Capitol's National gains as Kennedy overhauls

Washington, D.C. — Washington’s National Theater appears to be headed for its busiest season in years, thanks in part to its pals at the Kennedy Center.

The venerable National, accustomed to playing second fiddle to the Kennedy Center’s larger Opera House for touring musicals, continues to benefit from a tight squeeze across town for theatrical fare. What with the center’s heavy load of opera and dance, and an adventurous celebration of six Stephen Sondheim musicals at the Eisenhower Theater, it has been forced to pass on shows such as “The Lion King” and “The Full Monty.”

The upcoming calendar looks even tighter for the Kennedy Center. Its 2,600-seat Opera House, which recently hosted a five-week run of “Aida,” will undergo a yearlong renovation beginning in December that will force visiting ballet and opera companies to play the Eisenhower and the Concert Hall. Indeed, the only musicals on the center’s immediate plate are “Tell Me on a Sunday” at the Eisenhower in December and “Oklahoma!” there next summer.

The National benefits from Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser’s pledge to increase the pace of theatrical productions instead of relying on touring fare as it has the past 12 years. Kaiser also has inked an exclusive five-year residency agreement with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Co., a first for both organizations, beginning in the spring.

More good news for the National: The Kennedy Center needs to plan its schedules well in advance, enabling the National to pick up last-minute bookings such as “Hairspray.”

All of which makes Harry Teeter, the National’s general manager, a happy man. He credits the aggressive booking policy of the Shubert Organization for the nicely crowded season ahead.

It will begin with “Man of La Mancha,” featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Oct. 8-Nov. 10, followed by “Les Miserables” later that month.

The National finally relaxed its rule against guaranteeing shows, a move that limited its schedules. (Backstage space constraints do, too.)

“We have to be competitive,” concedes Teeter.

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