Local Brothers Kick It with Maurice Hines in “Sophisticated Ladies”

Jordan Wright
April 2010

The Arena Stage Production of Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies and choreographed by Maurice HinesThe Manzari brothers are a couple of cool dudes. So low key and under-the-radar that during a master class at the Duke Ellington School the great dancer and choreographer, Maurice Hines himself, didn’t intuit they were from the same family. It wasn’t until he singled them out from dozens of dancers that he discovered that the teens were in fact brothers. The following day Hines invited them both to an open audition at the Lincoln Theatre. It was during the third day’s callback that they were cast alongside leading man, choreographer and virtuoso performer, Hines, in the newest production of “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies”.

In the world of dance improvisational tap scenes are called “trading”…a friendly challenge in which the dancers trade tap licks and push the percussive envelope ever higher. In a recent YouTube video Hines narrates his encounter with the amazing and adorable prodigies, John Manzari, 17, and his brother, Leo, 15, and the three do a tap-off together. You can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/user/arenastage1

(l-r) Leo Manzari, Maurice Hines and John Manzari in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies

(l-r) Leo Manzari, Maurice Hines and John Manzari in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies

Growing up in DC they danced around the living room watching PBS’s “Sesame Street” and “Zoom”, shows that presented rhythm tapper Savion Glover, doing his “free-form hard core” tap, and veteran pioneers like Maurice and Gregory Hines. Their mother, Mary Manzari, told me they started dancing when they were just tots, though none of their relatives had ever been performers.

Last fall they heard about the master class at the Duke Ellington School from Leo’s best friend’s mother who rang up Mary. They both decided to go.

While they have performed the Nutcracker with the Washington Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center and, later worked with Debbie Allen in her Kennedy Center production of “Brothers of the Knight” and the world premiere of “Walking the Winds: An Arabian Tale”, this show will be a professional regional theatre debut for the boys, who take classes five days a week from 5 till nearly midnight. Yes, folks, that’s what it takes.

Their style is both similar and different. John describes it as, “Leo, takes the role as creator and I manipulate it so it fits with what I’m doing till we find common ground. It’s a complicated process but it makes sense.”

“We still want to stay as a brother act. My main goal is to bring tap into the R&B world of music. I want to combine the two,” says the younger Leo. “Everyone talks about how revival tap is coming up, but I want it to be a new thing that we’ll do as a brother act. When we’re dancing to music we like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”

John graduates in June from The Field School on Foxhall Road, which both boys attend, and will enter college this fall.

Wright – Tell me what it was like to work with as highly respected and accomplished a star as Maurice Hines.

John – Mr. Hines has taught me versatility. He taught me to dance to the crowd, make your movements bigger.

You never know what to expect from him. His character stays the same but it’s what he does with it that’s fun and when we have fun the crowd has fun. When it comes to step-wise with all the technical stuff, he “gives” it to us, but even more so the performing stuff…cause that’s his main thing.

Leo – Mr. Hines is a great mentor. I’ve learned a lot and I can’t wait to start performing. Just working with a legend and being part of the whole experience just makes me happy, I guess.

John – I’m really excited about the show. I was intimidated at first but then everyone was very, very kind…the whole cast, the director, the stage manager, everyone. We’re just a family…we blend together. It’s very heart-warming.

Wright – How has your ballet training helped your style and endurance?

John – Mr. Hines told me that age doesn’t matter and watching him it’s true. I forget that he’s not 17. Also I do feel that if you have ballet training you can dance a lot longer because you know how to control your body and take care of it and what muscles to build. Tap is very, very, very demanding of strength and stamina because you’re constantly pounding into the floor. You have vibrations going through your legs and even though you need to build muscle, you have to relax those muscles at the same time. So I can’t really say that one style of dance is more strenuous than the other.

Catch the break-out Manzari brothers captivating audiences in “Sophisticated Ladies”, the hot and sassy musical featuring the life and music of local legend Duke Ellington.

From April 9th till May 30th at Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre. For tickets and information visit www.arenastage.com

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. For questions or comments contact [email protected]

Grease Review

Jordan Wright
Local Kicks and Whisk and Quill
February 2010

Cast of Grease at the Hard Rock Cafe after party - photo by Jordan Wright

Grease is one of those throwback shows that will always delight baby boomers who define their teen years by hot rods, high school and high hair. Apparently the allure has recently transcended the genre because I was quite surprised to see so many 20- and 30-somethings in the audience singing along with the 50’s tunes.

