Shakespeare Landmark Opens to Much Fanfare

Wynton Marsalis, Patti LuPone, fireworks, and fire twirlers accented the hoopla-heavy opening of the Harman Center for the Arts.

By Sara Lipka October 3, 2007, 3:20 PM EDT

Wynton Marsalis in the inaugural performance at Sidney Harman Hall.

Photo: Colin Loughlin for BizBash

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Center for the Arts sprung onto the downtown Washington scene with all the grandeur of a modern coronation on Monday. Its six-plus-hour opening gala presented nearly 800 guests (including Chelsea Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor) with numerous performances: theater, music, and dance, followed by a blocklong red-carpet parade of fireworks, Harlequins, and a Dixieland jazz band—and this was all before dinner.      

The Harman Center (made up of the existing Lansburgh Theatre and the new Sidney Harman Hall) was abuzz early, with a 6 p.m. cocktail reception in its three-floor lobby and terrace space, where chatter reverberated off the space's Jerusalem stone floors and sienna-toned Venetian plaster walls. But within an hour, the well-groomed guests were packed in so tightly that they could scarcely move a few feet. One joked that trying to get a martini wasn’t worth the effort; another just wanted to see the new theater. “I want to go in! I want to see the space already!”

The inaugural performance on Washington’s newest stage opened with the prologue from Henry V, by STC actors. Sam Waterston served as the master of ceremonies for the hour-and-a-half production, which included selections from Porgy and Bess by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Black Swan pas de deux by Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca, a musical cabaret by Patti LuPone, and a modern dance by the Washington Ballet. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra kicked off the finale with help from the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men and Women of the Gospel Mass Choir. During the performance, staffers and press strolled through the building’s donors lounge, held in the lobby, where a simulcast of the production was shown on flat-screen TVs.

Afterward, the patrons filed out onto a red-carpeted 6th Street, where they were treated to a five-minute fireworks show, spirited tunes from a Dixieland jazz sextet, and seven roving performers, including a stiltwalking Harlequin, a ribbon dancer, a flame twirler, and mimes. The celebratory parade was designed “for people to understand that this arts center has really arrived downtown, that downtown is really a lively place for the performing arts,” said STC associate director of communications Liza Lorenz. STC produced the event with Campbell Peachey and Associates' Carolyn Peachey.

Even the transfer from the Harman Center to the National Building Museum, for dinner and dancing, was dynamic. The idea was to design “something that would entertain along the way, be festive, create an aura of excitement, but not make people stop and not continue on to the Building Museum,” said Peachey, who's been planning the event since April. A last-minute street-closing glitch almost stalled the fireworks show, but a flurry of calls the day before sorted it out. The busy fire chief reprimanded the flame twirler, too, but not until most guests were inside the museum.

Guests entered the Great Hall behind a boldly lit 75-foot screen curtain, walking around it as if from backstage. Regal golds, reds, and purples dominated the 96-table array. Centerpieces honored all the performing arts, with Masonite silhouettes of ballerinas, musical instruments, and theatrical masks mounted atop three-foot, gold-ribbon-wrapped poles, set in glass cylinders teeming with red celiosa, smokebush, and roses in varying shades of red. (When blue spots began to appear on some of the roses late that afternoon, floral designer Suzanne Codi secured 200 replacements, scrambling to pluck out the bad ones and peel back their substitutes.)

Dinner by Design Cuisine included short ribs of beef and black-truffle foie gras—and, for the 200 staff members of the STC, who were seated only for dessert, a spread of sweets, including miniature chocolate ganache cakes and baked Alaska brownie pops.

The Bob Hardwick Sound got guests on their feet—not only on the dance floors, but also in the aisles between tables. Several guests and vendors remarked that rarely in Washington do you see even socialites out past midnight, especially on a Monday.

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