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Stephen, King

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One was legendarily a problem. One a crowd- pleaser. And one was such a puzzlement when it premiered in 1994 that some in the audience laughed out of nervousness and balky incomprehension. Yet this summer’s reexamination of Merrily We Roll Along, A Little Night Music, and Passion — the conclusion of the brilliant Sondheim Celebration at D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — delivers revelations until the final curtain.

Merrily, for instance, reverberates with even greater emotional force some 20 years after Sondheim first wrote, bitterly and tenderly, about creativity and friendship squandered and compromised. The play, which traces relationships among three old friends, unspools backward, a structure that has always been its most astonishing creative leap. And while Christopher Ashley’s production doesn’t back-vault fluidly, it does so with great energy — powered, particularly, by the magnetism of Raul Esparza (previously George in Sunday in the Park…) as idealistic playwright Charley.

In contrast, Mark Brokaw’s production of A Little Night Music rustles and flows like silk, a confection of crossed desires. Yet, while Blair Brown, John Dossett, and Douglas Sills graciously play erotic peekaboo as a grand actress and her two lovers, they also nestle into a kind of weightlessness — and Randy Graff steals the show as the wife of a straying count.

Still, those agonies are nothing compared with the torments suffered by Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris as a homely woman and the soldier she overwhelms with love in Eric Schaeffer’s commanding new Passion. So this is what Sondheim was talking about! That this difficult tale is finally comprehensible may be the greatest gift the Kennedy Center could bestow on the man — and the audiences — it honors.