Fame for Arts School grads

Two from Class of '93 are in high-profile debuts

March 12, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Opera was not Jason Ferrante's first love. "I was a serious Little League baseball player," he said. "It was only because I was too short that I gave up on that."

Thus, Ferrante, who is "officially" 5-foot-6, spent the last six weeks in rehearsals at Wolf Trap for Volpone - a new opera by John Musto - not in Fort Lauderdale at spring training camp with the Orioles.

Today he is, however, part of a doubleheader.

Ferrante is one of two graduates from Baltimore School for the Arts' class of 1993 - Tracie Thoms is the other - who appear this week in high-profile performances. Ferrante's gig opened Wednesday and continues tonight and Sunday afternoon. Thoms appears on the tube tonight on TV's Wonderfalls, which premieres at 9 on the Fox network.

"It is just so exciting for one Baltimore school to be sending people out who are doing things on the national level," said Leslie Shepard, director of the School for the Arts, a four-year public high school where admission, based on auditions, is extremely competitive.

Friends in real life who also crossed paths at Juilliard, Ferrante (from Dundalk) and Thoms (from Randallstown) have made a career out of knowing who they are.

"Lots of people think tenor means tall and heroic," said Ferrante, a little shy in the first category anyway. He therefore picks his roles carefully; and the emphasis on physical humor and stage presence necessary for his part in Volpone plays to his strengths.

The opera - inspired by the 1606 Ben Jonson play with the same name - tells a tale of greed. The title character pretends to be gravely ill and offers three so-called friends the opportunity to inherit portions of his immense fortune. Each friend goes to extreme lengths to win Volpone's favor and a place in the will. Ferrante, 28, plays Cornaccio (the Crow) - a nasty sort.

"I have a very young wife who I bought from a convent," Ferrante explains. "I offer to pimp her off to him in order to be written into his will."

Ferrante worked with the author on and off for two years while the opera was being created. And he knew he was a shoo-in for the part when he saw the costume sketches for the performance. "It was kind of embarrassing ... the sketch was of a short and stocky guy. I could tell it was me."

As for Thoms, she found inspiration for Mahandra McGinty - quirky, compassionate best friend of Wonderfalls' main character Jaye Tyler, and Thoms' first major TV role - by drawing on elements of her own character. "You start from yourself because that's the only humanity that you know," she said.

Set in Niagara Falls, the hour-long television drama focuses on Tyler (played by Caroline Dhavernas), a Brown University-educated twentysomething who takes a lowly job as a clerk in a local souvenir shop. Objects in the shop begin to speak to her, as her family and friends try to understand.

Thoms prides herself on creating multi-dimensional facets for her characters.

"Being a woman of color, the roles that are available to me a lot of times are similar," said Thoms. "There is this cliche now of the strong black woman - whose only concern is which man to choose. The image of the black woman of not being sure of herself or vulnerable is something people are afraid to write."

In January, Thoms was simultaneously filming in Toronto for Wonderfalls and rehearsing for the Broadway play Drowning Crow, which runs through April 4. "It was kind of nuts because I had to split my focus," said Thoms, 28. "When you have two gigs going on, it is a little schizophrenic."

But then again, she's used to a busy schedule. "I've been really blessed. Since I graduated, I haven't had to get a regular day job," she said.

But back to school in Baltimore.

Shepard didn't think there was anything particular about the class of 1993 - nothing special in the air. "There are a lot of kids from every year that are just doing incredible things - and 1993 included," she said of the School for the Arts, whose alumni include Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur.

"If there were a Top 10 list of gems of Baltimore, it would be there," Ferrante, now based in White Marsh, said of his alma mater. He also credits his parents for his success. "I don't know many people from a traditionally blue-collar neighborhood who would be so supportive" of attending arts school, he said. Ferrante's father worked in the steel mills and died of a heart attack two years ago at age 55. His mother still lives in Dundalk and works for a local law firm.

"I love the pace" of Baltimore, he said. "I love what is happening with the city. The novelty of New York being the only place with culture has worn off. There are so many cities that thrive on their own."

Plus - if he needs to - he can get to Manhattan in 2 hours and 40 minutes. "It is like living in a very far suburb of New York."

Thoms, who lives in Manhattan, wouldn't mind coming home either, on stage or maybe on camera.

"You know, we need to create a new [television] series in Baltimore," she said.

Sun staff writer Christina Santucci contributed to this article.

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