Showstoppers

Washington has lots of talent, with great singers, dancers, actors, and musicians by the hundreds. Here are 20 exciting performers and groups well worth a trip to the theater, nightclub, or concert hall.

By: Susan Davidson, Leslie Milk

Washington may be known to some as a government town. But thanks to the growing number of theaters, concert halls, music clubs, and arts groups, the area has become one the nation’s centers for the performing arts. In the process, it’s become a magnet for talent. The region now has the fourth-highest number of artists—including actors, singers, dancers, musicians, producers, and directors—out of 50 metropolitan areas in the country, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Here’s a look at 20 of those thousands—recommended by local directors, club managers, booking agents, and critics—who are making a splash. They’re exciting performers you may not know about but may not want to miss.

Marin Alsop

Making the BSO very good listening

When Marin Alsop was nine, her parents took her to see Leonard Bernstein conduct. “He was so charismatic,” Alsop says. “When he turned around and talked to an audience, you had this sense that he was focused on you.”

Now in her second season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has a second home at the Music Center at Strathmore, Alsop is determined to inspire another generation. Her concerts—often a heady mix of European classics and contemporary American works—have become very good listening. She’s won praise for a dynamic podium presence and for strong interpretations of Mahler, Brahms, and Dvorak. “As I’ve grown in my experience,” she says, “I no longer try to go in and change an orchestra’s sound. Instead, I try to build on its strengths. I want an orchestra that can very quickly adapt to a Mozart symphony or a Brahms symphony and sound dramatically different in each.”

Alsop recently recorded Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 with the BSO, signaling a renewed emphasis on commercial releases by the orchestra. She’s equally committed to education and outreach: “I would like everybody in the community to feel some kind of ownership in the orchestra. A lot of inner-city kids just don’t have access to symphonic music. I’m hoping when I come back and visit in my wheelchair and I look at the makeup of the Baltimore Symphony, it will better reflect the diversity in the community.

“Music is important because it provides hope to young people who need things to look forward to, ways to express their imaginations. That is what art is all about.”

—Sudip Bose

Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein’s Mass at the Kennedy Center October 26. Other BSO concerts are at Strathmore and Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall through June 2009.

Aubrey Deeker

The intensity of a minister’s son

Aubrey Deeker caught the acting bug at age four when he starred as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a Christmas pageant. “I was hooked,” he says. That first star turn eventually led him to the North Carolina School of the Arts and then to bigger roles, many on Washington stages.

Deeker plays Mercutio in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current all-male Romeo and Juliet. Later this fall, he’ll star in Woolly Mammoth’s production of Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.

Fans of TV’s The Wire will know him as Terry Hanning, a homeless vet featured in the final season of the HBO hit. “An intense young actor” is how novelist George Pelecanos, who produced the episode, describes him. “If he didn’t convince as a homeless veteran, then we were in trouble,” Pelecanos says. “He was very convincing.”

Some of that intensity comes from being a minister’s son growing up in a Missouri town. Preachers’ kids “are exposed to a sense of ritual at an early age,” Deeker says, “and we’re raised listening to someone talk about the big questions.”

His favorite role? Raskolnikov in a Round House Theatre production of Crime and Punishment: “It’s the closest I’ve come to a genuine act of the soul—a complete giving of oneself on stage.”

“It’s essential to him to reveal the soul of any character that he does,” says John Vreeke, who will direct the actor in Boom. Deeker backs up that vulnerability with what Vreeke calls an “immense technical talent” and a distinctive personality. “When you combine those three really strong elements,” Vreeke says, “you’re pretty sure that you’re going to have something interesting.”

—Jennifer Howard

Deeker can be seen in Shakespeare Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet through October 12, then in Woolly Mammoth’s Boom November 3 through 30. In spring, he’ll be back at Shakespeare for the Euripides drama Ion (March 10 through April 12).

Felicia Curry

Landing the role of a lifetime

Felicia Curry hedged her bets about a stage career—she majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland and got a job with a nonprofit. The New Jersey native got her first acting part after college when she accompanied a friend to an audition for a show in Baltimore. She decided to try out, and the director was so impressed that he changed a character’s sex so she could play the part. She was Countess Dracula.

