The Music Center at Strathmore, the North Bethesda venue that hosts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and high-end Americana concerts, is getting into the musical-theater business.
Last week, Strathmore announced plans to present the companion pieces “I Am Anne Hutchinson” and “I Am Harvey Milk,” musical-theater/oratorio works by Andrew Lippa, the composer and lyricist behind such shows as “The Addams Family,” “The Wild Party” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The world premiere of “I Am Anne Hutchinson” will be performed with “I Am Harvey Milk” on April 23-24, starring Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth in her first serious rather than comic roles.
“I Am Harvey Milk,” which commemorated the legacy of the gay social activist and San Francisco city supervisor who was shot to death in 1978 at 48, was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. It debuted in 2013 with Laura Benanti as an Everywoman narrator and Lippa as Milk.
Alexandra Silber sang the soprano role for last year’s Los Angeles premiere of the hour-long oratorio, and Chenoweth took over the role at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall in October.
“What I wanted to do was to capture feelings and moments in the life of Harvey Milk — the 11 months he was in office,” Lippa told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Each month is represented by a movement.”
Lippa’s new work, “I Am Anne Hutchison,” is the story of a Colonial-era religious leader who was tried, found guilty and excommunicated for holding unsanctioned Bible studies in her home. Chenoweth will sing the lead.
“It’s about a liberal Christian who’s 46,” said Noah Himmelstein, the 29-year-old Baltimore native who has been directing the show since its inception. “It’s sort of an opera, sort of a theater piece. Kristin brings a musical-theater sensibility but can sing like Renee Fleming.”
After committing to the project, Chenoweth, who lives on the same Manhattan block as Himmelstein, met him for lunch at a neighborhood diner and asked him to call her every night with corrections. “She said, ‘I know this piece is great. I want to be as good as I’ve heard it is,’ ” Himmelstein said. “I never felt she was Kristin; she was just a hard-working actor.”
Other theater-focused performances at Strathmore announced last week include Chenoweth’s Jan. 29 solo show; a Valentine’s Day concert featuring Alan Cumming, the “Cabaret” star who hosted this year’s Tony Awards with Chenoweth; and a concert staging of “Children of Eden,” featuring standout high school theater students from the area, which Himmelstein also has signed on to direct.
If it sounds like Noah Himmelstein is suddenly everywhere, he is — including Everyman Theatre, where his production of J.B. Priestly’s “An Inspector Calls” opens Friday.
At rehearsals last week, the young director found himself in the odd position of teaching much older actors how to use a “Downton Abbey”-era telephone. Bruce Randolph Nelson demurred to his instruction, asking an imaginary operator for the police. The production marks a coming-full-circle moment for Himmelstein, who grew up watching Nelson and other company members act at the small Baltimore theater.
“An Inspector Calls” also features set designs by Timothy R. Mackabee, who, like Himmelstein, graduated from the Catonsville, Md., high school now known as the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology.
But while Mackabee headed to the University of North Carolina School for the Arts to pursue design, Himmelstein went to Boston’s Emerson College, intent on studying acting until a pivotal critique in a musical-theater class.
“We were assigned to do a 25-minute staging from ‘The Apple Tree,’ ” he recalled. “I found things that a director would be thinking of, not an actor. The teacher, [Boston director] Spiro Veloudos, pulled me aside and said, ‘Why don’t you try directing? I can tell that you’re not really in your body, and you seem a little neurotic. Maybe there’s another path for you.’ . . . The next semester he created a position for me, assisting him on three shows at Lyric Stage.”
The week after graduating from Emerson, Himmelstein moved to New York and landed the position of directing intern on the Broadway-transfer production of “August: Osage County.” “It was like, ‘Boom!,’ ” Himmelstein said. He spent the next three years assisting the likes of James Lapine, John Rando and Bartlett Sher. “Everyone needs a mentor. I had a lot of passion and energy but didn’t know how to siphon that into a craft,” Himmelstein said.
His first opportunity to direct a solo professional show came in 2012, when the small Washington-based opera troupe Urban Arias hired him to direct “Positions 1956.” Soon he started working with Lippa on “Harvey Milk.”
“That has opened up a lot of other things,” he said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can of everything, and I’m equally split between plays, musical theater and opera right now.”
Three of the Washington area’s smaller theater organizations are celebrating major grants. Tysons Corner-based 1st Stage and Washington-based Theater Alliance have received $10,000 grants from the American Theatre Wing. Each year, the organization that runs the Tonys gives the awards to about a dozen emerging companies. To be eligible, troupes must have been established for five to 15 years and have “articulated a distinctive mission.”
D.C. troupes have a strong track record with the Wing; Forum Theatre won an award last year and Constellation received a grant in 2013.
Also last week, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced the 11 arts organizations that will be receiving money from its Fund for National Projects. The list includes a $56,250 grant for the New Play Exchange, an online repository of scripts created by the National New Play Network, a coalition of theaters that support new work. The network has its headquarters at the District’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Local playwright Gwydion Suilebhan is project manager for the database. The exchange went online in January with a goal of uploading 750 scripts the first year. As of this week, Suilebhan said, there are 5,863 plays available.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
An earlier version of this column misidentified a work that will be given a concert staging at Strathmore Music Center, featuring standout high school theater students from the area and directed by Noah Himmelstein. The work is “Children of Eden,” not “The Apple Tree.”