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Dirty Blonde
August 11 – October 4, 2009
Tuesday - Wednesday at 7:30 pm
Thursday – Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday at 7:00 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm
Reviewed August 16 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for a highly entertaining play with music
Running time 1:50 - one intermission
Performed in the ARK
Tickets $47 - $71
Click here to buy the script

There are many reasons to see this new production of a play with music that visited our area a few years ago with the original Broadway cast. For one thing, the play itself is a well constructed blend of bio-play and human drama. For another, it has a fascinating subject – Mae West. But in this new production there is also the superb touch of director Jeremy Skidmore who sets a pace that keeps the energy high but allows time for contemplation at some of the more telling moments. Add the fact that the cast includes both Emily Skinner, whom Signature audiences have come to treasure for her work here in Ace, and The Witches of Eastwick and J. Fred Shiffman whom Potomac Region audiences have come to appreciate for work at Shakespeare, Arena, Studio and others. But the best reason of all is to see Hugh Nees hit the ball out of the park with a breakthrough role. Nees has had fine roles before, and even has a few Helen Hayes nominations to his credit. But here he turns in a highly polished, warmly touching and nicely humorous performance that is a standout.

Storyline: Interspersed among scenes from the career of Mae West in vaudeville, on Broadway and in Hollywood are encounters between two lonely young fans who bond over their interest in the star and develop a relationship of their own.

Mae West’s life story has enough highlights and intriguing twists that it could have made a fairly satisfying bio-play all by itself. However, West has been imitated so many times in so many ways that the campy nature of her persona could be hard to overcome. There is a line in this play that explains the dilemma that would face a playwright trying to craft a standard "an-evening-with" type of  bio-play: West “found what worked and froze it.” She remained a caricature of herself throughout the rest of her lengthy career. Playwright Claudia Shear solved that problem by not doing just a bio-play. The story of the two fans who come together through their fascination for and appreciation of the star’s public image provides a satisfying drama.

Skinner is superb in what is really three roles. She's the young woman who is a fan of Mae West. In addition, wearing the gorgeous costumes provided by Helen Huang, she's the star herself during the key points of her rise to fame on stage and screen, and the aged Mae West who has become a recluse stuck in her own memories. Nees is the lonely fan obsessing over an assumably untouchable major star only to find a soul mate who shares the obsession: Skinner's younger role. Finally, there's the delightful Shiffman in multiple roles as West's partner in vaudeville, director on Broadway, spouse for a while and companion in old age.

Subtitled "a play with music" the play doesn't use songs to advance the plot or to create character, but Mae West was a musical performer and it made sense to include some of her songs - especially the song and dance material of her vaudeville roots. Matthew Gardiner stages these numbers with a fine feeling for the quality (or lack thereof) that would have been evident in those early failure-laden days before she hit it big with Sex and Diamond Lil on Broadway. Gabriel Mangiante provides the solo-piano accompaniment and a single upright piano is a prominent portion of Daniel Conway's simple set. Conway has a pair of proscenium-like frames and two sliding panels before a brick wall on which projections give date and location for the rapidly changing scenes. There isn't much depth to the playing space and shining those visuals from the front of the house means that they wash over the actors from time to time which can be distracting.

Written by Claudia Shear. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante. Musical staging by Matthew Gardiner. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Helen Huang (costumes) Dan Covey (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Julie Meyer (stage manager). Cast: Hugh Nees, J. Fred Shiffman, Emily Skinner.

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First You Dream
September 10 - 27, 2009
Tuesday - Wednesday at 7:30 pm
Thursday – Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 7:00 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm
Reviewed September 12 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for a highlight-filled evening
 of the songs of Kander and Ebb
Running time 2:40
Performed in the MAX
Tickets $60 - $65

First, you thrill! That should be the title of this evening of one thrill after another. Yes, the title First You Dream comes from one of those fabulously uplifting songs that every Kander and Ebb show seemed to have. (Despite his reputation for acerbic wit, Fred Ebb could tug at heartstrings with the best of them!) Dreaming may be something you do when anticipating this show, or when remembering just how good it was after you go home. But thrill is what you do for about two hours between the opening blast of an overture featuring melodies from Steel Pier and Cabaret until the last note of the orchestra's play-out music to which the vast majority of the audience sits and listens rather than heading for the exits. In between, there are nearly forty songs and one suite for the orchestra. Each song is rendered with high-intensity attention to its emotional, romantic or comedic content, demonstrating just how gifted a composer John Kander is, how very resourceful a lyricist Fred Ebb was, and - perhaps more importantly - how unique a "voice" the partnership of the two created. All night long you hear work that simply couldn't have been done by others. It is unique and it is marvelous.

Storyline: Three extremely talented men and three equally talented women work their way through selections of songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb from many of their shows including Cabaret, Chicago, Curtains, Flora the Red Menace, Funny Lady, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Liza with a Z, New York, New York, Over & Over, Steel Pier, The Act, The Happy Time, The Rink, The Visit, Woman of the Year and Zorba backed by a nineteen-piece orchestra playing brand new arrangements.

The team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is unmatched in the annals of American musical theater. Together they wrote the scores for over a dozen Broadway shows (not to mention a few that didn't get all the way to The Great White Way) and songs for a movie or a club act here or there. Their first show was Flora, the Red Menace in which Liza Minnelli made her Broadway debut in 1965. Their last - to date - was Curtains which opened two years after Ebb's death in 2004. That is a span of nearly 40 years! Only Stephen Sondheim has had more new musicals reach Broadway over a longer stretch of years. When Ebb died in 2004, Kander was left without his lyricist at age 76. He decided not to take on a new partner, but rather to finish the work he and Ebb had on their plate. He brought Curtains to Broadway and The Visit to Signature last year where a Kander and Ebb festival included three of their shows. In all, Signature has produced six of Kander and Ebb's shows since Cabaret in 1995.

Every one of the six member cast is superb but, as is often the case in human endeavors, some are superber than others. Superbist of the three women is Heidi Blickenstaff whose "Maybe This Time" builds to a fabulous crescendo. Toping the list of the three men is Norm Lewis who, on "Sara Lee" and "A Certain Girl" displays a comedic side we've not seen at Signature before (come to think of it, his Sweeney Todd did get all the humor in "A Little Priest"). But when he soars, he positively elevates on "First You Dream" and a medley of "Love and Love Alone" and "Life Is." Even conductor Jon Kalbfleisch gets into the act from his post front and center with the orchestra on multiple rows of risers creating a wall of sound. For the rendition of the famous theme Kander and Ebb wrote for the film New York, New York, the billing in the program reads "Orchestra and Eleasha Gamble." She doesn't make her entrance until well over two thirds of the way through the song. The number starts off with just plucked strings. Then restatements of the familiar six note rhythm from each segment of the band build in intensity until everyone is all swinging full force. It takes guts for a singer to walk on stage at that point and try to top the impact of those nineteen swingers - but Gamble does it and adds one final "wow" to an evening filled with them.

There have been many evenings in many of the venues that Signature has occupied over the past two decades that have been marked by thrilling orchestral performances, but few topped this evening of exquisite details and powerful blasts. Brand new arrangements/orchestrations by William David Brohn, who orchestrated Kander and Ebb's most recent Broadway show, Curtains, and who won a Tony Award for his spectacular charts for Ragtime, handled the orchestral charts while new vocal arrangements were devised by David Loud, who was the original music director and vocal arranger for Kander and Ebb's Steal Pier and Curtains. The cast of six is backed by a knock-your-socks-off assemblage of 19 players who quite simply make the place rock. The blasts of power from the brass, the sublime heft of the saxophones (just listen to them on "Not Every Day of the Week"), the delicacy of the strings underlying some of the more emotional moments and individual contributions abound. Brohn may have orchestrated for a total of nineteen players, but many double (or triple or quadruple) so that there are at least thirty-six different instruments used - not counting all the different objects drummer Tom Jones pounds upon. Gerry Kunkel often puts down his guitar to pick up his banjo and pianist Paul Masse occasionally drops his arm over his accordion to hit the piano keys while a forest of instruments separate the chairs of the four reed players in the front row.

Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography by Karma Camp. Conducted by Jon Kabfleisch. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Music supervision and vocal arrangements by David Loud. Design: Eric Schaeffer (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Eleasha Gamble, Norm Lewis, Julia Murney, Matthew Scott. Orchestra: Cathy Amoury, Holly Avesian, Chris Blossom, Doug Dube, Dan Hall, George Hummel, Tom Jones, Gerry Kunkel, Lee Lachman, Rick Lee, Eric Lopez, Matthew Maslanka, Paul Masse, Bill Mulligan, Aron Rider, Amy Smith, Jeff Thurston, Chris Walker, Sam Woodhead.

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See What I Wanna See
April 7 - May 31, 2009
Tuesday - Wednesday at 7:30 pm
Thursday - Saturday at 8 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm; Sunday at 7 pm
Reviewed April 12 by Brad Hathaway

t A Potomac Stages Pick for an absorbing, challenging and rewarding
 avant-garde musical
Running time 2:00 - one intermission
Tickets $49 - $77

Click here to buy the CD

Matt Gardiner makes the most of his debut as a full director at Signature by giving Michael John LaChiusa's intimidatingly complex but emotionally compelling musical a most potent staging. He unleashes LaChiusa's powerful piece through the talents of a very strong cast performing with a superb set of musicians. The rich material is satisfyingly delivered by the likes of Bobby Smith in the dual role of a janitor who witnesses (or doesn't witness) a crime in New York's Central Park in the 1950s, and, later, as a priest whose failed faith leads him to commit (or not commit) an ecclesiastical fraud in that same park half a century later. Smith is the solid center of the production. He is surrounded by notables including Tom Zemon whose soaring voice is even more impressive than it was last year here at Signature in Les Misérables, Chanez McQuay using the quirky, humorous side of her talents to great effect, and Matt Pearson making his full-production debut at Signature.

Storyline: Two very separate stories taking place in New York's Central Park are loosely connected by a third, unrelated story split between the two acts of this intense and intimate musical. One tells the story of a murder and rape from three different perspectives, that of the rapist, the raped woman and her husband. The other involves a priest who looses his faith in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and who stages an event he believes will prove that "god is no more."

Gardiner, who solo-directed the fabulous small musical at MetroStage Tick, Tick ... Boom! and who shared the Helen Hayes direction of a musical award last year for Reefer Madness at Studio SecondStage, is a familiar name at Signature where his list of credits as assistant director is long. (He is, after all, the Resident Assistant Director there.) For this project, he's on his own mounting one LaChiusa musical in the smaller, 110 seat theater in Signature's two-theater complex, while the composer's newest, a giant musical based on Giant by Edna Ferber, is prepared for its world premiere next door in the bigger, 280 seat house. Signature produced his First Lady Suite in 1995. It was their fifth musical (the second not by Stephen Sondheim). He returned in 2004 to premiere The Highest Yellow, a bio-musical of Vincent VanGogh which explored the compulsion of an artist to create. Over the course of those years, he took two musicals to Broadway: Marie Christine setting the Medea myth in New Orleans and The Wild Party. Now, we get a LaChiusa Spring at Signature.

This first half of a LaChiusa mini-festival offers those who haven't yet encountered this triple threat creator of intellectually challenging musical works (he crafts the book, writes the lyrics and composes the music) an opportunity to sample his style - and a LaChiusa musical has a definite feeling of style even as it is matched to the needs of the material. He can, and does, craft beautiful melodies, but rarely presents them in a traditionally structured song that sound like a "show tune." Instead, he uses them thematically in support of a plot point, story development or character revelation, rarely lingering on a musical moment longer than the scene requires. It is a style that requires intense attention from an audience - and then rewards that attention with dramatic satisfaction.

Adam Koch, whose set for Kiss of the Spider Woman here at Signature last season was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award and was one of the most impressive large sets in Signature's history, now provides a smaller, more abstract but still impressive playing space in this modern representation of a patch of Central Park. It is a suggestive, semi-abstract space with columns of tree trunks that are shards of mirror lit from below to appear convex, a backdrop with a hint of New York sky scrapers visible through branches, and Central Park's own distinctive street lights mounted in a disorienting way with one top-upright and another upside-down. Mark Lanks' blue-hued lighting creates patterns and pools that complete the abstract feel of the space. The six member orchestra delivers a rich and resonant sound. Especially noteworthy is the teamwork between flute and sax player Ben Bokor whose base flute is marvelously mellifluous, and sax and bassoon player Dan Sullivan.

Music, lyrics and libretto by Michael John LaChiusa. Based on short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa as translated by Takashi Kojima. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Conducted by Zak Sandler. Fight choreography by Casey Kaleba. Design: Adam Koch (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Channez McQuay, Matt Pearson, Bobby Smith, Rachel Zampelli, Tom Zemon. Musicians: Ben Bokor, Dan Hall, David Murray, Zak Sandler, Dan Sullivan, Gary Tilman.

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April 28 -May 31, 2009
Tues-Sat at 7 pm; Sat & Sun at 1 pm
Reviewed May 10 by
David Siegel

A premiere to be seen for its audacity and the work of its creative talents and moxy alone
Running Time: 3:55 minutes - two intermissions
Tickets $49-$77

Click here to buy the novel

Brace yourself. This grand, rambling, politically serious musical sprawl will win you over for its sheer audacity. Brace yourself again, for this is a production without theatrical tricks or gimmicks. And brace yourself once more to sit in awe of all the creative talent and moxy to musicalize what are some pretty unflattering observations about Texas and its fervent citizens with over two dozen separate musical presentations both in Spanish and English from a very hefty book written by Edna Ferber in 1952 and then made into a winning movie in 1956. This is a four hour, three act event that is worth your time, even if only to see the last of such big new things for the next few years as America recovers from its current economic malaise and funding cut-backs for such ventures. What composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa has accomplished with librettist Sybille Pearson, director Jonathan Butterell, a 21 member seemingly New York-based cast as well as conductor Chris Fenwick with his 14 member finely-calibrated and rich sounding orchestra, with orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin, is breathtaking. Far from perfect. Not without faults. But breathtaking none the less. Your reviewer can and will grouse about the need for some judicious pruning of songs, a deep wish for some real felt connections between the leads, a hope to reduce some book choppiness by reducing some of the outlying plot themes and thinner character interpretations -- but, so what? This is a first edition, world premiere with cajones. One other thing … do not revisit the movie or re-read the book. Just come and listen and lock on to what is before you and marvel at such abundant musical talent and workmanship.

Storyline: This musicalization of Edna Ferber's novel chronicles the life and times of cattleman “Bick” Benedict, his naive young Virginia society wife Leslie and their family in the panorama of Texas. It is a story of power, love, and bigotry among the wealthy cattle and oil families and the downtrodden Mexican-Americans who work for them spanning the period 1920’s-1950’s.

The program notes suggest that Michael John LaChiusa “has made a career of defying audience and critical perceptions of what makes a musical…[and]…finds inspiration in the fatal and unforgiving.” What he and Sybille Pearson have accomplished here is to take the sentiments of Edna Ferber's novel and give them a deeply felt meaning, a sense of the outcast Hispanic-Americans and the racism that they endured in an Anglo-led world. They also provide an awareness of how marriages endure over the decades, including the longing that partners can maintain for each other even as their bodies crumple and are not as vibrant as they once were. And, they depict the implications of the politics of a place rather than go for the “big” dramatic moments such as a gushing oil wells or the grandeur of millions of heads of cattle mooing with desert dust covering every surface. The music and lyrics themselves may not be memorable tunes to whistle and remember, but they push the plot forward so very well. This is not hard music of dissonance and difficulty; this is really old-fashioned Broadway show tune word-smithing. There are bits and pieces of swing, jump, country, the lushness of sad ballads and dirges, as well as infectious happy love songs. Director Butterell had his work cut out for him, with traffic control alone. He has taken a very minimalist approach in set design and overall visualization. One can feel this as the emptiness and vastness of West Texas and its grand spaces. (Note: your reviewer did live in West Texas and knows from such things.) Several scenes are lovingly made into solemn ceremonies. Yet key moments central to the changes that oil brought to Texas are glossed over, including the actual discovery of oil that is so central. A gushing well is not necessary, but something bigger than what is here would have been of value to depict this tipping point in Texas history.

With 21 actors in the cast there are many to notice, and certainly the leads Lewis Cleale as Bick, the scion of 2 ½ million acres of cow pasture and desert, and Betsy Morgan as Leslie, the woman he finds and quickly falls for while on a trip to Virginia, deliver the vocal goods. But, lets look beyond to Judy Blazer (Luz, Bick’s older sister). She is all heat, blazing eyes, passion through the three acts even when she is an unlikely presence … she is the one that constantly pulls at her brother’s effort to move forward or at least away from more traditional Texas ways. John Dossett (Uncle Bawley) brings maturity to the proceedings so that decency, and let’s say liberal values, come to fore as he intones “Coyote/Look Back/Look Ahead” and “A Place in the World.” He is the epitome of the lonesome cow poke in his stance, his demeanor and his talk. His voice is the very necessary ragged male with experience to share. Ashley Robinson, as the crude young roustabout Jett, who becomes one of the nouveau riche because of the discovery of oil on his small piece of property, is the most sexualized of the cast in his locked eyes on Morgan singing songs such as “Private Property,” “Elsie Mae” (a car name that sounds like warm dripping honey), “Lady L” and then becomes the most nasty and made for the audience to hate character in his last appearance as Senator Joe McCarthy's admirer singing “This Dog is Gonna Bark.” Katie Thompson as Vashti, Bick’s jilted love and Marisa Echeverria as an Hispanic-American bride to Bick and Leslie’s son in Act III warrant notice for the sensitivity they bring to the roles they inhabit. They are sweet antidotes to the overall antagonisms of the show’s characters.

The Signature Theater has such a huge canvas to paint. The set is two-tiered. There is the stage set for the actors separated by a horizontal light box which emits glowing light and hues from blues to reds to whites to give the essence of what the scene is sending forth. The only permanent object on set is a ladder that goes 20 feet into the air with a platform near the top used for several scenes. And above is the orchestra, which is part of audience attention as well. The immense size and scale are clear with insignificant set space taken up with furniture or objects. Costumes certainly give implications of who a character represents, whether Texan in cotton and chambray, those from back East in tailored finery and richer colors or the Hispanic-Americans in their more traditional apparel. The outfits change with the decades, but the vision of who belongs to what socio-economic class remains.

Music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusua. Book by Sybille Pearson. Based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Directed by Jonathan Butterell. Choreography by Ernesto Alonso Palma. Music direction by Chris Fenwick. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Design: Dane Laffrey (set) Susan Hilferty (costumes) Japhy Weideman (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Scott Hammar, Jess W. Speaker, III (stage managers). Cast: Enrique Acevedo, Raul Aranas, Judy Blazer, Lewis Cleale, John Dossett, Marisa Echeverria, Jessica Gove, Michael Thomas Holmes, Betsy Morgan, Jordan Nichols, Andres Quintero, Michelle Rios, Ashley Robinson, Isabel Santiago, Paul A. Schaefer, Martin Sola, Nick Spangler, Katie Thompson, Julie Tolivar, Mariand Torres, Lori Wilner. Orchestra: Cathy Amoury, Chris Blossom, Lee Hinkle, George Hummel, Tyler Kuebler, Tom Lagana, Dan Lindgren, Gabriel Mangiante, Matt Maslanka, Vishal Panchal, Aron Rider,  Jon Steele, Jeff Thurston, Chris Walker.

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January 13 - March 15, 2009
The Little Dog Laughed
Reviewed January 18 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:05 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for another of Holly Twyford's
 must-see performances
v sexual situations and full male nudity
Click here to buy the script

There are few guarantees of a marvelous evening of theater quite as bankable as the two words "Holly" and "Twyford." When this actress takes on quality material (which is almost all the time, since she has a fine eye for good parts in good scripts) the evening is going to be something you tell your friends to catch. Indeed, it is usually something you want to tell your friends you'll go back and see with them. Hey, make a party of it!  Such is the case this time out because Ms. Twyford is at the center of a sharply constructed, often very funny comedy by Douglas Carter Beane, which is a fine blend of cutting-edge contemporary sensitivity and time-tested formulas for how to mix farce and satire over a multi-act structure so it feels fresh all evening long. The other three members of the cast deliver their material well although some of the casting choices of director Michael Baron are questionable. Still, he made the most important one just right when he cast Twyford as the fast-talking, deal-making Hollywood agent who stirs the ingredients in this bubbling pot of sexual attraction, ambition and affection to rise into the final fluffy soufflé.

Storyline: A matinee idol-style Hollywood actor who needs just one great part to rise above the competition and become a major star visits New York with his agent/manager in an effort to convince the playwright of a new big hit to let him star in a movie version of his play. The part is of a gay man, and as the agent explains, a heterosexual actor succeeding in a serious role as a gay man is considered great acting, while the same part played by a gay actor would be seen as just being himself. When the actor gets drunk one night and calls a gay escort service and then begins to fall for the young man they send to his hotel room, the agent has to do some quick maneuvering to avoid scandal and seal the deal.

Douglas Carter Beane is the artistic director of New York's Drama Department Theatre Company as well as a playwright and screenwriter. His As Bees In Honey Drown has been produced a number of times in the Potomac Region, and some will remember his film of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. His script for the Broadway musical version of Xanadu was the surprise success of the 2007-08 season, taking a flop of a movie musical and turning into a pure delight, by, among other things, making it partially a parody of its source. That was his second Broadway outing. The first was this comedy which was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play even though it had closed after a short run before the Tony nominations were announced.

Director Michael Baron refers to his choice for the part of the lead actor as "hunky Matthew Motelongo." But Motelongo's brand of hunkyness isn't the matinee idol type that would befit this particular role. His performance misses the mixture of surface glitz and underlying angst that Beane's script calls for. Ivan Quintanilla is more successful at showing the charm that the escort exudes which seduces the star, and is also believable in his relationship with his long-time friend of the opposite sex, played by Casie Platt, who lands some of Beane's marvelous lines with a fine sense of comic timing.

Signature's intimate black box, the 110-seat ARK, is arranged as a horseshoe around a thrust stage set by Lee Savage representing the high end New York hotel room where Matalongo and Quintanilla get it on. It is an elegantly mod and chic space with its light wall and i-pod speaker system on the bed stand. Flanking the main set are platforms for the elevator entrance to the hotel room (yes, the room has its own private elevator ... I told you it was high end) and a general purpose playing space that can represent other locales. The costumes of Guy Lee Bailey are part of the fun as well, particularly the pant suits for Twyford which she wears with great flair.

Written by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Michael Baron. Design: Lee Savage (set) Guy Lee Bailey (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Jenna Henderson (stage manager). Cast: Matthew Montelongo, Casie Platt, Ivan Quintanilla, Holly Twyford.

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December 2 - February 22, 2008
Les Misérables
Reviewed December 14 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:55 - one intermission
A massive staging of the mega-musical in an intimate house
Winner, Ushers' Favorite Show Award for December
Click here to buy the CD

Eric Schaeffer directs a new staging of the mega-ist of mega-musicals in Signature's 280-seat black box theater, The MAX. With its glorious score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, the musical version of Victor Hugo's massive novel is staged on a five-ton steel structure supporting its cast of 30 and an orchestra of 14. There are few changes from the work that so many know so well. The method of Inspector Javert's suicide is different, so that there isn't an attempt to ape John Napier's famous special effect of Javert's leap into the Seine, and Sherri L. Edelen, as Madame Thénardier, accompanies Christopher Bloch as her husband into the sewers under the streets of Paris, which allows Bloch to be singing "Dog Eats Dog" to her rather than to the audience: a tiny switch that improves the scene significantly. A feature of the success of the musical over the past twenty-plus years has been the quality of the lead singing actors from Colm Wilkinson and Patti LuPone, to Terrance Mann, Hugh Panaro, Alice Ripley, Natalie Toro, Norm Lewis,  ... oh, the list is so long! At Signature, the cast is a bit of a mixed bag with a somewhat awkward Greg Stone as the parole-breaking Valjean, to the incandescent Felicia Curry whose "On My Own" is the show's musical and dramatic apex.

Storyline: The central plot of Victor Hugo’s massive novel of France between 1815 and 1832 has been streamlined to cover the story of a prisoner set free after serving time for stealing a loaf of bread. He assumes a new identity, rises to wealth and position and takes on the role of guardian for the young daughter of one of his employees. She grows into a young woman and falls in love with a student involved in the ill-fated revolution of 1832. With her guardian’s secret help, her young man survives the slaughter of the revolutionaries on the barricades.