Since quitting her day job four years ago to act full-time, Curry, 29, has played the title role in the musical Aida as well as a gibberish-talking, wall-climbing acrobat in The Araboolies of Liberty Street at Imagination Stage and an Afro-sporting daughter of the ’60s in Three Sistahs at MetroStage. She’s been nominated twice for Helen Hayes Awards and is the newest member of the Capitol Steps.

Now Curry has landed the role of a lifetime. In December, she’ll play Eponine in Signature Theatre’s production of Les Misérables. After Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer saw Curry in Tick Tick . . . BOOM! at MetroStage, he asked her to audition for musical director Jon Kalbfleisch. When they called her back, they asked if she’d try Eponine’s signature song, “On My Own.” “I sang it all through high school,” she told them.

She can hardly wait to sing it again, this time before an audience: “I love watching people take the journey with us.”

—Leslie Milk

Curry appears in Les Misérables at Signature December 2 through February 22.

Jason Ignacio

A soaring presence

He’s only five-foot-two, but you’d never know it from the way Jason Ignacio defies gravity, soaring in straddle leaps and partnering dancers who are a foot taller. “When I was young, my teachers said, ‘If you want to make it, you’ve got to be twice as good as anyone else,’ ” says Ignacio, who recently joined CityDance Ensemble, among the area’s top contemporary-dance troupes.

Though compact, Ignacio has such a magnetic presence that his stature is an afterthought. “Jason can do just about anything,” says CityDance cofounder and artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson. In a company with a repertory spanning classic modern dances from the 1940s to contemporary works, Ignacio can do it all. “The repertory is so challenging,” says choreographer in residence Christopher Morgan, “that it’s difficult to find dancers who look good in both classical and contemporary work. Jason does.”

Morgan says Ignacio’s early training in both gymnastics and traditional Filipino dance gives him an edge. For spring, he’ll choreograph his first full-scale group work for CityDance. “The Mountain” draws from the earthiness of the dances of the Philippines, his native country, and the equally grounded technique he absorbed at the Martha Graham School in New York City.

At 27, Ignacio has happily settled in Rockville after five years of dancing and auditioning in New York and elsewhere: “I would look in the mirror during auditions and think, ‘Oh, my God, I’m really short.’ But people like me because of my uniqueness.”

—Lisa Traiger

CityDance Ensemble’s season begins with a performance October 18 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Veronica del Cerro

A brilliant debut

When DC native Veronica del Cerro graduated from Virginia Tech in 2002, the psychology major realized that if she wanted to act, “it was now or never.” So she headed to Studio Theatre’s conservatory to study acting, and her big break came last year when she landed a lead role in Studio’s production of the Athol Fugard drama My Children! My Africa! Not only was she brilliant in the part of a teenage student, but she mastered the British/South African dialect. Studio artistic director Joy Zinoman, who has taught and directed del Cerro, says: “She’s amazingly connected emotionally and is fiercely disciplined. When you get those two together, you get something really dynamic.”

This season, the 28-year-old is appearing in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents at Round House Theatre. Del Cerro plays the most assimilated of four Latina sisters but still has to speak some Spanish. It won’t be a stretch. Her mother is Argentinean, and her father was Uruguayan-Italian.

Del Cerro lives in Burke with her mother, who she says is her toughest critic. When not acting, she works as a behavioral specialist at a school for children with special needs. “I love behavior,” she says. “You can use it in acting. You study what motivates people and therefore their characters.”

—Susan Davidson

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents runs at Round House Theatre through October 12. Del Cerro appears in Marisol at the Forum Theatre March 14 through April 5 and in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll at Studio Theatre April 22 through May 31.

A few years ago, Chelsea Lee was just singing in the shower. Photograph of Lee by Kelly Moffat Saeed.

Chelsea Lee

A voice beyond her years

At 17, singer/songwriter Chelsea Lee has a voice and a career that performers twice her age might envy. The McLean native has opened for Pat Benatar and Marc Cohn. She headlines sold-out shows at area venues like Jammin’ Java. She has put out an eponymous CD available on iTunes. Now there’s talk of a record deal.

