It’s been 568 days since I sat in a DC-area venue and took in art. The last time was a concert at the Kennedy Center in February of 2020. There were luminous, gorgeous singers, a full orchestra, and an audience enjoying every moment. The basic building blocks were not unlike last night’s “Broadway in the Park” at Wolf Trap, and yet, last night was also nothing like those pre-pandemic times. Remember those? When a person coughing two rows away didn’t immediately trigger feelings of impending doom and dread?
For many, whether performing or attending, Wolf Trap and Signature Theatre’s jointly produced “Broadway in the Park” was a triumphant if not mildly nerve-racking first time back out enjoying live performing arts. I wouldn’t label the experience of showing proof of vaccination and wearing a mask outdoors for 90 minutes “carefree,” but I would call it joyous.
I’ve had visions of my great return to live performances. I thought I would feel emotional, grateful, exuberant. And yes, those descriptors check out, but I didn’t know I would also feel pangs of anxiety, sadness, agoraphobia, and disbelief. All signs point to trauma.
So aside from my tepid bravery for donning a mask and getting out into a theater seat again (right next to strangers no less), I tip my hat to the performers who not only decided to brave a night out, but found the energy to get on stage and attempt to entertain a weary pandemic crowd, while also processing the grief and trauma of the past 18 months. So let’s start there. Thank you, performers, for showing up. Simply doing that helps all of us relax our shoulders.
Now, about the show. “Broadway in the Park” is the first collaboration between the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and Signature Theatre. And what a perfect pair they make. Hopefully this was the first of many collaborations between two of Northern Virginia’s finest artistic treasures. Renée Elise Goldsberry and Brian Stokes Mitchell headlined the pleasingly paced 90-minute concert with impressive support from Signature favorites Christian Douglas, Rayshun LaMarr, Katie Mariko Murray, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton, and Bobby Smith.
A collection of musicians, the “Wolf Trap Orchestra” kicked off the evening with the Overture from Gypsy. The Signature six launched into “Back in Business” from Putting It Together. A little on the nose, but no complaints. The night rolled along providing lots of high points but could’ve benefited from a host, simply someone to articulate that the audience was in good hands. Sometimes it felt like a ship at sea without a captain. It finally felt like we got one when Stokes took to the stage for the last quarter.
Highlights of the evening included “Superstar” by Rayshun LaMarr with Christian Douglas, Katie Mariko Murray, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton, and Bobby Smith, and “The Money Tree/Maybe This Time” by Nova Y. Payton and Tracy Lynn Olivera. Talk about chops.
As for the headlining talent, call me greedy, but I could’ve had more. Goldsberry and Mitchell delivered only eight of the 22-song set. And a duet between the two would’ve been magical.
Renée Elise Goldsberry was in perfect voice. Her touching “Without You” from RENT was one of several songs throughout the night that hit different in the age of the pandemic. It landed somewhere between “on the nose” and truly poignant. It was lovely.
Somehow I’ve been a musical theater fan for *checks watch* a few *cough* decades and I’ve never gotten the pleasure of hearing Brian Stokes Mitchell sing live. How did that happen? I have no idea, but what a way to break the seal. If you’ve heard his albums or cast recordings, they are great, but he sounds even better in person. I imagine his baritone sounded excellent reverberating down Broadway when he sang “The Quest” (not to be mistitled “The Impossible Dream” per Stokes) out his fifth-floor apartment window every evening at 7 PM for two months in 2020 as a way to thank essential workers. Last night he capped off the evening with that number as well as the other top “dream” song in the musical theater cannon (fight me): “Wheels of a Dream.”
Stokes also sang a heartfelt interpretation of “Feeling Good.” He remarked on how he saw the world with fresh eyes once he reemerged after battling COVID. “The air was clearer. The trees were taller.” He wouldn’t ever take the simple pleasures of life for granted again. And that feeling permeated the evening. What joy it was to sit amidst a crowd of well over 5,000 people who were robbed of live arts for over a year and were finally getting to see it again, with fresh eyes and ears. We won’t ever take that for granted again.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Signature Theatre and Wolf Trap present “Broadway in the Park” played Friday September 3, 2021, at the Wolf Trap Filene Center, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, VA. For information about future performances at Wolf Trap, see the calendar at wolftrap.org/calendar. September performances will be full capacity and will follow local, state, and federal government health guidelines.
Tickets may be purchased online at wolftrap.org or by phone at 877.WOLFTRAP. Prices vary by performance and location and are subject to change. Additional information, policies, amenities, and guidelines will be posted to the Wolf Trap website.
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Music Directed by Jon Kalbfleisch
Lighting Design by Adam Honoré
Overture from Gypsy | Orchestra
“Back in Business” from Putting It Together | Christian Douglas, Rayshun LaMarr, Katie Mariko Murray, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton & Bobby Smith
“Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls | Bobby Smith, Rayshun LaMarr & Christian Douglas
“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company | Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton & Katie Mariko Murray
“I Can Cook Too” from On the Town | Tracy Lynn Olivera
“I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady | Katie Mariko Murray
“Summertime” from Porgy & Bess | Nova Y. Payton
“Tonight” from West Side Story | Christian Douglas & Katie Mariko Murray
“The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton | Renée Elise Goldsberry
“Shadowland” from The Lion King: The Broadway Musical | Renée Elise Goldsberry
“Without You” from RENT | Renée Elise Goldsberry
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel | Renée Elise Goldsberry
“Superstar” from Jesus Christ Superstar | Rayshun LaMarr with Christian Douglas, Katie Mariko Murray, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Y. Payton & Bobby Smith
“I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables | Tracy Lynn Olivera
“The Money Tree/Maybe This Time” from First You Dream: The Music of Kander & Ebb | Nova Y. Payton & Tracy Lynn Olivera
“I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles | Bobby Smith
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl | Nova Y. Payton
“There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun | Brian Stokes Mitchell
“Feeling Good” from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd | Brian Stokes Mitchell
“Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime | Brian Stokes Mitchell & Nova Y. Payton
“The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha | Brian Stokes Mitchell
“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George | Company
This was followed by “Fugue for Tin Horns” from Guys & Dolls, which was the first reminder (of a few throughout the night) that some songs need a bit of selling and some context to be fully enjoyed. Sometimes you take the song out of a show and you take the sparkle out of a song.