Schaeffer's visual approach is a bit darker than the legendary original directed by Trevor Nunn, and this version doesn't flow quite as well, stuttering on occasion as the locale has to be re-established -- the design doesn't use the rotating stage that Nunn used so well. This is particularly noticeable in the staging of the effort of young Gravoche to retrieve ammunition from the front of the barricades. Still, this is perhaps the most convoluted plot ever attempted in a three-hour Broadway-style musical and Schaeffer's troupes tell the story clearly. Tracy Lynn Olivera's "I Dreamed A Dream" is the first transporting moment (unless you include the brief but lovely moment for Aaron Reeder as the Bishop of Digne,) Tom Zemon delivers a fine "Stars" in the first act, Chris Sizemore belts well as the revolutionary leader Enjolras and Andrew Call delivers a touching "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Both Edelen and Bloch are very good as the Thénardiers.

The sound of Jon Kalbfleisch's fourteen piece orchestra certainly reverberates through the hall and there are a number of nice moments in their accompaniment, including the guitar of Dave Boguslaw that supports Olivera's lovely "I Dreamed a Dream" and Chris Walker and Dan Lindgren's trumpet blast at the barricades. However, the violin/viola/cello richness in John Cameron's original orchestrations which were echoed in Christopher Jahnke's reductions/re-charting for the 14 member orchestra of the Broadway revival have here been replaced by keyboards. It is not a good tradeoff.

Ticket prices at Signature have been inching up for quite a while. Top price for this admittedly very expensive production has hit $87. The price range we list in the information box at the top of the page shows the range for all the productions at a theater, not just for a specific production. The bottom price for this production at Signature is a still hefty $65. It should be pointed out, however, that "Les Mis" has never been a low-priced entertainment. Tickets in London, on Broadway and for touring companies have always been at the top of then current price ranges and even recordings have carried hefty prices - but it has always delivered a large share of bang for the buck. It does so here as well.

A musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Musical Staging by Karma Camp. Orchestrations by John Cameron. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Christopher Bloch, Kurt Boehm, Rachel Boyd or Anna Grace Nowalk, AJ Breivik or Jordi Parry, Andrew Call, Matt Conner, Felicia Curry, Sherri L. Edelen, Eleasha Gamble, James Gardiner, Adam Ethan Grabau, Michael Grew, Thomas Hunter Hedgpeth, Sam Ludwig, Channez McQuay, Amy McWilliams, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Elizabeth Rader or Avery Watkins, Aaron Reeder, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Chris Sizemore, Stephen Gregory Smith, Greg Stone, Russell Sunday, Stephanie Waters, Hannah Willman, Weslie Woodley, Tom Zemon.

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September 23 - November 16, 2008
The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Reviewed September 28 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:50 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an unrelenting comedy of blood and gore
Winner, in a tie, of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for 2008

Click here to buy the script

Jeremy Skidmore's staging of Martin McDonagh's outrageous and bloody take on the illogic of violence may be too much fun for the social commentary it contains to be noticed ... at least until after your sides stop hurting from all the laughter. You see, McDonagh is really criticizing the blithe acceptance of violence in the history of his homeland's struggles. Serious stuff, that. Serious or not, the author manages to get you laughing at things you never thought of as funny. Torture? Hah! Sadism? Chuckle! Mayhem? Guffaw! Gallons of gore? Roars of laughter! It all works in the smaller of Signature's two theaters in Shirlington because everyone involved takes the work seriously. Skidmore makes sure that no one winks at the excesses. No one pulls a punch to avoid being politically incorrect - that would be fatal to the effort. Instead, the banality of violence is reduced to routine, and, in the process, becomes fodder for farce.

Storyline: On the remote island of Inishmore, just off shore from Ennistimon at Ireland's Galway Bay, two villagers are panicked at the thought that the cat one is keeping may have been killed in a bicycle collision with the other. The reason for the panic? The owner of the cat is an executioner for a splinter group of a splinter group of the IRA, a young man who takes great pleasure in the pain he can impose on his victims before allowing them the release of death. Add a band of terror inflictors from the parent splinter group and an equally adept pain inflictor of a bonnie lass, and you have a recipe for a different kind of blood sport.

McDonagh is probably the most successful Irish playwright on these shores since George Bernard Shaw. At least the beginning of his career has been astonishingly successful on Broadway. His first play to reach Broadway was The Beauty Queen of Leenane. That was only ten years ago. A year later it was The Lonesome West. Three years ago he had The Pillowman on Broadway and then this play arrived two years ago. All four were nominated for the Tony Award for best play. Quite a record for a young man still in his thirties. His combination of audacity, strong theatricality and a unique combination of affection for the character traits of the Irish and the ability to portray their weaknesses and excesses without rancor has made his output fascinating.

Matthew McGloin and John Lescault are the pair of locals who, it turns out, rightly fear the consequences of the cat's demise. McGloin is particularly effective at drawing the audience's mirth without ever breaking the pretense of reality. So too is Karl Miller rock solid in his adherence to apparent reality as the gun and razor toting terrorist who can treasure both the opportunity to inflict pain and the affection of a pet cat. Cassie Platt, Michael Glenn and Tim Getman each contribute additional touches of excessive tomfoolery, but it is Jason Stiles who rises to the challenge of the most demanding of roles in the piece, for he has to play practically his entire scene hanging by his feet while being tortured - I told you, it is a comedy!

Among the creators who take McDonagh's work most seriously is Daniel Conway, who designed a set that creates the world of the play at a level of detail that exceeds reality. The main part of the set is the cottage in which so much of the mayhem is performed. Given the amount of sticky, gooey stage blood that is unleashed each night, it must have been a major chore finding materials that look so natural for floors, walls and fabrics that could be cleaned between shows. After all, the stains from a day's matinees must be gone in time for the evening show. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard may not have had quite the same challenge as the cast can change into new costumes while the others are in the wash, but she certainly came up with outfits that look just as authentic, serious recreations of the world of the play.

Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Fight choreography by Dale Anthony Girard. Dialect direction by Leigh Wilson Smiley. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Dan Covey (lights) Mark Anduss (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kate Olden (stage manager). Cast: Tim Getman, Michael Glenn, Joe Isenberg, John Lescault, Matthew McGloin, Karl Miller, Casie Platt, Jason Stiles.

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August 26 - September 28, 2008
Reviewed September 3 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a flight-based musical that occasionally soars

This musical that uses flight as a metaphor for pursuing your highest aspirations takes off after intermission. Don't think of coming late just because the first half isn't as strong as the second, however. Not only are there some ingenious effects, some fine singing and a host of important plot points before the break, there is Angelina Kelly! This youngster comes on after another youngster, Dalton Harrod, has already established a high standard for child performance as the boy in search of the story of his father and his father's father, both flying aces. Harrod is practically everything a director could want in a pre-teen lead. He has a strong singing voice, clear enunciation and a natural stage presence which allows him to hold his own in scenes with the likes of Christiane Noll, Jill Paice, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner and Florence Lacey. The real test, however, is "can he hold his own in a scene with young Kelly?" The answer is yes, but it is a test. She's all of the above plus cute as a button and sells every gesture and line with flair. Then, after intermission, the story begins to take on momentum and the pairing of Paice with Scott (along with a strong supporting moment from George Dvorsky) shift the evening into high gear.

Storyline: When Danny's widowed mother tries to take her own life he's placed in foster care and denied contact with her. However, she is allowed to write to him so she sends scraps from her collection of letters and memorabilia from her late husband, a pilot who died in World War II. She'd kept his story from her son because she couldn't cope with his death but now Danny begins to form a bond with his father's spirit - and that of his grandfather who also died in aerial combat in the earlier World War. From his newly discovered heritage, Danny learns the importance of following your own dreams and destiny.

When Signature announced its 2008-09 season, it listed this new musical fantasy/adventure as the "Broadway Bound Premiere" by the same Richard Oberacker whose The Gospel According to Fishman was given such a satisfying production by Signature. They no longer mention Broadway as the measure of success or failure for a locally produced musical. After all, the things that make a musical competitive on "The Great White Way" aren't the only virtues a musical can have, and the ability to compete with the mega-priced extravaganzas 250 miles north of Shirlington isn't the only test of an evening of musical theater. This thoroughly enjoyable, often impressive and quite winning show is a prime example. With its uplifting theme, its melodically solid score and a passel of performances of note, there are pleasures enough for any theatergoer and no real fan of musicals would dare miss this.

It is clear that this remains a work in progress. Comparing the show that played on opening night with the song list in the program shows that significant changes were being worked in right up to the last minute. Gone was the prologue. Gone were two reprises of songs. Most notably, gone from all of act one was the character of Danny's father, played so marvelously in the second act by Matthew Scott who gets to team with Jill Paice for one of the two highlights of the act, "I Know It Can Be Done." (The other is "We're The Only Ones" sung with verve by Dvorsky and a trio of pilots prancing up and down an aluminum ladder that drops down from the flies). The father figure of the first act is Jim Stanek, who is not really strong enough a stage presence to carry the role, but he has a few really charming moments. The women of the piece are the real power. In addition to Kelly, there's Paice, who sells both fragility and strength as Danny's mother, Noll as her mother, Lacey as the social worker handling young Danny's case, and Skinner as his foster mother.

As we all have come to expect of Signature in this new, larger space called THE MAX, all the technical elements for this production are impressive. Walt Spangler has designed a brushed aluminum set dominated by a pair of pillars that rotate exposing different aeronautical structural elements. Signature's Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, has an obvious predilection for the use of projections to establish location and atmosphere when it suits the needs of a show he's directing. Here he lets frequent projection designer Michael Clark loose with Spangler's aluminum surfaces on which to shine cloud, bomb burst and other effects. Robert Perdziola comes up with two different sets of costumes - those of 1950's realities which are essentially shades of gray and those of the aeronautical history envisioned in Danny's mind which are colorful oranges and yellows. Greg Anthony's orchestrations for the orchestra of twelve, who sit in sight on a platform at the back of the set, seem strangely reed-heavy/string-light in the first act which takes place in the 1950s and 1917, but the reason for that becomes clear in the second act when a solid big-band World War II sound supports numbers like "It's Just a Matter of Time," "I Know It Can Be Done" and "We're the Only Ones," a blast from General Chennault and his Flying Tigers.

Music by Richard Oberacker. Book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Musical Direction by David Kreppel. Orchestrations by Greg Anthony. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Michael Clark (projections) Robert Perdziola (costumes) Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz (lights) Simon Matthew (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Richard Barth, Brooke Bloomquist, George Dvorsky, Ari Goldbloom-Helzner, Dalton Harrod, Angelina Kelly, Florence Lacey, Duke Lafoon, Christiane Noll, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Jill Paice, Jason Reiff, Danny Rothman, Matthew Scott, Elizabeth Share, Emily Skinner, Jim Stanek, Gabrielle Stravelli.

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May 13 - June 22, 2008
The Visit
Reviewed May 28 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for pure star power
Winner, in a tie, of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for 2008

Top ten reasons to hot-foot it over to Signature: Chita Rivera, George Hearn, Mark Jacoby, Frank Galati, Ann Reinking,   Derek McLane, Susan Hilferty, Howell Binkley, Terrence McNally, Fred Ebb, John Kander (all right, that's eleven - but who's counting?). Each and every one is doing, or has done, some superb work in a package, that, while it may not blend into one continuous highlight, has sublime moments and striking images galore, all set to a musical score with both beauty and heft. Rivera, making her entrance in a cloud of steam in one of Susan Hilferty's most striking gowns, dominates Derek McLane's large stage of wooden planking as if it were one gigantic red carpet. George Hearn not only lends the sumptuous power of his baritone voice but the subtlety of fine acting to the evolving character of a man finding grace under the ultimate pressure. And Kander and Ebb have created a score that soars at times, is rousing at others and continuously serves the story as Terrence McNally's solid book reveals it.

Storyline: The richest woman in the world returns to the town of her youth which has hit on hard times. She isn't there for nostalgia - she's there for revenge for the town's treatment of her when, as a teenager, she had become pregnant by a boy who has gone on to be a shopkeeper in the town. She offers a huge fortune in exchange for her former-lover's execution. The town initially rejects the offer as unthinkable, but then gradually comes around to seeing it not as revenge but as justice.

Kander, Ebb and McNally first collaborated on The Rink, which hit Broadway in 1984, and earned one of its stars her first Tony Award. That star was Chita Rivera. Later, they collaborated again on The Kiss of the Spider Woman, which, in 1993, won Rivera her second Tony. They had begun work on turning The Visit into a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, but she had to withdraw due to the health of her husband, Peter Shaw. They picked it up later for Rivera, and, with Frank Galati (Ragtime, The Grapes of Wrath) directing, premiered the piece at the Goodman in Chicago. Now, taking the lessons learned from that earlier production, they have polished the piece further and given it a solid production. One of Kander and Ebb's loveliest songs, "You, You, You" threads itself through the score as the memory of youthful love while the strains of "I Would Never Leave You" and the energy of "Yellow Shoes" stand out. Rivera leads a fabulously choreographed "One-Legged Tango" and Hearn fills the hall with beauty as he sings "I Must Have Been Something."

Rivera and Hearn are everything expected of the pair whose names go above the title. The chief pleasures in the supporting cast are Mark Jacoby as the town's mayor,  James Harms as Rivera's butler with a past, and Jeremy Webb as the town's schoolmaster, the citizen with the strongest sense of right and wrong, whose conversion to the side of the majority supporting revenge masquerading as justice is the final blow. Each gives what might otherwise have been simplistic characters a good deal of depth and variation, putting the material McNally included in the script to good use.  Surprisingly, most of the other townspeople seem undeveloped. Mathew Deming and Ryan Lowe do create a memorable team as a strange pair of eunuchs.

Hilferty's costumes come in four distinct looks and each is just right for the characters. There's Rivera's sumptuous wardrobe befitting the richest woman in the world, the townspeople's garb which transitions throughout the evening from tattered to new store-bought, the retinue's strange livery, and the look of the memory of youth for D.B. Bonds and Mary Ann Lamb who dance as the memory of the youngsters that Rivera and Hearn once were. McLane has created a set for Signature's MAX theater that gives maximum space for not only Reinking's sharp dances but for Galati's fluid blocking that seems effortless, but effectively moves the story between plot points and character revelations with a sure hand. Especially under the evocative lighting of Howell Binkley, there's rarely a moment when the audience's attention isn't clearly focused on precisely the element of story or personality that serves the comic, dramatic or romantic point called for by McNally's tightly constructed script.

Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Terrence McNally based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt as adapted by Maurice Valency. Directed by Frank Galati. Choreographed by Ann Reinking. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Music supervision, vocal and dance arrangements by David Loud. Conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. Design: Derek McLane (set) Susan Hilferty (costumes) Howell Binkley (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Bethe B. Austin, Leslie Becker, D.B. Bonds, Mathew Deming, Alan H. Green, James Harms, Michael Hayward-Jones, George Hearn, Mark Jacoby, Howard Kaye, Doug Kreeger, Mary Ann Lamb, Jerry Lanning, Ryan Lowe, Brianne Moore, Christy Morton, Keren Murphy, Brian O'Brian, Cristen Paige, Kevin Reed, Chita Rivera, Hal Robinson, Jeremy Webb.

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April 1 - June 1, 2008
The Happy Time
Reviewed April 10 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
A rare delight for fans of musical theater
Performed in The ARK

Click here to buy the CD

What a happy time The Happy Time provides for died-in-the-wool fans of musical theater! Not only is it a rarely performed show from the end of Broadway's Golden Age, with a frequently scintillating score by those giants of the genre John Kander and Fred Ebb, it proves to be a charm show so different than the extravaganza which, while not actually a failure on Broadway in 1968, was certainly seen at the time as a big disappointment. Here, in the smaller of Signature's halls, the show seems nicely nestled amidst the ranks of seats surrounding a plain stage on three sides. The family drama turns out not to have the strongest of scripts, but the story is a sufficient structure on which to hang a few very fine songs among a score that has no real clunkers and a few interesting characters among a family that has no boring ones. The show flows nicely both because of the quality of Kander and Ebb's score and the attractive performances drawn from the cast by director Michael Unger and the light-footed choreography contributed by Karma Camp. While Camp's dances are a delight, she seems also to have choreographed a school-yard scuffle which comes across more as dance than fight - they could have used the talents of a fight choreographer for that. It is a particular pleasure to hear the score performed without artificial amplification even when, on occasion, the instrumental trio overwhelms the voices. Those occasions are few and far between while the musical charms are many and closely spaced.

Storyline: A globe-trotting photographer comes home to the small Canadian town of his youth to visit his family, his godson and his love, a school teacher who was not tempted by his promise of the world outside their hometown.

Some say the Golden Age of the Broadway musical ended with Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. Maybe it ended not when Fiddler opened but when it closed, for, as Michael Rupert's notes in the program for this production indicates, Broadway had a lot of going on when The Happy Time opened on January 18, 1968. While Fiddler was still running, theatergoers also had a choice of I Do, I Do, Mame, George M and Hello, Dolly! (Rupert should know for he was the young boy in the original The Happy Time when he was, himself, just 15). Producer David Merrick and director/choreographer Gower Champion tried to make the show into a big, flashy semi-spectacle in order to compensate for what most said at the time was a flawed book. The script was written by N. Richard Nash whose 110 In The Shade was a hit for Signature Theatre a few years ago. It flows along fairly well but seems to only touch on some characters or incidents that could well have held the audience's interest had they been better developed. With Robert Goulet as the photographer and David Wayne as "Grandpere" the show did run nine months, but when it closed it had lost a million dollars - the first Broadway musical ever to lose that much money.

In the three main roles, Signature has Broadway veteran David Margulies and two local talents of note. Attractive and smooth voiced Michael Minarik, a 1996 graduate of Oakton High in Vienna, Virginia, is the photographer, and Arlingtonian Jace Casey, at age 12, emerges from understudying to take on the starring role Rupert had forty years ago. (Casey was the understudy for "Young Frank" in Merrily We Roll Along and for "Rolf" in Saving Aimee ). They make a fine central trio. As for Minarik, he's no Robert Goulet, but that is just the point. Rather than impersonate that unmistakable personality, he creates a character that is all his own. Carrie A. Johnson is winsome in the "schoolmarm" role and Tracy Lynn Olivera has some warm moments as she teams with another Broadway veteran, George Dvorsky, as the young boy's parents. Amy McWilliams and Rob McQuay make the most of their woefully underwritten roles as another couple in the family.

Director Michael Unger makes his Signature debut with this piece and shows a good touch for the intimacy that has always been a Signature signature. He has also done the fans of musical theater the favor of restoring three songs that Kander and Ebb wrote for the original production but which were cut by its director, Gower Champion, as well as retaining a fourth that was added for a 1980 production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. The set for this intimate production is an ephemeral thing, just picture frames that are filled by projections to create locations or show the shots the photographer snaps in his search for the perfect picture. Of course, he learns that a perfect picture never exists in the camera - it exists in that happy place which is the memory.

Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by N. Richard Nash based on a play by Samuel Taylor and the book by Robert L. Fontaine. Directed by Michael Unger. Choreography by Karma Camp. Musical direction by David Holcenberg. Conducted by Mary Sugar. Design: Todd Edward Ivins (set and projections) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Kate Arnold, William Beech, Jace Casey, George Dvorsky, Rafael Hernandez-Roulet, Carrie A. Johnson, Emily Levey, Daniel Margulies, Rob McQuay, Amy McWilliams, Michael Minarik, Jordan Moral, Matthew Nee, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Jordan Silver, Lauren Williams, Rachel Zampelli.

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March 11 - April 20, 2008
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Reviewed March 14 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for one of Signature Theatre's most impressive productions to date
Winner in a tie for the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for March and April
Performed in The MAX

Click here to buy the CD

Signature pulls out all of the stops to create an eye-filling, ear-pleasing, mind-bending musical evening that combines drama, fantasy and humanity as it tells a story of the best of human behavior under the the worst of conditions. To kick off its three-show celebration of the works of John Kander and Fred Ebb, Eric Schaeffer assembles a cast of outstanding Broadway and local talent and a team of superb designers. The results are simply exceptional, a visually striking production that doesn't use its physical impressiveness to obscure emotional weaknesses, but, rather, gives the intensely personal story a frame. At its heart is the team of Hunter Foster and Will Chase as the cell-mates in the ugly prison run by the heinous Steven Cupo. While Cupo is a Signature regular, Foster and Chase are Broadway performers of note who are new here. They both deliver performances of power, and Foster achieves a note of pathos and a complexity in what could be an oversimplified caricature that makes the show touching. Natascia Diaz is the Spider Woman of the title, whose kiss is the sweet release of death in this disturbing drama that touches the heart through the liberating power of fantasy.

Storyline: In a dirty, overcrowded prison in a Latin American country, a political prisoner active in "la revolution" is thrown into a cell with a distinctly non-political prisoner, a window dresser who is serving time for corrupting a minor (male) and who survives through escaping into his imagination and visualizing the movies of his favorite star, Aurora. The sadistic warden tempts the window dresser with release if he will learn who the revolutionary's contacts on the outside are and turn the information over to him.

Based on the 1976 novel by Argentina's Manuel Puig, this musical had a fairly unusual path - from Toronto to London to Broadway and now to Arlington. Kander and Ebb, who already had Cabaret, Chicago and half a dozen other Broadway musicals to their credit, teamed with Terrence McNally with whom they wrote The Rink. Garth Drabinsky's Livent Entertainment mounted it in Canada and then took it to London where it was very well received. Then, and only then, did they bring it to New York where it walked away with Tony Awards for best musical, best score, best book, best lead actor, best supporting actor and best actress of 1993! Now Signature mounts one of its most impressive productions to date. Schaeffer uses practically every element you can think of but keeps it all under control, maintaining a balance that serves the drama of the story well. Karma Camp's choreography - as executed with energy and dramatic effect by a chorus of six prisoners - is often remarkable, especially the moves she provides for Matt Connor for a death scene triggered by the Spider Woman's kiss.

Foster, who was the original Bobby Strong in Urinetown on Broadway, and was nominated for a Tony for his Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, gives a very different sort of performance in this very different sort of a show. He mouths the words of the songs of the movie in his head while Diaz sings them, and in his eyes you can see the release from the horror of his imprisonment. He flutters his hands, fiddles with his scarf and touches his lips with mannerisms that belie the strength of character he discovers within himself by the end of the evening, and his transition is subtle but unmistakably natural. Chase, who has had most success on Broadway as a replacement leading man (Miss Saigon, Aida, Rent, The Full Monty) adds a strong masculine persona and a fabulous voice to the mix. Cupo avoids overdoing the evil of the warden, letting his words and actions horrify rather than going for an impersonation of evil. Channez McQuay is similarly effective on the other end of the good/bad spectrum as the window dresser's mother, succeeding by letting the songs she sings create her character without a false touch of overacting in what could be a few mawkish moments. 

The astonishingly effective set is by Adam Koch who is relatively unknown here in the Potomac Region. (He designed the recent Tick, Tick...Boom! at Metrostage.) With prison cells flanking the center platform and a flying bridge at the back, the central cell is defined by floor lights shining up through the mist. The light of a movie projector's beam shines from the back wall as the prisoners retreat into fantasy through their memory of vintage films. The vision of Diaz, surrounded by the prisoners who make up her dancing chorus in the fantasy is striking, thanks in part, to great costumes at both extremes by Anne Kennedy. As usual at Signature, the supporting orchestra is marvelous. In this case, it is a ten-member band with no strings which gives the score a somewhat different sound than it had on Broadway. The absence of stings robs the dream sequences/movie numbers of some of their romantic power but emphasizes the hard realities facing the prisoners.

Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Terrence McNally. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig. Originally directed by Harold Prince. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Conducted by Jenny Cartney. Design: Adam Koch (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Matt Row (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Danny Binstock, Christopher Block, Kurt Boehm, Andy Brownstein, Will Chase, Matt Conner, Steven Cupo, Natascia Diaz, Erin Driscol, Hunter Foster, James Gardiner, LC Harden, Jr. Channez McQuay, Stephen Gregory Smith.

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January 29 - February 17, 2008
The Tricky Part
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:25 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an example of the power of an actor's work
Performed in The ARK
Click here to buy the book

There's an incredible act of seduction in this play about the sexual abuse of a young boy by an adult man. We aren't talking about the man "seducing" the boy - without sufficient maturity the boy can't legally or actually consent and "seduction" is the act of obtaining consent through any combination of charms. No, the seduction here is what the 42 year old actor does to the audience. He draws us in with such a well crafted combination of personal charm, nostalgic romanticism and good humor that we are, as the saying goes, mere putty in his hands. He may do whatever he will with us. What he does is to make us feel the multi-layered ramifications of the defining moment of his childhood, a moment that turned his growing up from a process guided by his own internal standards and the influence of all the normal sources - parents, relatives, teachers, priests, neighbors, siblings, friends - into one complicated by his exploitation. By first sharing with the audience a generous level of self-revelation before getting to the event, he establishes both the magnitude and the limitations on its importance in the formation of his full adult personality, on the man he became. Because we come to like this man, we come to care about what happened to this boy.