Not bad for a high-school senior. Until a couple of years ago, Lee says, she’d only sung in the shower. Then she signed up for voice lessons and started doing open-mike nights at Jammin’ Java. The venue’s owner, Daniel Brindley, recalls “being caught dead in my tracks” the first time he heard her. He’s now her manager. “Her voice is just mind-blowing,” he says.

Michael Jaworek, a promoter for the Birchmere, where Lee opened for Cohn in January, describes her as part Mary Chapin Carpenter, part Natalie Merchant: “I have rarely seen someone so young with such a strong performance and poise.”

With her music partner, Todd Wright, Lee writes soulful songs with cross-generational appeal, and she delivers them with astonishing maturity. “I love singing no matter what,” she says. “But when you sing in front of an audience, your goal is to captivate them. You can’t just stand there.”

And yes, she still plans to go to the prom.

—Jennifer Howard

Lee performs at the McLean Arts Festival October 5 and at the Birchmere October 17.

C. Brian Williams

Stepping in new directions

It’s been 15 years since onetime Howard University business major Brian Williams noticed similarities between the step dancing his fraternity brothers practiced and the South African tribal and gumboot dances he saw in Johannesburg. Now the company he founded, Step Afrika!, performs around the world in elementary-school auditoriums and opera houses alike. The troupe has become a hit on local stages for its energetic and rhythmic performances.

“We started with stepping on the Howard University Yard,” says founding company member Darrius Gourdine, “and now people are paying us to step and put on a show.”

The percussive form combines stomping, clapping, hamboning—slapping, patting, tapping, and clapping of arms, thighs, chests, and cheeks to create syncopated rhythms—and rhythmic chants. It has seen a renaissance as churches, schools, even Hollywood—in such films as School Daze and Stomp the Yard—have discovered its distinctively African and flashy elements.

The company is unique in bringing this street form to the concert stage and broadening it by incorporating elements of tap, African, and modern dance. Williams, 40, envisions one day choreographing a step ballet: “While we’re about preserving the tradition, it’s time for us to take stepping in some new directions. We’re ready to lead and show others what might be possible.”

—Lisa Traiger

Step Afrika! performs as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival October 2 and 3 at the company’s base, the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Other concerts include Winter Heat, January 9 through 11, at the Lansburgh Theatre and at the Black Rock Center for the Arts March 21 and 22.

Trevor Scheunemann

A Domingo protégé headed for stardom

For five seasons, baritone Trevor Scheunemann sang in the chorus of the Washington National Opera. Then, in 2005, he got noticed. Plácido Domingo heard him in two company productions and invited him to join its young-artists program. Three years later, Scheunemann, 30, seems poised for stardom.

Last year, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. This past summer, he sang at England’s Glyndebourne Festival and at the legendary Proms concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “You have this massive hall,” Scheunemann says of the Proms performance, “there’s no air conditioning, and a thousand people are standing during an entire three-hour opera. Those are some die-hard opera fans.”

Scheunemann has a radiant baritone voice that spans a wide range of tonal colors, and his repertoire stretches from Monteverdi to Puccini. “I feel most comfortable in the bel-canto style,” he says, “but I certainly enjoy singing Mozart and the French repertoire, too—like the role I’m singing at the Washington National Opera.”

That role is Zurga in The Pearl Fishers, Georges Bizet’s gorgeous opera set in ancient Ceylon. “It’s a great, meaty role for the baritone,” Scheunemann says. “You’re not growling the whole time, which is fun for a change. The character is actually a noble person.”

Born in California, Scheunemann has lived in Columbia for the last 15 years. “Between Baltimore and Washington,” he says, “there are so many opportunities for young singers. In New York, it’s much harder to break through.”

Having Domingo as a mentor hasn’t hurt. “I attribute all of my success to him,” Scheunemann says. “He’s the one who recognized that I could be a soloist. Just the fact that I could spend time with him, be coached by him, was more valuable than any experience I’ve had. He’s incredibly generous with his time, and I feel completely lucky to have worked with him.”

—Sudip Bose

Scheunemann sings in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers October 1, 4, and 7 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. He performs with the Choral Arts Society of Washington March 29 at the National Presbyterian Church.

Irina Tsikurishvili

Telling stories through movement

“I didn’t want to stay my whole career in the second line of swans,” says Irina Tsikurishvili. “I wanted to be Giselle or Odette. I wanted to tell stories.”

