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Guest review: Premiere of 'Trumpet of the Swan'

My colleague, Mary Carole McCauley, checked out a new production in Washington last night. Here's her report:

The production of The Trumpet of the Swan currently running at the Kennedy Center sets the gold standard for children’s productions. So, why is it running for just three days?

This world premiere boasts an all-star cast, including Oscar winner Kathy Bates, character film actor Fred Willard, and Richard Thomas, best-known as the former John Boy Walton. It brags a 35-piece live orchestra, and a script by Tony Award-winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother). It represents a five-year investment by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which began working on this project in 2004.

The Trumpet of the Swan, which is based on E.B. White’s classic children’s tale, tells the story of a mute young bird named Louie who finds his voice through music. The story is told in the form of a concert reading. The actors sit on chairs in front of the orchestra, and their words alternate with musical passages. Louie’s trumpet solos are performed by an up-and-coming Juilliard student named Christopher Michael Venditti.

The result is utterly enchanting, a so-called "novel symphony" that easily holds its own alongside such classic compositions for children as Peter and the Wolf. It’s all the more frustrating, then, that, by the time you are likely to read this, it will be gone. Just five public performances of The Trumpet of the Swan were scheduled, and the last will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Kennedy Center officials say that, though they hope that another troupe will produce this show in the future, there are no current plans to put it on tour, or to bring it back for a longer run. Partly, that’s because a 35-piece orchestra requires a venue at least as large as the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theatre, and that space is in great demand. Frost/Nixon, starring Stacey Keach, just left, and next weekend, the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe will take over the space for its annual gig. 

It’s true that as many audience members – roughly 5,500 -- will see the show in just five performances in the Eisenhower as would see it over three weeks in the Kennedy Center’s much smaller Family Theater, where kids’ shows usually are held. Nor are abbreviated runs rare in the world of classical music, where such stars as Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell generally appear for just three performances. Still, it seems like a shame. More kids deserve to savor Norman’s wryly funny script, and Jason Robert Brown’s melodic, evocative score.

The Kennedy Center gets major kudos for their vision and foresight in undertaking a project this ambitious. Too often, kids’ theater is given short shrift. Productions for children often have shoddy production values and employ second-rate actors, under the assumption that kids don’t buy their own tickets, and can’t tell the difference. I’ve never understood that thinking, given that theaters (and orchestras, too) are desperate to "grow" a younger audience. You can’t feed a child Mcdonald’s all his life and expect him to grow up with a taste for caviar. So, it’s wonderful that Kennedy Centers chose to fly in the face of this trend. They deserve to have a medal hung around their necks, just like Louie. But, for ending the run after just a tiny fraction of the child population in Baltimore, Washington and northern Virginia has had a chance to see it, these same officials deserve a well-aimed thrust in the seats of their pants from Louie’s pointed bill.


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