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Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Rock!
Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Rock!

BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Comes to The Kennedy Center

After more than a decade since its inception, BLACK GIRLS ROCK! has become an unstoppable force in the fight to empower black women in the arts and in the world. In its latest venture, BLACK GIRLS ROCK! has partnered with The Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture to launch the inaugural BGR! Fest beginning on International Women’s Day.

“I think it’s going to be pretty awesome,” says Beverly Bond, founder and CEO of BLACK GIRLS ROCK!. “It’s really a great gathering of black women artists. Black women don’t always get those mainstage platforms. The combination of everybody we have on the show, together in this one space during International Women’s weekend, is going to be a powerful statement.”

The three-day event features a free welcome party with celebrity DJs Mc Lyte and Bond herself, a book talk, panels, a concert with headliner Jazmine Sullivan, DC’s own Maimouna Youssef and more.

“The crazy part is that the panel sold out before the concert,” Bond says. “And Michaela Angela Davis, who is actually one of the panelists, had to stop for a minute and say, ‘You know what? I appreciate that the panel sold out before the concert! Black women are here to fix it!’”

Bond worked closely with The Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture Simone Eccleston while producing BGR! Fest. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together.

“This is the second touch point with BGR,” Eccleston says. “Back in 2014, the center had a multi-week festival celebrating hip-hop culture known as the One Mic Festival. As part of the three weeks of programming, there was a collaboration with BGR to present Rock Like a Girl.”

After connecting at the One Mic Festival, Eccleston and Bond established a professional relationship and a genuine friendship. It was only a matter of time before they found a mutual cause to bring them together again.

“Within the Hip Hop Culture program, one of our specific areas of focus has been celebrating women,” Eccleston says. “We’ve continued with that throughline over the arc of the season, and it would only be fitting that Beverly Bond be back and for us to have BGR!Fest.”

The timely collaboration between BLACK GIRLS ROCK! and The Kennedy Center on International Women’s Day weekend signifies the recognition of black women and their contributions to arts and society.

“The goal of the program is to provide audiences at large with an understanding of the breadth and depth of the culture and its impacts, not only on contemporary society, but its role in

shaping culture,” she continues. “If we’re talking about communities that have shaped culture and sparked innovation, you cannot have that conversation without having black women at the center of it.”

While the BLACK GIRLS ROCK! organization has achieved great success and popularity, the movement has inspired black women and girls to assert themselves with its now famous namesake phrase.

“I want them to know that black girls rock,” Bond said. “If they’re taking away one thing, it’s to support our art, support our artists and to help elevate our voices.”

Join BRG! Fest at The Kennedy Center on March 10 at 8 p.m. Concert tickets are $59-$119 and available at here. Learn more about BGR! Fest here.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Courtesy of Tap Dogs Photography
Photo: Courtesy of Tap Dogs Photography

Tap Dogs kicks off US tour with Kennedy Center Performances

Originating in Newcastle, Australia, a steel town outside of Sydney, the Tap Dogs fuses an industrial grittiness and precise choreography. The show has been touring the world since the mid 1990s, and is in the U.S. for the next several months. Justin Myles, one of Tap Dogs’ leads, toured internationally with STOMP for seven years, and has choreographed and performed in numerous settings the world over. Both Tap Dogs and DC are close to Myles’ heart. During a rare bit of downtime, he spoke to On Tap about the show that inspired him to dance professionally – a show so exuberant, so expressive and energetic that performers must wear custom boots because traditional tap shoes cannot handle the intensity of the choreography.

On Tap: You’re from the area, aren’t you? And you’ve performed at the Kennedy Center before, what’s it like?
Justin Myles: I was born in College Park, and moved to southern Maryland as a child. Since then I’ve lived in DC, and in Baltimore for a while. I’ve been travelling since the early 2000s, [so] coming back to DC is great. [The city] has always thrived musically, and it has spread into the dance community. There’s so much history in the Kennedy Center, and it’s always a very awesome time. Audiences in DC are stellar; they’re warm, welcoming and ready to be entertained.

OT: Can you tell me a bit about your role in the show?
JM: I play Rat. He wears a backwards cap, nags the other characters and generally provides some comic relief. We all have our own character roles, extensions of who we are in real life. The whole show has comedy wrapped around it, but at the end of the day, we all go to work. It’s rock meets construction meets tap meets comedy.

