Season of song brings hot musicals to Washington

(Cameron Whitman) - Michael Innocenti plays oddball Leaf Coneybear in Keegan Theatre’s \

(Cameron Whitman) - Michael Innocenti plays oddball Leaf Coneybear in Keegan Theatre’s \"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.\"

We’re having a musicals moment.

A slip-into-something-sparkly, belt-out-a-number, tap-dance-even-if-you-can’t moment. And there’s not an “Annie” in sight.

More on this Story

This summer, consider Washington stages our own personal Brainy Broadway. Headed this way is an eclectic chorus line of blockbusters including “Wicked” and Arena Stage’s fearlessly gritty revival of “Oklahoma!” as well as much-buzzed-about edgier fare such as the mental-health saga “Next to Normal” and the beat-driven, politically minded “Fela!” For the adventurous? We’ll also see some of the freshest work theater has to offer, including a musical about Andy Warhol and another about a quirky boy detective.

Please turn off your cellphones and pagers. The show is about to begin.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

This comic musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin has a way of dredging up the most humiliating, humbling memories of your formative years. Like the agony of not being elected class president. Or getting your first B.

And if you’re one of four audience members picked to join the bee, then you’re literally 12 again, grasping for the letters with which to spell “ignominy.”

Keegan Theatre, which in 2009 became the first Washington theater to take on its own production of “Rent,” is following that success with the first homegrown production of “The Bee,” a tale of preteens who are driven — but more likely pushed and prodded — to win a local spelling bee (though the only thing most of them need is a little attention and affirmation from the grown-ups).

While “Rent” may have had a built-in fan base, this less-familiar 2005 Broadway offering might just find an audience of kindred spirits in Washington, a magnet for former wunderkinds. The script also offers room for pop-culture references, in hopes of keeping the show fresh.

“It’s not your typical Rodgers and Hammerstein show,” says Christina Coakley, who is directing the show at Church Street Theater. “It’s going to relate to a younger generation.”

“The Bee,” in fact, is practically a PG-13 offering; if you want to see the show in its raunchy glory, Keegan is hosting an adults-only performance June 25.

l Through July 3 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. 703-892-0202. www.keegantheatre.com. $40; $35, students and seniors.

Wicked

When this musical last swooped into the Kennedy Center in 2005, every ticket for the three-week run was snapped up by theatergoers dying to lay eyes on the lavish, crayon-colored spectacle that had all but eaten Broadway since its 2003 debut.

This time around, fans merely crashed the Kennedy Center Web site. Twice.

For those who haven’t seen it six times or memorized every word from the (multiplatinum) album, “Wicked” is the back story of the witches from “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s the show’s sleight-of-hand that the kelly-green Wicked Witch of the West is a sweet girl ill-treated by mean girl Galinda (Glinda the Good Witch of the North). Oz isn’t Oz, the Cowardly Lion still has his wits, and Galinda and Elphaba are your average young frenemies thrown together by fate and a dorm room.

“ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is our national fairy tale,” says producer David Stone. “A 10-year-old might love seeing how the twister happened, and a 16-year-old might relate to the story of an outsider who wants to be a popular girl.” And adults will recognize the injustices heaped upon unattractive people.

It’s such a popular show, in fact, that even with 80 performances over two months, tickets are going fast.

lWednesday through Aug. 21 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-
center.org
. Most available tickets are $95-$250, but call the box office to check lower-priced ticket options.

Next to Normal

In 2008, the last time Washington got a peek at “Next to Normal,” the rollicking rock musical about manic depression was a show on the mend, a New York production that had come to Arena Stage to find its footing after mixed reviews at home (the New York Times predicted it was audiences that would feel bipolar about the show).

This month, it returns to the Kennedy Center as a Broadway success story, a Tony Award winner and the first musical in nearly 15 years to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Heading down I-95 to Washington was an unusual journey for a musical vying for Broadway. But no one — not director Michael Greif, who led “Rent” to glory in the 1990s, nor producer David Stone, who put “Wicked” on Broadway, nor the actors, including Alice Ripley, who played the afflicted suburban mom, nor writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey — was ready to give up on the musical after its first New York run.

