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December 5, 2008

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:18 PM | | Comments (1)


I do wish this production would tour. It would be a WONDERFUL opportunity for children across the US to see a "live" version of a widely read book in our schools. Many teachers actually read this book to their classes. Again, it is a shame this will not be offered.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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