The production opens up with the high-energy Dominic Fortuna as Vince, warming up the mostly local crowd and “greasing” the wheels for the evening. He exudes song bits and shtick, instructing the audience in a seated version of the Monkey, the Swim and the Funky Chicken. But all this comes to nought in a production that never coheres. There’s plenty of talent in the dancing and singing, especially the a capella moments, though Lauren Ashley Zakrin, playing goody-goody turned hipster, Sandy, was pitchy in places in her solos.

Ace Young after the show - photo by Jordan Wright

As for former American Idol contender, Ace Young, he nails his role with brio…his voice clear, strong and sexy…his dancing dead on.

“I was a football player and all-round athlete in high school,” he told me at the cast party. When I asked him how long it took to learn the complex routines he said, “I had two weeks of rehearsal, but I’ve always been a good dancer.”

Taylor Hicks of Grease at the National Theatre - photo by Jordan Wright

The night turned starry when former Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, playing Teen Angel, sprung from a giant ice cream cone in a blue sequined suit, his riveting personality electrifying the audience who shrieked and applauded his raspy country singing and bluesy harmonica playing. Note to his agent: Hicks soulfulness could use a more appropriate vehicle than a be-bop forum.

When Hicks sings “Beauty School Dropout” to Frenchy, played by Kate Morgan Chadwick, he goes all googly-eyed as she twists his chest hair telling him, “I voted for you.” – a reference to the Idol competition.

This Grease could have shown more oomph but see it for the nostalgia and see it for the talented Ace and Taylor.

For comments or questions on this article contact me at [email protected].

Actor Ted Deasy Currently Appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS at the Warner Theatre Speaks on Theatre, Food and The Arts

Jordan Wright
March 2010

Ted Deasy, who currently stars in the Alfred Hitchcock-inspired THE 39 STEPS at the Warner Theatre, graciously granted me an interview to share his views on theatre, food and the arts. The two-time Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play will run till March 28th. The following are some earlier reviews. It is scheduled to open Off-Broadway later this month.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times, called the production, “Absurdly enjoyable! This gleefully theatrical riff on Hitchcock’s film is fast and frothy, performed by a cast of four that seems like a cast of thousands. The actors themselves seem to be having a helluva good time. As does the audience.”

Claire Brownell and Ted Deasy in ALFRED HITCHCOCKS THE 39 STEPS

Clive Barnes, of the New York Post, pronounced THE 39 STEPS “Inventively astonishing, riotous & marvelous.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, of the New York Daily News, exclaimed, “Hitchcock probably never imagined his thriller had the makings of a hilarious comedy, but this show is a dizzy delight and an ingenious spoof, inventively directed by Maria Aitken. A fast-paced fun ride!”

It continues to play to sold-out houses in London’s West End.

Jordan Wright – I apologize that I haven’t seen the show as of yet. I’ll be seeing it next week.

Ted Deasy – It’s fairly common to hear that unless you’ve seen it in New York. It’s a gem of a show that most people haven’t yet heard of. It just didn’t get that much attention. But it’s like the little engine that could.

Its success is mostly word-of-mouth. People say, “Ya hafta see it!” It’s an irreverent and fun send-up of Hitchcock. It’s music hall and vaudeville…pure theatricality.

For me it’s a joy to be in a show like this because it’s enjoyable for all generations. It’s an evening full of actors playing multiple roles with a script directly from the 1935 film. It has a great sense of decorum and tongue-in-cheek for the adults as well as kids and teens.

JW – I understand there is a great deal of slapstick and physical comedy?

TD – Our director pulled from everything you can imagine – from vaudeville, from comedia, from slapstick. Also any of the old theatrical styles, like Shakespearean asides. The physical part is done super-fast. In order to create that sense of excitement it moves incredibly quickly and with great style. It captures that sort of breathlessness.

JW – I understand that there are only four actors but dozens of roles. How does that work?

TD – The roles are divided up. I play one role and I’m on stage throughout, but Claire, the classic Hitchcock blonde, plays four different roles. The other two actors play between 130 – 150 different roles, some “roles” are actually inanimate objects. Some of the actors are instantaneously changing characters over and over, often playing three characters simultaneously.

