‘Family Portrait’ at DC Music Theatre Workshop

What do you do when home isn’t what it appears to be or even what you remember it to be? For the family of five at the heart of Family Portrait, with music and lyrics by Theo Jamieson, it’s a struggle to reconcile the hope of what a family could be with what their family actually is.

Harv Lester and  Katie McManus . Photo courtesy of DC Music Theatre Workshop.
Harv Lester (Sam) and Katie McManus (Mary). Photo courtesy of DC Music Theatre Workshop.

At its onset, Family Portrait constructs just that, a family portrait; a mother, father, two sisters, and brother all huddled around a family photo album as their father, Sam, recounts when he met their mother, Mary. “There She Is” is the moment of rosy-glassed happiness for a family remembering the past as they want it to be remembered. This quickly fades as the family portrait is deconstructed; each member rotating through center stage in a juggling act of the ideal and the reality they see.

Sam, as depicted by Harv Lester, sets the stage for this break between hopes and reality in the song “Family Portrait.” With the chaos of family life whirling behind him, Sam confesses that life isn’t what he dreamed it would be. Even though his lyrics convey that Sam feels badly about this disappointment in his life, both Sam himself and I could sense some pleasure behind his restlessness.

In “Play Like You’re in Love with Me,” Jo, played by Madeline Cuddihy, and Elly, played by Kristin Cardinal, use youthful singing to bring the unbridled, often overwhelming energy of sisterly pretend to the stage as they imagine the perfect family, husband, wife, child, house. But the make-believe quickly takes on a different meaning, reflecting instead the relationship they’ve seen deteriorate between their own parents. Proving both that children are not as unaware and parents are not as subtle as one might think.

The best number of the show was easily “There’s No Such Thing as Magic,” which begins as Mary, played by Katie McManus, takes the stage and loudly proclaims that her children are weird, and getting weirder every day. While both lovely and distressingly cleaning up after her two imaginative daughters, however, the moment of levity quickly fades as Mary recounts balancing the desire to prepare her children for the unforgiving, non-magical world as she’s discovered it to be and the secret wish of her own that magic really did still exist, both in life and in her marriage. With a strong vibrato and steady look, I was convinced of Mary’s efforts to be the mother and wife her family, as she imagines it, needs her to be.

RJ Pavel delivered an emotionally connected performance as the youngest child, Tom. To carve out his piece of the family portrait, he, as a now grown man, recounts all the things he wished he could have said in “Dad, Isn’t It Funny?” For him, looking back at the past of his home is one of misunderstanding. While everyone around him was putting on the outward show of happiness and simultaneously battling their own inner insecurities and discontent, Tom had a childhood of quiet contentedness, which interpreted mistakenly as sullenness by his father, a man with whom Tom would never be close.

It wasn’t until the final number, aptly titled “Home,” that all the separate worlds of this one family were brought back together. Each character’s melody layered on top of one another to return right back to where they started at the top of the show, to a family portrait and 5 separate ideas of home.

While the performances and efforts of the DC Music Theatre Workshop were admirable, the short length of this piece prevented me from learning more about these characters. While I question why they selected such a short work for their first production, with such a talented cast, it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to hear them perform longer.

 Madeline Cuddihy, Rj Pavel, and Kristin Cardinal. Photo courtesy of DC Music Theatre Workshop.
Madeline Cuddihy (Jo), Rj Pavel (Tom), and Kristin Cardinal (Elly). Photo courtesy of DC Music Theatre Workshop.

The production’s location, Lincoln Temple UCC in Shaw, was creatively put to use by Director and Scenic Designer, Zach Roberts and Lighting Designer, Cassandra Kendall; utilizing the multi-tiered stage as a two story house with lecterns and choir boxes for each room. Amber Gibson joins Zach Roberts in producing Family Portrait as well as heading Costumes, Hair, and Makeup. Stage Manager Ashlyn Thompson and the talented Ed Roberts rounded out the crew.

As the inaugural production of DC Music Theatre Workshop, the effort behind Family Portrait – without a doubt – sets the tone for a group whose mission is to provide creative, affordable, and accessible theatre in Washington, DC. It will certainly be interesting to follow where this passionate theater group goes, and what they perform for their next production.

Running Time: 30 minutes, with no intermission.


Family Portrait plays through August 9, 2015 at DC Music Theatre Workshop, performing at Lincoln Temple, UCC- 1701 11th Street, NW, in Washington DC. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with a $10 suggested donation.


  1. It’s nice to have Em reviewing theatre now in DC. I will be paying closer attention to Em’s review of the various productions. Her depiction of this production was insightful.


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