Washington teens John and Leo Manzari have all the right dance moves

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Maurice Hines thought he was the end of the line. He figured he was the coda to a grand tradition, the last of a dying breed of performer: the song-and-dance man who can do it all: croon, act, tap, swing, nail a jazz routine or a calypso number.

Maurice and his brother Gregory Hines were raised in what he calls the Sammy Davis Jr. school, the era of "entertainers," of Chita Riveras and Angela Lansburys -- a lingering bequest of the vaudevillian work ethic. Nowadays, though, nobody's interested in mastering it all, Maurice Hines believed. The consummate performer is a thing of the past.

And then one day at the Lincoln Theatre, he saw what he never thought he'd see: two teenage brothers who handle tap, jazz and singing with equal aplomb.

"They are everything that I have waited for all my life to find," Hines, 66, says of John Manzari, 17, and his brother Leo, 15. Though they had never performed in a big show, Hines cast the boys in "Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies," the musical revue presented by Arena Stage at the Lincoln; it runs through May 30. Hines, who choreographed the show, also stars in it.

It all has the feel of a Cinderella story. Two local unknowns go from high school to the spotlight by the grace of an artistic godfather whose blessing bestows upon them an instant transformation. In the relatively small world of tap-dancing, to get the accolades of Maurice Hines -- one of the few celebrity hoofers still around and a last connection to tap's glory days on the stage and screen -- is to be showered in a storm of fairy dust.

No one is saying these boys are going to be the next Savion Glover -- Hines's previous discovery, whom he passed on to Gregory to mentor. "Gregory was the right one," Maurice says, "because I wanted someone who could do everything." (Snap!) But the Manzaris' potential as performers is clear.

"People who see this show, years ahead will say, 'I saw them when they first started,' " says Charles Randolph-Wright, the "Sophisticated Ladies" director who also helmed Arena's "Guys and Dolls" (starring Hines) in 1999. "They have something extra. They have what you can't teach, this magnetism. They have it."

Teen sensations

So who are these amazing boys?

Right now, they are famished athletes trying to refuel. On a recent afternoon they're in their dressing room, feeding their raging teenage appetites with sodas and fries from Ben's Chili Bowl.

With practiced efficiency, their mother (a round, attractive brunette and former model) sweeps a jock strap (delicately known as a "dance belt") off a chair so a reporter can sit down. Honestly! says her glare. They grin and suck their fingers. But even in their hunger, they mind their manners. They swallow before speaking. John proffers a fry.

They shrug off the enormity of what they're doing, joining an ensemble of Broadway veterans and even stealing the spotlight in some numbers. "We've been trained to do this kind of stuff," says John, the talker. He pushes his chair against the wall, leans his head back and flashes a comfortable smile. "We've had training in a whole bunch of different types of dance, so it's nothing completely new. The thing that's new is, first of all, getting paid for it, okay?" His smile gets bigger. "And the other thing is, doing it all day, every day, and the stamina and everything. It happened really fast, so we're still trying to catch up to what's going on."

With its 13-piece band and nightclub numbers that span Ellington's career, "Sophisticated Ladies" is a production that pours on the glitz, and Hines and Randolph-Wright had been on the hunt for knock-your-socks-off dancers. They found them all in New York -- with the exception of the Manzaris. They're students at the Field School on Foxhall Road NW who were known only on the amateur competition circuit, where they each hold regional dance titles. Now the brothers are making their improbable debut in what Hines calls "an old-school show. You have to sing, do jazz, tap, jitterbug, African, Ailey. The show is a killer. It's impossible!"

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