Shortly after returning home from the Kennedy Center Spring Gala, I posted some photographs from the event.
What I did not do was write much about the substance of the evening, which centers on a performance preceded by a reception and dinner and followed by a reception and dancing.
Here is my review of the performance, as prepared for The Metro Herald. (I expect this article to appear in today's edition.):
Kennedy Center Celebrates 35 Years with Gala Fundraiser
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
(WASHINGTON) — The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts marked its 35th anniversary on May 7 with a gala banquet, performance, and reception. Hundreds of people packed the Center’s corridors and the Concert Hall to celebrate along with the stars of past, present, and future.
Looking back on the Kennedy Center’s beginnings, with the passage of the National Cultural Center Act in 1958, to the present, the gala performance was directed by Marvin Hamlisch, the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops.
The first segment featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, joined by the Master Chorale of Washington and the NSO Pops, who played a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which energized the crowd. The song featured Mardi Gras-style dancers and was introduced by Brandon Ridenour, a third-year trumpet student from Juilliard and a rising star in the world of brass music.
Calling the Kennedy Center as a “wondrous national jewel,” the gala’s honorary chair, Tony-winning actress Angela Lansbury, was brought on stage to the melody of “Not While I’m Around,” from Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd. (Later in the show, Lansbury recreated her performance of “A Little Priest,” with co-star George Hearn. The pair appeared at the Kennedy Center in the national company of Sweeney Todd in 1980.)
Lansbury noted that the Kennedy Center runs the largest performing arts education program in the world, reaching some 11 million children last year. Referring to the early plans for what became known as the Kennedy Center, Lansbury said we should “be proud that the dream has been fulfilled.”
Hamlisch put together a section of the program that remembered the 2002 Sondheim Celebration. He noted that Ben Brantley of the New York Times called that series of performances “Eden in Washington” and that Entertainment Weekly said it was “the most important theatrical event of the year.” Hamlisch then conducted the NSO Pops in a medley of “The Tale of Sweeney Todd” and “You Must Meet My Wife” (from A Little Night Music) – both songs, perhaps coincidentally, introduced by Len Cariou, who last appeared at the Kennedy Center in Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party.
The medley was followed by Judy Collins singing “Send in the Clowns,” perhaps Sondheim’s only Top Ten hit, which she made famous in her 1974 recording. Hamlisch spoke for the audience when he said of Collins’ performance, “That’s a thrill, that’s just a thrill.”
The Sondheim segment was topped off with “A Little Priest,” a macabre song about serving up meat pies made with human flesh. Kennedy Center chairman Steven Schwartzman quipped afterwards that “neither Angela Lansbury nor George Hearn will be allowed near the Roof Terrace kitchen.”
In his own remarks for the occasion, Schwartzman called the Kennedy Center a “national repository for the human spirit.” He revealed that the gala had raised over $2.8 million in support of the performing arts and arts education. “That is a record,” he said.
In addition to thanking the gala’s co-chairs and the various individuals, corporations, and foundations that had contributed to the event’s success, he thanked the Veterans for National Security Foundation, which had made available dozens of tickets for members of the armed forces who have recently returned from overseas duty. When he asked the uniformed service members to rise and be recognized, the entire Concert Hall erupted in a standing ovation.
Introducing a short film about competitive ballroom dancing in New York public schools (excerpted from the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom), Lansbury spoke of the “transformative power of the arts” and how “the arts reveal the human spirit in the most unlikely places.” When the kids from Mad Hot Ballroom took the stage and showed what they had learned, the audience went wild.
Even with the presence of such celebrities as opera singer Harolyn Blackwell, who performed an aria from Carmen Jones, violin virtuoso Sarah Chang, and not one but three Broadway actors who have played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, among all the others mentioned, the plucky kids from Mad Hot Ballroom surely made the Kennedy Center’s 2006 Gala a night that will be remembered for years to come.