“We quietly did our work,” says Greif, explaining how in Washington, away from the microscope of Broadway, the show blossomed. Its emphasis shifted from a highly medical story line to one more humanistic, centering on the dynamics of a family and a couple, Dan and Diana, trying to stay normal as Diana’s condition spirals.

What emerged from Arena’s temporary digs in Crystal City was a “much more universal, much more moving” show, Stone says. (Audience members have been known to weep.)

“Next to Normal,” Stone explains, “ is about this illness, but it also is about any family dealing with addiction or anything where one member of the family sucks all the energy and attention out of the house.

“It’s happening in everyone’s homes, and if not in our homes, then the ones next door.”

lJune 28-July 10 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $35-$120.

Oklahoma!

In dusting off a nearly 70-year-old musical to open Arena Stage’s first season in the Mead Center for American Theater last fall, artistic director Molly Smith decided that the best way to make “Oklahoma!” fresh was to get a little dirty.

What she wanted, she told music director George Fulginiti-Shakar and choreographer Parker Esse, was an “Oklahoma!” with “dirt under the fingernails.”

“That meant the costumes needed to be distressed,” Smith says. “I really was interested in actors who were grounded and that were athletic — that could lift bales of cotton, birth a lamb and gather three dozen eggs before they had breakfast.”

Smith also cast actors of various ethnicities, including African American actress Eleasha Gamble as the show’s star, Laurey, and Latino actor Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly.

“Frontiers are always diverse,” Smith explains. “People come to frontiers for opportunity, for money, because it’s a land rush,” which meant that freed slaves, Asian families and Native Americans, not just whites, occupied Oklahoma’s terrain.

Meanwhile, Fulginiti-Shakar set about putting Arena’s stamp on the Rodgers and Hammerstein music, following Smith’s vision of “roughing up” the show. Out was the string-heavy symphony and in was a violinist who could play the fiddle, more banjo and more brass. The treatment worked — last fall’s run of “Oklahoma!” was the highest-grossing show in Arena’s history. (With the longer return engagement, Arena hopes to attract tourists as well as locals.)

“Subtle little changes,” Fulginiti-Shakar notes, “but you put enough of them together, and you’ve got a different show.”

lJuly 8-Oct. 2 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. www.arenastage.org. $61-$106. A new Pay Your Age discounted ticket plan is available; tickets for theatergoers ages 5 to 30 will range from $5 to $30.

Pop!

In July, Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage will raise the ghosts of Andy Warhol and his circle of star hangers-on with “Pop!” — a show that’s the indie answer to the stream of Broadway musicals spilling into town. Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs’s comedic mystery parses what happened June 3, 1968: the day Warhol was shot.

“Pop!” began its life only a handful of years ago as Coleman and Jacobs’s master’s thesis at New York University. Coleman, a self-described “research nut,” was the book writer and lyricist, while Jacobs, a pop-culture junkie, wrote the music. They were refining the show at a workshop for emerging musical writers at Yale University when Coleman got a call: The prestigious Yale Repertory Theatre had a space in its season and thought the grads’ piece might fit.

“I was like, ‘Is this a joke? Are there cameras here?’ ” Coleman recalls. The show opened at Yale Rep in late 2009 to promising reviews. “It happened so quickly, and our learning curve was so huge, it was really overwhelming in a wonderful way,” says Coleman, who grew up in Hagerstown.

On that day in 1968, Valerie Solanas, a member of Warhol’s inner circle, shot the artist after he had brushed her off. But as Coleman and Jacobs found, few inside the complicated Factory web were happy.

“Warhol,” Jacobs says, “was good at picking the flavor of the month and then rejecting that person. We started looking, and we saw anybody had a motive to shoot him. That’s where the play became a sort of murder-mystery.”

Like pop art itself, the musical aimed to be a mashup of cultural styles. “We went in with the intention of making the music as eclectic as possible,” says Jacobs, who composed doo-wop, country, rock and blues numbers. “For a pop art musical, we needed to get as many kinds of music crammed in there as possible.”

lJuly 13-Aug. 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org. $38-$43.

