Curtain Up: Don’t discount nightlife at our nation’s capital

In the old days, Washington, D.C., was considered a cultural backwater. You would find intellect in Boston, arts and money in New York, power in Washington. Things have changed. We had the opportunity to spend the holiday weekend there and loved every minute.

Of course there are the wonderful museums on the mall, all free. We visited the American History museum for the first time ever, and it is beautiful. There are some long-running plays and some interesting offerings at venues like the Folger Shakespeare Library.

There is always something going on at the Kennedy Center. We could not resist “South Pacific” again, the same touring company that is coming to Fort Myers, so we can give a preview. The pluses: a uniformly strong cast, some of them better than we saw in New York last summer. In particular, Carmen Cusack was my idea of Nellie Forbush. Ever since seeing Glenn Close’s vanity production on TV a few years ago I’ve realized that Nellie is no ordinary ingénue. This is a woman who struck out on her own from Little Rock, a Navy officer with some maturity. When she says she is a cockeyed optimist it should not be an expression of naiveté but represent a conscious decision not to give in to cheap existential angst. Cusack has the authority, the voice and the presence that the role requires.

On the downside, the fabulous Lincoln Center sets suffer from being reduced to touring company size, as does the chorus. More importantly, the experience seemed to lack some of the immediacy, the startling intensity of the New York production. It may have had something to do with our seats in the nosebleed section. If you go to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall for “South Pacific,” spring for orchestra seats.

What Washington really has to offer is a vibrant “drop-in” kind of culture typical of young, creative communities. Adams Morgan is the young crowd’s hangout, always lively and buzzing, even on a cold winter’s night. Blues Alley in Georgetown featured a sextet called chaise lounge. They delivered standards and original songs with verve. They have Marilyn Older, a girl singer to fall in love with, with a voice that can be clear or whispery, and the most subtle of phrasing.

Go for the monuments, but don’t discount the nightlife.

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