OT: What’s the cast like?
JM: The cast is great. It’s half Australian and half American, guys ranging from 21 to 38 years old. We have Tap Dogs’ creator Dean Perry’s son Reed Perry playing the role of The Kid. There’s a variety of experience levels, but an incredible level of energy across the board. [Tap Dogs] is powerful and impactful, people will be blown away.

OT: Tell me about your introduction to the show.
JM: I love the show. I fell in love with the show in my teens, at the point in my life when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. [Tap Dogs] showed me tap dance can be strong, professional and powerful. It kicked me in the right direction.

I saw [Tap Dogs] on VHS and live. I saw it live and fell in love with it, then I had it on VHS and watched it all the time. I went to New York to audition for the show in my teens, I think I was 16. They said I was too young, but I held on and finally got into it when I was old enough.

OT: What is the staging like for the show?
JM: The six original cast members in 1995 all grew up in a big steel community, and did tap dancing. So they built Tap Dogs out of the concept of steelworkers tap dancing and built the set around a workman’s set. There are different platforms we dance on made of metal and wood, ladders, scaffolding, two musicians playing in band towers and more.

OT: What appeals to you about performing in Tap Dogs?
JM: In my work I try to fuse everything I’ve learned over my career. The show has a percussive drive, but Tap Dogs is also very rock n’ roll driven. There are no top hats and canes – that’s not all tap is.

Tap Dogs will be performed at the Kennedy Center, February 21-24. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Tickets available at www.kennedy-center.org.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: benfolds.com
Photo: benfolds.com

Ben Folds “Declassifies” Music with Kennedy Center Series

In 2017, the Kennedy Center announced Ben Folds would join the National Symphony Orchestra as its first-ever artistic advisor. Never one to conform to an ascribed role in the music world, this appointment has seen Folds shape the NSO’s programming, most notably in the form of his Declassified series. On Friday nights at the Kennedy Center, Folds, the NSO and a number of multi-talented, multi-genre artists (think everyone from Sara Bareilles to Kishi Bashi) reinvent and reimagine pop music in the context of the orchestra.

Sound pretentious? It’s not. Folds’ mission is to understand the intricate processes that weave a common thread between pop and orchestral movements that are hundreds of years old. Much like any case where someone tries to build a bridge between two worlds, it’s easy to misinterpret. However, it’s also easy to understand that all music has value and an immense attention to detail that goes into the placement of every note. By merging these worlds, Folds opens the orchestra to non-frequent visitors and performances with the intention for fans of all things classical to learn about the modern musical landscape.

We sat down with Folds before his last Declassified performance, featuring Regina Spektor, to pick the musician’s brain on everything about this series. In serving as the artistic advisor though the 2019-2020 season, Declassified continues with a Valentine’s Day-centric performance, featuring NSO Music Director Gianadrea Noseda and music from Folds himself.

On Tap: It seems like your philosophy in fusing pop with the symphony has been to ignore labels and appreciate the craft behind all music. How has this shaped your work on the Declassified series so far?
Ben Folds: I’m actually OK with labels, there’s just a time to dispense them for a moment. It’s helpful for when things don’t fit into categories nicely. One example would be a modern pop artist like Regina Spektor. You can call her pop, but that makes you think it’s something it’s not. Her melodies have a lot in common with melodies from 150 years ago – they’re timeless. If the melody had been written by Tchaikovsky, it would be treated differently. These are pop artists with great melodies, stories, motifs in their own right as artists. It’s interesting to hear [their music] through this centuries old orchestral process. I find people who attend the symphony often impressed with our new artists. That’s part of what I want to do as well – it’s a two way street.

OT: What does this process of fusing symphonic works with works of a modern pop artist look like? 
BF: It’s difficult to sift through all of it. At the same time as I want to sift through some “classical” music so that someone who has never attended the symphony will get the correct context, I want the people who attend the symphony regularly to get the correct context for modern popular music so that they don’t die thinking that it all sucks. This is not a time where we’re dumbing things down. We’re giving ourselves the short end of the stick if we think that. A lot of pop concerts with orchestras are, in my estimation, not done the right way to bring the orchestra in, and that’s something that I’m allowed to really fully work on [here].