Trained as a ballerina in Tbilisi, Georgia, she studied a rigorous curriculum that included pantomime, art history, and music. Today that training informs the artistically adventurous choreography she crafts for Synetic Theater, the company she cofounded in 2001 with her creative partner and husband, Paata. Their company—where movement, not words, tells the stories—has shaken up the theater community, and Tsikurishvili, who stars in many of the productions, has received an unprecedented six Helen Hayes Awards for choreography. “What she does is more than just theater,” says longtime DC dance critic George Jackson. “It has pattern, development, and resolution. She creates real dances with a freshness that sometimes reminds me of Mark Morris.”

Host and Guest, Synetic’s acclaimed 2002 adaptation of an epic Georgian poem of war and religious intolerance, is timely again. In response to the summer’s fighting in their homeland, the founders have remounted the production through November 9 at Rosslyn Spectrum. The Tsikurishvilis play husband and wife in a work that features armies of mock horseback-riding actors who spar in acrobatic fighting. Later in the season, Irina choreographs Dante’s Divine Comedy (February 6 through March 22) and then collaborates with Georgetown University’s theater department on Aristophanes’s stinging political satire Lysistrata (March 27 through April 26). In late spring, Synetic puts its wordless stamp on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Kennedy Center (May 28 through June 14), in which Tsikurishvili, who will be center stage, returns to her ballet background.

“Now I consider myself an actress who can dance and not a dancer who can act,” she says. “I love dance. It is my life, but my desire is to tell stories through movement. I don’t want to be left with just pretty pictures but [feel] empty in my heart.”

—Lisa Traiger

LEA

One name, many talents

This summer, LEA was among 50 local performers who appeared in a musical tribute to Joni Mitchell at Strathmore. When several music journalists got together after the show, they all had one name on their minds: LEA.

The little-known singer/songwriter who goes by one name—all capital letters—had stopped the show.

LEA, 30, grew up in Silver Spring in a house filled with music. In the 1970s, her father played trumpet with a soul band called Black Heat. Her mother and aunts performed as the Jones Family Gospel Singers, a group LEA joined at the age of eight. “I got gospel from my mother and funk from my dad,” she says.

But it wasn’t until she was a senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring and went to Germany as an exchange student that she formally studied music. Most of the students at the conservatory in Halle, Germany, had classical training. But the students and teachers were fascinated by LEA’s musical background and her big, soulful sound. Back home, she began to perform professionally, playing the acoustic guitar and writing songs in a style she calls “urban-contemporary folk.”

Her first CD earned Washington Area Music Association nominations for best debut album and best new artist. Last year, she was the artist in residence at Strathmore. Now she performs throughout the United States and Europe, appears regularly in Washington, is working on her seventh CD, and has cofounded an independent label called BigBee records. The label reflects LEA’s upbeat disposition. It’s dedicated to “making the world sweeter, one song at a time,” she says.

As for her name—short and bold, much like the singer herself: “It’s just the way I introduce myself,” says LEA, who still lives in Silver Spring, “how I see myself as a simple person.”

—Leslie Milk

LEA performs at the Potter’s House in DC’s Adams Morgan the second Saturday of every month from 8 to 10 pm.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess

A bridge between two worlds

Dana Tai Soon Burgess founded his modern-dance company 16 years ago to bring together Asian and American dancers and ideas, and his best choreographic works hover between these two worlds. It’s no wonder his company has gained as much acclaim abroad on State Department–sponsored tours as it has at home in Washington. The son of a Korean-American mother and an Irish-Scottish-American father, Burgess, 40, grew up in Santa Fe, where Hispanic influences added to the mix.

His choreography, synthesizing Asian and American aesthetics, contains moments of quiet minimalism. But it’s also marked by the full-bodied technique of American contemporary dance: dancers whose torsos swoop, legs reach, and arms carve space in sculptural patterns.

Later this month, his “Hyphen”—which explores what it means to be a hyphenated American—has its world premiere at Lisner Auditorium. “As a company, we come from all over—Taiwan, Japan—and we often talk about our backgrounds and our personal experiences,” says Burgess, who teaches dance at George Washington University. “So I look at this idea of whether the hyphen connects or separates us in this new 21st-century America.”