The Boy Detective Fails

Two summers ago, Signature Theatre enlisted budding writers to create two musicals. Among them was young composer Adam Gwon, who teamed up with novelist Joe Meno to turn Meno’s offbeat mystery “The Boy Detective Fails” into a musical.

“The Boy Detective Fails” was slated to premiere at Signature in August when Gwon, 31, got some big news.

Last month, Gwon won the Kleban Prize for most promising musical theater lyricist. With it came a $100,000 award — 10 times the amount given for a Pulitzer, if you’re wondering.

“We have good intuition,” Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, says with a laugh. “I think he’s so talented.”

Young writers such as Gwon don’t often get the opportunity to helm a new musical, Schaeffer says, “because it’s very risky for a theater to present a new musical. A new musical costs over half a million dollars to produce.”

But Signature made the surprising decision that not one, but two premieres would open its upcoming season. “The Hollow,” a “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” riff by Matt Conner and Hunter Foster, will run concurrently with “Boy Detective” for a couple of months and share much of its cast.

Many eyes, however, will be on Gwon and Meno’s surreal fantasy about Billy Argo, a once-beloved child sleuth — a la “Encyclopedia Brown” — who turns out to be less successful at adulthood, ending up in a mental institution, still haunted by his one unsolved case. The show, though dark, is also laced with humor (washed-up former child detectives litter Meno’s world). Think of it as a musical for fans of the movie “The Royal Tenenbaums” and its eccentric characters.

Gwon says Meno’s book “just lept off the page. . . . There was something really magical and heightened about the world.”

Audiences got their first peek at the work at Signature in 2009, when it was performed as a concert-style reading.

“I think now more than ever, people are pushing the envelope to say, ‘Why can’t that be a musical?’ ” Schaeffer says. “The revivals are great — there’s nothing better than seeing a good revival. I think people are now like, ‘Let’s see some new stuff.’ ”

lAug. 25-Oct. 16 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. www.
signature-theatre.org
. $62-$86.

Fela!

How did a musical about a Ni­ger­ian brass player — one with a penchant for grass and women, no less — dance onto Broadway?

To hear the musical’s co-creator and producer, Stephen Hendel, describe it, even he isn’t sure.

Hendel discovered the thumping, funk-laced Afrobeat music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti in the most mundane of ways — it was a best-of compilation from Amazon.com that inspired the Tony Award-winning musical. But the man behind the music, the political firebrand who fought for social justice in his homeland, left the bigger impression.

“Here’s the greatest music I ever heard,” Hendel recalls thinking. “There ought to be a way of making something very powerful and theatric. I didn’t know exactly what.”

What emerged was “Fela!,” a spectacle of brass, beats and stomping feet, a portrait of Lagos drawn in a palette of neon colors, glowing under blacklight. Washington audiences will finally get a chance to see the acclaimed show in September when a national tour opens at Sidney Harman Hall.

It’s an unlikely musical in many regards. Rather than hire a music director with Broadway cred, the creators — including legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones, the show’s director — enlisted the Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas, which hailed not from the Great White Way, but from Brooklyn. Sahr Ngaujah, a magnetic but unknown avant-garde actor from Holland, was plucked to be the star. And the show’s creation, Hendel says, was a collaborative effort, borne of “having 50 artists in a room,” from as many nations.

From even its off-Broadway days in 2008, “Fela!” had a sort of hipster cred that drew such celebrities as Questlove, Jay-Z and Will Smith (the latter two became the show’s marquee backers). The Broadway production won three Tony Awards last year, including one for Jones.

“I always felt that this music was the greatest music this country never heard,” Hendel says proudly. “About a man who stands for everyone. . . . The design is beautiful, the show is hugely entertaining, you never know what’s going to happen next.

“It’s about something that stays with you.”

l Sept. 13-Oct. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org. $45-$120.

Read on for more musicals to see this summer, from “Mamma Mia!” to “Follies.”

 
Read what others are saying