OT: So it sounds like you’re more hands-on in the behind-the-scenes process. 
BF: It’s a lot of details – it’s not very sexy at all. It starts with the orchestration itself and works its way through the library to the sound people. You don’t amplify an orchestra, you don’t need to. But when you’ve got a pop artist, suddenly you have to turn the speakers on. That creates huge problems if you don’t understand why and how you’re using the orchestra. A good way to explain it would be that the orchestra is a built-in recording studio – built-in faders, production, arrangement, remixes, everything. Before there was recording, if you needed to hear more of an instrument you got them to play louder or you made two of them. There’s a real art to that. The art behind performing a piece of music with an orchestra can be obliterated with electric instruments.

OT: Why is it important for you to be so involved in the orchestration?
BF: There is snobbery in the world of the symphony. Some of it’s imagined, and some of it’s cultivated. If you bring in new people, you have to respect the symphony, which means letting those musicians exist in the environment that they’re paid to work in. The cultural divide is a real one. I can become a snob really fast if someone starts attacking the thing I feel like I’m good at. I try to listen and be in contact with all of the compartments.

OT: You’re the NSO’s first-ever artistic advisor. What has your experience been in this role so far? 
BF: My experience is in the blend of the orchestra with pop music. I see this as something that every orchestra in the country does. I would like the NSO to be leading the way in how it’s done. This is the nation’s symphony orchestra – it ought to be the one we look to for ideas. There should be things we can experiment with, we’ve got the money and the talent here to try it out. Maybe a small orchestra in a small town doesn’t have those resources, so we can take our programs – my office is stacked with scores – and amass a team of orchestrators who are young, between the world of rock and roll and classical music, who are there to do it the “right” way. To me it’s about littering the country with well-written, exciting charts and a method to follow.

OT: Can you tell me about musician Regina Spektor performing in the series? What drew you to her work?
BF: Regina attended the symphony a lot as a little girl, so classical music is just in her bones. She was one of the first people I thought of to have in this Declassified series three years ago when we started it, and it took three years to talk her into it. She always wanted to do it, but she’s like me: I turned these things down a few times before, when I was roughly her age because we both respect the symphony orchestra so much. I think it’s a little daunting of an idea to go into their territory, and perhaps, bust it with a shitty pops concert. She wanted to have control over it but have respect for the orchestra. It meant a lot to her and it took a while for me to talk her down from the tree and tell her “we can do this.” She doesn’t do shit that she doesn’t mean or want to do. I don’t think there’s anyone with any more integrity –  almost to a fault because it took me so long get her in here. It’s essentially an homage to Russian music.

OT:  How are other performers involved such as the band and tap dancer Caleb Teicher?
BF: Caleb is premiering a piece called “Cascade,” which is one of the few classical pieces for tap dance and orchestra. One thing I want to get across about this program is that it’s not possible in a place that doesn’t have these kinds of resources. Normally when you premiere a new piece like Caleb’s, it’s a big deal. We’re just tossing it onto the front of the show. Every single Regina Spektor song is a brand new orchestration done especially for the show that may never see the light of day after. The expense of that, the effort, finding the orchestrators to do it – this band makes it look all too easy.

OT: What has the response been to the Declassified series so far?
BF:  Frankly, I’ve been really disheartened by the local journalistic criticism of the show, because I feel like maybe I didn’t do a good job of explaining what we’re trying to achieve. We made it look so easy that they’ve come in and had problems with certain things but I think if they knew what it was, you wouldn’t have a problem with it. The audience doesn’t have a problem with it because they understand that they’re there to learn something about classical music. I think if someone who is naturally a snob about it understands how much respect we have for what it is we’re doing and how we’re trying to integrate the two, the night becomes a little bit more of an experiment. I think we’ve been well understood by our audiences.

OT: Can you elaborate on the disconnect in criticisms that you’ve seen so far?
BF: The two criticisms I’ve seen of these shows weren’t particularly negative, they just didn’t understand what we’re trying to achieve. When you’re going to critique something, the first thing you have to know is ‘what are they trying to say?’ and ‘was that successful?’ So if you’re Bob Dylan and someone comes to the show thinking he’s going to sing like Pavarotti, you’d have a gross misunderstanding of what you were seeing and you might give him a terrible review. And in fact, Bob Dylan got a f–k ton of terrible reviews when he started. I think this is very similar. If someone says ‘well they’re not jumping through this hoop and this hoop and this hoop,’ we know that. But what we’re trying to do is so incredibly ambitious that it needs to be seen for the context of what it is. We give people who come to the shows a listening list, and we can see behind this internet curtain that they are actually listening to it after the show. That’s unheard of. So say we didn’t really kill the Beethoven last time – and I know that we didn’t, and the band knows that we didn’t, and the conductor knows that we didn’t – it’s just the way it happened. But people are still listening to that Beethoven piece on Spotify.