Burgess sees a social element to modern dance, which he describes as “a common language” that can help in problem solving: “In looking at relationships all over the globe, the one language we can share is movement. Trust can be built through movement very quickly—and movement doesn’t hide anything.”

—Lisa Traiger

Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company performs “Hyphen” and other works at Lisner Auditorium October 24 and 25.

Yuliya Gorenman

A flair for Beethoven

When Yuliya Gorenman plays Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata, she unleashes a volcanic musical temperament from the first note—her tone bold and muscular. Then she turns to a quieter passage and reveals a touch that’s delicate, sensitive, and poetic.

Born in the Ukraine, Gorenman, 40, grew up in Kazakhstan, attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and emigrated to the United States in 1989, following the path of many Soviet Jews who felt persecuted in their homeland. She landed in San Francisco, then moved to Baltimore, where she studied with Leon Fleischer at the Peabody Conservatory, before settling in Silver Spring. In 1995, she took fourth prize at the famed Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, a success that helped launch her career.

A product of both East and West, Gorenman is a proponent of the great Romantic literature—the concertos of Rachmaninov, the Ballades of Chopin. But she feels a special affinity for Beethoven. A professor of piano at American University, she’s currently in the middle of a major undertaking: performing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in order over four years. Arguably no greater cycle of works exists for the piano, and to hear them from first to last is a special treat.

—Sudip Bose

The Gorenman Beethoven Project continues with performances at American University’s Katzen Arts Center October 4 and April 4. She also appears with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra November 15.

Frédéric Yonnet

The Mick Jagger of the harmonica

The importance of the harmonica can’t be fully appreciated without Frédéric Yonnet. He’s been called both the Mick Jagger and the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica. A showman and crowd pleaser, Yonnet is reshaping the perception of the harmonica as a side instrument.

Born in France, Yonnet initially set out to be a drummer, but he wanted something more portable. “I had to pick an instrument that could fit in my pocket,” he says.

His roots are steeped in jazz, where legends are largely defined by their leading instrument—think Charlie “Bird” Parker and his saxophone. Yonnet has sought to fill a void with the harmonica. “There is a lot of room to grow in the instrument,” says the 35-year-old Yonnet, who lives on Capitol Hill. “What I’m trying to do is extend people’s perception of the harmonica.”

Spreading the word is also his job as in-house artist for Harmonic[Art]—a local program funded in part by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and dedicated to teaching the harmonica and promoting its musical contributions.

Before a Washington Wizards game in April, Yonnet electrified the Verizon Center crowd with his rendition of the national anthem. He recently recorded tracks for Prince and dueled with fellow virtuoso Stevie Wonder. It’s no wonder he says that every stop in his schedule these days is becoming a highlight of his career.

—Matt Carr

Yonnet performs at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden October 3 and the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel October 10.

Jonathan Jordan

Technique infused with drama

It takes more than a perfect quintuple pirouette to make a great ballet dancer. And while Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, lauds 27-year-old Jonathan Jordan’s technique, his intensity as a dramatic artist is what keeps Webre intrigued: “I’m very excited to see Jon this coming February tackling James, one of the great male Romantic roles of the 19th century, in our new production of La Sylphide.

Jordan, a Silver Spring resident and Phoenix native, credits his teacher Roudolf Kharatian with shaping him as a dancer by introducing him to both martial arts and the great Western philosophers. “When he first came to me,” says Kharatian, a former instructor at the Washington Ballet, “I saw this young, energetic man who could not control his energy or his emotion.” In the studio, they exchange few words, but Jordan—now in his eighth year as a Washington Ballet member—has absorbed Kharatian’s physical and emotional intensity. Two years ago, the relationship deepened when Jordan married Kharatian’s daughter, fellow Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian.

The Washington Ballet is intimate enough to offer Jordan many opportunities to dance and much variety: “I find the joy in anything I get to do, but I definitely feel very close to classical ballet. I think I am a romantic at heart.”

Aside from playing James in La Sylphide, this season Jordan reprises his role—the one originated by Mikhail Baryshnikov—in Mark Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.

