The Kennedy Center has commissioned a new adaptation of author E.B. White’s 1970 children’s tale, “The Trumpet of the Swan,” as an 80-minute reading accompanied by original music from Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”). Mounted as part of the center’s season-long salute to contemporary Broadway composers, the show’s impressive list of participants includes playwright Marsha Norman, director Gary Griffin and a cast headed by Richard Thomas. The result is a mostly engaging presentation long on story but short on excitement and visual appeal, which might strain the patience of the targeted young aud.The six-performance production is a project of the KenCen’s education department, with support from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. It features an eight-member cast parked on stools in front of a 35-piece orchestra, reading White’s story behind music stands. The tender tale focuses on a trumpeter swan born without a voice, who with help from an earnest young boy learns to play a real trumpet before appreciative human audiences and one thoroughly smitten mate. Brown’s varied score meshes nicely with Norman’s script to create the imagery of graceful swans in nature, punctuated by moments of intensity as the drama unfolds. Especially enjoyable is a jazzy component as the scene shifts to a seedy Philadelphia nightclub. The pleasant and generally undemanding score is clearly written for future productions by less accomplished musicians than the center’s polished house orchestra. Thomas narrates the tale largely from the perspective of the young boy who befriends the precocious bird. Kathy Bates and Edward Gero deliver enjoyable readings as the swan’s concerned parents, while Fred Willard reads a multitude of enjoyable characters. Musician Christopher Michael Venditti, clad in white tux, lets his trumpet do the talking as Louis the swan scales aerodynamic and musical heights. Under Griffin’s direction, the players offer lively yet carefully measured performances.
Kennedy Center/Eisenhower Theater, Washington, D.C.; 1,110 seats; $35 top
A Kennedy Center presentation of a play with music in one act, adapted by Marsha Norman from the book by E.B. White, with music by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Gary Griffin.
Set, Daniel Conway; costumes, Holly Hynes; lighting, Beverly Emmons; orchestrations, Sam Davis. Opened, reviewed Dec. 4, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
With: Kathy Bates, Zayd Dohrn, Edward Gero, Lauren Kennedy, Peggity Price, Richard Thomas, Christopher Michael Venditti, Fred Willard.