OT: So you can see that you’re making an impact and connecting with audiences and bringing these gaps, that’s exciting.
BF: That’s what we’re trying to do. I have one arranger on this show and he comes from rock and roll, he’s self taught, and he does a lot of stuff wrong. But I like having him because his brilliant creativity and even a little bit of his naivete leads to things we wouldn’t normally think of. Now maybe you can laugh at things in his charts, in a friendly way – the orchestra did at some points – and a lot of orchestras would have booed him out of the room. I’m trying to bring these things together so you actually get a result that’s creative. These aren’t ever to be sold as just Regina Spektor shows and she knows that, and that’s the reason she’s in it. It’s featuring her, and she does six tunes, but we’ve all worked really hard. That’s the other radical things about this show – by featuring the orchestra and it being a night about music, it’s easy to go “let’s sell it on someone coming in and we can do whatever we want.”

Ben Folds performs with NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda and other featured performers as part of the NSO Declassified series on Friday, February 15 at the Kennedy Center. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, Folds has curated a performance in the series with comedian Sarah Silverman, musicians Julien Baker and Danay Suarez, operatic soprano Leah Hawkins, and conductor Akiko Fujimoto. For more information on the NSO Declassified series, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.com

Photo: www.kennedy-center.org
Photo: www.kennedy-center.org

Miss Saigon: A Tragic Love Story and Grandiose Production

A resounding score, awe-inspiring sets and heart-breaking characters set the tone for the tragic love story of Miss Saigon, a new production of the renowned musical running at the Kennedy Center through January 13.

Currently on the U.S. leg of its tour, the events of Miss Saigon take place at the end of the Vietnam War and follows a Vietnamese woman, Kim (played by Emily Bautista), as she escapes her war-torn village. Afterward, she’s then forced to work at a bar in Saigon (modern day Ho Chi Minh City) and falls in love with American soldier Chris (played by Anthony Festa).

While attempting to return to the U.S. together, Kim and Chris are separated. The rest of the musical follows Kim’s tireless efforts to reunite with the love of her life.

A story set in a time of war, there are moments that will have you reaching for a tissue. However, the play is more than sad; comedic relief comes in the form of the Engineer (played by Red Concepción), the owner of the bar Kim works in.

A somewhat dodgy character, you can’t help but admire his tenacity and resourcefulness. His solo singing of “American Dream,” also proves a show-stopper as he dances on a convertible in front of a giant mask of the Statue of Liberty.

Other stand-out moments of the musical include the incredible set designs, which incorporate building structures that make you feel like you’re walking the streets of Southeast Asia, a helicopter that drops down from the ceiling and real footage of children orphaned during the Vietnam war.

As with their production of Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon is a grandiose production that will have you laughing, crying and entranced from start to finish.

Experience Miss Saigon at the Kennedy Center, running through January 13. Tickets start at $49. Run time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Learn more about Miss Saigon here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Mike Kim
Photo: Mike Kim

Thom Yorke Celebrates Solo Career at the Kennedy Center

The moment Thom Yorke walked onstage at the Kennedy Center on November 30, the crowd shot out of their seats with fervent cheers and applause. But as Yorke, co-collaborator Nigel Godrich and audiovisual composer Tarik Barri launched into their first song, the crowd sheepishly sat after a person a few seats over from me loudly declared their distaste for the bout of standing as “This is the Kennedy Center, after all!”

Mere minutes later, Yorke asked the crowd to rise again. And once we were all on our feet – some dancing, some swaying and some just transfixed by the storied musician – it felt like the show had actually begun.

While the Kennedy Center is a formal venue, were we really going to let that stop us from fully enjoying the show – movement and all? Yorke’s grand assortment of achievements certainly make him worthy of a show there, but the venue itself shouldn’t act as a gatekeeper for how we experience the art. Eventually, even the once agitated attendee was seen standing and swaying.

The show itself was a healthy mix of just about everything Yorke has done outside his illustrious Radiohead career. From his own work, supergroup Atoms for Peace and even the Suspiria soundtrack, the show was a reminder that even though he’s best known as Radiohead’s frontman, his other ventures are just as jaw-droppingly stunning.

