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Students and stars celebrate Broadway, arts at White House

By Nelson Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; C01

Washington usually does ceremonial showbiz pretty well, but the East Room seemed to muffle dirty ol' Broadway on Monday night in the sixth installment of the White House Music Series. Politeness got the upper hand on pizazz -- as though the vaudeville-based genre was a bit at a loss in such official surroundings.

Not that the evening was a train wreck (except briefly, and memorably). Nathan Lane hosted and proved quick on his feet, even as jokes about show tunes making people feel gay (as in "happy," he wryly clarified) up and died. Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba from Broadway's "Wicked," provided some welcome electricity by dynamically belting out "Defying Gravity." And Audra McDonald proved that she's as captivating a singer as Broadway offers these days.

Education is a major thrust of this program as conceived under the Obamas, so New Yorker Assata Alston, 12, took the stage early and rose capably through the scales in the yearning "Gimme, Gimme" from "Thoroughly Modern Millie." The event, taped for an Oct. 20 "In Performance at the White House" telecast on PBS, also included an afternoon dress rehearsal for 20 Washington area students working on "You Can't Stop the Beat" from "Hairspray" in front of parents, the news media and the first lady.

"Now do it and smile," "Hairspray" choreographer Jerry Mitchell told the students in the afternoon, brushing them up moments before Michelle Obama's entrance. Mitchell added a note about the crowded East Room: "Look for the legs when you go running up and down the aisle."

(Photos from Broadway at the White House)

Moments before, the 20 students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Joy of Motion Dance Center shuffled expectantly in an anteroom as Lane, who is starring in "The Addams Family" on Broadway, quietly filibustered in favor of arts education for a camera crew. Nearby, 85-year-old Elaine Stritch -- wearing casual white from her Keds to her kerchief -- hobnobbed with director George C. Wolfe.

That was the whole idea, the first lady said in that afternoon session: "To showcase this young talent, and get them mixed with some of the best talent that this country has to offer. And that's just a powerful combination."

During the rehearsal, the kids revved through "You Can't Stop the Beat," gyrating and belting. Quickly, parents were on their feet, applauding.

But Mitchell wasn't satisfied.

"Really great, really great," Mitchell said into a microphone, less as genuine praise than as a way to quiet the room. "Let's clean some things up."

To Mitchell's eye, the performers' arms weren't fully extended. Feet weren't high enough off the floor. And the exhausting number left the singers too winded.

"What is the joke?" Mitchell reminded his cast about this particular showstopper. " 'You Can't Stop to Breathe.' " He guided the youngsters to the comparatively slow spot in the dance -- just a few seconds long -- which represented the last chance to fill their lungs before the big vocal finish.

The cast ran through the trouble spot again. It was sharper, more exacting -- a cleaner adrenaline jolt. Lesson learned about practice and precision.

A tougher lesson came during the evening as Stritch lost the lyrics -- but good -- during Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here." She started over but fumbled again, even with the pianist hollering cues to her, until merely finishing became an act of survival. The Obamas filled their ceremonial function brilliantly, rising and leading the applause as the stricken Stritch finally made it through.

When the applause died down, Stritch -- who nailed "Broadway Baby" to open the show -- pleaded guilty to a whopping case of nerves, reported how thrilled she was when Obama was elected and then said, "I'd love to get drunk with the president." After the whoops subsided, she added diplomatically: "And the first lady."

It's a tough room for Broadway, of course, accommodating only about 200 guests Monday. The East Room stage is a mere six feet deep (which explained why a mere four women from "West Side Story" sang and danced "America," with one of them apologizing to the first couple immediately afterward for reasons that weren't clear). And the four-piece band, expert though it was, could only achieve a certain scale.

But it's still possible to score under such conditions: Brian d'Arcy James's easygoing rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" was a jazzy gem, and McDonald delivered a master class in phrasing during "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe." Too much of Monday night, though, was Broadway not only unplugged, but also a little off-balance.

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