the ice.

Theatrical offerings also will include touring productions of "The Unexpected Man," an account of two strangers on a train by "Art" playwright Yasmina Reza; "Dirty Blonde," Claudia Shear's play about Mae West; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella"; "Copenhagen," Michael Frayn's 2000 Tony Award winner about physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg; Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida"; and "Cloudstreet," a five-hour Australian adaptation of Tim Winton's novel.

Sun Music Critic Tim Smith contributed to this article.

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