Sublime Symphonic ‘Swan’ Answers the Call of the Beguiled
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Expect a long life for “The Trumpet of the Swan,” the new narrated symphony for kids that premiered Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. The adaptation of E.B. White’s children’s book is in the tradition of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and this lushly scored work will send you home with a helpless, contented smile on your face.
Catch one of today’s final three performances if you can, for the Kennedy Center is giving this project an all-star treatment. Composer Jason Robert Brown conducts the 35-piece orchestra onstage, and the sublime and funny cast is headlined by Kathy Bates, Fred Willard and Richard Thomas. (Kids, you don’t know how lucky you are.)
White, in case anyone needs reminding, is the author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” and the slightly more eccentric “Swan” all but cries out for a symphonic treatment. (Composer Benjamin Lees, in fact, wrote his own piece for narrator and orchestra in 1972.) White even included notated music in his tale of a young trumpeter swan named Louis, who was born without a voice; musical adventures ensue when Louis’s father steals a trumpet so his son can communicate with the world.
Playwright Marsha Norman is faithful to White’s style, making a puckish virtue of his short, noble sentences and dry humor. Norman’s most conspicuous change is a good one, having to do with how Louis’s webbed foot becomes a little more fingerlike (giving him fabulous dexterity on the instrument), and she leaves ample room for Brown to fire the imagination as Louis becomes a renowned musician.
Brown is crossing over from the musical-theater side of the street: He’s the composer-lyricist of “Parade” and “The Last Five Years,” as well as “13,” a teen-centered rock show now on Broadway. “The Trumpet of the Swan” is part of a season-long showcase of what the Kennedy Center is calling Broadway’s Third Generation of composers, and this piece allows Brown to do what Broadway seldom does anymore: harness the narrative powers of an orchestra.
This is bright, sophisticated music that will be worth hearing more than once. Brown sets a tone of outdoor adventure that practically feels Western — the first setting is the Canadian wild — but that moves into the urban rough-and-tumble of Boston and swings hard and lively once Louis becomes a jazz sensation in Philadelphia. Flying and swimming inspire sweeping themes, and an electric bass is a nice touch as the young boy Sam (Thomas) meets Louis and discovers that something’s a little different about this swan.
There’s a love story at the heart of it all, of course, and Brown gives Louis a fine romantic serenade to play for Serena, the swan of his dreams. The role of Louis is split in two: Zayd Dohrn gives voice to Louis’s thoughts (he scribbles them on a slate, for White’s animal protagonists tend to be elegantly literate), while trumpeter Christopher Venditti is Louis himself, blowing his horn with discipline and joy.
Director Gary Griffin’s actors, working concert-style behind music stands, are so personable in their roles that it’s hard to imagine this production being improved upon. Thomas has a gift for narration — no one thrills to the story more than he does — and Bates, Willard, Edward Gero, Lauren Kennedy and Peggity Price deftly capture the wise yet loopy mood. There isn’t a condescending moment in the show, and for that — and just about everything else in this enchanting performance — the Kennedy Center deserves a fanfare.
The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony, based on the book by E.B. White, adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman, music by Jason Robert Brown. Ninety minutes. Today at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.