Storyline: Martin Moran shares with the audience the true story of his sexual relationship with an older man, a counselor he met at a Catholic boys' camp. He was 12 when the relationship began, 15 when it ended. Now he's 42 and he has recently visited the man in the Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles, seeing him for the first time since childhood.

Moran is an actor, perfectly comfortable on stage. On Broadway, he's cavorted as Sir Robin in Spamalot, sung as the song-writing dentist in Bells are Ringing and gone down with the ship in Titanic. He's toured and worked in regional theaters around the country. Each time he's had a role to play. Playing himself requires just as much definition of his role as a fictional one. Here he's working from a script, but it is one he wrote himself. Whether it is his own charm as a performer, his skill as a writer or the good sense and theatrical taste of his director, Seth Barrish, the result seen on stage in Signature's smaller black box house, The Ark, is a marvel of self control in self revelation.

The "seduction" of the audience is so subtle that at first you might not even notice it has begun. Moran steps onto light on the Turkish carpet, which, along with a stool, a table with a framed photograph and a dog-eared book constitutes the entire set. He begins with what seems a friendly greeting leading up to the "please turn off your cell phone" announcement and it takes a while before you realize he's actually well into his story. The lights haven't gone down yet ... it takes twenty minutes for the ever-so-slow fade to take the house lights down. The reduction in the level of the lighting continues until the final blackout. Indeed, the most illuminating revelation of the evening comes as he reads from his diary description of the first sexual act his abuser commits in the dark of night in a camp sleeping bag.

Moran isn't the only person you come to know during this one-act play. The abuser becomes a real person as well - no event as impactful as this can be completely one sided. Moran shares his conversation with the now-elderly man and his revelations of his own history. That history includes jail time - Moran was not his only victim. Moran makes his abuser's story as human as his own.

Written and performed by Martin Moran. Directed by Seth Barrish. Design: Chris Akins (production designer) Erin Jones (light board operator) Carol Pratt (photographer) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager).

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January 15 - February 17, 2008
Glory Days
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:35 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a premiere of a youthful,
 high-energy musical
Performed in The MAX

As with many things in life, the magic of live musical theater works best when all the elements are in balance. This intimate premiere production of a small musical is a case in point. The story fits the stage, the songs match the characters, the set feels right, as do the costumes, and the performances are as clean and clear as the storytelling techniques of its young authors, a pair of 23 year olds who hail from Montgomery County who are in the process of building careers for themselves as performers. As part of that process, they auditioned for and won acceptance to the Musical Theatre Institute that Signature's Eric Schaeffer runs each year at the Kennedy Center. While there, they played one of the songs they were writing for a musical about four friends reunited on the first anniversary of their high school graduation. He liked the number and agreed to work with them on the show. Now it is getting its premiere with Schaeffer as director, and it is a refreshingly honest, well constructed and well balanced piece that is performed by four very talented young men backed by four equally talented musicians.

Storyline: Four friends gather in the bleachers of the high school football field as they approach the first anniversary of their graduation. They used to be fast friends, bound together by the shared experience of having been rejected for the football team that played on this very field. They haven't seen each other in that year and each has grown up a bit, and, as a result, they have grown apart.

The 23 year olds who wrote this musical are Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner. Nick who? James which? You might recognize Gardiner, but as a performer, not a book writer. He appeared here at Signature in, among other musicals, The Witches of Eastwick (he was the young man Mark Kudisch tried to teach how to "Dance With The Devil.") Blaemire also has performing credentials in the Potomac Region such as the Signature Cabaret Singing Shakespeare and the Actors' Theatre of Washington (now Ganymede Arts) version of The Rocky Horror Show. However, the credit that sticks in the mind the most is his wonderfully droll rendition of "Mama Says" in the production of Footloose at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia. Their book and pop-rock score seems a bit wordy in the early going, but settles into a highly effective pattern by the time the big numbers such as "Things Are Different," "The Good Old Glory Type Days" and especially "Other Human Beings" come along.

Neither Blaemire nor Gardiner perform in this production, however. The four lads at the end of their freshman year of college are played by four fresh faces with strong resumes, just not at Signature. Steven Booth leads the pack as a writer who convened the reunion. Andrew Call is a frat boy whose self assurance is shaken by a developments revealed by Jesse JP Johnson, while Adam Halprin provides a dash of maturity into the mix. Each character is clearly drawn and fully human, with weaknesses as well as strengths you might expect from young men of this age.

Schaeffer keeps everything in balance. The set design is simple but elegant ... a platform painted to simulate turf, eight rows of bleacher seats and a bank of stadium lights as a backdrop that can change color with the mood of the moment and create patterns and movement when that will help get the message across. The costumes clearly match the characteristics of each character and the lighting subtly segues into night as the evening progresses. Most notable, however, is the way the entire production moves. It is notable that James Gardiner's twin brother Matthew is credited with "assistant direction and musical staging." How much of the energetic romping up and down the bleachers and the reclining over and sprawling on the benches is Schaeffer's blocking and how much is Gardiner's contribution isn't clear. But whoever saw to the pent-up energy of the movement and the youthful posturing that marks the entire performance deserves great credit.

Music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire. Book by James Gardiner. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical staging by Matthew Gardner. Musical direction by Derek Bowley. Music arranged and orchestrated by Jesse Vargas. Design: James Kronzer (set) Sasha Ludwig-Siegel (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Steven Booth, Andrew C. Call, Adam Halpin, Jesse JP Johnson. Musicians: Derek Bowley, Jean Finstad, Jon Jester, Steven Walker.

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November 6 - December 9, 2007
The Studio
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running Time 1:40 - no intermission
A Potomac Stages Pick for a fascinating look at the
creation of a dance piece
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for November
Price range $41 - $63

Christopher d'Amboise's dance play about a noted choreographer creating a new ballet for two dancers is a compelling evening from start to finish and demonstrates that d'Amboise is skilled in at least four disciplines: writing, directing, choreographing and casting. That fourth skill is the one that puts the results of the other three in such good hands here in the play's east coast premiere. He has Stephen Lee Anderson as a choreographer struggling with the challenge of a piece he says Balanchine said couldn't be choreographed. He found Chrissie Whitehead and Tyler Hanes in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line to assume the roles of the two dancers who work out the complicated steps and movements the choreographer demands, and who, in the process, form a bond of their own. With a bare-stage  appropriate to the piece but with elegant touches such as the choreographer using the white back wall as a sketch pad for his diagrams of music and movement, the piece is visually interesting while it is dramatically arresting and musically satisfying.

Storyline: A famous ballet choreographer who has been out of the limelight for a long time hires two dancers to help him develop a new choreography for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a famously challenging work to choreograph. As they work through its many concepts and approaches, it becomes clear that he is much more interested in the challenge than in finally bringing the work to performance, leaving at least one dancer feeling that her chance for a big break in the field is slipping away from her.

When d'Amboise includes in the script a statement that George Balanchine said that The Rite of Spring could not be choreographed, he may have known whereof he spoke. After all, d'Amboise was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet where he danced for both Balanchine and Robbins. He earned his Tony Award nomination on Broadway, however, for dancing to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Song and Dance. Thus, he knows the dance worlds of both classical ballet tradition and musical theater. He uses his knowledge of both here as he creates a dance play that works on both levels: as a play it is sufficiently interesting in its story telling and its character creation to be satisfying, while as dance it is sufficiently challenging to the performers to be believable and intriguing when performed with by a cast sufficient skill to be pull it off.

The two cast members playing dancers have that skill and are beautiful to watch. Whitehead is graceful in motion and carries her dialogue scenes well although she is just a bit too soft spoken. The concentrated listening her lack of projection requires occasionally creates a distraction when other elements should be getting your attention. Hanes has the least well resolved character to play and does a fine job with it. A good deal of the "back story" concerning his prior work with the choreographer is hinted at but left dangling. Still, Hanes sinks his teeth into what he is given and both Hanes and Whitehead are superb dancers for musical theater. Whether they would pass muster in a quality ballet corps is better judged by more qualified dance critics. Anderson, who plays the role of the choreographer, is himself a Broadway veteran, having among other things, originated the role of the anti-dancing father in Footloose. His moves are sufficiently athletic and graceful to make it believable that he is a man obsessed with the world of dance.

You may come away thinking that all the music you heard during the show is the product of Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet score for The Rite of Spring caused a scandal when it was premiered by Diaghilev's Ballet Rouse in Paris in 1913 with the choreography of Nijinsky. Actually, the sound and original music credit for this production is given to Jeremy J. Lee who skillfully augments selections of Stravinsky with material of his own which serves the needs of the story quite well. One phrase he uses repeatedly is almost Sondheimesque.

Written, directed and choreographed by Christopher d'Amboise. Design: Chris Barreca (set) Kelly Crandall (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Jeremy Lee (sound and original music) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson, Tyler Hanes, Chrissie Whitehead.

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October 2 - December 2, 2007
The Word Begins
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:50 - no intermission
An accessible slam poetry program on the power of words
Price range $41 - $63
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for October
v strong language

If you've never attended a slam poetry program, tuned in to a hip hop radio station, or settled in with a recording of this unique blend of attitude and expression, this immersion into the meter and rhyme of the genre that grew out of the "rap" of "DJ's" in New York's black and Latino scene of the 70s is an excellent opportunity to sample the school. If you are an experienced follower of the genre, you will find a certain refinement in the material and a welcome energy and elegance in the presentation, even if no surprising new ground is being broken. This is the first show Signature has programmed that isn't really a play. It is a celebration of the spoken word delivered as a single set. It's two-person cast consists of one performer with a fairly standard name, Steve Connell, and one who adds a non-capitalized description to his single-word name, Sekou (tha misfit). They work together in a well-polished team effort.

Storyline: Two spoken word artists work their way through hip-hop-tinged routines in meter and rhyme on topics of race, religion, sexuality, love and the power of communication.

Connell  is a lanky bundle of energy who moves with a certain electrically charged jerk as if reacting to the electrical releases in his nerve endings in time with the meter of the poetry. Sekou (or Mr. misfit?) seems more changeable, reflecting different characteristics in the different roles he adopts within the poetry. At one moment he's a best friend, a buddy, and the next a dreadlocked image of a street thug with a handgun shoved in the face of an audience member in the front row. Their progression through the material is rapid, spinning at a high-energy rate as if they feel they have three hours of material and only two to deliver it.

That material stretches from humorous riffs on the meanings of words to dreamy digressions on the ways to express romantic love. There are explosions about the misogyny of other hip hop material, the dangers of urban street life and the losses society has suffered from hatred ranging from the assassination of leaders to hate crimes based on race, sex or neighborhood. The tone switches abruptly from intensely serious to comic. Through it all, a clever turn of phrase is valued - "I Don't Want to be the fire fighter. Let me be the fire." "This world will never be better than we are." "White has nothing to fear but white itself." It all is wrapped up (if you will pardon the pun) in the theme of "taking back the word" with the claim that "to stay silent is blasphemy."

One name in the credits familiar to Signature regulars is that of Michael Clark. He provided the projections for Saving Aimee, One Red Flower, and Allegro here as well as those for The Persians at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Merrily We Roll Along at the Kennedy Center and The Jersey Boys on Broadway. His work here consists of visuals shown on the nine flat-panel high-definition television screens featured in Myung Hee Cho's scenic design. The projections range from iconic images such as the news photos of people reacting to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King to the youthful face of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard. The images magnify the impact of the words.

Written and performed by Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit). Directed by Robert Egan. Design: Myung Hee Cho (set and costumes) Michael Clark (projections) Chris Lee (lights) Adam Phalen (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Taryn J. Colberg (stage manager). Cast: Steve Connell, Sekou (tha misfit).

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September 4 - October 14, 2007
Merrily We Roll Along
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
Sondheim's sparkling score well performed but hampered by story-telling difficulties
Performed in The MAX

Click here to buy the CD

Of the fifteen Stephen Sondheim musicals Signature has revived in its seventeen seasons, this one poses perhaps the greatest challenge because it was such a flop when it first opened. It was the second least successful musical of Sondheim's Broadway career. Practically every reason for that initial failure that was identified by critics and analysts since its initial 16 performance run on Broadway in 1981 plague this effort to revive it. There's the confusion of a reverse chronology. There's the fact that the positive aspects of the central character's personality are only revealed at the end. There's even a minimalist approach to the visual design. Director Eric Schaeffer seems to have stumbled over some of the same hurdles that affected the great Harold Prince in the original production. Both that initial production and this revival suffer from too many distractions and difficulties. Still, here we have fine work from Will Gartshore and very good acting as well as singing from Tracy Lynn Olivera. Jon Kalbfleisch's twelve piece orchestra is a delight and Christopher Bloch adds another superb supporting performance to his credits at Signature. 

Storyline: The story of the careers and friendships of three artists - a composer, a lyricist and a writer - is told backwards from the perspective of the peak of their careers. The sacrifices, compromises and mistakes they make are peeled away from their strained friendship until the story finally gets to one early morning in 1957 when they stood on the roof of their apartment building in New York City to watch Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, pass overhead. Then all things seemed possible.

Sondheim and his collaborator George Furth, with whom he had created Company ten years earlier, based this musical on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart which presented its story in reverse chronological order. The technique requires a good deal of special attention to pure storytelling which this production, like the original, simply fails to provide. A number of the strengths that have kept Sondheim aficionados returning to take another crack at the musical are here as well. There's the oft-times seeming autobiographical nature of the central characters which are so seductive to Sondheim fans. There's the intriguing solutions he devised to the challenges of building a musical score backwards, with what seem to be reprises coming before the initial statement of a tune and echoes of melodic themes not yet heard. There's also the satisfaction of some really fine songs such as "Not A Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going" which have gone on to have success as popular songs when recorded by the likes of Sinatra, Manilow and Minelli.

As is often the case at Signature, Schaeffer has gathered a very talented cast of young performers for big roles and small ones. Gartshore and Olivera are exceptionally good, Erik Lieberman makes a good Signature debut as does Bayla Whitten as the composer's first wife and Tory Ross as his second. Whitten is particularly strong even though her part is the least well structured in the reverse-in-time format of the musical. The ensemble also features distinctive personalities rather than a composite of nonentities. Matt Conner, Emily Levey, Adam Cooley and James Gardiner stand out.

The visual design for this production is distinctive but misses the opportunity to help tell the story and includes some distractingly unattractive costumes. Even though there are multiple locations in the story, the entire musical is performed on one set. As a result, there are few visual clues to help the audience follow the story back in time and place from Hollywood to New York, from Broadway to a nightclub and from courtroom to the rooftop of an apartment house. The costume designs harm some of the more important performances. Most seriously affected are Gartshore who is given suits of black and white check that might serve as test patterns on an old black and white television, and Erik Liberman as Gartshore's lyric writing partner who is decked out in a sickly green that defeats any effort to create an attractive character.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Design: James Kronzer (set) Robert Perdziola (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Michael Bannigan, Christopher Bloch, Mark Chandler, Matt Conner, Adam Cooley, Rebecca Cznadel, Jenna Edison, James Gardiner, Will Gartshore, Emily Levey, Erik Liberman, Tacy Lynn Olivera, Tory Ross, Bayla Whitten.

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September 12 - 15, 2007
The Lost Songs of Broadway
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:00 - no intermission
A three-vocalist cabaret
Table Seating in The ARK - $28

The new Signature Cabaret season begins with a program of songs from Broadway shows. The Signature Cabaret series has a long and treasured history with presentations by some of Signature's biggest names as well as newcomers. Donna Migliaccio, Will Gartshore and Judy Simmons have all held forth, in the series first known as Paul's Pub in the lobby of the old "garage" space. The first of the series in this new space was Singing Shakespeare as part of the city-wide Shakespeare Festival last Spring. This season opener, conceived and co-directed by Signature's Associate Director Michael Baron and Resident Assistant Director Matthew Gardiner, brings Priscilla Cuellar and Lauren Williams back to Signature's stage and introduces a new face, Matt Pearson, all backed by the piano of Gabriel Mangiante.

Storyline: As explained in the between-song patter, the songs are either lost songs from hit Broadway shows of the past or they are hit songs from shows that have disappeared from the consciousness of all but the hardiest show music maven.

The line up of some twenty songs include works that will be familiar to many and others that will be obscure to almost all. Who, for instance, is going to remember "Washington Square," a song with lyrics by Cole Porter but music by Melvelle Gideon from a 1920 review titled As You Were? Few will recall "My Love Is A Married Man" from Lerner and Loewe's 1945 The Day Before Spring, but many will hum along (quietly, one hopes) to "Do, Do, Do" or "September Song," "Why Was I Born?" or even Rogers and Hart's "Mountain Greenery."

Williams brings the chipper personality and shimmering smile that made her so memorable as Philia in Signature's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the old "garage" and Little Red in the recent revival of Into the Woods here at Signature's new home. She's the right one to sing the song made famous by Betty Boop, "I Wanna Be Loved By You." Cueller's Signature shows have included Saving Aimee, Into the Woods, My Fair Lady and Assassins. She belts out the likes of George and Ira Gershwin's "Lorelei" and Porter's "Don't Look At Me That Way." Pearson is a new face here at Signature. He's mellow voiced in his lower register and has a wide range that is stretched a bit by some of the material here such as the Gershwins' "Mine" and Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" but does a fine job with the Hoagy Carmichael/Standley Adams number "Little Old Lady.

First time out, the trio is ill rehearsed for the patter explaining the numbers and some of that patter includes misinformation. For example, Lerner and Loewe's musicals prior to My Fair Lady included Paint Your Wagon and Brigadoon in addition to What's Up and The Day Before Spring which were mentioned in the patter and Sweet Adeline was definitely not a revue. Still, who can grumble when given the opportunity to discover Porter's comic "Mister and Missus Fitch"?

Conceived and directed by Michael Baron and Matthew Gardiner. Music direction by Gabriel Mangiante. Cast: Priscilla Cuellar, Matt Pearson, Lauren Williams.

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June 5 - July 15, 2007
The Witches of Eastwick
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
t Potomac Stages Pick for a high-flying high-energy musical
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for June and July
Winner of the 2007 annual Ushers' Favorite Show Award
v Sexual themes
Click here to buy the CD

There is a high sheen on the polished stage floor for the American premiere of Dempsey and Rowe's musical which had been Eric Schaeffer's directorial debut on the East End of London. Polish and sheen are the keys to the success of this musical, and Schaeffer has just about achieved the level of shine it needs. With another week or two of working together under their belts, the cast should be delivering performances to match that burnished gleam. They are already close. Marc Kudisch is doing a high-energy, high-style turn with his patented reptilian devil bit (he just closed on Broadway where he played the snake in the Garden of Eden in The Apple Tree). The trio of witches, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Emily Skinner and Christiane Noll, are doing fabulous individual numbers and forming an effective ensemble for their songs together. Each works well with Kudisch. A troupe of Signature regulars including Harry A. Winter and Erin Driscoll, turns in some very enjoyable work as well, and there are small touches from Amy McWilliams, Sherry L. Edelen, Ilona Dulaski and Thomas Adrian Simpson to be enjoyed. Still, you might want to try for tickets later in the run when the chemistry between the three witches should be even stronger.

Storyline: The musical based on John Updike's novel set in an up-tight New England town where three less-than-conformist women conjure up a devil who releases them from their inhibitions and unleashes their passions. Things get out of hand when he has them turn their powers against the town's over-controlling biddy, but all ends happily when they take control back from this devil and help a pair of teens find true love.

John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe were last represented at Signature with The Fix, which Schaeffer directed at the request of legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had mounted it in London with less success than he had hoped. It was a big hit here in one of Schaeffer's best works. The four (Dempsey, Rowe, Schaeffer and Macintosh) reunited to make this musical, based on the Updike novel and the 1987 movie (think Jack Nicholson), which opened at London's 2,200 seat Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2000 and transferred to the 1,100 seat Prince of Wales Theatre in 2001. Now Schaeffer brings it down to the scale at which he made his reputation here for immediacy and intensity. He moves his forces about on a very large playing space and takes advantage of the space above and to the sides of the stage in the new space. Still, the set up for the big act one flying effect drags a bit too much and Schaeffer dips into the collection of crotch and breast visual gags a few times too often. Dempsey and Rowe have written two new songs (replacing "Eye of the Beholder" with a more tightly targeted "Your Wildest Dreams" for Emily Skinner's witch and giving Kudisch an autobiographical introduction to his character of "Darryl Van Horne") and revised some others as well as making additional changes to the book.

The first act is the brighter, funnier and more enjoyable of the two. It is where the trio of duets serve as the center of the entire story as Kudisch's devil brings each witch face-to-face with her principal inhibition, and then guides her past it. Each number is an opportunity for the witch involved, and first Noll and then Donovan and finally Skinner deliver knock-your-socks-off performances supported beautifully by Kudisch. Each of these women soar in their big number with an energetic passion that exceeds even the flying effect at the climax of the act.  Erin Driscoll is at her chippery best creating the the teenaged daughter of the terrible town biddy, played by Karlah Hamilton in a mode that could use a touch more cartoon. Driscoll teams with James Gardner as the teenagers in love in the first act. The second act gets a bit darker than you might expect with an on-stage murder and a dissipated devil.  But there are delights here as well with the three witches joining in on "Another Night at Darryl's."

One group that doesn't need any more time to achieve maximum chemistry playing together is the twelve member orchestra under Jon Kalbfleisch, playing Bruce Coughlin's nicely embroidered orchestrations from the balcony behind the set. Matt Rowe's claps of thunder (accompanying Chris Lee's flashes of lightening) establish the supernatural theme. Choreographer Karma Camp does some of her most impressive work of late both with the big chorus numbers such as "Dirty Laundry," where she has the townspeople slapping and snapping towels in tempo, and in the duets between individual witches and Kudisch's devil. She has obviously worked with each cast member to come up with postures, gestures and little touches that help them form an ensemble of note. For example, off to one side during the “”Dance with the Devil” number is a sight you may have thought you'd never see ... Diego Prieto spanking Ilona Dulaski in her patent leather outfit! (Don't ask ... just go see it.)

Music by Dana P. Rowe. Book and lyrics by John Dempsey. Based on the novel by John Updike and the Warner Brothers motion picture. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Elejo Vietti (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Matt Rowe (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Jeremy Benton, Brianne Cobuzzi, Matt Conner, David Covington, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Erin Driscoll, Ilona Dulaski, Sherri L. Edelen, James Gardiner, Karlah Hamilton, Mark Kudisch, Amy McWilliams, Christiane Noll, Brittany O'Grady, Diego Prieto, Tammy Roberts, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Emily Skinner, Scott J. Strasbaugh, Harry A. Winter.

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April 24 - June 24, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:40 - No intermission
A highly theatrical exploration of an interesting historical event
Performed in The ARK
v Sexual acts simulated on stage

Joe Calarco reports that he decided to direct this play after reading just the first 17 pages of the script that Bathsheba Doran had written for Signature under what she called "an unexpected commission." The things that captured his attention are clear from what ends up on the simple but effective wood planking of the spare set that James Kronzer designed for this premiere production. It starts with a simple, historical event that is interesting in its own right - the first case of a woman hanged in Pennsylvania after the formation of the state out of what had been a colony. Her crime was the murder of her own newborn child. Doran seems more interested in life than in death, however, and uses that story to examine what life must have been like then and there. Her work starts so well that, under Calarco's crisp and efficient direction, the production captures your imagination just as the script captured Calarco's. He should have read beyond the first 17 pages before agreeing to take it on, however, for it begins to lose its focus and to become fuzzy about two thirds of the way through its single act. By the end, it leaves you wishing there had been more clarity and at least one fewer gimmick.

Storyline: In 1809, Suzanna Cox, a 24 year old indentured servant in a farmhouse some fifty miles into rural Pennsylvania from then-bustling Philadelphia, was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of her newborn child.

Bathsheba Doran, a British born playwright now based in the United States, has immersed herself in the world of rural Pennsylvania at the start of the nineteenth century. Her facts seem solid, although it is hard to imagine the wife of a frustrated farmer who misses cosmopolitan pleasures telling him he should go into Philadelphia more often, saying it is "only fifty miles away." Doran brings a unique eye to the project as one born and raised outside of the US. She pays a great deal of attention to portraying the world that Suzanna Cox would have known: her employers, a would-be writer from Philadelphia and a publisher who wants a ballad of her story for publication in a serial not unlike the cliff-hanging movie serials of another century, and even Daniel Boone. Boone is apparently a fixation of Cox's imagination, for he left Pennsylvania for Kentucky long before Cox began her servitude. One aspect of the story which seems to have fascinated Doran is the level of knowledge a woman like Cox would have had about the functioning of her own body. Apparently Doran came to the conclusion that life on a farm isn't enough to assure an understanding of sexuality. There are a number of explicit scenes of sexual activity on stage which are, for the most part, cloaked in the clothing of the time.