Yorke appeared to be having the time of his life, too – dancing and shimmying across the stage, sometimes with a guitar and sometimes making his way to a table of synths. Even during the stripped down and serious “Suspirium,” he closed his eyes and smiled. Many in the audience did the same.

The Kennedy Center’s stage was the perfect backdrop for Barri’s audiovisual elements. Sure, Yorke and company could have performed at a larger or less formal space, but perhaps those venues wouldn’t have accommodated the dizzying images on the triptych as well. They felt so integral to the performance as a whole, so the trade-off felt more than fair – especially once concertgoers committed to immersing themselves in the music, the movement and the images.

For more on Thom Yorke, visit www.wasteheadquarters.com.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Mark Gorman
Photo: Mark Gorman

The District’s Jazz Renaissance

Thirteen years ago, drummer John Heinze played U Street mainstay Velvet Lounge while on tour, and some gravity comes into his voice as he depicts the scene that evening.

“It was a Thursday night and there was no one out on the streets,” he says. “It was a ghost town. And it wasn’t a holiday, it was the dead of summer. There was nothing going on.”

That DC isn’t the one he knows today. After talking to Heinze, now part of funk-with-soul band Aztec Sun, and other local artists, I pieced together that our jazz community is so small that nearly everyone seems to know one another but big enough that you can find shows all over town – if you know which doors to look behind.

The DC jazz scene is undergoing a revitalization spurred by younger musicians committed to keeping the vibrant genre alive. Though the music may seem old-fashioned on first mention, artists like Heinze are finetuning the jazz experience to engage newer generations.

Heinze moved here from Chicago five years ago and quickly became involved in the jazz scene through “musician connecting organization” Flashband and by seeking out open jams. He serves as my introduction to this world, telling me where I should go and on what night – and who I might look to talk to.

When he rattles off suggestions, I struggle to keep up: Gypsy Sally’s, Villain & Saint, Service Bar, Marvin, Sotto, Brixton, Bin 1301…the list goes on. He also mentions neighborhood spot Maddy’s Bar & Grille on Connecticut Avenue, where local sax player Elijah Jamal Balbed hosts weekly sessions.

Balbed has been on the DC jazz and go-go scene since 2005, when he started playing clubs like Twins Jazz at age 15. Four years ago, he started “genre-bending ensemble” the JoGo Project, inspired by his time performing with Chuck Brown.

He tells me the jazz scene is extremely close-knit, and I see what he means. There are faces I recognize at shows from other jams around town. When Balbed’s not hosting sessions at Maddy’s, you can catch him as one of the featured artists at Brixton’s Sunday night jams and at Pearl Street Warehouse for his Southwest Soul Sessions cohosted with drummer Isabelle De Leon.

Spots on Balbed’s short list of favorite spots include Hamilton Live and Blues Alley, but smaller bars and clubs aren’t the only venues promoting DC jazz. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage series offers free shows of outstanding quality, and community stalwart the Anacostia Arts Center (AAC) hosts the Second Sundays Jazz series.
Kadija Bangura, the AAC’s marketing manager, says that curator and noted jazz musician Vernard Gray is spearheading the initiative, which includes featuring artists who often fly under the radar.

“We’re looking forward to being introduced to jazz talent that doesn’t receive the same attention from major clubs in the city,” Bangura says.

Because some of our beloved jazz venues have recently closed their doors, the AAC’s continued support is imperative for people in Anacostia and from around the city. The center has created a space for fans to watch younger musicians’ first chance to be in the spotlight, an undeniable asset to the genre and the District as a whole.

“We typically pull fans of jazz music from the community,” Bangura continues. “We provide jazz even as other venues close.”

Balbed and I talked about some of those notable low points – the shuttering of Bohemian Caverns chief among them. The U Street Corridor institution hosted a score of names since its founding in 1926; in fact, the space has remained empty, and you can even see its sad piano roll marquee still on the building. But the saxophonist doesn’t seem too discouraged. He believes the musicians will keep the jazz scene going regardless of any obstacles.

“There have been some down points,” Balbed says. “But even with the venues closing down, the energy of the musicians never dies. Venues will come and go, but as long as the musicians are around, they’ll keep the scene alive.”

Learn more about the JoGo Project at www.jogoproject.com, Aztec Sun at www.aztecsunband.com and Anacostia Arts Center’s upcoming jazz performances at www.anacostiaartscenter.com.

