Alexandria has its own answer to the Great White Way – MetroStage.
Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director of MetroStage and a co-founder of the Alexandria Arts Forum, understands community theater. She does it all – from re-stocking toilet tissue to producing sometimes risky material. What’s more, she does it well.
Griffin lined up actors and musicians to donate their talents last Sunday evening for a Starlit Soiree: a cabaret benefit for the intimate, non-profit, 130-seat theater. Located at 1201 N. Royal Street, MetroStage is the oldest professional theater in Virginia (founded in 1984 as American Showcase Theatre Company) and has been operating in this converted lumber warehouse for five years.
“This is representative of what we do,” Griffin said passionately about the musical review. The performers are first class, and each of them has been in, or is cast in an upcoming musical at MetroStage.
Jimi Ray Malary fits in both categories. Malary, who starred in “Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke,” flew in from Seattle to perform Sunday. “It’s welcoming here,” he told me in his rich baritone voice. “Carolyn appreciates music.” Malary opens at MetroStage, December 1, in “King of Cool: the life and music of Nat King Cole.” He talked to me about playing the two different roles that playwright David Scully created for him. “I try to maintain my individuality in each and at the same time respect tradition.”
Tracy McMullen, who has worked in theater in this community for 25 years, said: “This theater stands out because it has so much heart. There is nobody who cares more or loves the pieces she puts together as much as Carolyn. She works 24/7.”
Remember the amusing Mrs. Foggybottom? Joan Cushing, who created the character, Ms. Café Lafayette, brought her back to MetroStage Sunday evening in her black boa feathered hat and black gloves tipping a champagne glass. Cushing, now writing children’s musicals, doesn’t perform much anymore, but had long acted in Alexandria’s Old Town. She admires Griffin because “she’s got enough nerve to produce new work.”
All of the performers were passionate about MetroStage. “It has given performers like myself an opportunity to be a part of theater history,” said Roz White Gonzalves, who played on that stage in “Three Sistahs” and in the edgy “Two Queens, One Castle.” She’s looking forward to performing in the new musical “Bricktop” opening January 17. It explores the musical careers of Paris nightclub owner Ada “Bricktop” Smith and jazz vocalists Alberta Hunter and Mabel Mercer.
But it was song and dance man Bobbie Smith, who stole the show with “I Love A Piano,” the Irving Berlin composition that landed him his first job. The versatile Smith recently appeared in MetroStage’s “Girl in the Goldfish Bowl” and is cast in the upcoming “Musical of Musicals, The Musical!” scheduled for early 2007.
“We are here because of Carolyn Griffin,” said Alexandria resident Will Elwood, echoing the sentiments of her loyal supporters. “She is one of the most awesome forces the Alexandria cultural community has. Carolyn has the artistic vision and the connections with community. She’s kept this theater alive.” Attorney Elwood continued: “It’s not an elitist kind of theater. It’s a populist kind of theater.”
Charity begins on stage
Realtor Pauline Thompson called MetroStage “a hidden jewel.” “Carolyn works so hard to get the best of the best to come here,” she said.
From the performers’ point of view, “Charity begins at home,” declared Gonzalves, who played Mahalia. “Actors don’t have to go away to be appreciated. It happens right on this stage.”
Tracey McMullan (“Two Queens, One Castle”) donated her time to perform because: “This theater is under shadows of big theater, and they need to raise funds.”