Anne Veal plays Cox with a reserved dignity of one who is resigned to a life beyond her control, and Charlie Matthes avoids making his portrait of the man who takes advantage of her lack of control too one-sidedly venal. No one in this household is really getting much of what they want from life, even the wife played with a strength that seems right in the isolation of a farm by Vanessa Lock. James Slaughter is very believable as well as highly enjoyable as the somewhat self-important publisher who has some of the brightest dialogue in the piece, and Michael Grew matches him line for line when he has a chance. When told he should write about Boone, Grew asks "do I have to go to Kentucky?" with such a feeling of dread for such a journey that the reality of life in the newly formed United States of America comes home. It is the character of Boone, however, that seems to be too much of a stretch for a single act with this much story to tell. Richard Pelzman does about as much as can be done to humanize this icon, but it remains a puzzlement just why Doran wrote him into the play in the first place.

By today's standards, things were primitive in the world of Suzanna Cox, and not only does the simple set reflect this, Kate Turner-Walker's costumes add to the feeling of reality. They look appropriate to time, place and social/economic realities, and they look as if they really are clothing. Much of the play takes place indoors at night and Chris Lee's lighting gives a good feel for the limits of illumination both in the private homes of the time, but also of the public houses and offices in Philadelphia, while Matthew M. Nielson's soundscape draws you into the environment where sounds indicate the world outside what can be seen beyond the small circles of light.

Written by Bathsheba Doran. Directed by Joe Calarco. Design: James Kronzer (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Matthew M. Nielson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Michael Grew, Vanessa Lock, Stephen Patrick Martin, Charlie Matthes, Richard Pelzman, James Slaughter, Anne Veal.

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April 10 - May 13, 2007
Saving Aimee
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:50 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rousing gem of a new musical
Performed in The MAX
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for April

Signature packs more good times into just under three hours in the spectacular new musical about the fascinating career of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson than just about any other new show here in the Potomac Region. or for that matter, 250 miles north on Broadway. The rousing gospel-infused big time numbers, heart-touching solos, romantic duets and even a marvelous trio for star Carolee Carmello (Aimee), Florence Lacy (as her mother) and E. Faye Butler (who tears up the joint as her most devoted convert/assistant) are all Broadway-ready just as they are. Eric Schaeffer directs the smooth transitions and fluidly staged musical numbers with the help of choreographer Christopher d'Amboise. The book still has a few rough spots, but Signature has a must-see hit on their hands and musical theater lovers in the region better flock to be part of Aimee's flock.

Storyline: A bio-musical based on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson, the charismatic evangelist of the 1920s who founded the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, was the first female radio preacher and became controversial for her show business approach to preaching. She became a nationwide phenomenon with a flamboyant public persona. Even her mysterious disappearance, which she claimed was a thirty-two day case of kidnapping but the authorities believed was a publicity stunt to disguise a tryst with a lover, could not harm her claim to the adoration of her followers.

All of the lyrics and the script are by Kathie Lee Gifford. She also composed the music for a spirited Irish jig-style number that manages to encapsulate the first two years of Aimee's first marriage into about six minutes. She chooses to tell the story within the structure of McPherson's trial for "corruption of morals, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to manufacture evidence." The structure works fairly well until late in the show when things seem to come to a halt while the trial itself is completed in a non-musical number. As good as Andrew Long is in the non-singing role of the prosecutor, the show simply doesn't need a non-singing segment. Ah, but but when the show is singing! Gifford has written clear lyrics that tell the story with something of the same plain-speaking, heart-on-the-sleeve openness that was a trademark of Sister Aimee's sermons. She doesn't try to show off with excessive alliteration or complicated rhyme schemes, just as Aimee wouldn't have tried to impress her listeners with her eloquence - get the message delivered clearly and passionately! The first act is very tightly structured and flows nicely. The second, however, starts to stumble a bit over the increased attention to the trial and the strange amateurishness of the show's recreation of the pageants that made the services at her Angelus Temple so popular. Some of Gifford's lyrics are set to music by David Pomeranz and others by David Friedman. Either way, they work wonders.

Carolee Carmello, who makes her Signature debut after such successes on Broadway as Parade and Lestat, both of which earned her Tony Award nominations, is a passionate dramatic actress who can also sing thrillingly. She is at her best when the songs she gets to sing are dramatically rich, as are most of the songs she has here. She creates a character that goes from adolescent to adult, obscurity to fame and health to dependence with real humanity. E. Faye Butler returns to Signature after Gospel According to Fishman, and her gospel and blues moments are among the strongest in the show. As a madam (leading her "girls" through "A Girl's Got To Do What A Girl's Got To Do") she is reformed by Sister Aimee's preaching and picks up the pace with "God Will Provide." She provides some of the warmest and most humorous moments. Florence Lacey adds to her credits here at Signature with a strong performance as Aimee's over bearing mother, and Ed Dixon, who starred with Lacey in the earlier Gifford/Pomeranz musical Under the Bridge, which Schaeffer directed off-Broadway, manages to avoid going too far with either the sweetness of his first act part when he's playing Aimee's father or the hatefulness of the bigotry of Aimee's rival preacher who he plays in the second act. He is touching in "Letter from Home" and then booms out "Demon In A Dress."

Walt Spangler's excellent two-story set spans the long wall of Signature's new large theater, The Max, before a bank of nearly 300 seats. A wide flight of wooden stairs dominates the center until it splits - sliding to the sides, exposing a large playing space. The entire structure is in light pine planking on which Michael Clark's well-selected projections of headlines, photographs and biblical quotations shine. Unfortunately, the somewhat busy surface of the lower half of the set make many of the projections difficult to read. The orchestra occupies one side of the ledge that surrounds the theater. They are playing orchestrations that may not make the most of the thirteen-player compliment all the time, but are often as rousing as the gospel-tinged sound of the big revival meeting numbers or as tender as the more intimate moments written for Aimee and her loves. There is a lovely piano and saxophone break in the touching trio "Paying the Price" that is particularly nice.

Music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman. Book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Christopher d'Amboise. Musical direction by Michael Rice. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Michael Clark (projections) Chris Lee (lights) Robert Kaplowitz (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Michael Bannigan, Doug Bowles, E. Faye Butler, Carolee Carmello, Priscilla Cuellar, Ed Dixon, James Gardiner, Evan Hoffman, Jennifer Irons, Carrie A. Johnson, Florence Lacey, Andrew Long, Adam Monley, Diego Prieto, Tammy Roberts, Margo Seibert, Corrieanne Stein, Steve Wilson, Harry A. Winter.

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April 4 - 7, 2007
Singing Shakespeare
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 0:50 - no intermission
The first Signature Cabaret in the new space
Performed in The ARK
Price - $27

The first Signature Cabaret in the Ark, the 99 seat black box in Signature's new home in Shirlington, is a part of the Shakespeare in Washington 2007 festival. Three vocalists work their way through seventeen songs from works based on the Bard - West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Boys from Syracuse and others. The three are Nick Blaemire, Justin Keyes and Jason Michael Snow. They are backed by Jay Crowder on piano. He's a Signature regular, having composed A Christmas Carol Rag and acted as Musical Director on Urinetown, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Side Show. Lee Hinkle handles the percussion duties with a notable sense of flare - especially his work on a hand-struck drum somewhat larger than a bongo but not as big as a conga. The three offer strong vocal solos and combine to create something of a contemporary boy-band sound.

Storyline: Three young male vocalists take turns delivering solos or combine to create group renditions of songs from Broadway shows based on the plays of William Shakespeare.

The choice of material is rather adventurous given the constraints of sticking with the theme of the Shakespeare in Washington festival. Some of the songs are from shows that would be expected, such as Bernstein and Sondheim's Romeo and Juliet-based West Side Story ("Something's Coming," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," "Maria" and "Somewhere,") Cole Porter's Taming of the Shrew-based Kiss Me, Kate ("So In Love," "Too Darn Hot,") Rogers and Hart's Boys from Syracuse based on Comedy of Errors ("Falling in Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love") and Galt MacDermot and John Guare's musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona ("Love's Revenge," 'Summer, Summer.") Interspersed with those predictable choices, however, are songs from Michael Valenti and Donald Driver's tuneful version of Comedy of Errors, Oh, Brother! ("I To The World," "What Do I Tell People This Time?") as well as "What Do I Know of Love?" from Driver's Off-Broadway Your Own Thing based on Twelfth Night which he wrote with Hal Hester. There are two numbers attributed to a show titled Sighs of Fire (a nifty title lifted from Twelfth Night) which uses words from As You Like It ("Under the Greenwood Tree") and Two Gentlemen of Verona ("Who Is Sylvia?"). Most refreshing, however, is the inclusion of Stephen Sondheim's setting of a passage from Cymbeline, "Fear No More," which came from his musical based on Aristophanes' The Frogs.

The trio of singers comment during their banter that they are grateful that a full house came out to hear them since "You don't know who any of us are." For the record, then, Blaemire is fresh out of the national tour of Altar Boyz and is now preparing for his Signature mainstage debut in The Witches of Eastwick. Keyes has just finished small parts in two of the short plays in  the limited run revival of The Apple Tree on Broadway and the one-weekend concert version of Irving Berlin's Face the Music at Encores in New York. Snow just graduated from the Boston Conservatory and worked at Goodspeed in Connecticut in the revival of Pirates of Penzance. They all offer clear voices, careful enunciation which serves the lyrics well, sharp stage presence, a sense of excitement over their material and a nice feeling of camaraderie. They are at their best when either sitting or standing before their microphones. however, because the three have varying levels of skill with a hand-held microphone. This is, sadly, a skill that seems to be escaping the newer generation of musical theater singers who have worn wireless microphones for much of their early training and experience.

The black box is nicely set up with candle-bedecked cabaret tables. The bar in the lobby is open before the show and you are welcome to bring your drinks into the theater with you. The black box is literally that: black floor, black walls and black ceiling. To top it off, all three vocalists wear black. Chris Akins has lit the stage area with sharp colors, however, providing a dramatic look which is further enhanced with copious amounts of stage mist.

Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Lighting designed by Chris Akins. Stage managed by E. Brooke Marshall. Photography by Rachel Applegate. Musicians: Jay Crowder, Lee Hinkle. Cast: Nick Blaemire, Justin Keyes and Jason Michael Snow.

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January 30 – April 1, 2007
Reviewed by William Bryan

Running time 55 minutes – no intermission
A short show that races at the speed of thought
v Includes some strongly sexual material
Click here to buy the script

Sarah Kane’s career was brief. Her repository contains just five titles that were initially produced from 1995 to 1999, with the last, 4:48 Psychosis, coming a year after her death. Yet the impact and popularity of her works are still not fully realized. At one point in 2003 there were 17 productions of her plays in progress at once in Germany. This was amazing given that her first play just 8 years earlier had been so harshly received that other more famous playwrights had to come to her defense. Her works are brutal, vicious, and yet deeply emotional and touching. The first three, Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, and Cleansed were shocking for their depiction of pain, torture (both physical and psychological) and how love can be twisted beyond some warm safe place into a world of deep psychosis. Her final play nearly dispensed with actors and sets and became almost a lyrical work of word on stage. Signature christens their new 99 seat ARK theater with the last play produced while she lived, Crave, a bridge between her earlier physical works and her final purely mental exercise.

Storyline:  Four roles reveal interlocking tales through memories, re-enactments and monologs that speak of the pain and beauty of the human condition.

As written the play is set nowhere, with actors in the script identified as A, B, C, and M. Thus, director Jeremy Skidmore has all the leeway anyone could wish to interpret the production. For a less capable director this freedom, combined with the power of the material, would be overwhelming. Skidmore manages to apply just enough concrete presence to the roles being portrayed that the play congeals into a fascinating stream of consciousness production. It’s one detrimental feature is just how fast it flows, leaving audience members asking at the end of its short 55 minute performance, “Is that it? Or is that intermission?” The play continues to unfold long after it is finished, providing material for conversation both in the lobby, on the way home, and again more into the next day.

The set as presented by Tony Cisek is a simple thing yet also a beautiful work of art. Shimmering grey sand lies in a raised platform with a captivating light design from Dan Covey striking it from above and several smaller spots coming up through the sand during the show. This allows the actors to roam about the black box space in much the same manner as their lines roam about the audience’s minds. This is fully an ensemble piece, and so often it seems that roles have changed or reversed as the stories being woven together lose and regain their identity within the cohesive whole. The actors are all very good, no one standing out more than another, until they truly are just A, B, C, and M.

The speed of the show and the complexity of the language can initially result in almost a dissatisfied feeling when it is complete. Indeed it has been said that of Ms Kane’s plays, the last two reveal much more from a reading than a performance, but that would be diminishing the power of the words when presented by talented actors. This is advanced theater, well beyond the safe comfortable lights of Our Town. There is a place for such old classics, and thankfully Signature has provided a place for newer shows that test the limits of what theater can be. It should be noted that this is a mature show, with descriptions of abuse, molestation, addiction, adultery, and many other vices of mankind. What results when the lights come up and the audience leaves in a sort of daze is a deeply moving experience, with little room for fence sitters to say that it was just ok. This is a show that will bring out a firm response in the viewer, love or hate.

Written by Sarah Kane. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Design: Tony Cisek (set), Dan Covey (lights), Mark Anduss (sound) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes), Carol Pratt (photography), Roy A. Gross (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Koons, Deborah Hazlett, Joe Isenberg, John Lescault.

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March 6 - 11, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:50 - one intermission
A performance in Hebrew with English surtitles

The Potomac Region theater community is used to the unconventional treatment of Shakespeare. Just look what success Synetic Theatre has had with its Macbeth, not to mention its own view of this Dane in Hamlet ... the Rest is Silence. We should find this performance in Hebrew as easy to follow and as rewarding as any other. The story, besides being well known in the first place, is well told. The performances are sharp and distinctive. The staging is fluid. What is more, the language is actually highlighted  for non speakers of Hebrew through the experience of catching line after line on the surtitle screens. While one part of your mind follows plot and character on the performing floor, another part can spot and savor specific phrases that are familiar out of context, but which are here highlighted in their role in the greater storytelling. There is a let down at the end, but throughout most of the night it is a captivating theatrical experience.

Storyline: A Hebrew translation follows Shakespeare's story of the prince of Denmark who discovers that his uncle has murdered his father, the king, and wed his mother, the queen. The quest for vengeance results in the deaths of guilty and innocent alike.

The production, directed by Omri Nitzan, is the biggest success to date for Israel's Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. It debuted just two years ago and has gone on to tour Europe, play in London and now in the United States. It travels with its own audience seating, for the director's concept here is to place the audience in swivel chairs and mount the play on sidestages and a central corridor, surrounding them with the action. At Signature, these swivel chairs are even mounted in the balcony although none of the action comes up to that level, and the sightlines for balcony sitters reach only three of the four sides of the playing area beneath them. It is a modern dress production with costumes that are principally in black and whites with splashes of color for Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. Black set pieces, black walls and black furniture complete a dark brooding feeling.

The centerpiece of the production is, as it should be, the performance of this Hamlet. Itay Tiran is a young, handsome and virile actor who moves with grace as the teenage prince drawn face to face with the evil of adulthood. Claudius is Gil Frank who is a suave king clearly under the spell of beautiful Sara von Schwartze, as Gertrude. Hamlet's connection with Neta Garti's Ophelia is a bit of a stretch as she is a near "valley girl" bopping to the sounds of music on her mp3 player. (We see Hamlet strutting down the central aisle with his own Ipod as well.) Nitzan has his Hamlet playing piano and Ophelia's mad scene is a song - but these are acceptable conceits within a fairly straightforward telling of Shakespeare's tale.

After an evening-long escalation of passions, the final fight scene is something of a let down, however. While director Nitzan uses the assistance of a "fencing coach" (Ohad Balva), there is no credit for fight choreography and its lack is felt. It isn't that Tiran's Hamlet and Amir Kriaf's Laertes don't go at each other with suitable fencing skill. It is that the emotional intensity of battle seems absent. There is such concentration on technique that the underlying emotions of hatred, jealousy, fear and frustration that fuel the battle aren't on display. What is more, Frank's Claudius is reduced to ridicule with a silly little bit of hiding behind a podium waving a white handkerchief. Such a wan way to end an otherwise captivating performance!

Written by William Shakespeare. Translated by T. Carmi. Directed by Omri Nitzan. Music by Yossi Ben Nun. Design: Ruth Dar (set and costumes) Liora Inbar (properties) Rina Schefler (makeup) Karen Granek (lights) Valery Reizes (sound) Ronen Shalev (stage manager). Cast: Yaniv Biton, Noa Cohen-Shabtai, Ezra Dagan, Alon Dahan, Gil Frank, Neta Garti, Assaf Goldstein, Yitzhak Hezkiya, Amir Kriaf, Yoav Levi, Assaf Pariente, Sara von Schwarze, Nir Shalmon, Itay Tiran, Aviv Zemer.

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January 12 - February 25, 2007
Into the Woods
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 3:00 - One Intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an enthralling revival of a captivating musical
Click here to buy the CD 

Let the enchantment begin! Eric Schaeffer has his spiffy new digs in which to create magic, and, oh, does he seem to be having a grand time with it. However, as is typical of Schaeffer, the results don't seem to be about Schaeffer - they are about the show and the contributions of an entire company of talented people doing their best work. It starts with a classic work by - of course - Stephen Sondheim. While Schaeffer and Signature have developed great musical and non-musical theater with the works of others, it is the eight musicals of Sondheim that the company mounted (some more than once) that earned it local, national and even international recognition. Indeed, Schaeffer seems most at home in a theater when he's directing Sondheim, for he is a director who enables his casts and creative teams to do their greatest work in furthering the storytelling in a musical, and no modern musicals are better crafted in their telling of stories through song than the best of Sondheim. What is more, since his first Sondheim musical at Signature, the famous 1991 Sweeney Todd that brought the company to notice for the first time, Schaeffer has had musical director Jon Kalbfleisch who treats the music of a musical as sonic text, getting the best performances to support the story. As a result, Signature's new space is well and truly launched.

Storyline: A bright first act blends the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella with an original fairy tale of The Baker and his Wife into a mélange augmented with the witch who holds Rapunzel in a tower, Little Red Riding Hood and assorted princes - all of which ends with the traditional "happily ever after." The dark and disturbing second act looks at the after which comes after "ever after," as the characters' stories are carried beyond the fairy tales' conclusions.

This is Sondheim's punniest, and with the exception of Merrily We Roll Along, his most openly clever score. His A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum may have been funnier, but none of his scores has been filled with so many genuinely funny puns. After all, Sondheim has to write in the manner of the character who sings the song, and most of Sondheim's musicals are about humanly complex adults. Here many of the characters are really children's book caricatures, which frees Sondheim to indulge his own fascination and facility with word play. His delight at that freedom is palpable. Where else could you find an entire song, humorous and delightful and story-advancing as it is, setting up a single punch line pun "The end justifies the beans?" The score is not all flippantry, however. The witch sings movingly of the pains of parenthood ("Children Will Listen") and there are layers upon layers of meaning to Jack's discovery that there are "Giants in the Sky."

To mark this milestone in Signature's history, the cast of the first show in this new house is composed exclusively of performers who have appeared in musicals at Signature's old converted chrome plating shop on the other side of Four Mile Run. Many have Helen Hayes Awards for work at Signature. There's Donna Migliaccio, who won hers for the same Sweeny Todd that brought the company she co-founded with Schaeffer to prominence. She's playing Jack's Mother with comic zest. Erin Driscoll who walked away with the Helen Hayes Award last year for her work in Signature's Urinetown is the silver throated Rapunzel. Dana Krueger, winner for Wings, is a striking presence as Cinderella's Mother. Stephen Gregory Smith, who earned his Helen Hayes Award in 110 In The Shade, is Jack of Beanstalk fame. Stephen Cupo, Helen Hayes winner for Cabaret, is Cinderella's Father. There's Eleasha Gamble in her tenth Signature show now making a marvelous witch, and the team of James Moye and Sean MacLaughlin as the princes who make "Agony" such a delight. The one voice that hasn't been heard at Signature before is that of the giant woman Jack left widowed at the end of act one. In the recent Broadway revival, this non-singing disembodied voice was a recorded Judi Dench. Signature goes that production one better with the voice of none other than Angela Lansbury, uncredited but unmistakable.

Precision and attention to detail are evident from the first entrance. When Harry A. Winter emerges from a door in the castle tower to announce "Once Upon a Time" he closes the door behind him in time with the down beat of Kalbfleisch's fifteen-piece orchestra's launch into the rhythmic riff underlying the opening song. Everything is working together even at that early moment, with a green back-light emerging from the open door, Winter's smooth sense of timing and the visual impact of Robert Perdziola's costumes placed on parade as Winter introduces one character after another. (Jon Aitcheson's wigs for Cinderella's Step Mother and Step Sisters are simply perfect.) The orchestra sounds gorgeous playing Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations of Sondheim's sometimes mellifluous, sometimes sharp but always intriguing music. The production continues in a firing on all cylinders mode right on through the special effect of the giant's booming footsteps. Through it all, while the hall may be a bit bigger than the old "garage," the essential intimacy and the immediacy of the magic making that has been the hallmark of Signature's best work for fifteen years is still alive and well here in "The Max." The only quibble on opening night was the complaint of difficulty hearing some of the lines from some in the "dress circle" seats that circle the house at what would be balcony level in a regular theater. No doubt this will be rectified as the company learns more about how this new space works.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Design: Robert Perdziola (set and costumes) Mark Pack (properties) Chris Lee (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Florrie Bagel, April Harr Blandin, Matt Conner, Daniel Cooney, Priscilla Cuellar, Steven Cupo, Erin Driscoll, Eleasha Gamble, Dana Krueger, Sean MacLaughlin, Channez McQuay, Donna Migliaccio, James Moye, Stephen Gregory Smith, Stephanie Waters, Lauren Williams, Harry A. Winter. 

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September 26 -  November 26, 2006
My Fair Lady
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:50 - one intermission
 t A Potomac Stages Pick for strong performances
 in a great musical

Click here to buy the CD

Lets face it, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is one of the great musicals of the twentieth century. Any merely competent production of the piece can be a delight, and this, Eric Schaeffer's final musical in the space that Signature is soon to abandon as they move across the creek to Shirlington, is much, much more than merely competent. It features a superb leading man, an excellent leading lady, outstanding jobs in many of the smaller roles, a visually distinctive and often pleasing design and those songs! There are also a few notable missteps. The decision to go with a two-piano accompaniment rather than a mid-sized orchestra for this small sized house leaves some of the numbers seeming a bit anemic, and the quirky costume choice of leaving the arms off the formal wear of the men in the chorus seemed just plain silly. But, on balance, it is a notable production of a piece that is one of the jewels in the crown of the American musical theater.

Storyline: The musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion adds personal romance to the original’s love affair with the English Language as a dialectician who believes that the way a person speaks "absolutely classifies him" takes on the challenge of teaching a flower girl from Covent Garden to speak well enough to be accepted as a princess at a court function. He (and she) succeeds. But in the process, he "grows accustomed to her face" and wants her in his world permanently, despite his protestations that he would "never let a woman in my life."

This show is legendary for the success of Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of a play many thought could not be made into a musical. No lesser talents than Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves had tried and abandoned the project. Hammerstein told Lerner "It can't be done." But, to paraphrase the second act opener "They Did It!" With respectful but absolutely necessary changes to the plot of the original, careful alterations of character traits and with the near-perfect placement of some superb songs with wonderfully literate lyrics set to gorgeous and superbly functional music, Shaw's creation became not just a good musical, it became a better play than its estimable source. "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On The Street Where You Live" and "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face" are some of the premiere romance songs to emerge from the golden age of the American musical. The sub-plot involving the flower girl’s father provided the opportunity for such classic music-hall style production numbers as "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With A Little Bit of Luck" while the concentration on elocution, enunciation, pronunciation and all things linguistic gave them the chance to produce some of the finest patter songs since Gilbert and Sullivan with "Why Can’t the English (teach their children how to speak)?" "I’m An Ordinary Man" and "A Hymn to Him" which poses the time honored question "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?" Add to all this the terrific release of exuberant joy in "The Rain in Spain" and you have a score with more beauty, wit, depth and charm than a dozen more mundane musicals.

Andrew Long is Professor Henry Higgins in a performance that is clean, clear, commanding and so far from an imitation of Rex Harrison, for whom the part was written, that it stands alone. His singing is quite strong and he sings rather than speaks more of the patter material than some others have. His Eliza is Broadway veteran Sally Murphy who likewise avoids imitating earlier performances. Her high energy on the anger songs "Just You Wait," "Show Me" and "Without You" is impressive, and her lyrical delivery of both "I Could Have Dance All Night" and the reprise of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" is a treat. Terrance P. Currier is the disappointment of the show as her father. He does a generally good job with the humor of the library scene ("I'm one of the world's undeserving - and I intend to remain undeserving") but he's just not the music-hall song and dance man needed for the big numbers "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With A Little Bit of Luck." Luckily, Tomas Adrian Simpson and Steven Cupo are available to shore him up on these numbers. Will Gartshore is a delight in one of Broadway's smaller roles with a major hit song. He fills the hall with his tenor on "On The Street Where You Live" and also does a great job establishing himself in the minds of the audience in the preceding scene which is a key to making the song work. Harry A. Winter does some of his best work ever at Signature with the role of fellow linguist Colonel Pickering, and Dana Krueger is a crowd-pleaser in the smaller role of the professor's mother.

