Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” playing July 18 to Aug. 20 at the Kennedy Center. (Matthew Murphy)
Theater critic

Imagine falling asleep like this:

Your room is upstairs. Your bed’s by the window. You are 4 years old, maybe 5. It’s a woodsy college town in Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor, and there’s an amphitheater down the hill. A show’s going on. You can hear it on the summer breeze.

O-o-o-o-klahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain . . .

I already knew the song cold, because my parents — fairly recent products of the University of Michigan’s music program — were helping run an outdoor musical theater series at Hillsdale College. This was serious stuff: full orchestra, and voice students who worked on Britten and Schubert when they weren’t singing Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Lessons often took place at the house. My dad sang tenor, my mom accompanied on piano, and they often taught together. So at an early age, I heard what it was like to drill tough passages, burnish technique, analyze composition, character, and situation.

The amphitheater was tucked into a pine-rimmed hillside and next to a pond where I routinely discovered turtles (and toted them home). Each summer, a stage was raised, and a tent was pitched over it. I went a lot. I begged to be part of it.

I was put into “The King and I” as the littlest prince, and learned how to get a laugh every night with a reliable bit of mischief, scampering between the King of Siam's legs. When I heard that the next show would be “Oliver!,” I was adamant: I want to be Oliver! I had the cast album. Wore it out on my portable phonograph. Knew every song. Sang ‘em loud.

They cast another kid.

Still, being around the amphitheater those few summers was a blast. I can still feel my small kindergarten self amid the swarm of exotically costumed adults on stage. I still see hundreds of people watching from folding chairs on the lawn, with spotlights planted along the rim of pines up the hillside. On stage, I made a point of gazing directly at the spotlight. It seemed like the professional thing to do.

If the acoustics or sightlines were bad, as can happen outdoors, that’s forgotten. This is about being smitten — a gateway to learning. I could sense that the outdoor event caught everyone’s attention differently than the concert hall did. Naturally, I was more at ease at the turtle pond than in the campus concert hall. Culture palaces can be awesome, but the memory of being among artists in the wild remains my most indelible portal into art.

Pick: “The King and I,” of course.

The Kennedy Center is a long way from Hillsdale, but in good weather, the broad pavilion overlooking the curving Potomac River is still one of the best intermission escapes anywhere. “To be tired of London is to be tired of life,” Samuel Johnson said, and here you might say the same of that river view.

And even with Rodgers and Hammerstein oversaturating Washington of late — see “The Sound of Music” at the KenCen in June and “A Grand Night for Singing” at Next Stop in July — songs such as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers” stay in your bones for life.


● “Bon Voyage! A Happenstance Escapade.” The movement-mime-clown Happenstance Theatre is the city’s leading peddler of whimsy, and the setting for the cheerful troupe’s latest show is 19th-century Paris.

●“Whipping, or The Football Hamlet.” The thoughtful writer-director Kathleen Akerley presents a single show each August at Catholic University’s 75-seat Callan Theater. This summer, Shakespeare collides with the NFL.