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

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; C01

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!"

An important class

Luck -- or fate? -- has played a role for the young Manzaris. In October, Mary Manzari, their mother, got an excited late-night call at her apartment in Southwest Washington (in the shadow of Arena Stage) from a friend: Maurice Hines would be teaching a master class at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts -- tomorrow! Leo, recovering from a sprained ankle and a stress fracture, hadn't danced in weeks. But it was just a class, no pressure, right? The boys showed up.

It was all jazz dancing, fast and complicated, and something in how quickly they picked up the steps, how relaxed and fluidly they danced, caught Hines's eye. After the class, Leo sat down to rub his swollen ankle while John waited nearby. Hines went over to chat with them, and when he found out they were brothers, "a little light went on," says the man who knows something about a brother act. Hines got his start as a child performing with his kid brother; "Sophisticated Ladies" is his first musical since Gregory died of liver cancer in 2003.

"I said, 'My God. Do you boys tap?' "

John told Maurice that they did -- or rather, John said something a little more smart-alecky, like, Uh, yeah, we can tap. Smirk.

"With that attitude!" Hines says. "So I said, come to the audition tomorrow at the Lincoln Theatre, and I'll see if you can tap.

"And when they started tapping," Hines continues, "I said, 'Oh my God, if they can sing . . .' " Hines lifted his eyes as if the man upstairs was hovering around the light fixture in his dressing room. "I just looked up and thanked the man that they can sing."

Talking during a break, the brothers make it all look so easy. No big deal. Just like the way they dance onstage -- cool, relaxed, no pressure. Oh, to be young and uncomplicated!

"I'd say he's the smoother tapper," Leo says about his big brother, "and I attack in a harder way. He's kinda, like, chill."

"He's more wild," John says. Leo shoots him a look, but John says, "You are! I can be wild, too, but he's more wild. I don't mean bouncing off the walls but like crazy steps and moves that I wouldn't even think to do, but he's risky enough to do them."

Next steps

What's next? John, a senior, is off to college unless fame comes knocking. Leo, a freshman at Field, will finally get a room of his own. Come fall, the brother act will be put on hold.

"We've always been close, but our relationship has changed from like, wrestling, to just sitting in a room," John says.

Ah. So you're past the point where you're pounding on each other? Leo, laughing, almost spits out his Dr Pepper. "Yeah. But I didn't pound." He jabs a finger at John: "He pounded!"

They are indescribably charming, John with his round, open face and close-shaven hair and Leo with his rascal grin and an explosion of curls pulled into a ponytail.

But finding out much about them isn't easy. Their mother is reluctant to divulge personal information about her sons. She resists saying who they've trained with, though after some pressing, she says they have studied ballet with Troy D. Brown at D.C. Dance Collective, tap and jazz at Spotlight Studio of Dance in Millersville, and they took a few classes at the Washington School of Ballet.

Born in the District and raised in the same apartment they live in now, the boys started dancing as toddlers, she says, following in the footsteps of their older sister, also named Mary, who is 19 and teaches dance near Richmond. They never stayed long at any dance school.

And their father? The boys' mother, a legal secretary, refuses to talk about him, other than to say that she is divorced and that their father is not a part of their lives. "I've done it all," she says. "That's why they're where they are."

There is a lot riding on the Manzaris. Tap, a fading art form, wants fresh blood. Arena Stage wants publicity for the show, the mother wants what all stage mothers want, the director wants to midwife a couple of stars and Hines wants his proteges.

"They are just remarkable -- in a time when there is no remarkable," Hines says. "There is none. They got great Ailey dancers and fantastic hip-hop dancers, but as far as what I do, and what I came from -- no. That generation is over. Now, hopefully, it will come again."

Is it hype, or is it a fairy tale come true? Hard to tell, when they are still so young and unproven. And when so many are, understandably, feeling protective about these kids. And when they also want so much from the boys. But in matters of art, the place to find the truth isn't in the dressing room, and it isn't in an interview. It's on the stage, where John and Leo Manzari are, so far, holding their own.

There's a moment in the second act that sums up the high emotions and sense of hope riding on John and Leo. Hines and the Manzaris are onstage, dancing a cappella, just the three of them and the hammering rhythm of their taps as they try to outdo one another. The younger dancers' feet strike the stage with mighty cracks and slide as fast as if they're slipping around on oiled glass. They dance right up to Hines, and each boy lays a hand on one of the elder man's shoulders. Together they gently push him backward, into the shadows. Now the spotlight is theirs alone, turning their bodies into gold.

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