Tap-dance instructor Mark Orsborn received a memorable text message when his student Nathan Beech was cast in the national tour of the musical “Brothers of the Knight.”
The message was in all caps, which was unusual for Nathan, and it read: “DUDE! I MADE IT! THIS IS CRAZY!”
Orsborn wasn’t surprised. Nathan, he says, is an amazing dancer. But then the good news took a turn for the surreal: Nathan was cast as “Billy,” the same role Orsborn played in the original 1998 Kennedy Center production of “Brothers of the Knight.” Now, 16 years later, Orsborn is heading to the Warner Theatre this weekend to see his student revive the role that helped launch his own career. The five-day run opens Wednesday.
“Nathan has become so unbelievably good,” Orsborn said of his 17-year-old student from Woodbridge.
Before the audition, Orsborn gave Nathan a pep talk. “I said, ‘Buddy, just relax. Go in there and be humble. Thank everybody, and just be you. Do what you do best. Use that Nathan charm, and you’re gonna get it.’ ”
Nathan wasn’t so sure. At the Kirov Academy in Northeast Washington, he was overwhelmed by the number kids attending the audition. “There were like five-bizzilian people there,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘There is no room for me.’ ”
Debbie Allen thought otherwise. Allen is best known for playing a dance instructor on the 1980s cult-favorite television show “Fame.” In the decades since, she’s become a leader in dance and musical theater education. When the Kennedy Center commissioned “Brothers of the Knight” from Allen in 1998, her goal was to create a multiethnic musical about kids who love to dance, even when their parents aren’t so keen on the art form. “Billy,” Nathan’s character, is one of 12 sons of the Rev. Knight, a minister and strict single dad. At night, the brothers sneak off to go dancing — swing dancing, break dancing, tap dancing — and return the next morning with a pile of worn out shoes.
If the “Brothers of the Knight” story sounds a bit fantastical and a bit familiar, it’s based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale called “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” There’s an animated adaptation starring Barbie. Besides Orsborn,other D.C. stars of the original cast have gone on to work professionally in dance. Among them are frequent Savion Glover collaborator Cartier Williams and Chloe and Maud Arnold, the sisters who founded D.C. Tap Fest. In advance of the five-city revival tour for “Brothers of the Knight,” Allen held auditions in Boston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington. From each talent pool, she picked two to five dancers to star as “Brothers” and “Sisters,” as well as additional dancers to perform as ensemble members in their hometowns. To represent the District on the tour, Allen chose Nathan and 13-year-old Kirov student Kaeli Ware. Cast member Kendall Cherry, 20,is originally from Lorton but now trains at Allen’s Los Angeles studio. Singing at the audition was voluntary. Onstage, the performers with the best voices are miked.
“I am not, and there’s a reason for that,” Nathan said.
Still, his experience in “Brothers of the Knight” has Nathan wanting to work on his vocals to become a “triple threat.” The son of a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, Nathan grew up thinking he would join the military, but lately, he’s been thinking more seriously about a career in dance and musical theater.
At this point, teaching Nathan isn’t about teaching technique, Orsborn said. It’s about teaching him how to perform rather than compete, and to learn choreography quickly. “What sets Nathan apart is his classical training and his work ethic,” Orsborn said. “If he sees [a series of steps or a move], he keeps working on it until he get it, and then he adds his own twist.”
Dominic D’Andrea, producing artistic director of the One-Minute Play Festival, spent much of Monday sitting on the New Jersey Turnpike behind the wheel of a fluorescent orange Fiat with Ontario license plates. He was on his way to his hometown of Severna Park, Md., which will be his base camp while he directs this weekend’s One-Minute Play Festival at Round House Theatre. But first, he had to survive the perils of Interstate 95 in a “clown rental car.”
“At one point, a van full of ladies just start laughing at me,” he said. “I’m Italian. But I didn’t want to represent this much.”
A 2003 graduate of the University of Maryland, D’Andrea is in his ninth year of traveling the country to direct locally grown festivals of very short plays. New York came first, but 21 other cities have since signed on. In each city, a partner theater asks dozens of playwrights to create two very short scripts each. D’Andrea picks at least one from each playwright and divides his selections into thematic groups. Each group gets a director who then recruits actors. All told, about 160 artists are involved, and few of them are paid. So why do this? D’Andrea says the festival is a “barometer project” that lets a theater community see what issues are on the minds of its playwrights.
“The aim of this is not to showcase individual plays, but ideas,” D’Andrea said. “I’m really excited to bring it down home for the first time.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.