Check out these DC area venues for live jazz.

Bin 1301: 1301 U St. NW, DC; www.bin1301dc.com
Bossa Bistro: 2463 18th St. NW, DC; www.bossaproject.com
Brixton: 901 U St. NW, DC; www.brixtondc.com
Gypsy Sally’s: 3401 K St. NW, DC; www.gypsysallys.com
Maddy’s Bar & Grille: 1726 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.maddysbar.com
Marvin: 2007 14th St. NW, DC; www.marvindc.com
Mr. Henry’s: 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; www.mrhenrysdc.com
Service Bar: 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com
Sotto: 1610 14th St. NW, DC; www.sottodc.com
Villain & Saint: 7141 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.villainandsaint.com

Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt
Photo: Courtesy of Patton Oswalt

NoVA Native Patton Oswalt Set For Kennedy Center Debut

Patton Oswalt can be described as something of a Renaissance man in entertainment. He’s found success as an author (both books and graphic novels), actor (in films and on TV), voice-over artist (video games, animation and TV) and on the comedy circuit.

The latter is where his true passion lies, as the comedian explains that everything he does is geared toward allowing him to continue doing comedy live in front of an audience.

“Acting in TV and film is just a way for me to increase my exposure and get the chance to do more stand-up,” Oswalt says. “I love the creativity of the business. It’s a happier life for me to live creatively, and it’s something I am always going to do.”

Raised in Sterling, Virginia, Oswalt attended the College of William & Mary where he majored in English. The idea to try comedy as a career came sometime between his freshman and sophomore year, and once the bug hit, he never looked back.

“It wasn’t my game plan when I started, but it developed organically and by senior year, it was all I wanted to do,” he says. “Back then, DC was a fun scene, but it was much more predicated on who was making more money and who was famous. Creativity didn’t really come first. It was more about status.”

Looking for bigger things, Oswalt packed his bags and started making a name for himself in San Francisco on its rising comedy circuit. From there, he headed to Los Angeles and hit the big time.

“The circuit in San Francisco was amazing – it was the opposite of DC. It was more about who was doing original stuff. Then I went to Los Angeles and there were different scenes within the scenes, which was fascinating to me.”

Since 2003, Oswalt has appeared on seven TV comedy specials and released eight critically acclaimed albums, with his 2016 Talking for Clapping recording earning him a Grammy.

On July 21, the comedian will play two shows at the Kennedy Center as part of the District of Comedy Festival, making his debut in the historic theater. Although he has memories of seeing comedy legend Gallagher and old film noir movies at the Kennedy Center when he was younger, he never dreamed that he would one day perform there.

“It feels good to be back in the area,” he says. “It’s a little surreal as I started doing comedy in DC in 1988. It’s going to be fun to be back in my neighborhood. At the time, my dreams weren’t big enough to think about playing at the Kennedy Center. I was only looking to get a solid 10 minutes.”

Oswalt is planning all-new material for the night, working on some of what he expects to be part of his next TV special. But don’t ask him for specifics, as he warns, “You should never ask a comedian what he’s going to talk about!”

His one hint is that his fans can expect some strong truths about what he’s seeing in the world.

“Being onstage in front of a crowd is just a great adrenaline rush. I love how everything I say came from nothing but now it’s a living thing outside of myself, living creatively. There’s nothing in the world like it.”

Although many people know him from his first TV guest appearance – Seinfeld’s classic “The Couch” episode – his biggest claim to fame early in his career was playing Spence on the Kevin James CBS comedy The King of Queens.

“One of the co-creators of [The King of Queens] was watching an HBO special of mine, and just saw me as Spence. I felt very lucky to get that part.”

Oswalt will soon be headed back to California to begin work on two network TV shows he’s a part of. He currently stars as Principal Ralph Durbin on NBC’s comedy AP Bio, which was recently picked up for a second season, and he’ll enter his sixth season as the narrator for ABC’s The Goldbergs in the fall.

“Michael O’Brien created AP Bio, and his stuff is just on the outer rim of absurdity. The fact he gets to do it in the format of a sitcom is amazing, and I’m so lucky that I get to be a part of it. For The Goldbergs, I pop in about once a week and it’s really fun. It uses nostalgia as a Trojan horse into general emotion and empathy, and that’s what I really love about the show.”