JW – Had you done physical comedy before?

TD – Sure. One of the great treats doing this show was that the casting agents were looking for actors that had had careers doing classical work. I’ve done Moliere and outdoor Shakespeare, as have Eric and Claire, but this was nothing like I’ve done before.

It looked effortless when I first saw the show. But it took a lot of rehearsal to make it look that way. It was a great challenge to make this crazy, mayhem, funny, show look fast and effortless.

JW – I discovered you had a coffee shop and bakery in Jackson Heights, very near Astoria, where actors, Christopher and Glenn Walken grew up and where I met them when they were in their twenties. Their parents owned Walken’s Bakery, where Lydia Bastianich once worked. I wondered if you knew that Queens was an incubator for Hollywood actors and gourmands!

TD – That’s extraordinary! I didn’t know that. My partner, Gina and I started baking for casts and they loved it and we loved doing it. People kept asking us to do more. When we moved to NY we worked for a farm cooperative. We were just doing this on the side.

Three years ago we opened the bakery and coffee shop and we’re still trying to figure out how to make it work – to find the right balance. The store is on hiatus right now since we are both under contract in different parts of the country.

JW – Recently one of the country’s top chefs, Jose Andres, was given an award in the arts by The Vilcek Foundation who included the culinary arts in their definition of the arts. As an actor who is involved in the food arts how do you see the relationship between the two?

TD – That’s great to hear that! I listen to so many people and their issues with food and I think about why we eat and how we eat. And I hope for people to experience, especially if they’re in the arts, sitting down to a meal and thinking of it as if it were an art event. It incorporates all of your senses.

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS

You need to look at what’s in front of you and see the preparation visually and then experience it orally. Then you feel afterwards, like with a play, or an art opening, a dance piece or the opera, that you might have the same satisfaction. You can ask, “How did this happen, why did this happen, where did this come from and where are we going with this?”

I think the best dietary experience that people can have is to not talk about restricting or denying [themselves], but to actually think about, “What this is, how is it made, what is the preparation and why do I want it?”

People just don’t take the time to examine these things. I do think that the theatre and the culinary arts are intrinsically tied together.

JW – Will you reopen your bakery again?

TD – We plan to be back in New York in July and, although we’re not sure what we will do with the bakery, Gina, who is now out West, was experimenting with a new cupcake recipe yesterday. It was a chocolate Guinness cupcake with a milk chocolate malted buttercream icing.

So although we don’t yet know if we’ll continue with baking it’s like Tom Stoppard said [in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern], “You can’t unstir the jam!”

This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright. For questions or comments on this interview contact [email protected] or visit www.WhiskandQuill.com.


Sarah, Duchess of York, Introduces Her New Film “The Young Victoria”

Jordan Wright
December 7, 2009

Sarah, The Duchess of York discusses her film, "The Young Victoria" at Neiman Marcus - photo by Jordan Wright

Sarah, The Duchess of York discusses her film, The Young Victoria at Neiman Marcus - photo by Jordan Wright

The strikingly disarming Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, familiar to us as ‘Fergie’, stood in a black and red wool suit at Neiman Marcus today and told the story of Queen Victoria and her great love, Prince Albert. She called it, “A contemporary love story in an historical setting.”

The rare and signed Clive Christian perfume 'No. 1' - photo by Jordan Wright

The rare and signed Clive Christian perfume 'No. 1' - photo by Jordan Wright

In her role as co-producer, along with seasoned filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Tim Headington and Graham King, the Duchess of York was the driving force in getting the film made. The film stars Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend and opens on December 18th.

The Duchess, whose own difficulties are long behind her, described the travails of Victoria before she became Queen of England, “Her mother was extremely strong-willed and kept her in her tummy,” she said, “withholding delivery throughout a six-week drive over unpaved roads, all the way to London, so that she that she could be born in England.

“Oh, I thought that was interesting!” she quipped. “In order to get the Regency from her uncle, the King, Victoria was kept in a gilded cage for 17 years. She never saw anybody, never talked to anybody and wasn’t allowed to read. The King was furious!” she said. She said the story had so touched her that she became committed to making the film which was started six years ago.

“At eighteen she took the throne as the youngest reigning sovereign ever. She and Albert had nine children in 25 years. A very passionate love story!”

I asked her about the costumes displayed around her, “Are they costumes from the film?”

Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria in "The Young Victoria" - photo by Jordan Wright

Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria in The Young Victoria - photo by Jordan Wright

“Yes they are and look at that tiny waist! They wore corsets. Albert wore corsets too!” she let on.

Victoria Christian and Sarah, The Duchess of York at the Neiman Marcus signing - photo by Jordan Wright

Victoria Christian and Sarah, The Duchess of York at the Neiman Marcus signing - photo by Jordan Wright

Accompanying the Duchess was Victoria Christian, there to introduce Clive Christian ‘No. 1’, described as one of “the rarest and most expensive scents ever created”, only 1,000 bottles are produced annually and retail for $2350.00.

Twenty-five years ago a young Victoria discovered an original bottle beneath the floorboards of their family’s Victorian manor home. Her father, Clive Christian, founder of the noted British Design House, was so inspired by its association with Queen Victoria, that he bought the 1800’s Perfumery to the Queen in 1999 in order to revive the line.

Later the pair sat together in the store while the Duchess graciously signed boxes of the perfume and posters of the upcoming film.

No gaffes were sighted and the Duchess appeared to have a splendid time among the excited photo-snapping shoppers.

For questions or comments write to [email protected] and visit www.WhiskandQuill.com.


Food Inc. Clips

By Jordan Wright

In his new documentary “Food, Inc.,” scheduled to premiere here on June 19, producer Robert Kenner lifts the veil on the shameful underbelly of food production in this country. Kenner is the director of the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” narrated by Al Gore. It’s now the fourth largest-grossing documentary of all time. After the screening I wondered, could “Food, Inc.” have the same radical, policy-changing influence on business as usual in the food production world as “An Inconvenient Truth” did when it challenged and informed us on climate change? Could we continue to ignore the realities of an industry gone haywire?

Featuring interviews with the iconic food author and activist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World”), Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and Joel Salatin, real-life farmer of Polyface Farms, a sustainable, organic model farm in Swoope, VA, and author of “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven”, the directors have proffered the reality of agri-business in this country. This is an inconvenient truth of a different kind. It reveals how our nation’s food is being raised, produced, slaughtered, cloned, genetically modified, seed patented and engineered, and co-opted and controlled by a few mega-conglomerates. Monsanto, Smithfield and Con-Agra top the list of eco-villains. Continue reading FOOD, INC. REVIEW OF FILM BY ROBERT KENNER

Turandot Captures Tragedy with Balletic Passion

By Jordan Wright

Turandot and her father, the mandarin.

Turandot and her father, the mandarin.

Maija Kovalevska made her Kennedy Center debut as the slave-girl, Liu, in this season’s Turandot and the role will never be the same. Her portrayal of the sympathetic Liu was nothing less than transcendent.

With a voice that renders music “noteless,” pours forth pure and effortless in its transitions, and a physical presence that captures her tragedy with balletic passion, Kovalevska owned every moment that she was on stage.

This “Lily of Latvia” challenges all who have ever sung the role and those who have yet to.

Like Alexander Pope’s sylph, full of spleen and vanity, Sylvie Valayre, as the bloodthirsty Princess Turandot, stalks the stage seeking revenge and becomes the very thing that she despises, cruel and loveless. Unfortunately, Valayre’s performance was neither sympathetic nor nuanced, so that when at last she is revealed by Calaf’s kiss to be a frightened girl, we are stymied by the sudden shift.

Dario Volente gave the vainglorious Calaf his all, but it was not enough to bolster the Persian prince. His Calaf was competent but devoid of heft, his stultifying voice following the libretto as notes on a page.

A very bright note was the brilliant set design by Sally Jacobs that reminds one of Canton Famille Rose porcelain, with its delicate depictions of Chinese life.

When Ping, Pang and Pong, fearing Calaf will fail the test of the three riddles, and hoping to flee their awful fate, wax nostalgic with homesickness, Jacobs employs a hand-painted bolt of silk fabric depicting scenic landscapes. This billowing panel unfolds behind them and travels across the stage like Christo’s “Running Fence”, quickly transforming the set to accommodate the music.

Her slate grey backdrop of a Chinese palace serves to further enhance the bright costumes and Kabuki-style masks in this amalgam of Asian culture that Puccini imagined.

Well-received too, was conductor, Keri-Lynn Watson, making her Washington National Opera debut with this production, which closed June 4.