For cap­i­tal the­ater­go­ers, there’s no busi­ness like show busi­ness.

Where Washington - - CONTENTS - By Jean Lawlor Co­hen

For cap­i­tal the­ater­go­ers, there’s no busi­ness like show busi­ness

D.C. THE­ATER FOLKS give their re­gards to Broad­way. And maybe Broad­way should say “thank you”? We’ve sent at least two cur­rent hit mu­si­cals north—“Dear Evan Hansen,” which pre­miered at Arena Stage, and “Come From Away,” which made its fi­nal-check run at Ford’s Theatre. This re­flects a tra­di­tion—test­ing a show first on cap­i­tal stages. Con­sider Zero Mos­tel tun­ing up Teyve when “Fid­dler on the Roof” stopped at Na­tional Theatre or James Earl Jones warm­ing up for fame and “The Great White Hope” at Arena Stage. Our wise au­di­ences have of­ten helped pol­ish Broad­way-bound pro­duc­tions. But now … a re­al­ity check. At 90-plus area stages, cur­tains rise on an ar­ray of en­ter­tain­ment. Venues range from sub­ur­ban and down­town troupes with com­mu­nity and pro­fes­sional play­ers to com­pa­nies with spe­cial in­ter­ests (Span­ish lan­guage, Jewish iden­tity, mime), from chil­dren’s play­houses to the grand halls of the Kennedy Cen­ter. One well-trav­eled, long­time pa­tron of Amer­i­can the­ater, at­tor­ney Paul Ma­son touts the di­ver­sity. “I could go to good shows here five nights a week, and that’s not pos­si­ble in San Fran­cisco or L. A.”

Ma­son serves on the board of Bethesda, Mary­land’s ac­claimed Round House Theatre. The com­pany’s pro­duc­ing artis­tic direc­tor, Ryan Rilette, typ­i­fies those ad­ven­tur­ous spir­its who’ve made Washington, in his words, “one of the top the­ater cities in Amer­ica.” He cred­its the strong base of ac­tors, de­sign­ers and direc­tors that com­pa­nies can draw from. Prox­im­ity to New York fac­tors with some cast­ing there and boosts the ca­reers of some younger ac­tors picked for na­tional tours. But Rilette in­sists, D.C. theaters have “no spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” or de­pen­dence on the New York scene.

Rilette iden­ti­fies his com­pany’s strength as “en­sem­ble act­ing” and its fo­cus as “plays that de­mand dis­cus­sion and em­pa­thy.” When he books each six-show sea­son, Rilette re­con­firms the com­pany’s pas­sion for de­vel­op­ing new ma­te­rial. By stag­ing works-in-progress, he says, “we get the first chance to weigh in.”

The TheatreWash­ing­ton or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­motes the re­gion’s stages and be­stows awards named in honor of the “First Lady of Amer­i­can The­ater,” He­len Hayes. Pan­els of judges gauge more than 200 pro­duc­tions, both plays and mu­si­cals, in cos­tume and set de­sign, light­ing, chore­og­ra­phy, act­ing, writ­ing and di­rect­ing. On May 15 at the Lin­coln Theatre and the 9:30 Club, TheatreWash­ing­ton dis­penses this year’s awards.

Hayes (1900-1993) grew up in Washington, where a Na­tional Theatre pro­duc­tion in­spired her early stage ca­reer. She took her last bow in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Jour­ney into Night” at Catholic Univer­sity. Be­tween those home­town mark­ers, she won the first Tony given to a lead ac­tress, a sec­ond Tony, two Os­cars, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors Award and a Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom.

Can a the­ater here win a Tony? In­deed three lo­cal com­pa­nies have earned the stat­uette for out­stand­ing Re­gional Theatre— Arena Stage in 1976, Sig­na­ture Theatre in 2009 and Shake­speare Theatre Com­pany in 2012. Hon­or­ing the pi­o­neer­ing Arena Stage came as a sur­prise then, but not so for the later two, both run by Washington-based direc­tors who paid their dues in New York but made their greater im­pact here.

Michael Kahn, artis­tic direc­tor of Shake­speare Theatre, has helmed New York pro­duc­tions and since 1968 taught at The Juil­liard School’s Drama Di­vi­sion. Sig­na­ture’s direc­tor, Eric Scha­ef­fer, has an on­go­ing con­nec­tion to the work of Stephen Sond­heim. In 2012, he was short­listed for Drama Desk best direc­tor for the re­vival of Sond­heim’s “Fol­lies,” but he had es­tab­lished his cred al­ready with “Mil­lion Dol­lar Quar­tet,” which earned him a Tony direc­tor nom­i­na­tion.

The story of Sig­na­ture Theatre reads like a plot for its own stage. Young ac­tor/graph­ics de­signer (Scha­ef­fer) comes to north­ern Vir­ginia to help run a com­mu­nity the­ater, wins awards for “Sweeney Todd” in a school au­di­to­rium, con­verts an auto garage into a the­ater and, in 2007, moves his com­pany into a $16 mil­lion fa­cil­ity. Sig­na­ture cel­e­brated its 25th year with Sond­heim’s “Sun­day in the Park with Ge­orge,” the mu­si­cal Scha­ef­fer’s directed of­ten over the years. Sweet fact: years back, he paid $1,000 for the orig­i­nal Broad­way set and stored it in his garage. For this month’s shows, see page 54.

IT’S SHOW­TIME! (Clock­wise from left) Arena Stage; “Fun Home,” at Na­tional Theatre through May 13; “Rag­time,” at Ford’s Theatre through May 20; Sig­na­ture Theatre

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