The two-piano accompaniment goes strangely un-credited (as opposed to the attention lavished on the work of the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang) and is a weakness in the production. The playing may well be fine, but there is none of the breadth of tone or spaciousness that two-pianos can provide and the balance is such that there are times the accompaniment seems to disappear and others when it seems to overpower the vocalists. Sound designer Tony Angelini provided very effective ambient sounds of passing horse-drawn carriages prior to the show's opening but during the show itself the use of cane tapping to simulate horse hooves in the Ascot races was distractingly artificial. Visually, the overall look of the show is a fine blend of the intimacy of Signature's 136-seat black box theater and Victorian feel with its shiny black thrust stage and pillars that draw on the industrial look of this former chrome plating building. The use of cloth panels as background, which, when lit from behind, reveal chorus members was effective and impressive the first time the effect was used in "The Servants Chorus," but achieved a "ho, hum, been there, done that" feeling later in the show, especially when the figures revealed were wearing those silly sleeveless jackets.

Music by Frederick Loewe. Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Music direction by Jenny Cartney. Design: James Kronzer (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Matt Conner, Priscilla Cuellar, Steven Cupo, Terrence P. Currier, Kathryn Fuller, Eleasha Gamble, Will Gartshore, LC Harden Jr., Evan Hoffman, Dave Joria, Maureen Kerrigan, Dana Krueger, Andrew Long, Channez McQuay, Sally Murphy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Lauren Williams, Harry A. Winter.

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May 30 - July 30, 2006

Running time 2:00 - no intermission
 t A Potomac Stages Pick for an intriguing and sometimes humorous portrayal of the misfits who tried to kill Presidents
Winner of the 2006 annual Ushers Favorite Show Award

Click here to buy the CD

It must be time again for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's unique one act musical that uses those who have assassinated or attempted to assassinate American Presidents from Lincoln through Ronald Reagan as the central characters in a strangely comedic exploration of "The American Dream" from its darkest side. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, planned productions including a Broadway edition were cancelled or postponed. Locally, only the tiny Laurel Mill Playhouse went forward with the show. It is re-emerging as a piece companies will tackle. The Kensington Arts Theatre did a fine job with it this spring and now Signature Theatre, which mounted it over a decade ago to great acclaim (and a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical of the year for 1993) takes it up again, this time under the direction of Joe Calarco. His take is fresh and intriguing and he has the resources in cast and design to make it a notable production. He draws some great performances from that cast and the staging concept matches the script for uniqueness, turning the audience into a mirror of an alternate reality.

Storyline: The stories of the people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate Presidents, from Abraham Lincoln through Ronald Reagan, are woven into a one act dark fantasy with the focus on the two most famous -- John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Much of it is true to the historical record but it culminates in a fascinatingly constructed scene in which Booth leads the spirits of the assassins in an effort to convince Oswald to assassinate Kennedy, bringing new meaning to the term “JFK assassination conspiracy.”

The mature Stephen Sondheim has never been constrained by the boundaries of tradition in his musicals. While others write boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy wins girl love stories, Sondheim writes about revenge driven maniacs and purveyors of human flesh (Sweeney Todd), obsessed artists (Sunday in the Park with George) or the clash of cultures (Pacific Overtures). As usual, not only is his subject unorthodox, his structure is as well. A series of vignettes - some set to song and some simple scenes - tied together by the concept that the acts of Booth and Oswald turn all the other assassination attempts from individual acts of derangement into, in one assassin's words, "a force of history." Kooks aplenty add up to a frightening force indeed. When those kooks are portrayed in song, the discipline of melody, meter, rhyme and structure help create deep character portraits within the limited time available. When non-singing dialogue or monologue scenes are used, however, it takes longer to make the points and things begin to bog down. Comedy alleviates some of this problem - the exchanges between the fabulous Erin Driscoll as "Squeaky" Fromme and the even more fabulous Donna Migliaccio as the ditsy Sara Jane Moore, who both shot at Ford, are highly entertaining. But some are simply overwritten. Strong performances can alleviate some of the wordiness of the book scenes. Kathryn Fuller is marvelous in the non-singing role of Emma Goldman. As good as Andy Brownstein is as Sam Byck, who tried to hijack an airplane to crash into Nixon's White House, and he is very good, he still has to go on and on in the diatribes he dictates to his tape recorder.

Ah, but when they all break into song! Then there is a clarity to the piece. The motivations of success-obsessed Charles Guiteau, who shot Garfield, or of John Hinkley, Jr., who tried to assassinate Reagan in order to impress a movie star, become clear and gripping in just a minute or two. Hinkley's love song "Unworthy of Your Love" sung by Matt Conner as a dweeb of a love-sick pup is a fine duet with Driscoll. The concept is strengthened with chorus numbers that make a character out of the instrument of destruction they all have in common ("The Gun Song") and make the connection to the American dream ("Another National Anthem"). This production uses the song "Something Just Broke" that was written after the original production. The key relationship in this fictional history is between the first assassin, the powerfully effective Will Gartshore as John Wilkes Booth, and the last "successful" one, Stephen Gregory Smith as Lee Harvey Oswald. Smith establishes that relationship with the opening "The Ballad of Booth" when he is the balladeer before becoming Oswald. He sings it well but its success is particularly dependent on the fact that he acts the song so well, delivering the meaning behind the lines with an actors' clarity.

A show with such a fantastical concept calls for a significant flight of fancy in its design and Calarco's team led by set designer James Kronzer provides it in Signature's flexible black-box theater. The 136 seats are arrayed in a traditional arrangement facing an American flag of a curtain in what seems a very normal manner. But when the show begins, that flag falls to reveal . . . a theater! The seats in which the audience is sitting are facing identical seats facing them and the actors are in those seats staring at them (or reading their programs). The action takes place in and around the seats and up and down the aisles. Jon Kalbfleisch's nine piece band is hidden behind the back wall. Then, at the end of the show, the location becomes the Texas Book Depository warehouse space, where all the assassins are pleading with Lee Harvey Oswald. The windows of that building which are so familiar from the photographs from the time, redefine the space.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Directed by Joe Calarco. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Design: James Kronzer (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Ethan Ableman or Bradley Bowers, Doug Bowles, Andy Brownstein, Matt Conner, Priscilla Cuellar, Erin Driscoll, Mika Duncan, Daniel Felton, Kathryn Fuller, Will Gartshore, Peter Joshua, Donna Migliaccio, Diego Prieto, Tally Sessions, Stephen Gregory Smith, Steve Tipton.

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March 28 - May 7, 2006
The Sex Habits of American Women

Reviewed April 2
Running time 2:05 - one intermission
A comedy of the home life of a sex researcher

Julie Marie Myatt wrote this play because she saw a book by this title and wondered just who would write such a thing. The book was by a Viennese psychoanalyst who had written a biography of Freud and then emigrated to the United States. Myatt changed his name just a bit, from Fritz Wittels to Fritz Tittles and shifted from Viennese to German, but retained the title of his tome and the date - it was published in 1950 just after the real Fritz Wittels died at the age of 70. The play isn't about his book, however. It is about life in his home. This provides plenty of opportunity for titters, guffaws and snickers and even a few really good belly laughs, but the comedy tries to be much more than funny, and in the process, puts a damper on some of the humor while introducing themes better explored elsewhere. There's the unfulfilled housewife pursuing an extramarital affair. There's the sexually repressed daughter. There's even a time-shifting subplot presented not in live performance but on pre-recorded videotape. Each of these might be developed into a satisfying play of their own (and often have), but as diversions in an otherwise sharp-edged comedy, they are distractions and not enhancements.

Storyline: A live performance portrayal of the 1950 home life of a sex researcher totally oblivious the fact that wife is having an affair with his colleague and his daughter is struggling with both lesbianism and spinsterhood (which do you think her parents would fear the most in 1950?) is contrasted with a videotaped performance of a 2004 documentary in which an oft-married divorcée is interviewed for a study of sexual behavior and attitudes.

There are many new names in the program for this comedy - at least new to Signature Theatre. The playwright is new here but she's had her work produced at the Guthrie in Minneapolis as well as theaters in Atlanta, Louisville, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The director is new. He has a varied resume including directing, writing, teaching and running career development programs for directors. The set designer and the costume designer are new as well. Then, too, the cast of eight includes four who have never played Signature before, but they are all well known in the Potomac Region. Regulars from Will Gartshore to Amy McWilliams do well. McWilliams, however, is only seen in the pre-recorded video and a technological reproduction is no match for the live performances on the stage. This is, after all, live theater.

Two new faces for this space are at the heart of the piece. Ralph Cosham is the autocratic academician working on his final book about sex while being completely oblivious to the sexual side of the two women who share his life, his wife and daughter. Cosham manages to imbue the character with a touch of humanity. This is no mean feat given that it is written as a particularly colorless part. He not only gets the vocal mannerisms of the elderly German autocrat just right, he gets his body language to exhibit the same accent. Helen Hedman is the wife. She's funny, charming, impressive and a delight, but she also seems much too young for the role. The play includes the celebration of her 65th birthday with her daughter expressing surprise that it isn't her 70th, and she has a scene with Gartshore as her lover in which she expresses her fears that he will find her aging body a turn off. Now, you might chalk that up to insecurity, but that would change the point of the scene. Truth to tell, Hedman is just too lovely and sexy in a Donna Reed-ish sort of way for the part.

The set by Signature first timer Michael Carnahan is a thing of beauty, although some of the design decisions work against rather than for the play. The hiding of some 14 small-screen televisions behind see-through scrim to display the black and white tape of the 2004 "documentary" seems just a bit backward - how is it that the 1950s are portrayed in vivid, living color while the scenes in the age of the home theater/high definition TV are black and white? Still, the 1950 set is a gorgeous recreation of what was then seen as modern. So too are Alejo Vietti's costumes, which not only capture the look of the time but look as if they came directly from the Sears or Montgomery Wards down the block. Signature regular, sound designer Tony Angelini, helps set the mood with a selection of pop songs of the day that are well blended into the flow of the show. Indeed, they set the flow from time to time, making transitions smoother and emphasizing, sometimes wittily and sometimes subtly, the point being made in a specific scene. Props master Kimberly Cruce isn't given credit for properties design, but if she is the one who obtained all the period consumer items - especially the superb coffee carafe - she deserves a nod as well.

Written by Julie Marie Myatt. Directed by Michael Baron. Design: Michael Carnahan (set) Alejo Vietti (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Teresa Castracane, Ralph Cosham, Will Gartshore, Helen Hedman, Megan MacPhee, Amy McWilliams, Paul Morella, Casie Platt.

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January 10 - March 5, 2006

Reviewed January 15
Running time: 90 minutes - no intermission
t A  Potomac Stages Pick as a fascinating musical dream sequence
v Includes some strongly sexual material
Click here to buy the Complete Works of Poe

Atmosphere! It's all about atmosphere in Signature's premiere of a musical montage of Edgar Allan Poe's life. It starts with the tunnel between the lobby and the theater, dressed up as a dark country lane with fences on either side, dim blue lighting and Tony Angelini's sounds of swirling wind. When you reach the theater, the sound intensifies, the mist of the night envelopes you and you face a graveyard with trees wrapping around the space, a pale moon hanging in the darkest of blue skies, apparitions wandering to and fro, and a door - a strange door out of nowhere. The orchestra hasn't played a note and not a song has been sung, but the atmosphere! The atmosphere is thick enough to cut with a knife. The rest of the hour and a half lives up to that first impression, with fine performances, a swirling narrative, the famous words of Poe himself and the ethereal melodies to which his poems have been set.

Storyline: The writings of Edgar Allan Poe form the basis for a biographical sketch of the troubled poet's life as he pursues prostitutes, seduces and marries a thirteen year old and suffers the visions of his and her mothers in an extended dream sequence set to a haunting musical score.

Composer Matt Conner has produced a score of remarkable consistency, which, in the hands of master orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, becomes a constant around which the life story of Poe revolves. The melodies rise and fall with the rhythm of a heartbeat - a heartfelt and at times heartsick beat. The book by Grace Barnes works wonders to keep the ruminations of a deranged mind clear to the audience. There's rarely a point where you don't know just what is going on, even when what is going on isn't particularly sensible. Eric Schaeffer's direction matches the recurring eddies of the score and story with nearly constant movement among his cast of only six, many of whom surround scenes played out by others, observing from the sidelines to emphasize the feeling that this world is a graveyard, the final destination of people whose lives we watch.

Lauren Williams, as Poe's cousin/wife whom he married when she was thirteen, takes the longest dramatic journey of the evening, transitioning from an innocent, infatuated girl to a dying wife. Channez McQuay is haunting as her mother, Poe's aunt, while Florence Lacey is touching as Poe's mother. Jacquelyn Piro, in purple silk gown and stylish hat above striking half-bald scalp, is stately as Poe's first love, and Amy McWilliams is earthy and sultry as the many whores in Poe's life. At heart, however, it is Daniel Cooney's show to make or to break as the constantly-on-stage Edgar, whose presence is the driving force of the evening. He does a good job of it, providing a brooding presence and a magnetic focus. However, the piece leaves the feeling that there is more to made of this part and that it might soar even higher in another's hands. He's hampered just a bit by the one design element no one is credited with in the program: makeup. In a work marked by judicious touches of subtlety, the cartoonish black treatment of his eyes overdo a good idea.

Derek McLane's set creates solid surfaces floating in a mist of the mind which Mark Lanks lights from behind, below, and the sides with dramatic impact. Trees and moon are prominent against the dark blue of the sky but it is the door that works the most magic. It is the opening of a tunnel to eternity -- a different light emerges from its portal and the receding sconces of its wall lamps go back beyond the sky. It is the connection between the ethereal and the earthbound, just as Conner's music is the emotional bridge that transforms Poe's poetry and stories into a musical experience.

Music by Matt Conner. Lyrics adapted from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Book by Grace Barnes. Directed and featuring musical staging by Eric Schaeffer. Musical direction by Jenny Cartney. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Design: Derek McLane (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Mark Lanks (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Daniel Cooney, Florence Lacey, Channez McQuay, Amy McWilliams, Jacquelyn Piro, Lauren Williams.

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February 13 - 18, 2006
My Vacation in Paris

Reviewed February 13
Running time 1:10 - no intermission
These kids are great!

The Signature in the Schools program always provides an interesting and impressive show. This year, Joe Calarco's one-act play, developed with the participation of students from Wakefield High School and featuring student performers augmented by one professional, raises a host of intriguing issues within an entirely entertaining play. The play is fine, as is the direction, but it is the performance of the students that will impress you the most. There is one remaining public performance - Saturday the 18th at 2 pm. What a great way to spend an hour on a weekend!

Storyline: Thomas Jefferson's two daughters contemplate the end of their stay in Paris as their father's service as Ambassador to France is interrupted by the call to be Secretary of State under President Washington. At the same time, their servants Sally and James Hemings contemplate their fates as the family returns to the slave-holding south, for both are slaves owned by Jefferson who has promised to free James but has not indicated what he might do about Sally's status.

Under director Marcia Gardner, all thirteen student cast members disport themselves with assurance and contribute to the solid feel of the production, but a few go beyond the awfully-good-for-a-teenaged-amateur level to impressively satisfying. It is hard to believe that Kristin James, lovely and lively as the Jefferson sisters' companion/servant/slave Sally Hemings, is in her first year participating in the program and is a junior in high school.

In the role of a young French gentleman who is passionately devoted to the cause of the rights of man - but who can't quite see that they might be applicable to women - is another junior, Erik Lendeman, whose stage presence is impressive as well. The two Jefferson sisters are nicely played by Maggie Harrington and Laura Downes, while Maria Wilson gives life to the role of a free black stenographer when her character finally gets to deliver some of her own opinions.

This is the eleventh year that Signature has collaborated with students at Wakefield High in a program that was begun by playwright Norman Allen. The participating students work with a playwright and with Signature's Education Director, Marcia Gardner, to research the subject of the play, develop the themes, learn about the process of creating a theatrical presentation, and then, put on the play, mostly for audiences composed of students bussed in from all around Northern Virginia. This week over 800 students will attend performances during the school day. Gardner is also directing the show and the playwright - not Norman Allen for the first time - is playwright/director Joe Calarco, whose credits as a director at Signature include Nijinsky's Last Dance, Side Show and the recent hit Urinetown. Each year, a professional is included in the cast who provides a role model and a chance for some one-on-one mentoring. For this play, it is Hope Lambert, who starred earlier this year in Signature's production of Fallen from Proust. . 

Written by Joe Calarco. Directed by Marcia Gardner. Design: Rick Weinard (set) Melanie Dale (costumes) Susan Ellis (properties) Ronnie Gunderson (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Maggie Colella (stage manager). Cast: Amanda Donahoo, Laura Downes, Brian Eberly, Maggie Harrington, Jessica Henderson, Kristin James, Hope Lambert, Erik Lenderman, Ione Saunders, Phylicia Scott, Kevin Trudel, Ben Truong, Maria Wilson. 

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November 8 - December 18, 2005
Yemaya's Belly

Reviewed November 13
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
A very pleasant coming of age story
 set in the Caribbean

With this, his second major production as Signature's Associate Artistic Director, Rick DesRochers fails to put to rest the concerns raised by his earlier project, Ten Unknowns. Again he seems to have selected a less than stirring play. Again he has given it a less than exciting production. However, this new one-act charm piece is much less a downer than the earlier play, and it provides some very nice moments, two particularly charming performances and a number of pleasant music and design effects. Still, one wonders just what it was that convinced Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Managing Director Sam Sweet to bring DesRochers in from the Goodman in Chicago and what his role harbors for Signature once it moves into its new two-theater space across the creek in Shirlington next year.

Storyline: A boy from a rural village in the interior of a Caribbean island journeys to the big city and beyond, coming of age as he voyages to the United States.

Quiara Alegría Hudes' Caribbean coming of age story premiered at the Portland Stage Company last March. It tells its simple story in a mixture of natural and supernatural styles. Much of the boy's story is presented in a realistic way as he learns the game of dominos, sees the sights of the big city, discovers the joys of refrigerated Cokes and is instructed on the proper way to open a coconut. At the other extreme are the appearances of the goddess Yemaya, the ruler of the sea in the Santeria faith, introduced to the Caribbean by Yoruba captives transported on the slave ships, and the ghost of the boy's mother who literally walks on water. In between are scenes that seem a mixture of the two, such as the burial of the boy's parents and the storm at sea.

The boy is nicely played with youthful innocence by Jose Aranda. Just how youthful is not always clear, however, as his mannerisms early in the play feel like those of a six year old but later his sexual awakening implies an older boy even though he doesn't act much older and there is little indication of the passage of time. The title character is brought to life by Saskia de Vries who also plays the woman who stimulates that awakening. They work well together and their joint scenes, along with those featuring Clifton Alphonzo Duncan as the boy's uncle, are the finest in the show.

David Maddox has provided a fine incidental score of Caribbean-infused music that gives the piece a good feel, and Stephanie Nelson comes up with an interesting set that converts from the hills of the Caribbean island to the sea in an impressive way. Unfortunately, that conversion takes a bit of time and effort, moving nearly a dozen heavy boards, and is very distracting during a scene played out down front. Jenn Miller's costumes are, as usual, very effective without drawing undue attention, and Maddox also gives the piece help with often subtle sound effects. The end result is a pleasant ninety minute fable. However, Signature regulars have come to expect more than pleasant productions of this often exciting theater.

Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Directed by Rick DesRochers. Design: Stephanie Nelson (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Jason Thompson (lights) David Maddox (original music and sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Kerry Epstein (stage manager). Cast: Jose Aranda, Saskia de Vries, Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, Joseph W. Lane, Tuyet Thi Pham.

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August 16 - October 16, 2005

Reviewed August 21
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for enthusiastic, infectious energy
Winner of the 2005 annual Ushers' Favorite Show Award
Click here to buy the CD

A highly stylized put-on with energy, verve, a wonderful sense of whimsy and a consistently inventive imagination, this musical with a title that even one of its major characters says is awful, is a delightful ride for those who can get into the spirit of the thing and enjoy a distinctly off-beat humor. Even those who resist at the beginning are likely to be won over by Joe Calarco's no-holds-barred staging, which, in Signature's intimate space, is better than the Broadway original. That is quite remarkable given that the original was a fabulously fun production that won Tony awards for its score, book and direction and ran for nearly a thousand performances.  

Storyline: In a time when draught has made private toilets unthinkable and a mega-corporation has a monopoly on pay toilets, a group of underprivileged citizens stage a revolution. They take the evil monopolist's naive daughter hostage, but she ends up as their leader when she recognizes the people's "right to pee."

At heart, Urinetown is a very affectionate tribute to the genre of musical theater which proves once again the old adage that a musical can tell any story if it is done well. It observes all the rules of the form while making affectionate fun of them. What more could you expect of a show that begins with a narrator (Stephen F. Schmidt) setting out the show's "central conceit" in a discussion of how much "exposition" a show's first scene can contain. If that sounds suspiciously like the jargon you might find at a workshop on how to write a musical, it may be because co-lyricist Mark Hollmann attended the legendary BMI - Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop where such things are studied.

Having set up a truly bizarre concept, the very tightly constructed book by Hollmann’s colleague Greg Kotis carries the set-up to its logical conclusion while using the many logically identified song spots for individual parodies of some of the most identifiable moments in the history of Broadway musicals. When the downtrodden rise up in revolution out comes the mop to be waved like the flag in Le Mis. All the second act's opener lacks from Fiddler on the Roof is a bottle dance. Many times the references come in combination as the rumble-ish dance for "Snuff That Girl" seems to put West Side Story’s finger-snapping gang members in Guys and Dolls' sewer.

Will Gartshore does some of his best work at Signature with a pose, a look or a gesture for every moment he's on the stage as the youthful leader of the rebellion. Signature newcomer, Erin Driscoll, a Kristin Chenoweth look-alike with her own impressive talents, is a winning presence as the daughter who comes to doubt her father, the marvelously malicious monopolist Christopher Bloch. Signature regulars contribute great moments including Donna Migliaccio as the belting proprietor of Public Amenity No. 9, Steven Cupo as the old man whose act of defiance has him carted off to "Urinetown,"  Thomas Adrian Simpson as a smarmy Senator and Evan Casey who makes the most of his running gag throughout the evening. The sharpest work of all, however, comes from Jenna Sokolowski whose knowing innocence keeps the focus on the parody at key moments. Music director Jay Crowder gets great vocal work out of the ensemble and a full, bouncy sound from his five piece band (the same size as the Broadway production).

Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann. Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Joe Calarco. Music direction by Jay Crowder. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Design: James Kronzer (set) Anne Kennedy (Costumes) Cathie Gayer (properties) Chris Lee (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Colleen Martin (stage manager). Cast: Anthony Aloise, Christopher Bloch, Michael Bunce, Evan Casey, Steven Cupo, Erin Driscoll, Sherri L. Edelen, Eleasha Gamble, Will Gartshore, Amy McWilliams, Donna Migliaccio, Phil Olejack, Jeffrey L. Peterson, Stephen F. Schmidt, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Jenna Sokolowski.

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May 17 - July 10, 2005
Pacific Overtures

Reviewed May 22
Running time 2:15 - one intermission
A disappointingly flimsy production but with strong musical direction

Click here to buy the CD

Eric Schaeffer directs his one-dozenth Sondheim musical. He's worked miracles with Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Passion and Into the Woods, each of which earned a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding musical or direction, as well as with many other Sondheim projects. This time, however, the magic refuses to materialize. Instead, a less than elegant design, especially of makeup, hair and set, and a strangely hurried pace, robs the piece of the majesty that it deserves. It certainly isn't an easy piece to pull off, but with the exception of the superb work of Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch, this production feels like it is much less than it should be.

Storyline: The story of the opening of Japan to western influences is told through the perspective of the Japanese. In the first act the court of the Shogun reacts to the arrival of the American flotilla under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, the first contact with the west after centuries during which it had been forbidden for any foreigners to step foot on the soil of "the floating kingdom." But Perry was not to be denied and contact began. The second act details the rapid influx of western influences as the British, French, Dutch and Russians join the Americans in trade with Japan. It culminates with Japan’s progress as a "western" power in the modern age.