Before his TV shows pick back up, catch him live when he headlines Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival on Saturday, July 21. Shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m., tickets start at $49. Purchase tickets at www.kennedy-center.org and learn more about the comedian at www.pattonoswalt.com.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts:
2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Doug Hamilton
Photo: Doug Hamilton

Give In to The Temptations

The latest in the line of anthology musicals, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations opened its month-long stint at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night. Written by Kennedy Prize winner Dominique Morisseau, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, Motown’s most legendary act is once again thrilling a packed house.

Morisseau’s Detroit roots are on display as she frames Motown’s rise alongside that of the auto industry, as African-Americans from the South arrived in Motor City in search of work, bringing music with them. Through The Temptations, Morisseau tells the story of the musical revolution accompanying this migration; a uniquely African-American chapter of the great American story.

Guided by the earnest narration of Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), the group’s level-headed but extraordinarily driven leader, the audience is taken on a journey from the Temptations’ origins on the streets of Detroit all the way to the top, featuring 31 songs throughout the two-and-a-half hour show.

Instead of settling for being a good-time singalong, Ain’t Too Proud also plumbs the dark depths that accompanied The Temptations’ meteoric rise and classic sound. Between showstoppers like “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination” and the titular “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Morisseau explores the tension of a group trying to navigate personal strife and turbulent times.

While much of the conflict centers around the internal, personal tension between the steadfast Williams trying to maintain an egalitarian group dynamic (and his own family) over the protests of spotlight-hungry showman David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), the show also examines how The Temptations were viewed by the country at large, and the irony of their status as a crossover hit. In particular, the calculated business decision by Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) that the group avoid overt political messaging drove home the idea that appreciation from white audiences did not necessarily mean acceptance from white society. This added complexity elevates Ain’t Too Proud above otherwise similar jukebox musicals.

While the Williams, Ruffin rivalry takes center stage, each Temptation shines in his own right. Jawan M. Jackson’s Melvin Franklin, Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks, and James Harkness’ Paul Williams are each given an opportunity to lay their characters bare and fully capture the Temptations’ spirit, all while pulling off dance routines well worthy of the Classic Five.

Through their sterling catalog and Trujillo’s exquisite recreation of their iconic steps, Ain’t Too Proud both delights audiences and highlights the immense legacy the group has left for acts that followed. To borrow from one of Baskin’s monologues, the Temptations have always been greater than the sum of their parts, and DC (and soon Broadway) would do well to witness their legacy firsthand.

Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations runs through Sunday, July 22 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets start at $79; purchase them here.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton Lives Up to the Hype at the Kennedy Center

The last time the legacy of Alexander Hamilton crossed my mind was during my IB History of the America class, when I was given the task of analyzing one of the many papers Hamilton authored and its lingering effects on the structure of our country. I am admittedly a sucker for hype and excitement, and yet the impact of the wildly popular musical dealing with something that was also a subject of intense history class study seemed to evade me since its debut in 2015.

I wasn’t avoiding it – it just never seemed to pique my interest enough for me to look into it further. My aforementioned, decidedly unsexy association of the Founding Father with the arduous IB exam season as a junior in high school certainly did not help either.

So, I went to Hamilton at the Kennedy Center last night totally blind. I was even unaware that the composition of the music was different than a traditional Broadway play, incorporating elements of hip-hop, pop and even brilliantly constructed rap battles into its score, until my (extremely excited) mother mentioned it to me right before the show began. 

Whether it be to catch your favorite band live or take in the DC debut of an 11-time Tony Award-winning play, there is something remarkable, maybe even unforgettable about soaking up art that you’re excited about. And yet, there is something equally memorable about attending a performance with zero expectations and an open heart, as I did for this production.

And I was completely and utterly blown away. Every single member of the cast brought an exceptional level of talent to the show, and I have never seen actors so invested in their individual characters. I felt Hamilton’s (Austin Scott) hunger for power mature into a fiery desire to leave this new nation better than he found it in its fledgling years. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Julia K. Harriman) grew from a lovestruck lady of wealth to the cornerstone of her family’s name, holding them up with strength and grace even in the absence of her beloved husband and son.

The serious tones of the production were perfectly offset by the humor of Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce), especially when he appears onstage in Act II with “What’d I Miss,” complete with a sparkling grin and hilariously cheesy dance moves. And who can forget King George, who balances providing historical context with a large dose of comic relief perfectly?

