Gather 'round the piano
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Mar. 30, 2012
An unfamiliar racket is coming from the bar at the usually subdued Jefferson Hotel, so loud you can hear it the moment the French doors in the entryway part.
Is that . . . "Rent"?
Indeed, it is a few dozen voices belting out the musical's tongue-twisting power ballad, "Seasons of Love."
"Five hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes," the voices sing in easy unison. "How do you measure, measure a yeeear?"
The doormen smile knowingly, seemingly getting a kick out of the surprised faces of guests who have sauntered in for an after-work cocktail or early date night.
About once a month, the hotel's posh Quill Bar is transformed into a theatrical singalong known as Show Tunes & Cocktails.
Hosted by TheatreWashington, a nonprofit organization that supports area theater, it's a must-do for those who still get misty-eyed about their youthful turns as Maria in a high school rendition of "West Side Story" or as Jean Valjean in a college production of "Les Miz."
"After you get over the shock of doctors and lawyers sitting around the piano singing, it's fun," says Brad Watkins, director of theatre services for TheatreWashington.
And when this crowd knows a tune, they don't hesitate to join in.
"It's like karaoke with more heart," says Ashleigh King, an actress in Signature Theatre's recent production of "Hairspray" who joined Show Tunes for a guest set recently.
The man who gives it much of that fire is Glenn Pearson, a pianist and bandleader who mans the keys. Most guests, in fact, don't even bother taking a seat in the tiny lounge, preferring instead to circle Pearson and rest their wine glasses precariously around the edges of the grand piano. (Get there early or come later if you want a seat.)
"I think people just love to sing," Pearson says, noting that the crowd regularly ranges in age from 20-something to 70-something. "Maybe they sang in college in the glee club, but they've been singing these songs their entire lives. It's interesting not only that they know these songs, but they remember the lyrics better than I do."
Pearson has accompanied performers at the Helen Hayes Awards for nearly 20 years, holding down the bottom for such celebrities as Tyne Daly, Tommy Tune and Liza Minnelli. Unlike those nights, Show Tunes & Cocktails gives Pearson an opportunity to add his booming baritone to the mix of mezzo sopranos and tenors in the crowd.
To keep the room moving, Pearson flits easily from "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" from "Guys and Dolls," to "Tomorrow" from "Annie," to "The Lady Is a Tramp" from the 1937 musical "Babes in Arms." To keep up with the crowd's diverse tastes - Pearson takes requests - he brings two or three songbooks and keeps his iPad handy in case he needs to look up the music to a particularly obscure number. (It has happened.)
The Jefferson and TheatreWashington have been hosting Show Tunes & Cocktails for several months. The lounge had a piano and wanted to foster a convivial environment, says Charles Balladur, the hotel's food and beverage assistant manager. Each month, the hotel puts together a menu of cocktails and bar foods to complement the music, and 20 percent of the evening's proceeds go to TheatreWashington.
In recent months, TheatreWashington has brought in guest performers from area productions to join the singalongs. King performed a few tunes in January when "Hairspray" was still rocking at Signature, and on Monday, the performers will include Jessica Lauren Ball, a Helen Hayes Award nominee for her turn in Olney's "The Sound of Music" last fall.
At the January event, Roxanna Maisel, 25, of Washington could be found belting it out near the piano. The fact that others her age might be downing $2 beers at a more conventional happy hour isn't lost on the singer, who occasionally performs with such area groups as the Victorian Lyric Opera.
"It's an embarrassing, dirty little secret - I like show tunes," she says. "I'm old-school. I like Cole Porter."
Maisel pauses before the next song picks up, soaking up the scene. "But I'm warming up to Irving Berlin and Gershwin."
For Pearson, the joy he brings to others is nothing if not gratifying.
"I've had nights there, where, when I go home, I'm just hoarse."