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'Ragtime' to Riches: Donna Migliaccio Broadway-Bound

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"From the ridiculous to the sublime" is how Donna Migliaccio describes the artistic about-face she'll make later this month. That's when she'll depart the playful spoof "Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)" currently at MetroStage, and head to Broadway to play early 20th-century radical Emma Goldman in "Ragtime."

" 'Musical of Musicals,' " explains Migliaccio, "is all about waving my arms and rolling my eyes" in broad parodies of American musical theater classics. "It requires a great deal of energy and a great deal of focus, which is the same thing I have to bring 'Ragtime.' "

Migliaccio played Emma Goldman last spring at the Kennedy Center in the revival now bound for New York, staged by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. The show starts previews Oct. 23 and opens Nov. 15.

Known for her larger-than-life singing voice (both in range and volume), take-charge stage presence, and knack for comedy and big emotions, Migliaccio says a Broadway career has "never been anything that I'd aimed for. My life is down here in D.C., so I kind of feel like I backed into it . . . but I'm really excited about it." A co-founder (with Eric Schaeffer) of Signature Theatre in Arlington, Migliaccio has been nominated 10 times for Helen Hayes Awards, winning in 2007 for Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" at Signature.

She was appearing at the Kennedy Center last year in "Broadway: Three Generations" when she learned of the "Ragtime" auditions and was urged to try for the Emma Goldman part. The actress read up on Goldman, who was viewed in her day as an anarchist, feminist, anti-draft, pro-Bolshevik firebrand. "All fanatics are a little bit naive. You have to admire the fact that through everything that she went through [including jail and eventual deportation], she never once [lost] her ideals," Migliaccio says.

During the Kennedy Center "Ragtime" run, she discovered the importance of "staying tied into the passion of the character without ripping out your vocal cords at the same time." That and keeping Goldman's trademark pince-nez on her nose. The specs were attached firmly with spirit gum. "There were perform ances where I would be gesturing fairly vigorously and hook my thumb into the ribbon on the pince-nez and snatch them right off my face." Ouch. "You suffer for your art," Migliaccio observes.

On Sept. 17, Virginia Beach native Heather Mayes will take over for Migliaccio at MetroStage in "Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)." This opportunity comes early in Mayes's career.

During rehearsals, the young performer watched Migliaccio, and was "writing down all of her blocking, writing down all of her choices and at the same time, taking inspiration from what she's doing." In addition to "being completely entertained by her," adds Mayes, she was "trying to stay focused on how am I going to make this my own." While she'll surely lend a different flavor to the show, Mayes says she and Migliaccio share traits as "great belters" and "bold comedians."

Round House 'Picture'

When playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa read Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" for the first time as a young teen, he didn't quite get the sexual implications between the lines. "I missed everything," he says. "I knew it was sort of suggestive, but I didn't know why." Now Aguirre-Sacasa, who grew up in Washington, has been mining Wilde's subtext for stage gold. His adaptation of the novel will have its world premiere at Round House Theatre Wednesday through Oct. 4.

Aguirre-Sacasa writes not only for the stage ("The Velvet Sky," "The Muckle Man," "Dark Matters"), but for Marvel Comics ("Spider-Man," "Fantastic Four," "Marvel Divas," and soon a 30-part adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Stand"), and is a staff writer on the HBO series "Big Love." He agrees he has an outsize approach to storytelling and that he has brought that to bear on "Dorian Gray," too.

He decided to set the first act in 1988 London, in the middle of the iconoclastic Young British Artists movement epitomized by Damien Hirst and by his fabled assemblage of a shark in a tank of formaldehyde and the "Freeze" exhibition he organized.

"I wanted to set it at a moment when some art period was either being born or exploding," Aguirre-Sacasa says. "This was artwork that really shocked . . . and one of the things Dorian believes in [is] we absolutely must be experiencing things that are shocking. We must be going beyond what we know and what is acceptable and what is polite."

Round House Artistic Director Blake Robison is staging the play. He says Aguirre-Sacasa has "turned Wilde's story into a very sly commentary on our obsession with youth and beauty and celebrity." Wilde's tale hasn't been merely transposed to modern times, Robison says. "Roberto completely reinvents it. . . . There's very little of Wilde's actual dialogue in the play. It's Roberto's language. The story itself is the same, but the characters look like us, they sound like us, they behave like us."

The Apollo-like Dorian, who abandons his soul to remain young while his hidden portrait grows ugly with sin and age, is "pan-sexual," observes Aguirre-Sacasa, who says he and Robison decided to give his "Dorian Gray" a Shakespearean scope, in the sense that it "embraces comedy, embraces horror, embraces drama. It's such a juicy, juicy ride."

Follow Spots

-- The League of Washington Theatres (LOWT) will launch its Theatre Week promotion Saturday. There will be free play readings, open rehearsals, panel discussions and festivals. See http://www.lowt.org for details.

-- Arena Stage has announced that the musical "Striking 12" will be added to its season. The "pop-concert musical comedy" by Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn of the band GrooveLily teamed with writer Rachel Sheinkin ( "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") will run Dec. 2-13 at Arena's Crystal City venue. The show is about a man who hates New Year's Eve.

-- Sir Ian McKellen will receive the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Will Award at a gala at Sidney Harman Hall on Oct. 25. Arts philanthropist Max Berry will also be honored, as will his late wife, Heidi Berry, who died this year and had served on the theater's board of trustees for more than a decade.

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