I’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who wasn’t brought to tears by “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” at the end of the show. The song served as a reminder that while on the surface the show may be about someone often considered a smaller player in the larger story of the founding of America, it’s truly so much more than that. It’s a story of ambition, love, loss and redemption – things all Americans face, in the 1700s and today, Founding Father or not.

Perhaps the best part of this particular production is something more unexpected, though. As parts of the story itself take place just a short drive from the Kennedy Center, there was a special kind of magic in seeing the play in our nation’s capital. Attendees have the privilege of being transported to the time when the tough conversations that led to the formation of America took place while sitting in the heart of what resulted in Hamilton and company’s efforts. Witnessing this unfold before your eyes through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s expertly crafted story at the Kennedy Center is an experience unlike any other.

For those familiar with the phenomenon of Hamilton, this particular cast and production will only add to the spectacular legacy the show has built for itself over the past several years. And for those like me going into the show with little to no knowledge of the show, prepare to carve out a little (let’s be real, a lot) of room in your heart for the play. It is certainly something that will stay with you forever – and erase any history exam-related memories you may have on the subject matter.

Hamilton runs now through Sunday, September 16. Go here for more information about the recently announced ticket lottery.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Scott Suchman
Photo: Scott Suchman

WNO Honors Bernstein with Candide

Add the Washington National Opera to the list of those celebrating what would have been the year of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, as it presents the composer’s notable take on Voltaire’s biting satire, Candide through May 26 at the Kennedy Center.

Featuring classic tunes such as “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” this version of Candide marries a triple threat of theater, dance and opera. Bernstein wrote a piece with so many different layers, many compare it to his personal love letter to Europe.

Eric Sean Fogel is the associate director for the show, and has also served as choreographer on the project since 2015. He says the best way to describe the performance is to talk about how not to describe it.

“We start right off the bat by not categorizing the production; we don’t say it’s an opera, operetta or a musical, or a dance piece for that matter,” he says. “It’s kind of everything, and that’s how Bernstein and his collaborators wrote the piece. It’s a world onto its own.”

However, Fogel shares, what audiences can expect to see are 12 massive production numbers and a journeying piece of a young man trying to figure out who he is by exploring the world and searching for both his love and his reason.

This current production is the fifth remount of the show. It all began when Fogel would meet with Francesca Zambello the director, Jennifer Moeller the costume designer and Jim Noone the set designer, once a month for a year to slowly go through and talk through the piece to figure out how to tell the story of 13 locations effectively on stage.

“It does have a cinematic, huge sweepy feel to it that takes a lot of time to plan out scenically and costume- and design-wise,” Fogel says.  “After a year, we settled on this base look of a French warehouse that can be transformed by moving trunks and platforms into any scenario we would like — from boats in Venice to a Bavarian battlefield.”

Throughout the show, there’s also a mish-mash of different period costume pieces for the ensemble, so they could quickly put on a jacket or necklace and represent a different character in a different county.

“We decided the most facile the design could be, the more brevity we could have in the storytelling,” Fogel says. “This is a story that’s already incredibly dense, so you want to keep it moving along and not weigh it down with additional design element. It’s almost like we’re doing the stage version of ‘It’s a Small World’ because it’s such a massive journeying piece and you just want to get different flavors of all the different cultures you go through.”

The show is comprised of a company of 34 singers, actors and dancers and unlike most opera productions, everyone sings, acts and dances like a true Broadway ensemble.

DC’s own Denyce Graves plays the character of “Old Lady.” Although she’s never done a Bernstein production before this, Graves does have a history with him as when she was 14, she made a PSA commercial with the legendary composer.

“I didn’t really know who he was at the time, but of course, over the years I learned he is one of our greatest musical giants,” she says. “This being the centennial, when I was offered the role, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. I had known the music of course, but had never seen the work and was curious, interested and excited.”

Regardless of whether people are fans of opera or theater, Graves feels people are really going to enjoy this show.

“It has a lot of the melodies that people have heard throughout the years—everyone has heard ‘Glitter and Be Gay’— and this production is so spectacular,” she says. “It’s so detailed, so funny and I the audience will have a wonderful time.

The production also features Alek Shrader as Candide, Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde and Wynn Harmon as Pangloss, Voltaire.

Fogel believes that when audiences leave, they will contemplate how to make the world a better place.

“It’s such a beautiful message of someone finding their purpose,” he said. “It’s poignant, has a lot of heart and offers great humanity throughout.”

For information and tickets to the show, click here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org