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MetroStage's First Year on North Royal a Success

As Carolyn Griffin’s professional theater company, MetroStage, prepares to start a second season in the new theater on North Royal Street, she can look back on the 2001-02 season with pride. In a single year, the company has re-established its reputation for solid theatrical offerings and made North Old Town a destination for discriminating theatergoers.

Several years ago, MetroStage lost its King Street theater because of expansion in that area. After years of a nomadic existence, MetroStage has a theater again. It occupies the old Smoot Lumber Warehouse at 1201 N. Royal. After a $430,000 conversion, it looks nothing like a warehouse inside. The 150-seat auditorium, named the Donna Bergheim Theatre, puts the audience on a steeply raked set of risers so that every seat is close to the stage with a clear view. The playing area is a thrust stage, coming out into the auditorium space and not confined behind a proscenium. The result is an intensely intimate feel whether the performance is a comedy, a drama, a musical or a one-person show.

The opening production was the musical revue featuring story-songs by the team of David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., appropriately titled “Starting Here, Starting Now.” Cabaret performers Perry Payne and Cindy Hutchins joined Helen Hayes Award nominated actor Michael Sharp under the direction of Thomas W. Jones II. A trio including Jay Crowder on piano backed them.

IT WAS AN auspicious beginning. But it was MetroStage’s first play in the new house that had the local theater community sitting up and taking notice. “Rapture” was a play set in a 17th-century Italian convent, where church officials frowned on a nun’s passion for music. It featured a performance of both depth and warmth by Catherine Flye, who was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding performance by a supporting actress for her work as a sympathetic nun. Michelle Shupe, as the rapturous nun, expressed the ecstasy of artistic compulsion on her face, while the entire cast handled the a cappella musical requirements with a splendid blend of voices.

CATHERINE FLYE RETURNED to MetroStage in the Spring in a two-character play that teamed her with Michael Tolaydo. The two were simply marvelous as a Welsh city girl and an Irish fisherman who are attracted to each other, first in correspondence and then in person, but who can’t overcome the differences in their backgrounds. The play had been something of a failure off-Broadway when critics found it “utterly lifeless,” but in the hands of Flye, Tolaydo and director Nick Olcott, it revealed a poetic beauty.

Flye wasn’t the only performer to earn a Helen Hayes nomination this year at MetroStage. Ron Cambell was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Non-Resident Production for his one-man, 38-character performance in his Holocaust play, “The Thousandth Night.” MetroStage imported this show from Los Angeles with its original cast of one but placed it on James Kronzer’s first-class set of the back room of a train station on the frontier between Vichy France and Nazi Germany circa 1943.

The stage was transformed from Europe to Harlem for the next production, the world premiere of Thomas W. Jones II’s “Harlem Rose.” This revue of the Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes featured two dozen songs, many of which were familiar (“Take the A Train,” “Round Midnight,” “Lush Life”), but some of which were poems by Hughes set to music by William Hubbard. Hubbard and Ron Oshima, who was a presence in the company as well as the saxophonist, backed the three-member cast, Beverly Cosham, Desiré Dubose and Scott Leonard Fortune.

THE LAST SHOW of the season was Virginia’s first look at an original musical produced last year by an Arlington theater company, The American Century Theater, but previously performed only in Maryland. “Danny & Sylvia, A Musical Love Story” is a two-performer musical telling the story of the partnership/love affair/marriage between the famous singing comedian Danny Kaye and his songwriting wife, Sylvia Fine. The score, by Bob McElwaine, who had been Danny Kaye’s publicist before his retirement, and well-known guitarist Bob Bain, contained a number of lilting tunes and also used three songs that were among Kaye’s biggest hits, “Minnie the Moocher,” “Tchaikovsky” and a number written for him by Fine, “Anatole of Paris.”

The project earned its Danny, Brian Childers, the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Musical, when it played in Maryland. He repeated that astonishing performance at MetroStage. It also earned its Sylvia, Janine Gulisano, a nomination for the Helen Hayes Award in her category. At MetroStage Gulisano wasn’t available for the full run, so Perry Payne returned to MetroStage to handle the role. As the season came to an end, the production of “Danny & Sylvia” was invited to play a brief run in New York on 42nd Street just east of Broadway.

In a short time, good things have become the expectation among theatergoers who attend MetroStage. With the announcement of the new season’s lineup, that expectation continues.

THE 2002-03 season begins with two world premieres: a musical adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by the same man responsible for last season’s “Harlem Rose,” and a mixing of two of Charles Dickens’ creations from “Nicholas Nickleby” and “A Christmas Carol,” by the director of last season’s “Sea Marks.” It closes with another revue by the song-writing team of Maltby and Shire, who wrote the revue that opened the new theater last June. In between comes a solo performance by Leslie Ayvazian and two East Coast premieres of plays, Stuart Flack’s “Sidney Bechet Killed a Man” and David Gow’s “Bea’s Niece.”

It is clear that Carolyn Griffin and MetroStage will continue to put their new home to good use.

MetroStage is located at 1201 N. Royal St. and can be reached at 703-548-9044.