—Lisa Traiger

The Washington Ballet season opens with performances October 22 through 26 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

Linda Murray

Emerald treasure

When Linda Murray looked around Washington’s theater landscape in 2004, she noted a gap the size of the Irish Sea. “Audiences know the work of Beckett, Wilde, and Yeats,” the Dublin native says, “but I don’t think the newer works have filtered across the Atlantic yet.”

Murray and her three-year-old theater troupe, Solas Nua, are changing that. As the only company in Washington devoted to plays by Ireland’s young writers, Solas Nua is a local treasure. Murray says there’s a growing American interest in the Irish arts, especially as the island undergoes a metamorphosis from a rural tradition to an urban-driven economy. “The national identity is being reflected in the nation’s cultural writing,” says Murray, an actor and director.

Perhaps as a result, the plays teem with tension and a frenetic, often violent energy. The writing, which Murray scrutinizes when selecting works, pulses with surreal imagery and emotional depth.

What makes Solas Nua outstanding is not only the strength of the works Murray imports but also the company’s creativity and professionalism. She coaches the casts in accurate dialects, emphasizes the Irish rhythms of speech and humor, and assigns them Irish radio recordings and movies to absorb. The troupe reaches a benchmark this season as it takes residence in a permanent home, Flashpoint in downtown DC, a city-funded arts center with a 75-seat theater.

—Chad Lorenz

Gerald Murphy’s Take Me Away runs October 2 through 26; Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl runs February 26 through March 22; Marina Carr’s Woman & Scarecrow runs May 7 through 31.

Sylvia Soumah

Dancing to a different drummer

“Sylvia Soumah is just about the best African dancer I know,” says Carla Perlo, founding artistic director of Dance Place, DC’s premier modern-dance presenter. “She has more speed, precision, and energy than anybody.”

Watch Soumah lead a bursting-at-the-seams Saturday African-dance class of sweaty students. She travels across the floor in a heart-pumping, syncopated combination: Her head whips backward, long braids flying; her arms oscillate up and down, like the wings of a graceful bird ready to take flight; her legs pump, powerful and pistonlike in rhythmic precision.

Soumah, 45, founded Coyaba Dance Theater, one of Dance Place’s resident companies, in 1997. Coyaba, which means “heaven” in Arawak, a West Indies dialect, features some of the most professionally executed African dance and drumming in a region replete with African-dance companies. And as a female-led and woman-focused African company, Coyaba is distinctive. Even today, “men still don’t want women to drum,” Soumah says. “I was lucky to have a director who made us drum,” she adds, referring to the late Aidoo Holmes of Washington’s now-disbanded Wo’se African Dance Theatre.

A Cincinnati native, Soumah makes an annual pilgrimage to West Africa to hone her skills. She says African dancers need musicality and strong technique. “There’s a misconception that we don’t have technique—we do,” she says, listing a number of ballet steps that have African counterparts. And finally, a great African dancer requires speed and dexterity: “Speed is very important because in all African dance, it’s gonna start slow but end up very, very fast.”

—Lisa Traiger

Coyaba Dance Theater performs its Kwanzaa Celebration December 20 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center and Winter Heat January 9 and 10 at the Lansburgh Theatre.

GW college buddies joined forces to launch Jukebox the Ghost. Photograph courtesy of Jukebox the Ghost.

Jukebox the Ghost

Smart, upbeat songs

Here’s an unlikely formula: a punk drummer plus a jam-band guitarist plus a classically trained jazz pianist. Factor in smart songwriting and quirky lyrics. It all equals the adorably compelling music of Jukebox the Ghost.

Jesse Kristin, Tommy Siegel, and Ben Thornewill formed the indie-pop band as sophomores at George Washington University four years ago. “All of us have different influences,” Thornewill, the pianist, says. “Had we met four years earlier, we probably never would have gotten together.” Rather than being discordant, their blend of styles gels into a fun, energetic sound—concerts take on a dance-party feel.

Jukebox the Ghost played lots of campus events before getting gigs at small clubs. “It was really fortunate to have GW as a launching ground, the social networking of it,” Thornewill says. The band’s popularity spread quickly, aided by an entertaining MySpace page and YouTube videos from concerts. This year has been pivotal. In January, the band released its first full album by playing a sold-out show at the Black Cat. It won flattering coverage on the area’s music blogs. It played the area’s popular Fort Reno local-music series. And in August it began a two-month nationwide tour.

