Summer: big-name musicals, festival fare

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Michael Toscano

Juan Winans and Deborah Joy Winans, the youngest siblings of the Winans family dynasty, star as BeBe and CeCe Winans in Arena Stage’s production of Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1 to Aug. 28. Peeking out from behind is Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker.
Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Summer theater in Washington: The first thing we usually ask ourselves is what’s onstage at the Kennedy Center, which typically schedules a couple of big productions, often for long runs. There’s no deviation from custom this year, with a couple of major audience attractions in the Potomac palace.

First is Kinky Boots, running from June 14 to July 10 in the Opera House. It’s the Broadway hit and 2013 Tony-winner for Best Musical, with songs from 1980s pop star Cyndi Lauper. Based on true events, Kinky Boots is the tale of a man who inherits a nearly bankrupt shoe factory. Trying to save his family business, he finds inspiration in the form of Lola, a fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos.

Then there’s The Bridges of Madison County, from June 28 to July 17, in the Eisenhower Theater. Based on the best-selling novel, it’s a Tony-winning musical about an Iowa housewife and her life-changing, four-day romance with a traveling photographer.

The Phantom of the Opera is back once again, settling into the Opera House from July 13 to August 20. KenCen promises this production is “bigger and better than ever before,” and “fresh and dazzling.”

Also of note is a production at Arena Stage, Born for This: The Bebe Winans Story. This world premiere musical runs July 1 through August 28 in the Kreeger. Part of the Winans family gospel music dynasty, sibling duo BeBe and CeCe Winans broke down racial barriers in the genre while bringing the music to the top of the charts. The musical is packed with their hits as well as new songs.

Source Festival

But do you want to really immerse yourself in theater this summer? The most efficient way to do that — while making sure you experience the newest and widest variety of what theater has to offer in 2016 — is to check out the festival scene.

There are three big festivals on their way. And they showcase new work in a variety of forms.

Coming first is the Source Festival, which bills itself as “a vital launching pad for new work and a proving ground for the District’s actors, directors and designers.”

And what a mix: 18 10-minute plays selected from more than 500 submissions, plus three full-length plays, and three “Artistic Blind Dates.” OK, that last thing: Artists from “different creative disciplines” collaborate over six months to create original work.

Let’s check out the full-length plays:

Ballast is from Chicago/New York playwright Georgette Kelly. She explores relationships between transgender and “cisgender” partners, looking at the way gender influences relationships, and how gender seeps into our spirituality and dreams. You have a question? Oh, yes. Cisgender is the politically correct term used to describe people whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex.

Buried Cities, by Jennifer Fawcett, is described as a play about “getting lost in hiding spaces,” which “explores having the courage to be found.” A couple is held up at gunpoint in their home. Even though they are supposedly unharmed, their marriage begins to fall apart as each tries to find safety in the world again.

Static from writer Tom Horan is billed as a “magical play” following the journey of a woman who uncovers truths about the people she thought she knew. Emma finds herself the owner of an abandoned house, and discovers a box full of cassette tapes filled with secrets of former neighbors she had heard stories about all her life.

These plays were selected from more than 140 scripts, and their themes provide a framework for grouping the 10-Minute Plays and for the creation of the three “Artistic Blind Dates.”

Source Festival, from Cultural DC, runs June 8 through July 3 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW in Washington. For schedules, tickets and other information, visit www.sourcefestival.org or call (202) 315-1305.

Fringe Festival

The better-known Fringe Festival will be competing for your attention with a mix of 130 events, some free, spread over 20 venues, July 7 through July 31. Ticket sales begin June 20. This sprawling theatrical carnival blends plays, music, art, dance and other live performances, as well as visual art described as “unclassifiable.”

Fringe season actually gets underway this year with the inaugural outdoor Capital Fringe Music Festival, June 23 through June 26, and a unique five-hour preview of every show at the festival…in four-minute increments on June 24.

Chevy Chase playwright Ellouise Schoettler will turn 80 while her story about women who served in the military in France during WWI plays at the festival in a one-woman production. The women of this show, Ready to Serve, were all trained at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and all were from Maryland. The Hopkins unit was the first medical unit to go to France.

Schoettler, whose plays were featured in a 2013 Beacon cover story, wrote the work as a monologue by one of the nurses, now in her 80s, based on letters sent home by the nurses. The story they tell is primarily about the wounded doughboys who are their patients. The first performance is on July 9.

A complete list and schedule of all Fringe Festival shows was not available at press time, but you can check out their website at www.capitalfringe.org, or follow them on Twitter, @CapitalFringe, or Facebook.

Contemporary Theater Festival

If you’d like a more relaxed experience, hop into the vehicle of your choice and head out 270 toward West Virginia and the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown. It’s only a 90-minute drive from D.C., but if you make a weekend of it, it will feel like you’re really gotten away.

Part of that is the festival itself, a showcase for up-and-coming playwrights whose work has a good chance of establishing itself. And part of it is delightful Shepherdstown and the surrounding countryside.

Between shows, there are small-town shops and restaurants and galleries. And along with a wide range of outdoor country activities, you’ll even find vineyards and distilleries to explore between your indoor theater sessions.

Every summer, five new plays are presented in repertory in three theaters, this year from July 8 to 31. It’s always a diverse mix. Let’s have a look.

pen/man/ship is a new play by Christina Anderson, a “parable about violence, betrayal, faith and freedom.” The setting, a ship on a mysterious expedition to Africa. The time: 1896.

Not Medea, by Allison Gregory, is described as “a funny and fierce slap-down about love, lust, motherhood and forgiveness. And something else entirely.” CATF says “a working mother escapes to the sanctuary of the theater and encounters a play she desperately doesn’t want to watch, so she hijacks the show — and the audience — leading them through her own very personal story.”

 The Wedding Gift is a world premiere by Chisa Hutchinson. Described as “provocative and uproariously funny,” it focuses on Doug, an average guy with an average life. Until he finds himself at a wedding — not as a guest, but as a gift. The play asks, “What does it mean to be the only ‘outsider’ in a community?”

20th Century Blues, another world premiere, is written by Susan Miller. Four women reunite once a year for a photo shoot, chronicling their changing selves. But when these private photographs have the potential to become part of a public exhibit, relationships are tested.

The Second Girl is new from Ronan Noone, described as “an ode of passion, heartbreak, and humor.” Noone utilizes Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night as a backdrop. Set in the downstairs kitchen of the Tyrone family’s summer residence, circa 1912, Noone’s characters — two Irish immigrant servant girls and a chauffeur — struggle with denial, personal responsibility and failure, while searching for love and belonging.

Tickets for the festival are available singly or in various packages, and there are accompanying breakfast and lunch events. For information and tickets, visit www.CATF.org or call the box office: 1-800-999-2283 or (302) 876-3473. The Shepherdstown visitor’s center has information on places to stay and things to do at www.shepherdstown.info.

It’s your summer. Have fun.