Schaeffer has stated that he and his team took the basic elements of Japanese Kabuki theater and came up with their own "Signature version" of the style. Gone are the grand sets. Gone are the elaborate, padded costumes. Gone are the all (or mostly) male cast in roles of both genders. Gone are the black-clad (and therefore, supposedly invisible) stage hands moving things around in front of the audience. Gone, too, is the large cast, the large orchestra and the casting of Asian performers. Instead, Signature's cast of ten white men and women in white-face makeup with black wigs perform on a simple platform of plywood backed by bamboo-ish poles with men playing some female roles but also some women playing male roles. The makeup is inconsistent and the wigs distractingly artificial and unattractive while the costumes of the Japanese characters are only occasionally impressive. This seems a strange combination of images to represent the Japanese self-image prior to the invasion of western influences.

Donna Migliaccio handles the central role of "Recitor" as well as Shogun and the Emperor Meiji. Her strong stage presence is impressive as usual, but the songs are below her strongest range. What is more, Schaeffer directs many of the scenes with a quick pace at the expense of the thoughtful pauses that seem called for, especially in the asides of the Recitor in the form of cogent haiku ("The bird from the sea / not knowing pine from bamboo / roosts on anything.") Many Signature regulars turn in performances that include fine moments. Daniel Felton and Will Gartshore provide a solid foundation in the twin roles of men thrown great opportunity by great change, Steven Cupo captures the confounded situation of the Lord whose world is suddenly faced with challenges neither he nor any of his predecessors prepared for, and Thomas Adrian Simpson has great fun with his part as the Russian Admiral in "Please, Hello!" ("Don't touch the coat!") New to Signature but very welcome is Michael Bunce whose "Shogun's Mother" is a highlight and a delight.

Kalbfleisch's seven-member ensemble sits behind the platform, playing Jonathan Tunick's new reduced orchestrations. In 1976 Tunick produced the original orchestrations for 22 players and prepared these reduced charts for the 2004 Broadway revival. In New York's 920-seat Studio 54 they sounded quite thin and even tinny. Here they sound much better and quite at home in the small 136 seat space. Particularly pleasant was the discovery of just how effective the timpani could be in establishing a dramatic sense of momentum, and the delicacy of the writing of the support for Felton and Gartshore's "Poems."  Click here to read our review of the recording of the revival with the new orchestrations.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. Additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Choreography by Karma Camp. Design: Eric Schaeffer (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Katherine Osborne (properties) Mark Lanks (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Michael Bunce, Matt Conner, Steven Cupo, Daniel Felton, Will Gartshore, Channez McQuay, Donna Migliaccio, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Harry A. Winter.

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June 23 - 25, 2005
Signature Sings Broadway in Balston

Reviewed June 23
Running time 0:55 - no intermission
A free concert in Welburn Square Park

Signature has been in the habit of presenting a concert version of complete musicals in the Lubber Run Park as a Summer activity, but things got a bit too busy as they wrap up their activities in their old space on Four Mile Run Drive and construction is well on the way on their new facility across the creek in Shirlington. Obviously they didn't want to abandon the tradition entirely, however. So they have mounted this concert program in the Welburn Square, just a block from the Balston Metro station on the Orange Line.  A free one-hour outdoor revue will be presented three more times: June 24 and 25 at 6:30 pm and a matinee on Saturday, June 25 at 1 pm.

Storyline: None - just sixteen good Broadway show tunes sung by a talented cast of six backed by a three piece band led by Michael Rice.

Associate Artistic Director Rick DesRochers assembled this package of singers and songs with an eye toward crowd pleasing. The numbers are appealing and the singers are bright performers with great voices. He sequences the songs nicely with a rousing opening ("All That Jazz" from Kander and Ebb's Chicago) through Broadway standards ("Some Enchanted Evening" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific sung with full bodied heft by Bob McDonald, "Embraceable You" from the Gerswin's Girl Crazy - credited here to Ken Ludwig's re-write of the show under the title Crazy for You sung with a good feel for the lyric by Florrie Bagel) and some that won't be quite as familiar ("Streets of Dublin" from Flaherty and Ahrens' A Man of No Importance delivered with dramatic intensity by Evan Casey and "Popular" from Stephen Schwartz' Wicked, which, as delivered by Lauren Williams, sounded just like what it is, a song fashioned for the unique skills of Kristen Chenoweth). Williams later put her own mark on Ashman and Menken's "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors in a nice duet with Evan Casey.

Because some of the numbers are less well known than "I Get a Kick Out Of You" or "I Won't Dance," the program could benefit from a bit of narration. Bob McDonald teams up with Lynn Neal to do a marvelously enunciated, well delivered version of Stephen Sondheim's often hilarious "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd, but the ingenuity and humor of Sondheim's riff on the tastes of different types of victims of cannibalism require a soupcon of explanation before getting to "such a nice plump frame what's his name has ... had" and all the attributes of priests, lawyers and fiddle players. Still, there was no need for explanation for Sondheim's "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" which has become something of a slogan for Signature, especially as they prepare for the opening of their new digs above the new library in Shirlington.

Backing it all is Michael Rice on keyboard with Jeff Cooper (bass) and Stacy Loggins (drums). Rice's work is highly supportive of the performances of the singers with bright filigrees for the up-tempo numbers and counter-melodies for the lusher moments. The use of an electronic keyboard instead of standard concert piano works well in the outside environment, blending nicely with the fully amplified sound of the vocalists.

Directed by Rick DesRochers. Music direction by Michael Rice. Cast: Florrie Bagel, Evan Casey, Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, Bob McDonald, Lynn Audrey Neal, Lauren Williams.

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March 15 - April 24, 2005
Ten Unknowns

Reviewed March 27
Running time 2:35 - one intermission
Mature audiences - full nudity
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for April, 2005
Click here to buy the script

Newly named Associate Artistic Director, Rick DesRochers, directs a relatively new play by frequent Playwrights Horizons (and one-time "West Wing" teleplay) writer Jon Robin Baitz. It is a dialogue play in which each of the four characters spend most of their on-stage time voicing opinions in the most vociferous terms and only occasionally dropping in a plot point or two. It seems those opinions were the things that fascinated the author, to the exclusion of character, locale or story as he gave each of those elements short shrift. DesRochers direction, lacking any touch of subtlety, compounds the problem rather than solving it.

Storyline: Forty years after being a young man on the rise in the art world, an American expatriate painter living out his days swigging copious quantities of booze in a tiny Mexican village suddenly finds his old work has been "discovered" and he is being courted by an agent who wants to mount a retrospective. Compounding his reluctance to re-enter the world of haute culture is his relationship with his assistant, who is on the salary of the agent, and with a young American woman working on an environmental study in the same area of Mexico.

The announcement that DesRochers would direct a fairly new play gave this slot in Signature's last full season in its old space along Four Miler Run a special importance. Here would be the first chance to see what Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Managing Director Sam Sweet saw that would entice them to bring DesRochers from the post of "literary director" at the Goodman in Chicago and "literary manager" of the Public in New York. Would there be an infusion of new, quality material for the company to tackle? Would there be fresh directorial wonders? Now the production has opened and it raises more questions for Signature's future than it answers. It neither impresses in the selection of material nor in the presentation of that material. Instead, a play that seems simultaneously overwritten and trite is being given not just an earnest effort, but a strenuous rant of a performance that would seem excessive in a much larger space. Here, with the audience at half an arms length in this black box, it seems positively hyperactive -- emphasizing rather than diverting attention from every defect in the material. To make matters worse, the ideas and opinions bouncing around the room range from predictable to politically correct to archly anti-American ("Why would you want to go back to New York? The country you left doesn't care about anything, about itself or even about its children?" passes for a supposedly thoughtful comparison of the artist's old haunt and his current home in a graft-ridden Mexican village.)

All four members of the cast exhibit the same lack of subtlety, which leads to the conclusion that they are being directed that way. Timmy Ray James has the shuffle of his seventy year old character and he has a hundred different ways to emphasize a line, but he uses all of them in the first half hour. He does have one tremendous moment of silence about forty five minutes into the first act, when, as his character waits for a verdict from the agent on a new painting, he folds his hands in tension akin to prayer. The entire production would benefit from more moments like these. Nigel Reed gives the most depth to his underwritten character, the gay South African art dealer with a thing for the artists apprentice/assistant played with feral ferocity by Evan Casey. Sarah Douglas does what she can with the role of the "smart sexy American girl" but it calls for a number of shifts and revelations which should come slowly to the surface, rather than being switched on with each plot change. She also has the difficulty of playing a significant portion of the second act in the nude, even when the focus of the scene isn't supposed to be on her.

DesRochers brings in Stephanie Nelson as set designer. Whether it is her vision or DesRochers', the dingy artist's studio, which falls apart at the same pace as does the artist's world, seems just as predictable and trite as the text. The effort to avoid letting anyone in the audience actually see the pictures being viewed and discussed by the characters results in some very awkward moments, including key speeches and actions taking place behind large picture frames out of sight for significant sections of the audience. Signature staff member Jenn Miller's costumes and the lighting by Jason H. Thompson, a semi-newcomer to Signature, are the most graceful elements of the production. Miller provides just the right up-tight wardrobe for Reed, rambling light tropical clothes for James, the expected jeans and sneaks for Casey. Douglas gets appropriate student garb for those scenes where she wears anything at all. Thompson's colored fill from footlights give the scenes a painted feel at just the right times. Perhaps he learned a great deal about the immediacy and intimacy of a space such as this when he assisted on One Red Flower and Fallen from Proust.

Written by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Rick DesRochers. Design: Stephanie Nelson (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Ashley Semrick (properties) Jason H. Thompson (lights) Matt Nielson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Colleen Martin (stage manager). Cast: Evan Casey, Sarah Douglas, Timmy Ray James, Nigel Reed.

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January 11 - February 20, 2005
Fallen From Proust

Reviewed January 16
Running time 1:35 - one intermission
Winner (in a tie) of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for January, 2005
t A Potomac Stages Pick for laughs and lively fun

Just about the only thing wrong with Norman Allen's delightfully exuberant comedy is its title which may scare away some of the very people who would enjoy the show the most. Fallen from Proust has absolutely nothing to do with Marcel Proust. You needn't brush up on your French literature to get every single gag in this gentle laugh fest, which, unlike so many contemporary comedies, has four interesting characters but not one heavy. Instead, this is a frolic with four people with whom you enjoy spending the evening. True, no one is perfect and every one has faults and foibles enough to seem actually human, but there is no hatred being unleashed here and no recriminations being exposed. The reference to Proust is simply a plot point which could just as easily have involved a volume of John Grisham - Fallen from Grisham anyone?

Storyline: A successful publisher of children's books who has been in a serious relationship with one woman for five years without either proposing marriage or living together gets a new roommate who impresses his girlfriend as being clearly gay. The girlfriend and the new roommate form a strong bond of friendship, share hopes and dreams but start to compare the strength of their friendship to the relationship she has with the publisher. Soon the ties that connect the three are rocked by attractions and the arrival of a rival.

Allen builds his lively romp on the question of whether a friendship between a man and a woman can be closer if sex isn't in the picture than if it might be. Specifically, can a gay have a closer friendship with a person of the opposite sex than a heterosexual can. That, of course, requires a set of characters including at least one homosexual and two heterosexuals. Allen sets up his comedy by introducing characters whose preferences you assume you know but then he throws those assumptions into question. All the while, he mines the potential for humor in the views of his educated, literate and well spoken characters.

The cast of four is superb with Michael Glenn being the best of the bunch. His smooth adoption of the persona of the gay roommate, abetted by a perfect wardrobe for the part provided by costume designer Jenn Miller, is a conglomeration of all the positives in the stereotypes of sensitive, intellectually honest and unconflicted gay men without any of the negative stereotypes sometimes attached to the image of homosexuals. Of course, the fact that Allen sets the story in the greater San Francisco area, one of the more open and accepting communities of what used to be referred to as young, upwardly mobile professionals of all persuasions helps quite a bit. Hope Lambert is a delight as the perky girlfriend of the publisher, played with  just the right hyper-kinetic frenzy by Damon Boggess. In addition, there is the impishly humorous Daniel Frith as a friend from outside the trio whose existence is a revelation to two of the principals and to the audience alike.

Will Pomerantz directs his first production at Signature. He is remembered by Potomac Region theatergoers for his sure hand with Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things two seasons ago at Studio. Just as with that production, here he starts things off a bit hyperactively. In this case it is dialogue delivered a tad too rapidly and body language fairly screaming "this is a comedy" in the first few minutes. But he soon settles his cast into a rhythm of varied paces which works extremely well.  Kudos as well need to go to James Kronzer for a marvelous set of the Sausalito bachelor pad of a yuppie's dream.

Written by Norman Allen. Directed by Will Pomerantz. Design: James Kronzer (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Ashley Semrick (properties) Jason H. Thompson (lights) Brendon Vierra (sound) Carol Pratt (photography)  Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Damon Boggess, Daniel Frith, Michael Glenn, Hope Lambert.

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October 26 - December 12, 2004
The Highest Yellow

Reviewed November 7
Running time 1:55 - one intermission
Nudity as well as mature themes
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for November, 2004

There are riches here to be savored. This intricate, complex, ambitious piece can also be pretentious and occasionally it takes a wrong turn. However, it rewards serious attention with serious pleasures. In addition, there are two magnificent performances and two other performances constrained a bit by the material but memorable nonetheless. All of this is in a musical that aims high both in its subject matter and in its approach to the serous side of musical theater - no Thoroughly Modern Millie this. The piece is Signature's first-ever commissioned musical and it is receiving its world premiere under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, who is credited with first suggesting to composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa (First Lady Suite, The Wild Party, Marie Christine) that he get together with playwright John Strand (Otabenga, Three Nights in Tehran) to write a piece exploring the story of Vincent van Gogh's final, fatal bouts of insanity.

Storyline: After cutting off part of his ear and presenting it to a prostitute in a local brothel, Vincent van Gogh is hospitalized. His young doctor believes he can cure him of the mental condition that caused him to be self destructive, but van Gogh resists, saying "I don't want to be cured, I want to remain what I am."

Michael John LaChiusa works in the oh-so-serious style of "the new musical" which avoids at all cost those moments that seem to thrill so many audiences when a "song" is "sung." Instead, this piece glides from musically underscored dialogue to sung recitations to soaring melodies delivered for only as long as it takes to make the point. There are exceptions to that rule, however. He gives van Gogh a show stopping climax for the title song. He gives the love interest leading lady a melody line so pure it seems right that it's sung without words. He sprinkles the score with emphatic musical moments for van Gogh's doctor whose story this really is. He even provides a traditional Broadway-ish star turn number for a bordello madam whose role isn't really central to the story and whose song, placed at the start of the second act, is credited as an "intermezzo" in recognition of its separation from the rest of the show. That sense of separation continues, however, as Act II gets underway. What had previously been a clear story of the conflict between artistic genius and a concept of sanity grounded in what is "normal" seems to have become a coming of age story of the virginal doctor's sexual awakening. It has been reported that script writer John Strand wrote the first act and then LaChiusa set it to music in a very few weeks but that the second act was years in gestation. That may account for the feeling that the two acts don't really fit together.

Overall, the piece is structured around the role of the doctor and not that of his patient. Jason Danieley is tremendous in the role of the doctor. He has a vocal strength as well as performance heft and substance that is absolutely necessary if the role is to hold up against the fascinatingly written one of van Gogh as performed by Marc Kudisch. Kudisch is a powerful force that compels attention even when his character is only semi-conscious. When fully awake he is completely compelling. Joining these two veteran Broadway actors is veteran Broadway actress Judy Kuhn whose credits go back to the original New York cast of Les Miserables where she sang Cosette. The purity of her voice is well used here. Signature regulars Donna Migliaccio and Harry A. Winter have their moments to shine as well. Migliaccio's "intermezzo" is marvelously delivered with full voice carefully enunciated in spite of the fact that she has to smoke a cigar just before singing. Winter, as the hospital's presiding doctor, delivering the real message of the play, harkens back to van Gough's "I want to remain what I am."

As filled with memorable moments as the short piece is, the show stumbles at key points. Director Eric Schaeffer's choice of staging van Gogh's therapeutic cold water bath with Kudisch in the nude makes an otherwise marvelous scene, with one of the show's strongest musical moments, seem awkward. Only the force of Kudisch's vocal power could compete with the unnecessary distraction of having the audience wondering just how or when he will stand. Schaeffer's very fluid staging is on a set designed by Signature Theatre newcomer Walt Spangler which transitions cleanly from the hospital to van Gogh's apartment, but which is less successful in establishing locale for a train depot, a wheat field and a brothel. There are times when you simply are not sure where the action is taking place. In short, there are elements here that should not be missed by serious fans of serious musical theater, but the package doesn't hold together as well as every one of those fans would hope.

Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. Book by John Strand. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Ronnie Gunderson (stage manager). Cast: Jason Danieley, Mark Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Donna Migliaccio, Stephen Gregory Smith, R. Scott Thompson, Harry A. Winter.

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August 17 - October 3, 2004
One Red Flower

Reviewed August 22
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages pick for emotional power

Click here to buy the book on which this play is based

At their best, musicals at Signature have always been intense experiences. This latest addition to their long list of new and revisited musicals also delivers an emotional blow. Since the show is based on the letters of American soldiers in Vietnam, it's to be expected that it is going to have segments that are hard to watch. If you are old enough to remember that time it will revive strong emotions. Even if Vietnam is ancient history to you, the soldiers will be an age you can identify with and understand. However, you may not be prepared for the way this show (and the soldiers whose stories it tells) gets under your skin before it really gets raw. The show takes time to introduce the characters so each one becomes real as an individual before his fate unfolds. As a result, when the horrors of war are strongest, your heart is fully involved. You also see the un-violent aspects of military existence - the camaraderie, the boredom, a soldier's silent fear of not being able to do his duty, the homesickness and all the rest. This is a must see for anyone who has ever worn his country's uniform . . . and for everyone who has not.

Storyline: Drawn from the letters home written by American soldiers in Vietnam, and some addressed to them from the home front, this musical follows the "in-country" experiences of six soldiers over a 365 day tour in 1969-70.  Some lose their lives and other's lives are changed by the experience, but none escape unscathed from the experiences they shared with each other but have never been able to fully share with those who stayed behind or those who have grown up since the end of the war.

The play is the creation of Parris Barclay, an award winning  television director (NYPD Blue, The West Wing) who has been working in musical theater longer than he has in television. While at Harvard he wrote two of the famous Hasty Pudding shows, and later attended the ASCAP's' Musical Theater Workshop. The sound he's working in here has been advertised as "the rock-'n-roll rhythms of the period," but actually has more in common with Jonathan Larson's score for Rent or Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World.  It is a rock-infused show music sound. He has worked on this project since 1986. Indeed, the show has been produced under the title Letters from 'Nam before, but this is the premiere of the current version under the current title - Barclay says it is the premiere of the 23rd draft. It doesn't need a 24th.

If any evidence were needed of the skill of Eric Schaeffer to find the essence of a piece and to stage a musical number so that the visual and dramatic experience matches the musical structure, One Red Flower provides it. He turns "Mud, Blood and Water" into a vivid documentary of the war zone's environment, an energetic exploration of exhaustion. He turns "4:16 AM" (the title is the time of the moon landing that, at least for one moment, unified a divided nation) into a breathtaking moment of hope and pride and "(There Will Still Be) Christmas" into an expression of love, pride and hope that strikes deep in the heart.  He has assembled a tremendous cast. Stephen Gregory Smith delivers a smashing performance in this hall where he was so good as the young brother in 110 in the Shade (for which he won the Helen Hayes Award). His is the central character, explaining the relationships of the rest of the soldiers and creating the connection with the home front through his correspondence with his Mom, an equally smashing performance by Florence Lacey who wraps up the entire package with her heart-touching reprise of "If You Are Able."  All the performances are strong. Indeed, Joshua Davis' swaggering sergeant is almost too strong for the small space. Josh Lefkowitz is superb as the questioning medic.

A trademark of the Signature experience has long been the treatment of the hallway between the lobby and the theater through which audiences pass. For this show, the hall becomes a tunnel progressing from plain black walls festooned with anti-war posters to rusted corrugated metal siding. By the time you are actually in the theater you feel you have already made a transition to the time and place of the show, represented by distressed pillars, more of the corrugated siding and crates marked with bullet holes. The opening effect goes beyond the slightly predictable sound of a helicopter (the iconic sound of that war) or even the additional sound of rain and the sight of mist. Fans actually create a rush of wind from the helicopter that signifies the arrival in country. It is, however, only the first impressive effect. Few will forget the impact of the final one - a projection devised by Michael Clark that turns all that has gone before it into a universal message.

Book, lyric adaptation and music by Paris Barclay from the book "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" edited by Bernard Edelman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Orchestrations by Jo Lynn Burks. Design: Eric Grims (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Michael Clark (projections) Elsie Jones (properties) Chris Lee (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Kurt Boehm, Joshua Davis, Clifton A. Duncan, Florence Lacey, Charles Hagerty, Josh Lefkowitz, Stephen Gregory Smith.

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June 1 - July 11, 2004
The Blue Room

Reviewed June 6
Running time 1:35 - No Intermission
Sexual themes and nudity

Click here to buy the Script

t has been a while since we've seen this much new blood at Signature. Not only are both members of the cast making their Signature debuts, so is director Wendy C. Goldberg and scenic designer Michael Brown. Still, this is Signature and The Blue Room is marked by all the strong production values and fine acting we have come to expect. With ten scenes in less than a hundred minutes, the pace is quick and the pleasures come thick and fast. The play's notoriety stems, of course, from both its sexual subject and its nudity, and this production doesn't stint on either element. But this is no mere piece of sexploitation, it is a serious exploration of some essential human characteristics treated in a way that gives new and respectable meaning to the phrase "adult theater."

Storyline: Five men and five women are seen in ten separate sexual episodes. Each episode involves one of the partners of the preceding episode in a sequential daisy chain that also progresses ever higher in socio-economic status, starting with a prostitute and a cab driver and proceeding through the pairing of an actress with an aristocrat. All five men are played by Rick Holmes and all five women by Deborah Hazlett.

In most plays human characters develop before your eyes. In this one it is human characteristics that develop. Specifically, it is the need for contact, connection and companionship that is explored in David Hare’s adaptation of a legendary 1897 play by Arthur Schnitzler. Hare's version was a big hit in London with Nicole Kidman's nudity accounting for a great deal of attention. But many theatergoers in London and subsequently in New York who purchased their tickets on the basis of such exposure, discovered that there was a good deal of substance and no shortage of humor in Mr. Hare's script.

Hazlett and Holmes make not just one terrific pair but five terrific pairs as they flit from persona to persona as well as from bed to bed. Holmes creates very distinctly different characters as he progresses from cab driver to aristocrat, while Hazlett manages the not inconsiderable feat of progressing socially while switching age brackets with something approaching aplomb.

Michael Brown's scenic design is a memorable addition to Signature long list of highly distinctive designs. He stretches a ribbon of white from the right-hand floor to the left-hand floor after looping it up to the ceiling and back down, creating a tunnel that catches every change in color and lighting intensity from blood red to stark white to candle-lit amber.  It also becomes a visual metaphor for the way the action here circles back on itself. The ambiance of Tim Thompson's sound design matches its changes, while Anne Kennedy's quick-changeable costumes carry the characters from blue-color to white and beyond.

Written by David Hare freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Design: Michael Brown (set and lights) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Timothy M. Thompson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Deborah Hazlett, Rick Holmes.

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March 23 - May 9, 2004
Elegies: A Song Cycle

Reviewed March 28
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
t A Potomac Stages Pick for startlingly effective portraits of fascinating people

Don't let the title fool you. This "Song Cycle" is no concert and it certainly isn't a "mere" cabaret show of songs - as fun a such a cabaret show would be with a cast this strong. No, this is a very theatrical evening of scenes. That each scene happens to be a song is merely a reflection of the fact that each one was written by William Finn, a songwriter who specializes in songs that form scenes that come to life in a theater. His mind simply happens to work that way. It is also abundantly clear that he has honed his craft as a theatrical songwriter to a fine edge. That is why his well known musicals, Falsettos and A New Brain were so good. It is why he holds two Tony Awards - one for best book for a musical and one for best music for a musical. As another songwriter once put it "ya' can't have one without the other." Elegies shares with his other shows the virtue of being heartfelt portraits of people about whom the writer cares deeply. Finn is able to communicate that caring with a theatrical honesty and an emotional intensity that is compelling.

Storyline: William Finn writes about people who have been important to him in life and who have died, but he writes mostly about their lives and not their deaths. In a series of songs/scenes he delves into the things that were special about these people and about the way in which they touched his life. The concentration on their lives as opposed to their deaths makes the piece uplifting, inspiring and profoundly life-affirming. Over two-dozen lives are celebrated in a one-act progression of scenes, many of which are addressed directly to the audience and make connection in a very personal, even intimate way.