The band has a batch of new songs written and ready to record and is in talks with labels about a record deal. Thornewill says he’s awed by the momentum: “A year ago we were playing for 15 people, and now we’re playing for 100.”

—Chad Lorenz

Jukebox the Ghost plays October 4 at the Black Cat.

Jenna Sokolowski

A musical-theater standout

Actress Jenna Sokolowski broke into the DC theater scene at age 22, when she played the youngest member of the all-women chorus in Studio Theatre’s production of Prometheus. But her charisma and intensity onstage, says Studio artistic director Joy Zinoman, soon landed her bigger roles.

Now 28, Sokolowski—who grew up in Burke and studied musical theater at Syracuse University—will play young Edie, one of the leads in Studio’s upcoming Grey Gardens, a musical about eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “The music is very challenging—I’m so excited to sink my teeth into that,” says Sokolowski, who calls the songs “almost atonal.”

Sokolowski’s comedic skills have also been recognized: She won a Helen Hayes Award in 2006 for her supporting role as Little Sally in Urinetown at Signature Theatre. Says Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer: “She was hysterical just by looking at the audience and turning her head and rolling her eyes in a way that you just burst out laughing. She knows how to be funny without words.”

Sokolowski calls it one of her most enjoyable roles, partly because the actors were encouraged to experiment. “There’s a reason it’s called a play,” she says. “We’re up there to play.”

—Kimberly Palmer

Sokolowski appears in Grey Gardens at Studio Theatre November 12 through December 21, in The Accident at Theater J February 4 through March 8, and in Antebellum at Woolly Mammoth March 30 through April 26.

Alexander Strain

No role he can’t play

After graduating from New York University’s Tisch Institute of Performing Arts, Alexander Strain knew he didn’t want to stay in New York. “I kept going to auditions and seeing hundreds of faces like mine,” says Strain, 27, who was born in England but moved to Reston at age 12. Instead, he returned here. “Washington is a kind town, especially for young artists. There is less fame here, but there are lots of offers to perform a broader scope of work.”

Strain has worked at a dozen local theaters portraying everything from tyrannical emperors to farm hands. This season, he’s associate artist in residence at Theater J, where his acting roles range from a vicious Serbian soldier in Honey Brown Eyes to an elitist composer in The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall. “Alexander gets an A playing muscular, earnest, cynical, and sincere—with traces of nastiness—all at the same time,” says Theater J artistic director Ari Roth. “He’s a bit of a heartthrob but humble and self-effacing and totally committed to growing as a theater artist.”

Offstage, Strain records books for Potomac Talking Books—he still has a trace of an English accent—and leads workshops in performing Shakespeare in schools throughout the area.

—Susan Davidson

Strain can be seen in productions at Theater J throughout the 2008–09 season.

Christylez Bacon

A hip-hop pied piper

Progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon mixes musical elements that usually occupy separate worlds. The Australian didjeridoo and acoustic guitar. The West African hand drum and classical flute. Hip-hop and folk music. In one of his most inventive performances, he beat-boxes over an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon alongside string instruments.

The 22-year-old says his mother, a former DJ in Washington, taught him to appreciate all genres: “She would play all these different types of music—Duran Duran, Sly and the Family Stone—then turn around and play Busta Rhymes.” It inspired him to ask himself, “Why not try to mix all of these things together?”

Earlier this year, he performed two sold-out concerts at the Mansion at Strathmore as the arts center’s first hip-hop artist in residence. Shelley Brown, artistic director at Strathmore, says Bacon is so appealing in part because he writes memorable songs that “you find yourself singing along to by the end, even if it’s the first time you heard it.” But also, she says, he’s a sort of pied piper of musicians, “assembling different groups and uniting people who would probably not find one another otherwise.”

Bacon sticks to positive lyrics and says he likes to create work that “everybody is able to gain something from.” His song “Welfare Check” takes listeners through a history of the government program. It also served as his senior paper at DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

—Kimberly Palmer

Bacon performs regularly in the area, often with his band, Triflava. Every second Saturday of the month, Triflava performs at Mocha Hut (1301 U St., NW) from 8:30 to 10 pm.

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