There’s nothing like live theatre: hearing the step-ball-change of a tap dancer’s feet or the soprano hit that high note, laughing so hard it hurts, and being moved by the characters, their stories and their strength. It’s a thrill, one we’ve missed over the last year and a half. So, it’s with much applause that musicals and plays once again take over the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this fall during its grand reopening — and show-stopping 50th anniversary season.
Also, in lieu of the evolving Covid-19 pandemic, and in lockstep with the District’s theatre and performing arts community, the Kennedy Center is requiring all patrons to show proof they are fully vaccinated to attend indoor performances.
“We wanted to have a very celebratory season, but what’s incredibly exciting is the amount of theatre we’ll be able to offer,” says Kennedy Center Vice President of Theater Producing and Programming Jeffrey Finn. “It’s turned out to be a [lineup] of the very best hit shows currently running on Broadway and out on tour.”
In 2019, there were 51 weeks of theatre. This year, there are 80 weeks — partly due to rescheduled shows during the pandemic and the general enthusiasm surrounding the venue’s anniversary. Finn says the range in content will entice not only longtime fans but also new, diverse audiences.
“There are a lot of choices and variety for different audiences. It’s opening the doors for [those] who may not have gone to see shows before. They will now be invited in new ways.”
The Kennedy Center’s theatre season kicks off with the premiere of “Hadestown” (October 13 to 31), the beautifully conceived Grammy- and Tony Award-winning production combining two mythic tales: Orpheus and Eurydice, and King Hades and wife Persephone. Taking viewers on a journey to the underworld, the overarching themes are prescient (mortality, time, how to embrace life even with the knowledge of death) and the story is told through music and movement that’s both unforgettably catchy and searingly emotional. Finn describes it as “visually sumptuous.”
In fact, the production is sung entirely through.
“There are no scenes where people stop and speak extemporaneously without music: Everything is scored,” choreographer David Neumann says. “The way that Hermes speaks to Orpheus is in rhythm. So, from the beginning to the end, everything is somehow choreographed.”
Neumann, who also choreographed the Broadway production, had many influences when putting together the show’s movement. For example, he used puppetry when the furniture begins to float in the beginning. West African and club dance, jazz, contemporary movement, gestural actions — even a court dance find their way into the repertoire. A lead singer at a punk concert inspired Persephone’s body language in “Way Down Hadestown.”
“[Persephone’s] jonesing for a fix,” Neumann says of that performance. “She’s a little drunk [and] protesting having to return underground to a very troubled relationship — and the end of the earth, potentially.”
One of the most poignant moments for Neumann is toward the end, when the cast stops moving and gathers to sing one last song. During the Broadway production, the mics were turned off and the group performed acapella–nly a guitar rang out with them. Neumann recalls standing to the side of the theater to see how the audience would react.
“A large portion of the audience was crying,” he says. “There was this release: The song provided the realization, and it felt like everyone in the room recognized it. We all have limited time.”
It’s too soon to say whether they’ll pull off the song sans mic on tour — each stage has different capabilities — but it speaks to the relationship between audience and actor, particularly when the third wall is broken.
Jonalyn Saxer, who plays the endearingly clueless Karen Smith in “Mean Girls” (April 5 to 24), agrees. One of her favorite moments is when she takes the stage to sing “Sexy.”
“What I love about the song is that I’m speaking directly to the audience,” she says. “I come out and say ‘Hi.’It’s so fun to have that connection and to look out and be present with everybody.”
The adaptation of Tina Fey’s cult-classic film follows Africa-raised Cady Heron as she navigates the wild world of suburban high school and its cliques. Chief among them is the Plastics, made up of girls-we-love-to-hate Regina George, Gretchen Wieners and Smith.
“I always say Karen is such a ‘yes’ girl,” Saxer says. “She just goes with the flow and is happy to be there.It’s a fun and exciting brain to step into every night. Karen just views the world differently than most people. She might have a delayed or surface reaction to something simple.”
Perhaps that’s why “Mean Girls” has such a lasting legacy among fans: These characters are both hilarious and human. And, like IRL people, they evolve with time, cultural shifts and current events — a credit to Fey and the creative team.
“They’ve updated it so the jokes are new and present,” Saxer says. “It’s exciting for the people who know it, but if you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s not like you’re going to miss anything.”
Despite the outrageous humor in nearly every scene, the play also puts the serious topic of bullying (on social media, in the classroom, among “friends”) front and center, and invites us to reflect. Maybe we were pushed around. Maybe we did the pushing. And what about our kids?
“No matter how much we try to stop it, bullying is ever-present,” Saxer says. “If you’ve been to high school, you’re going to connect [with] this play.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” (August 30 to September 25) is of the same vein. The winner of six Tonys, the play is a soul-searching, coming-of-age tale about a teen with social anxiety who longs to fit in. Then there’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (June 21 to July 10) — the theatrical iteration of Harper Lee’s classic novel addressing issues of rape and racial inequity — and “A Monster Calls” (May 25 to June 12). The Kennedy Center will be the only venue in the U.S. to present the show, which originated at The Old Vic in London and tells the tale of a teen boy who finds a friend in a monster when his mom falls ill.
“It’s a beautiful play that I saw and fell in love with,” Finn says. “And we figured out how to make it happen in Washington,”
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (December 14 to January 2), “Jersey Boys” (June 14-26) and the tour premiere of “Ain’t Too Proud” (December 15 to January 16), the throwback musical about 1960s-era R&B hitmakers The Temptations, are also on the roster. And, of course, no theatrical season in D.C. would be complete without Broadway darling “Hamilton” (July 12 to October 2). Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap retelling of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton returns for the second time after its 2020 showing was canceled due to the pandemic.
The encore? “50 Years of Broadway at the Kennedy Center,” a one-night only event in spring 2022 produced by Finn. It’s what he calls a star-studded event, filled with Broadway performers who will recreate moments from shows that have been at the venue, including “Pippin,” “Annie” and “Les Misérables,” all backed by an onstage orchestra.
“Audiences will be given a massive opportunity to experience exciting, thrilling theatre that they can’t see anywhere else in D.C.,” Finns says of the season. “And, during this 50th season and with our return post-pandemic, we’ll be having a celebration unlike any other year.”