Director Joe Calarco's refusal to treat the material as just songs is the key to the success of the evening. He stages each song as a stand-alone scene, almost a one act play, but he ties them all together just as Finn structured the collection as a unified expression of the value of life and the value of these lives. There is as much sadness as there is happiness but the sadness is leavened by a sense of gratitude and wonder for the positives in each scene. The cast of five carry with them photos of the loved ones about whom they sing, showing them to each other and holding them up for the audience to see. The affection with which each of them looks at the pictures is palpable.

This is a strongly designed show, with vivid stage pictures at every turn. James Kronzer has created a set not by constructing a structure in the playing space but by removing all structure (except a single door). Chairs are brought in when needed, lanterns are lowered from the ceiling, mist rolls toward the audience at times and a wind brings in balloons which float about like spirits. Chris Lee's lighting turns that space into a myriad of places and moods as the songs require the widest range of emotions. All the design elements of theater are utilized to make this an evening of emotional experiences.

The cast is as good as Signature regulars would expect of Edelen, Gartshore, Migliaccio, Sharp and relative newcomer Larry D Hylton (he was in The Gospel According to Fishman here). The singing is simply splendid. Everyone has at least two solos that stick in the mind and there are duets, trios and choruses, each of which is delivered with superb grace and beauty. But these are singing actors and it is the acting that turns the evening into something very special. Note the affection between Gartshore and Sharp on a tribute to "three-named composers," the bounce in Hylton's step as he recalls the irrepressible Joe Papp or the ability of Migliaccio to make as much out of silence as she does out of her fabulous ability to belt. Jon Kalbfleisch accompanies the cast on piano with subtlety and finesse. Surprisingly for a show which moves so gracefully and seamlessly, there is no "musical staging by" nor a choreography credit. 

Book, music and lyrics by William Finn. Directed by Joe Calarco. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Design: James Kronzer (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Shannon Kennedy (properties) Chris Lee (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Sherri L. Edelen, Will Gartshore, Larry D. Hylton, Donna Migliaccio, Michael Sharp.

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January 6 - February 29, 2004

Reviewed January 11
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
A Potomac Stages Pick for a
delectable  and melodic rework of an
 historically important musical

Winner of the Usher's Favorite Show Award for January, 2004

Joe DiPietro’s revisions to Oscar Hammerstein II’s script and Eric Schaeffer’s silky smooth direction turn this 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from a problem into a lovely, satisfying experience. In these hands, the musical that may have been ahead of its time and certainly suffered a dishearteningly mixed reception on Broadway in the wake of the stupendous success of both
Oklahoma! and Carousel, is now ready to earn a place in the repertory of regional and community theaters around the country in a producible version that preserves its strengths, minimizes its weaknesses and delivers the melodic, emotionally fulfilling, entertaining and life affirming experience the world expects from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Storyline: The life story of a man from birth in a small Kansas town in 1901 through adult success as a doctor is telescoped into two acts. The first takes him from his first steps to marriage while the second follows his early career as a physician and the collapse of his marriage as he is captured by the whirlwind of success and fame at the expense of his own talents and values. In the end he renews his commitment to live his life the way he always believed he should rather than getting caught up in the allegro paced tempo of the rat race others expect him to run.

Hammerstein, who wrote the books and not just the lyrics of the majority of his musicals, may have been victim of the very thing he tried to expose in this play. His successes in partnership with Richard Rodgers had been overwhelming, actually remaking the face of American musical theater. Together they had begun producing shows as well as writing them. They had produced Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun while trying to write Allegro. In the process, this musical about how a talented man’s success can distract him from realizing his full potential never actually got to its own full potential. Hammerstein was pulled by the demands of his own new status as the reigning lyricist/librettist/producer on Broadway. What he had intended to be a show following a man from birth to death had to stop in the hero’s mid-thirties. Themes were begun but not resolved and storylines failed in that cardinal rule of having a beginning, a middle and an end.  In taking up the book that Hammerstein left behind, DiPietro has skillfully merged some of those storylines and provided workable resolutions. Now, Allegro very satisfyingly brings a well told story to conclusion.

Shaeffer’s team of designers and cast have created a presentation for this new version of the script that is notable for its uniform feel and look. Will Gartshore brings a boyish charm and a natural way with a melodic love song to the central role, an impressive feat given that he has to take the character from callow teenager through to maturity in just about two hours. Harry A. Winter and April Harr Blandin come across as absolutely perfect for their roles as Gartshore’s proud parents embodying the demeanor of small town virtues (think a musical Our Town), while Laurie Saylor also pulls off the not insignificant trick of growing from high school sweetheart to cheating wife in smooth increments. Tracey Lynn Olivera is the beneficiary of DiPietro’s major modification to the original, with the merging of two characters into one, the college fling who goes on to be the doctor’s nurse and second wife. She’s marvelous in her role. So too are Dana Krueger as the proud grandmother and Stephen Gregory Smith as Gartshore’s college roommate and life long friend. Donna Migliaccio and Dan Manning each are impressive in multiple roles.

A key to the success of this telling of a sprawling story covering three and a half decades in many locales is the elegantly simple design. Eric Grims’ set is a pastel furnitureless structure on which are projected photographs of small town, college campus, and big city views. Gregg Barnes’ period costumes are sumptuous when appropriate, folksy when that works and speak volumes about both the time and the characters wearing them, including the black-clad spirits of the characters who have died but whose continuing presence enhances the emotional impact of key moments in the doctor’s life. The view of death as part of the natural rhythm of life is illuminated by Ken Billington’s lighting of the moments of passing, reinforced by Tony Angelini’s subtle sound of the spirit’s release. It is a combined effect that is typical of this new version of a show previously known more for its problems than for its successes. Here it works and works well.

Book by Joe DiPietro based on the original by Oscar Hammerstein II. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Direction by John Kalbfleisch. Design: Eric Grims (set) Michael Clark (projections) Gregg Barnes (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Ken Billington (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) Carol Pratt (photography) Ronnie Gunderson (stage manager). Cast: April Harr Blandin, Evan Casey, Will Gartshore, Dana Krueger, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Carl Randolph, Laurie Saylor, Stephen Gregory Smith, Jenna Sokolowski, Eric Thompson, Lauren Williams, Harry A. Winter.

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January 3 - 4, 2004
She's Back

Reviewed January 3
Running time 1 hour 10 minutes

Donna Migliaccio’s solo performance only masquerades as a cabaret show. In fact, it is a play with music. It is a memoir play, carefully scripted and punctuated by an intriguing selection of songs that fit both the progression of the story and Ms. Migliaccio’s particularly impressive vocal gifts. It rides her persona from strict story telling to humorous asides to tear-inducing emotion and it does so along a carefully crafted dramatic arc. It shouldn’t be put in a trunk somewhere; it should be hauled out and performed - by its author, of course - at least every September or so.

Storyline: In the year between the first call from a casting agent offering an audition for an understudy job in the touring company of Dirty Blonde where she would play Mae West, to the end of another tour for the same company doing a small part in Guys and Dolls, Donna Migliaccio says she learned some things about herself and some things about the world. She shares them all, along with some eleven songs, one of which sports a new set of lyrics she penned herself.

It was a year of momentous events not just for Migliaccio and her husband as her career took her away from home for the first time but for the world as well. The opening night of Guys and Dolls in Philadelphia was to be September 11, 2001. Her telling of how she learned of the terrorist attacks, of the cancellation of that evening’s performance and of the contrast between the day’s glorious weather and the tragedy gave new and very affecting meaning to the lyrics of a song from The Fantastics: “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow. Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and grain was yellow. Try to remember the kind of September when you were a tender and callow fellow.”

The song selection was often surprising. Yes, she sang “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gates” when she arrived in California to do Dirty Blonde and “So Long Dearie” when she ended the tour of Guys and Dolls. But she gave new meaning to some old standards, including an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” which captured the loneliness of a holiday on the road and “An Actors Life For Me” for the more mundane experiences of a traveling troupe. She made “Whistle a Happy Tune” into a brief but touching scene of facing new challenges and gave some evidence of just why she was tapped to play Mae West in Dirty Blonde with the sex-kitten’s “A Guy What Takes His Time.” She toped it off with a heart-felt version of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” with lyrics she specifically tailored to the events of her year on the road.

Having just come off a schedule that included three shows out of Signature’s last four productions (Follies, Twentieth Century and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) Migliaccio was in exceptionally fine voice and form. Her voice was clean and clear and her on-stage demeanor was informal and welcoming, drawing the audience in as old friends and sharing the good, the bad, the minutia and the memorable moments of a notable year. It all made for a notable show.

Written by Donna Migliaccio. Cast: Donna Migliaccio with Jenny Cartney at the piano.

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October 28 - December 14, 2003
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Reveiwed November 6
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

What a combination - Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics and bouncy tunes, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s flawless assembly of the foolery of classic Roman comedy by Plautus, and the two blue bubbles that are the eyes of Floyd King! In a season marked by comedy all across the region there’s more laughing going on in Signature’s little theater than anywhere else as King leads the “pantaloons and tunics,  courtesans and eunuchs, funerals and chases, baritones and basses, panderers, philanderers, cupidity, timidity, mistakes, fakes, rhymes, crimes, tumblers, grumblers, bumblers, fumblers” (Thank you mister Sondheim) to the happy ending, of course.

Storyline: A tuneful farce about a Roman slave who schemes to earn his freedom by arranging for his owner’s adolescent son to win the woman of his dreams, a virgin courtesan in the neighboring house of ill repute who has been purchased by a Roman captain returning from some war.  

Every generation seems to have a perfect comic for the role of Pseudolus, the freedom seeking slave. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg (yes, Whoopi Goldberg). Add to that list Floyd King, whose inimitable presence has inexplicitly never graced Signature’s boards before. Washingtonians know him from his work at the Shakespeare Theatre, Studio, Folger, Woolly Mammoth and Olney, but haven’t seen him this up close and this personal before. His command of the comedy, driving the piece ever forward but with sly asides and quips, is just what the part demands. He is a joy to watch every moment he’s on the stage, and that is almost the entire evening.

There is a temptation to simply write about King, but he’s not out on that stage alone. The entire cast is marvelous. Harry A. Winter is a superb “second banana” to King while Sean MacLaughlin, who just gets better and better in his romantic youth roles at Signature, delivers a convincing “Love, I Hear” as Hero. Buzz Mauro in drag is a kick as he impersonates a deceased courtesan, and Christopher Flint booms out his “I Am A Parade!” in “”Bring Me My Bride” with panache. Smaller roles are even more fun. There’s Donna Migliaccio lamenting that it is comedy and not tragedy tonight (“she plays Media later this week”), the trio of David Covington, Stephen Gregory Smith and R. Scott Thompson as foot soldiers, each with a foot on his helmet, and Steven Cupo striding across the set at intervals as he circles the seven hills of Rome seven times to break a spell.

It takes a heap of talent to make something this complex and convoluted seem effortlessly simple but Signature has the talent in droves: a cast of eighteen, an orchestra of thirteen, a credited design team of eight and who knows how many back stage and off stage contributors, every one of whom delivers his or her part of the package with apparent ease but at a high energy level. There is Lou Stancari’s set of the three Roman houses all askew, Mike Daniels lights giving a warm glow to the playing space, Timm Burrow’s togas and skimpy courtesan costumes and Christie Kelly’s often hilarious hair styles. There’s the floor filling kick line of Karma Camp’s choreography for both the most famous and also funniest number of the show “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” and for the joyous finale reprising “Comedy Tonight.” Over it all, there is the crisp, clear and rich sound of Jon Kalbfleisch’s orchestra up on a platform behind the set. This show may have originated in the 1,300 seat theater now known as the Neil Simon (after tryouts in New Haven and here in Washington) but this 136 seat theater in Arlington is the perfect place to experience it. It makes the in-your-face comedy an in-your-lap delight.

Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Gary Griffin. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Design: Lou Stancari (se) Timm Burrow (costumes) Christie Kelly (hair) Mike Daniels (lights) Carol Pratt (photography) Shannon Marie Mayonado (stage manager). Cast: Kristi Ambrosetti, Christopher Block, David Covington, Steven Cupo, Christopher Flint, Amanda Johnson, Floyd King, Sean MacLaughlin, Buzz Mauro, Donna Migliaccio, Sandra L. Murphy, Tammy Roberts, Stephen Gregory Smith, R. Scott Thompson, Tryphena Wade, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Lauren Williams, Harry A. Winter.

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August 19 - October 5, 2003
Twentieth Century

Reviewed August 24
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

Ken Ludwig has crafted a very funny version of an old story and Signature Theatre has given it a superb production which guarantees the audience a fabulously fun evening. It all takes place on board the streamlined superliner, the Twentieth Century Limited, which designer James Kronzer has recreated in a stunningly functional set that moves right along with the action. Starring as a famous stage and screen actress and stage director who share outsized egos are two new faces at Signature, Broadway star James Barbour and local star Holly Twyford, supported by a cast of Signature regulars, each of whom is performing in top form. The result is a fast paced romp filled with laughs but leavened with just enough romance to keep it from relying solely on shtick.

Storyline: A Broadway director/producer, whose career is on the decline, books himself onto the Chicago to New York luxury train in the compartment next to his former lover and star, whose career has been on the rise since she left him to seek her fame in movies. He has just the sixteen hours of the train trip to sign her to a new contract or he will arrive in New York unable to fend off the attacks of his creditors.

Ludwig is a Washington resident who has had significant success on Broadway with comedies such as Lend Me A Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo and the book for the musical comedy Crazy for You.  Now he’s having significant success here in his home town with this sure-to-be-a-hit production opening just two weeks before Arena Stage premiere’s his new comedy-from-scratch, Shakespeare in Hollywood. Here he is adapting a 1932 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of such other hits as Front Page. Their Twentieth Century was made into one of the classic screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Ludwig’s challenge was to streamline the piece from its original 30 character, three act form and update its humor to today’s tastes. Some of the references of seventy years ago are now totally obscure and what passed as ethnic and gender humor at that time is no longer so easy on the ear. Ludwig manages to make the transition without sacrificing the feel of the period, producing a very playable 10 character, two-act, extremely funny romp.

Barbour, who was so overwhelmingly masculine and imperious on Broadway in Jayne Eyre, is here a marvelously larger than life egomaniac who plots and plans with unlimited self-confidence despite all indications of impending doom. He’s matched move for move by Holly Twyford as the star with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Twyford delivers twisted lines with aplomb (it can’t be easy to keep a straight face while delivering lines about an idyllic rural life away from the lights of Broadway such as “we can slap the hogs, scrub the south forty, and milk the steers”) but she gets more laughs out of her silences as she reacts to the lines of others.  Both Barbour and Twyford are helped immensely by the period costumes designed by Anne Kennedy although Twyford is ill-served by a poorly conceived blond wig.

Ludwig keeps things hoping with colorful characters surrounding the leads. There’s a smooth Harry A. Winter and a fine Irish-accented Christopher Block as the director’s chief assistants and Donna Migliaccio running through the spaces in a mad effort to plaster the train with religious stickers. There is a fine pairing of Thomas Adrian Simpson as a stage-struck passenger and Rachel Gardner as his companion, increasingly frustrated by his concentration on things theatrical rather than romantic, and Will Gartshore finds just the right mix of petulance and pride in the role of Twyford’s boy-toy who is traveling as her agent. It is a train full of characters taking the audience on a fun ride.

Written by Ken Ludwig. Based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Design: James Kronzer (set) Ann Kennedy (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Christie Kelly (hair)  Jonathan Blandin (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Sandra Barrack (stage manager). Cast: James Barbour, Christopher Block, Rachel Gardner, Will Gartshore, Rick Hammerly, Donna Migliaccio, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Frederick Strother, Holly Twyford, Harry A. Winter. 

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June 17 – July 27, 2003
Donna Q.

Reviewed June 23
Running time 90 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

The woman alone on Tony Cizek’s dramatic set has a fascination for crème brulee, that caramelized confection that is at once delicate and super sweet. Nancy Robinette  makes this woman neither too delicate nor too sweet, creating instead a portrait of a woman for whom problems are challenges, challenges are opportunities and opportunities are what life is all about. What she seems to find fascinating about créme brulee is not how good it tastes nor how good it looks but how difficult it is to make (you can’t carmelize it with just any blow torch, she informs us).

Storyline: From the moment she is fired from her job of twenty five years to the time set for the annual dip in the frozen waters of Lake Michigan on New Years Day, a woman spreads resolve and support throughout her circle of friends and family while recalling adventures ranging from the little things of life to major events like showing up for a trip to Montreal only to find your ticket is for a flight to Madrid.

Nancy Robinette holds the stage with all the assurance anyone who has ever seen her work would expect. She is a force when performing and that force is evident here just as it was at Studio for The Play About the Baby and at Shakespeare for The Little Foxes, to name just two recent examples. But her “Donna Q” is nothing like “Woman” or “Birdie Hubbard” and therein lays the magic. Many actresses can disappear into a character and others can make an impact imposing their persona on a character. But Robinette manages to merge persona and character, creating a hybrid that is unique and, at the same time, uniquely satisfying.

Robinette isn’t really alone on the stage. She has the words of Paulette Laufer, a playwright who writes stream of consciousness dialogue that gives an actor a great deal to work with but leaves enough unsaid or unspecified to give the actor the leeway to make it his or her own. You can see the collaborative process at work here as Robinette seems to finish with body language what Laufer begins with words. Director Jose Carrasquillo keeps the focus clear and varies the pacing to avoid that dread dramatic disease, boredom.

Solo performance shows require a certain sharpness in the designs for they, like the performer, can’t hide behind massed chorus lines or ensemble exchanges. Tony Cisek has recently had a string of memorable sets (we just reviewed his work on Taley’s Folly at Theatre J yesterday with high praise). Here he creates a platform that flows back and up to eternity as a moon reflects on the ice of a frozen lake that, when lit with different colors from different angles becomes any environment Donna Q’s story requires. Dan Covey’s lights can turn ice into the fire of a Spanish flamenco hall. To complete the effect, Debbie Wicks LaPuma composed both a musical score and a soundscape that goes from circus-ish calliope music to hollow wind sounds to the sound of the rain in Spain. Once again, Signature has brought all the elements together for an engrossing engaging evening.

Written by Paulette Laufer. Directed by Jose Carrasquillo. Design: Tony Cisek (set) Jenn Miller (costumes) Dan Covey (lights) Debbie Wicks LaPuma (music and sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Shannon Marie Mayonado (stage manger). Cast: Nancy Robinette.

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June 6 – 7, 2003 (Cabaret)
Finding Home

Reviewed June 6
Running time 1 hour 5 minutes

Will Gartshore found a home when he first walked into Signature Theatre to play Floyd Collins’ younger brother, Homer, in the unique musical by Adam Guettel back in 2000. His performance was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. He stayed around, taking on the role of the young man who discovers two Siamese twins at a Side Show, and coaching them to vaudeville stardom. Since then he has become a regular in a string of Signature musicals of note including Grand Hotel, Christmas Carol Rag, Follies and the concert version of Company. Now he makes his cabaret debut in the same Signature Theatre.

Storyline: A cabaret program with a theme, Gartshore strings “songs of going and staying” together to tell the audience a bit about where he came from (the rural beauty of Ontario), how he got here (training and performing in New York) and his affection for his “new home” in Washington.

Aided by Jay Crowder on piano and two featured guests, Gartshore displays both his strong tenor - at its best when really punching a sustained strong note - and his way with a tricky rhythm. Anyone who has heard him in a show knows that Gartshore’s voice is distinctive and pleasant. But not all shows give him the chance to show the range of his talents. The revelation of this hour of cabaret work is that he has a splendid ability to take a lyric that sits on a melodic line and deliver both the musical and the lyrical meaning of the phrase.

Tracy Lynn Olivera joins him for a few duets, most notably on a medley of “Sky Above Manhattan” and “People Like Us” and PJ Simmons provided both vocal support and some tasteful muted trumpet backing. Simmons’s lovely final note on the moving “(I’d Rather be) Sailing” was as smooth and elegant as Gartshore’s delivery of the entire song had been both here and at Studio Theatre when he performed it in last year’s production of A New Brain. The three of them teamed up for a fun up-tempo “Two Lost Souls” which, for its last refrain, became a foursome with Jay Crowder joining in.

The set is directed by Steven Cupo. It is always difficult to know the contribution of a director for a program as personal as a cabaret set -- just how much is the performer and how much the director? Whoever gets the credit for the pacing of the show and the selection of the material, it all works well. It is also difficult to know if Gartshore’s precise use of his microphone is in part attributable to the direction. But Gartshore skillfully uses the microphone both to control the sonic effects of the amplification in this small room and as a prop that provides visible exclamation points without overdoing it. One can’t learn that in one show’s preparation. His sigh at the end of “She Cries” was a fine example of using all the tools available to make a point in a unique way.

Directed by Steven Cupo. Musical direction by Jay Crowder. Performers: Will Gartshore, Tracy Lynn Olivera, PJ Simmons. (Photo from Grand Hotel by Carol Pratt.)

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April 1 – June 1, 2003

Reviewed May 13
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes

Potomac Stages Pick

From haunted beginning to haunting ending, Eric Schaeffer’s mounting of one of the most challenging musicals of the twentieth century is a stylish, stylized success. It captures the imagination with its very first images and doesn’t let go until no fewer than 22 songs have been sung and danced by no fewer than seventeen soloists and that many more in the ensemble supported by an orchestra of fourteen. The statistics only give an indication of the scope of the effort, not the success. To appreciate that, you have to look at the quality of those songs, the brilliance of the staging and the consistent excellence of the performances. The show sold out its originally announced run, but added three weeks of extension and still sold out the entire run.

Storyline: Every year between the wars, from 1919 to 1941, “The Weisman Follies” were bigger than the Ziegfeld Follies – at least they had their own theater. Now, thirty years later, the Weisman Theater is deserted except for the ghosts of the dreams the building housed, and is to be torn down to become a parking lot. Impresario Dimitri Weisman throws one last party, inviting all the former “Weisman Girls” and their partners to gather for “one last time, to glamorize the old days, to stumble through a song or two and to lie about ourselves, a little.” The focus of the evening is on two follies girls who double dated in 1941 and who, as the war began, married their guys. At least one of them thinks she married the wrong one.

Set designer Lou Stancari turns the entire Signature Theatre into the crumbling, decayed Weisman Theatre, using the exposed girders of the room as part of the decor, but adding more girders, decrepit theater seats, distressed fabrics and a host of tiny touches like a pay phone with its handset hanging unused on a side wall. Robert Perdziola’s costumes for the ghosts who wander these halls are haunting, those for the party guests are sparkling and showy as befits former showgirls putting on the Ritz and feature jewelry – especially earrings – that speak volumes about the personality of each of the returning women. Those jewels catch the sharply dramatic lighting that Chris Lee provides to give the eye clues as to just what is in the ghost world, what is in the present and what is in the minds and memories of the principals.

What principals! Florence Lacy puts every bit of memory magic into her portrayal of the showgirl who always thought she’d married the wrong guy. Her big number of the night, “Losing My Mind,” is a smashing solo spotlight torch song. Helen Carey has replaced Judy McLane as her former girlfriend who did marry the guy in question and went on to financial success but never found love. Carey’s previous successes on Broadway and locally have all been in non-musicals but she comports herself well in this acting/singing/dancing part. Playing to her own strengths, she acts her way through her songs, placing more emphasis on meaning than on either melody or rhythm but gives enough of both to more than merely keep the show going. Her “Could I Leave You” is caustic and her work in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” while more song than dance, is a crowd pleaser. Harry A. Winter as the guy Lacy did marry puts over three strong songs and creates a complex and thoroughly likeable character.  Joseph Dellger makes his Signature debut as the man Lacy thinks she should have married. He is smooth and debonair right up to the moment memories finally unhinge him in a breakdown right in the middle of his final big number. He makes it a searing experience.  

Follies has a potentially show stopping number for each of the supporting characters and this cast takes full advantage of the opportunities. Judy Simmons is the first to get the crowd truly sparked with her “Broadway Baby,” but the string of marvelous numbers include Elizabeth van den Berg perched on a piano to extol the glories of Paris, Donna Migliaccio tearing up the place with the emphatic “I’m Still Here,” an exquisite duet titled “One More Kiss” in which Dana Krueger is echoed by her younger self sung beautifully by Claire Mailhot, and Suzanne Briar ignites the entire line of Follies Girls and their former selves in a recreation of a big production number from their old days. Through it all, the orchestra under Jon Kalbfleisch makes Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations sound as clear, lush and sharp as ever and his pianist, Alex Tang, provides unique cocktail-party underscoring. With so much on his plate, director Schaeffer manages to keep the narrative of the evening clear, set each of the numbers in the most effective manner and let the impact of each add to the momentum that builds to the second act’s series of numbers, (each labeled a “folly”) that carries the musical drama into the realm of surrealism. 

