- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

The the mood is unusually upbeat at Camp Sondheim the Kennedy Center environs where the Sondheim Celebration is in full swing more than halfway through its 16-week schedule and no wonder. The institution's plans to present excerpts from all six original productions in a one-night-only concert performance in New York City's Avery Fisher Hall on Oct. 21 had center President Michael Kaiser and producer Max Woodward smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cats at Saturday night's cast party following the official opening of "Merrily We Roll Along."

The event promises to put Washington on the New York map in a new way. "It was Michael's idea," Mr. Woodward said, playing down his own efforts in negotiating necessary arrangements that will have stars from each show together on a single stage, accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Sondheim festival, will direct the show, a fund-raiser for the Kennedy Center.

"By this kind of action, Kennedy Center finally is getting recognition equal to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts," commented an enthusiastic Bill McSweeny, Kennedy Center board member. "People around the world stage have come to appreciate what the center offers."

A public announcement of the plan is expected to be made today.

The week has been a banner one musically for the Kennedy Center. "Aida," the latest Disney musical spectacular, opened Thursday in the Opera House to approving critical reviews, and 24 hours later, "Merrily" took over the Eisenhower Theater only days after the close of "Sweeney Todd" and "Company." The two new productions both have large casts and technically demanding sets.

Thursday night, the gifted performers of "Aida"strolled from the Kennedy Center to the Brasserie at the Watergate for their own cast-only opening-night bash.

Wide-eyed Anika Ellis, a District native who plays the slave Nehebka (and is the understudy for Aida), marveled at the familiar city sights visible from the restaurant's outdoor deck.

"I haven't been home in 10 years just to look around," she said, her voice trailing off. Miss Ellis could be forgiven for getting lost in the moment. She just learned she will leave the touring "Aida" in a few weeks to join the Broadway production.

Jeremy Kushnier, who plays conflicted hero Radames, recalled fond memories of performing in "Footloose" at the Kennedy Center several years back.

"It's great to sing a rock 'n' roll show in such a big house," Mr. Kushnier said.

Also on hand were "Aida" director Robert Falls, titular heroine Paulette Ivory and Stuart Oken, executive vice president of Disney's theatrical productions.

Cast member Kelli Fournier, whose low-cut coral dress accentuated her show-stopping curves, praised the "Aida" songwriting team of Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice for their generosity.

"They really backed all of us 100 percent," said Miss Fournier, who gives the role of Amneris its comic twinkle. "They let us make it our own."

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