“50 Years of Broadway” Celebrates Musical Theater
WASHINGTON, DC – If Broadway is the top, then the Kennedy Center is its vital launching pad.
Washington’s historic arts venue in the middle of celebrates its 50th anniversary is renowned for its symphonic concerts and specialized events, with its Kennedy Center honors signing and the Mark Twain Prize topping the roll call.
But it has also long been a bastion of theater – both emerging and familiar – and this great reminiscence was celebrated with great emotion and variety on Friday, the first of two evenings of the event “50 years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center”. .
Between the best actors in theatrical royalty, including Tony winners Stephanie J. Block (“The Dear Show”, “Falestos” ); Gavin Creel (“Hello, Dolly!” “Hair”); Beth Leavel (“The Prom”, “The Sleepy Riding Hood”); Frances Ruffelle (“Les Miserables”, “The Savage Party”); LaChanze (“The Color Purple”, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”); and host James Monroe Iglehart (“Aladdin,” “Hamilton”) and hitting it five-song tribute to the late Stephen Sondheimthe evening would have bloomed.
Add the ovation-worthy talents of Norm Lewis (“Chicken and Biscuits,” “The Phantom of the Opera”); vanessa williams (“Into the Woods”, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”); Andrew Rannells (“The Book of Mormon”, “Hamilton”); Andrea McArdle (“Starlight Express”, “Beauty and the Beast”); Sierra Boggess (“The Phantom of the Opera”, “The Little Mermaid”); Tony Yazbeck (“On the Town”, “Finding Neverland”) and Betsy Wolfe (“Waitress”, “The Last Five Years”) and the 27 performances of the series were deeply impressed.
(Scheduled artists Christopher Jackson and Alfie Boe were late scratches from the schedule.)
One of the most unique aspects of the show was the reminder that three Broadway-topped musicals — “Annie,” “Pippin’” and “Les Miserables” — debuted at the Kennedy Center. McArdle, the original Annie, and Ruffelle, the first to play Eponine in “Les Miserables,” each approached songs from those embryonic roles with the wisdom that comes with age.
Along with more than two hours of music with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, deftly weaving through songs ranging from “Wicked” to “Cabaret” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” the live theater majesty captivated this all-star cast.
While there were no issues with any of the performance, here are some highlights:
• Williams, a 58-year-old ageless woman, shimmered, twirled and bared her athletic legs in a fringed black dress during “Hit Me with a Hot Note” (“Sophisticated Ladies”). But it was his superb duet with Boggess during Sondheim’s tribute — “Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By” from “Follies” and “Merrily We Roll Along” — which shed light on the late blacksmith’s cunning and Williams’ own natural gifts. Her hoarser voice intertwined perfectly with Boggess, a soprano with stratospheric ranges.
• When Wolfe simply stood behind the mic stand and spoke words forever linked to Liza Minnelli – “Maybe this time I’ll be lucky / Maybe this time he’ll stay” – she immediately captivated. But to hear him draw hope and despair from “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret,” a slow escalation to its climax, was like witnessing a masterclass in technique.
• It took until the second act for the show’s first ovation, a deserved shower of appreciation for Lewis, whose “The Music of the Night” quivers with sensuality (a regular at Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lewis portrays the first Black Phantom in 2014’s “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway opposite Boggess). He also closed the first act with the brawny “Stars” from “Les Miserables” and paired with the delicious LaChanze on “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime.” Lewis presented a number of multi-faceted performances rivaled only by Creel’s chameleon turns on “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin'” and “Luck Be a Lady” from “Guys and Dolls” among her smooth appearances.
• Recently seen as Cher – not an easy task – in “The Cher Show”, Block served up a stellar rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” making the eternally Barbra Streisand-affiliated blockbuster “Funny Girl” his own with polished phrasing and a superbly held endnote. She also revisited her role as Elphaba — which she originated at the Kennedy Center production — by tackling “Wicked’s” most vocally grueling song. Without a billowing costume, Block used her arms for emphasis as she dug into soaring “Defying Gravity” on a stage bathed in green.
• What a treat to watch Rannells, his still-bouncy cheekbones and infectious smile, tackle “I Believe” from his starring role as Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon.” The humor still stings gently, and Rannells attacked the lyrics (“I believe – that God has a plan for us all / I believe – that plan involves me getting my own planet”) with fierce passion. He also kept busy throughout the show, featuring with Wolfe for a sweet “Suddenly, Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors” and with Block on a soulful “Move On”. from “Sunday in the Park with George.”