Howard Theatre out of step as a dance venue


A cozy booth with a table lamp next to stairs leading up to the bar and a blow up of Sammy Davis, Jr. at the historic and newly refurbished Howard Theater on March, 27, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Maybe we were wrong to expect the ambiance of a cafe in old Seville, but my friend and I were hopeful last month on our first trip to the Howard Theatre. The occasion was a night of music and dance sponsored by the Spanish Embassy. “I feel like we’re in Spain,” my friend said a bit dreamily as we walked in. “They do flamenco in old, sit-down theaters like this. At least, they do for the tourists.”

By evening’s end, though, our experience had been far from a one-night Iberian vacation. The newly renovated Howard Theatre is not the sort of venue where patrons can sit back, relax and sip sangria.

The night got off to an awkward start when we were taken to the wrong seats. (Our server didn’t realize we had a table reserved, so if you go and you have one, be assertive.) Then it turned out that our table for two was in the back corner of the theater. We immediately ascertained that this wasn’t the best vantage point. But there were few alternatives: Across the theater, patrons were packed in, eight to each small table that could comfortably accommodate only six. (To be fair, eight might be reasonable if all eight were the size of, say, the average Russian ballerina.) We felt especially sorry for a very pregnant woman at the next table, who had to move her chair out into the aisle.

Soon the show was underway, and we attempted to focus on the performance. Up first was a delicate jazz piano solo by Ariadna Castellanos, syncopated by loud noises from the bar. Near the beginning of the show, we heard martini shakers and constant chatter from the wait staff. Later came the clacking of receipts being churned out on what sounded like dot-matrix printers.

Apparently, they still make those.

We were relieved when all five musicians eventually came onstage, along with featured flamenco dancer Nino de Los Reyes. When stamping full throttle, his rat-a-tat tapping competed well with the martini shakers, but we also discovered a visual drawback: The Howard’s stage is set high, and the audience sits at tables on a recessed main floor. Too recessed, it turns out, for most people seated on first floor to see the dancer’s feet. (Another friend sitting in the front said that she might have been able to see de Los Reyes’s snazzy white shoes if she could have turned her chair but that she couldn’t because the patron behind her was rather large.) The balcony would offer a terrific view, but, except that for a few walk-ups allowed upstairs at the last minute, the second floor was not open that evening.

Is it too much to expect the Howard to be a decent dance venue? Yes. But it would have been a nice bonus. The District could use another venue appropriate for combined music and dance performances like this. But a reasonable question, at this point, is whether the theater will make any effort to stop the bar noise from competing with the music onstage. And will patrons keep coming back, knowing that this is not a theater that wants you to get too comfortable.

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