Written by James Goldman. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Design: Lou Stancari (set) Chris Lee (lights) Robert Perdziola (costumes) Kristie Kelly (hair) Tony Angelini (sound) Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) Elsie Jones (properties) Carol Pratt (photographer) Ronnie Gunderson (stage manager). Cast: Florence Lacey, Helen Carey, Joseph Dellger, Harry A. Winter, Suzanne Briar, A.K. Brink, Steven Cupo, Paul Danaceau, Ilona Dulaski, Will Gartshore, Dana Krueger, Sean MacLaughlin, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Joe Peck, Judy Simmons, Elizabeth van den Berg, Claire Mailhot, Kristie Ambrosetti, Jennifer Anderson, Bernie Cohen, Gilly Conklin, David Covington, Chrystyna Dail, Eleasha Gamble, Nancy Grosshans, Deanna Harris, Eva Kolig, Elizabeth McNamara, Jessica Thompson, Vanessa Vaughn, David Covington, Brad Nacht, Joseph E.M. Pindelski, Eduardo Placer, Robert W. Tudor.

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March 3 – 8, 2003
Waiting in Tobolsk/The Children of the Last Tsar

Reviewed March 5
Running time 1 hour 5 minutes

The latest chapter in the eight year old Signature in the Schools program is a return to an earlier effort. The program is a cooperative effort between Signature Theatre and Arlington’s Wakefield High School in which the students help develop and then perform an original play.  During the school week, they perform before their fellow students who take field trips to the theater to see what for many is their first live performance. Twice they perform before the general public who are asked for contributions for admission. In the second year of the program the play was Waiting in Tobolsk. The play was later expanded to a full-length drama and produced professionally at the Church Street Theater. Now Signature in the Schools takes up the one-act version again to revisit and refine some of the points raised in the original.

Storyline: The historic events of the fall of the Romanov Dynasty and the emergence of post-Tsarist Russia are viewed through the eyes of the four daughters of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, as they await their fate in a modest house in the Siberian city of Tobolsk. The action takes place after their father had abdicated and before their removal to Ekaterinburg where the entire family was murdered.

Norman Allen, one of Signature Theatre’s Playwrights-in-Residence, is the adult behind Tobolsk. He wrote the original script with the students of the 1997 Signature in the Schools program, and revisited it with this year’s participants. He also directs the production with its cast of nine students, its four student understudies and its student technical crew. He draws from them all a level of polish that is impressive for a student effort. The polish is evident in every aspect of what is put on stage from the cleanly delivered dialogue to the effective technical elements such as lights and sound. The set of the current show at Signature, 110 In The Shade, is modified for this performance with the addition of a trunk and a window structure and the four beds needed because the action takes place in the bedroom shared by the four daughters of Nicholas II and his Empress, Alexandra.

Two student performers are particularly noteworthy. Nabanjan Maitra, who impressed last year in Signature in the Schools’ Leaving Monticello, is participating in his final Signature in the School program but, on the strength of his performances, it would not be surprising to see him on other local stages in the years ahead. Meaghan Hudson is only a sophomore and is making her first Signature in the Schools appearance as the Tsar’s eldest daughter, the headstrong Olga who so wanted to understand all that was happening around and to her. She has a scene with the only professional performer in the cast, Kerry Waters, as the girls’ mother, the Empress Alexandra, which is a delight to watch. The professional and the amateur match wits with style and grace that is remarkable.

The entire production is satisfying on a number of levels. As a student activity it is great to see high school students set out to accomplish definable goals and achieve them beyond question. As an introduction to theater for those attending as a school-day field trip, it holds out the promise of drawing them into the habit of theatergoing. As a play it is a well crafted treatment of a fascinating subject. The final public performance is Saturday, March 8 at 2 p.m.

Written and directed by Norman Allen. Professionals working on the design: Marcia Gardner (assistant director) Eric Grims (set) Anita Miller (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Ronnie Gunderson (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Sara Jaffe (photography). Student crew: Marie Claflin (stage manager) Nahid Koohkanrizi (assistant stage manager) Yosha Lacy (sound board) Matthew Hayes (light board). Cast: Nabanjan Maitra, Meaghan Hudson, Kappy Anklam, Kami Fox, Victoria Smith,  Adam Schiffer, Adam Lester, Tiffany Ratliff, Marion Te, Kerry Waters.

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January 21 – March 9, 2003
110 In The Shade

Reviewed January 28
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

This is musical theater at its best. The reason people make musical theater is its unique ability to portray what is happening in the human heart: loving, longing, hoping, dreaming. For this musical, composer Harvey Schmidt, Lyricist Tom Jones and playwright N. Richard Nash pick just the right emotions to set to song in a heart touching, simple story, and Eric Schaeffer directs his superb cast with clarity to get the most out of every song, scene, theme and detail. The result is lovely, touching and joyous.

Storyline: During the drought-ridden depression years, a stranger claiming he can make rain enters the lives of the Curry family: caring but pragmatic father H.C. Curry, skeptical realist eldest son Noah, romantic youngest brother Jimmy and daughter Lizzie on the verge of spinsterhood. The stranger may offer a miracle more important than rain.

Composer Harvey Schmidt and Lyricist Tom Jones recognized the potential in N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker for a truly magical joining of song and story. In 1963 they opened this marvelously mellifluous, heart tugging musical to some success. But it took too large a cast, too large an orchestra and too complex a set to be a financial success in theaters outside of New York. So, it all but disappeared from the repertoire of the great American musicals. Praise be that Eric Schaeffer and his Signature Theatre have given Schmidt and Jones the chance to take up the show again, find ways to tell the story with a cast of 13 instead of 38 and make the music sound as rich and lovely with an orchestra of 10 instead of dozens. They wisely chose not to skimp on the climactic plot event which can be staged elaborately or simply, depending on the resources of the company. Signature goes the elaborate route with special effects that require the collaboration of set designer Eric Grims, lighting designer Jonathan Blandin and sound designer Tony Angelini to literally open up the heavens to create a heavenly moment.

At its heart, this is the story of Lizzie, the plain prairie girl on the road to being an old maid, and her transformation into self confident womanhood. Jacquelyn Piro is marvelous to behold as Lizzie. Her singing is strong and true not only to the melody of the music and the meaning of the lyric but to the emotion that their combining was intended to convey.  The two men whose attentions spark her emergence are Matt Bogart who captures the true con-man’s sensitivity to the needs of others with style and grace and James Moye whose more reserved character emerges more gradually but no less fully. Both sing splendidly and each has exquisite moments in duet with Piro.

There is another trio of men in Lizzie’s life: her father and her two brothers. The casting here is just as good as in the trio of leads. Harry Winter carries off the caring father flawlessly and Thomas Adrian Simpson aptly makes the character of the older brother infuriating. Stephen Gregory Smith is a delight as the younger brother, especially in the movement and mannerisms he brings to moments of joy and exhilaration. But, then, this is an evening filled with moments of joy and exhilaration.

Music by Harvey Schmidt. Lyrics by Tom Jones. Book by N. Richard Nash based on his play The Rainmaker.  Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Musical Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Design: Eric Grims (set) Jonathan Blandin (lights) Tony Angelini (sound) Michele Reisch (costumes) Christie Kelly (hair and wigs) Elsie Jones (properties). Cast: Jacquelyn Piro, Matt Bogart, James Moye, Harry Winter, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, A.K. Brink, Chrystyna Dail, Ilona Dulaski, Dan Manning, Mary Payne, Joe Peck, R. Scott Thompson.

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November 12 – December 29, 2002
The Christmas Carol Rag

Reviewed November 18
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

Norman Allen takes Dickens’ traditional morality tale, switches Scrooge’s gender as a role for Donna Migliaccio, moves the location to New York and the time to the start of the 20th century, adds his own touches of whimsy and uses the structure to hang a dozen songs of the period. Out of this stew comes a marvelously coherent ninety minute romp that, under Eric Schaeffer’s direction, never looses its sense of momentum. There is a feeling of joyousness about the entire production which is infectious.

Storyline: The scrooge of this musical version is a businesswoman who runs a sweatshop in "Old New York." Her former partner sends a Jewish Ghost of Christmas Past and a black Ghost of Christmas Present to give her a view of her life and its impact on the people in her world which changes her for the better.

Migliaccio is excellent at creating a crotchety character and then taking her through a series of transformations to liberate something human and warm. Her transformation is no less complete than others who have played the role as a man but much more gradual and, therefore, believable. She doesn’t just switch from bad to good, she really learns from the lessons visited upon her by the ghost of her partner. Through it all, she gets to sing some songs no one but Allen would place in the mouth of a wealthy white businesswoman of the ragtime era – "Nobody" which was black comedian Bert William’s lament of the downtrodden works marvelously in the new setting.

This is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle and the ensemble is a delightful group composed mostly of familiar Signature faces. There is Dana Krueger beautifully delivering a captivating version of the carol "What Child is This?" as the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Janet Marley. There is Rachel Gardner as young Scrooge teaming up with Will Gartshore as young Fezziwig for a medley of "Hello! My Baby" and "Goodbye My Lady Love" with all the aplomb of New York swells of the age, and then with Wendell Jordan as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit crooning "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland." There is Eleasha Gamble wailing "Go Tell It On A Mountain" but best of all, there is Steven Cupo breaking out as a pudgy dumpling of a Fezziwig leading the entire company in "Deck the Halls" which is topped by a rousing rendition of the "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go (with Friday on a Saturday night)?"

Lou Stancari is back making magic in his set designs, creating an entire Lower-East-Side village with Scrooge’s office, the Cratchit’s hovel and all the other locales in a forced perspective that seems to go back in time, especially under the marvelously varied lighting of Chris Lee. Reggie Ray completes the illusions with costumes that are marvelous evocations of the time and the spirit of the season. Jay Crowder and Jennifer Cartney will provide the single piano accompaniment at different performances. At the press opening, Crowder was playing Howard Breitbart’s arrangements with charm although at times his playing had to compete with a noticeable hum that was distracting whenever the volume level of the performance was low.

Written by Norman Allen based on the story by Charles Dickens. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Songs by Victor Herbert, George M. Cohan, Bert Williams, and others of the period. Musical arrangements by Howard Breitbart. Music direction by Jay Crowder. Choreography by Karma Camp. Design: Lou Stancari (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Christie Kelly (hair and wigs) Avery Burns (properties) Chris Lee (lights) David Maddox (sound). Cast: Donna Migliaccio, Steven Cupo, Dana Krueger, Rachel Gardner, Will Gartshore, Wendell Jordan, Chrystyna Dail, Eleasha Gamble, Alyson Hansell.

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September 3 – October 20, 2002
What The Butler Saw

Reviewed September 17
Running Time 1 hour 45 minutes
Price range $20 - $32
t Potomac Stages Pick

Surprise! Here’s a Joe Orton play that seems light and lively, with more laughs than gasps, more wit than slapstick and characters with more endearing quirks than disturbing defects. Orton was well known for the darkness in the black comedies he turned out before his 1967 murder. His talent for shock value, fascination with violence and intolerance for social constraints on personal behavior had made plays like Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloan seem assaults on society. In the hands of director Jonathan Bernstein, Orton’s posthumously published sex farce is more farce than sex and the impact is funnier and less disturbing than is indicated by the reviews of the early productions in London and New York.

Storyline: The pandemonium is set in the office of the head of a mental hospital who is caught by his nymphomaniac wife attempting to seduce an applicant for a job as his secretary. The wife, on the other hand, is being blackmailed by a bell-hop from a local hotel who tried to rape her the night before and took pictures of her in the nude. The arrival of a government inspector and, later, a policeman adds to the mix as the naked applicant ends up in the bell-hop’s uniform while he ends up in her dress.

Jonathan Bernstein’s staging of this farce gives new meaning to the term "fast paced." In a world where timing is everything, the cast of six has their routines polished to a fair-thee-well, coming and going through the five doors and appearing and disappearing behind the sliding curtain in various stages of dress and undress. James Kronzer has given them a thoroughly substantial set on which to cavort, which master carpenters R. Scott Thompson and Jacob Rothermel have constructed so solidly that there is nary a wobble from even the hardest door slam.

Comedy of this type is not an easy thing to pull off but this cast does it very well indeed. Each character has to begin the evening with a semblance of normality so that the ensuing descent into frenzied hysteria is an understandable response to the twists and turns of events. Orton’s well structured script gives each a relatively stable starting point and then applies pressures from the wacky events of the evening. This provides the cast the material with which to work but each actor must find just the right rate of decay for the particular character’s disintegration.

As the doctor, Kevin Reese starts the evening quietly reading at his desk while the audience walks over the set to their seats. He’s the very picture of calm but descends step by step through carefully measured transitions. Deanna Harris as the would-be secretary starts out subservient and tentative but the indignities heaped upon her give her backbone. Maura McGinn and Daniel Frith, as nymphomaniac wife and opportunist bell-hop, have starting positions that are already somewhat kooky but build just as steadily toward pandemonium, and Conrad Feininger as the already demented government inspector starts at a peak and climbs up from there – no mean trick! Only Tony Gudell as the policeman is shortchanged in the material he is given. The character has no real personality, but is an indispensable plot device. Gudell does as well as can be done with it, completing an ensemble that gives the two short acts their all.

Written by Joe Orton. Directed by Jonathan Bernstein. Fight choreography by Sara Melinda. Design: James Kronzer (set) Adam Magazine and Robert L. Schraff III (lights) David Maddox (sound and music) Amela Baksic (costumes) Lee Wilkinson (properties). Cast: Conrad Feininger, Kevin Reese, Maura McGinn, Daniel Frith, Deanna Harris, Tony Gudell.

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June 4 – July 14, 2002
The Diaries

Reviewed June 10
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes

Last year Signature Theatre began a four-year project funded by the Hilmar Tharp Sallee Charitable Trust to support a new play each year. The first play in the project was Norman Allen’s In The Garden which just won the Charles MacArthur Award as the Potomac region’s best new play of the year. This year the play is The Diaries by John Strand who won that same award three years ago for Lovers and Executioners. It does not appear that lightning has struck twice. Instead, The Diaries is an excessively introspective rumination on the role of a writer in times of upheaval that doesn’t really come to life until the second act and then only in the development of a secondary character.

Storyline: A former Nazi officer who changed his name and earned a respected place in the postwar world is unmasked by a researcher who found the diary he kept during the occupation of Paris. In a series of flashbacks we witness his compulsion to observe events and record them in his diary and the pressures by his superiors to have him alter the entries to avoid any documentation of illegal acts. He actually created two separate diaries – the altered one during the occupation of Paris and a true one during his service on the Russian front. Which one did the researcher discover?

Strand has created a script that attempts to grapple with a lot of big intellectual issues. It examines individual guilt in large evils such as the Nazi subjugation of most of Europe in World War II. It portrays the artist’s compulsion to create and a writer’s obligation to the truth as he or she sees it. It comes closest to searing emotion when the writer is deprived of his outlet, forbidden to write. Paper and pen become more important than food or water. Strand, who wrote Otabenga about a bizarre historical event involving importing pigmies for exhibit in a world’s fair and Three Nights in Tehran about Oliver North’s undercover negotiations in the Iran/Contra days, sees big issues in historical detail. But in this play he displays them rather than bringing them to life.

PJ Paparelli is at the helm here, directing his first effort at Signature after handling such well received productions as the recent Potomac Pick, Corpus Christi at Source Theatre. His forte seems to be focus and he certainly keeps the focus centered in this production. The center is Edward Gero as the diarist. He is surrounded by supporting players, spotlighted from above and ground level and literally placed under a lens in Ethan Sinnott’s set design. Gero gives a high octane performance: fuming, bellowing, burning with integrity. But the script leaves it unsettled whether the force of his emotion comes from a sense of guilt, anger at being dragged into the events of the war, the intensity of intellectual compulsion, or fear of being exposed.

Three supporting performers fill in the blanks. They circle around Gero as he recreates his experiences and create interesting characters of their own. Sybil Lines is as severe and precise as the marvelous green suit and hat costumer T. Tyler Stumpf designed for her, while Julie Coffey is more diaphanous but substantial. Daniel Frith starts the evening with the challenge of the researcher but sparks the production to its most intriguing level in the second act scenes where he is a soldier on the Russian front who latches on to the diarist because keeping an officer safe is the best way to keep safe himself.

Written by John Strand. Directed by PJ Paparelli. Design: Ethan Sinnott (set) T. Tyler Stumpf (costumes) Elsie Jones (properties) Jonathan Blandin (lights) Adam Wernick (sound and music). Cast: Edward Gero, Daniel Frith, Julia Coffey, Sybil Lines.

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June 19 - June 23, 2002
The Rink

Reviewed June 19
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes
Performed at Arlington’s Lubber Run Park

Nine professional performers backed by a seven member orchestra deliver all the music and all the lyrics without the bother of much of the story in this slimmed down "concert version" of a musical about a mother and her daughter set in a soon to be demolished roller rink which Signature Theater is now presenting in free outdoor concerts in the amphitheater at Lubber Run Park. The story was the problem in the original Broadway version in 1984 and that problem wasn’t solved when Signature Theatre produced a fully staged, highly revised version in 1996. This presentation of all the musical material, with just enough story to give the songs context, solves that problem and results in a marvelous evening under the stars.

Storyline (such as it is): A mother and daughter who have never gotten along, come together just as the mother has sold the family roller rink on a boardwalk at the beach. The daughter ran away from home seven years before when she learned that her father had not died, as her mother had said, but had abandoned them. She traveled in the counter-culture underside of the towns she visited in search of her father but, when she found him he didn’t want anything to do with her so she had nowhere else to go but home to the rink.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the more well known Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, always was the glory of this show and this streamlined version puts the spotlight directly on that strength. The song "Colored Lights" has become fairly well known and there are nice ballads ("Blue Crystal"), bright patter songs ("Chief Cook & Bottle Washer"), comic material ("What Happened to the Old Days?") and duets for the mother and daughter ("Don’t Ah Ma Me" and "The Apple Doesn’t Fall"). The concentration on the score highlights the strength of Kander’s melodic inventiveness in a way that no fully staged production can because Kander’s music is almost always fitted into the story so well that its individual brilliance is somewhat hidden.

Lynn Filusch is marvelous in the role of the mother. Her singing is clear and powerful, her comic timing is sharp and she has an uncanny ability to quickly establish rapport with her colleagues in duets and group numbers. That rapport is the key to this seventy-five minute program being musical theater and not just a series of songs. Eleasha Gamble gets off to a bit of a slower start as the daughter, which is a problem in such a short show. By the time it counts, however, she’s got the bigger numbers well in hand and she connects with Filusch to create a satisfying mother-daughter team.

Sean MacLaughlin, who was so impressive in the small part of the desk clerk in Signature’s splendid production of Grand Hotel last year, comes up with another impressive performance as the father who abandoned wife and daughter when reality didn’t match his dreams, and there are smaller but nonetheless high quality contributions from Buss Mauro and Michael Sharp. Equally important was the support of the orchestra under music director/pianist Kevin Wallace. The balance of a small orchestra and amplified singers isn’t an easy thing to pull off in an outdoor performance, but with the assistance of Tony Angelini’s sound design, no one element overwhelmed the others. Even Marc Dinitz’s percussion provided solid support without becoming shrill or overbearing and Rita Eggert and Bill Mulligan’s delicate pairing of flute and clarinet was clear behind the chorus of wreckers in "The Rink."

Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Original book by Terrence McNally. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Direction by Kevin Wallace. Musical Staging by Karma Camp. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Design: Eric Grims (set) Lindy Russell-Heymann (costumes) E. G. Veronica (lights) Tony Angelini (sound.) Cast: Lynn Filusch, Eleasha Gamble, Sean MacLaughlin, Buzz Mauro, Michael Sharp, Christyna Dail, Lynn Audrey Neal, Michael Omohundro, Justin Ritchie.

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March 19 – May 12, 2002
Hedwig & the Angry Inch

Reviewed March 24
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

Good rock music features performers going all out. Good theater features performers giving their all. Put the two together and you certainly have a strong combination. The storyline may be a bit simplistic and the music may be a bit formulistic, but Rick Hammerly, Lynn Filusch and a band of five under the direction of Eric Schaeffer make this an enjoyable hour and a half for those not easily turned off by excursions beyond the main stream.

Storyline: A young man in East Germany agrees to undergo a sex change operation so he can marry an American GI and go with him back to America. The operation is botched and the "marriage" is a failure. Now known as "Hedwig," the youngster becomes the leader of a rock band touring the lower levels of the club circuit. Here in "beautiful downtown Shirlington" he/she takes the audience on a biographical trip of self revelation.

This show may have a reputation for testing boundaries, for trying to see just how much shocking schlock can be crammed into a one act show. But, in truth, it is a simple story of an adolescent trying to develop a self image that will be the hallmark of adulthood. That’s a process all of us go through although here it is complicated by sexual abuse, gender uncertainty and misfortunes far beyond the norm. Still, at its very heart, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a classic coming of age story. Fans of traditional musical theater formats may find it difficult to make the transition but there are riches to be found in the score as well as the book. Fans of rock music may find the theatrical conventions a bit confusing at first but the story is told so clearly that they will have no difficulty connecting the songs with the story.

Rick Hammerly gives a rocking performance as the conflicted Hedwig. This he/she role starts out in high drag but sheds layer after layer of protective covering in a series of self revelatory monologues and songs. Structurally the play is very much a one-man show but is performed with a rock band of five and one other speaking part, that of the announcer and back up singer who also happens to be Hedwig’s current lover. Lynn Filusch does the most possible with the later role but this is Hedwig’s show and, so, is Hammerly’s night.

The rock band is solid. I’m more experienced at reviewing theater than rock music but to these ears their sound is loudly and thumpingly rockish. If hard rock today is about volume, beat and attitude, then this group is right on. But they have a very theatrical function as well, since the songs have the functions that songs play in musicals: reveal character, tell the plot and communicate feelings and emotions. That is why Jon Kalbfleisch acts as music director for this show just as for many other Signature Theatre musicals. The show benefits from a set by James Kronzer that transforms this black box playing space into a grungy rock club. Tony Angelini provides the sound design which, in addition to a high capacity speaker system which can handle the demands of the music, also features more subtle reinforcements such as reverberation for off-stage voices.

Written by John Cameron Mithcell. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch. Design: James Kronzer (set) Chris Lee (lights) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Tony Angelini (sound) Michael Clark (multimedia) Carol Pratt (photo). Cast: Rick Hammerly, Lynn Filusch and the band – Mike Kozemchak, Steve McWilliams, Matthew Midgette, Stephen Gregory Lee Smith, Starz Vander Lockett.

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January 8 – February 24, 2002
The Gospel According to Fishman

Reviewed January 21
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes

One part foot stomping, hand clapping, audience rousing gospel show, one part thoroughly traditional, entertaining Broadway boy-meets-girl musical and one part politically correct lesson-play, The Gospel According to Fishman delivers highlights aplenty.

Storyline: 21 year-old Alan Fishman of Brooklyn writes songs for a gospel singer and her all-black choir although he tells his folks he’s working the Jewish clubs in the Catskills. Its 1963 and their tour of the South is going well when the bomb that killed four girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama also impacts his life and that of the gospel singer and her chorus.

This world premiere musical gets a rousing first production at Signature Theater where they make a habit of rousing musicals – many of them premieres. This new musical is by a new team, Richard Oberacker and Michael Lazar. They wrote the script as well as the songs, and those songs cover a very wide range of styles from flat-out rousing gospel numbers ("Glory") to 60’s pop numbers ("My Secret") to broadway-ish introspective patter songs ("Two Weeks".) There’s a lovely love song with clean lyrics on a crystal melody ("This Feels Like Home") and a rousing personal anthem, the title number.

Headlining the cast is E. Faye Butler as the gospel singer. She rocks the house as you would expect in full-throated stomps. As an actress she scores as well. Her two important dialogue scenes, especially her second act talk with Fishman, are the heart of the show. (Strangely, this crucial scene is delivered in speech rather than set to music.) Fishman is played by Tally Sessions, a very hard working young man who is new to the Potomac Region. Ta’Rea Campell is the choir’s lead vocalist who attracts Fishman’s eye.

Director Eric Schaeffer pulls out all the stops for this one with a large multitalented cast, a design that is perfect for the small, intimate space at Signature and an eight piece band. The Gospel According to Fishman may go on to productions elsewhere – there is even some buzz in New York of a possible Broadway incarnation – but it is unlikely it will ever have a chance to connect as directly with an audience as it does here without a microphone in sight. In fact, there isn’t even a Sound Design credit.

Music by Richard Oberacker. Book and Lyrics by Michael Lazar and Richard Oberacker. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical staging by Karma Camp. Musical direction by Paul Raiman. Design: James Kronzer (set) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Rhonda Key (costumes) David Kreppel (orchestrations) Keith Thompson (vocal arrangements). Cast: E. Faye Butler, Ta'rea Campbell, Tally Sessions, Florence Lacey, Harry A. Winter, Susan Lynsky, Paul Morella, Wendell Jordan, Almonica Caldwell, Eleasha Gamble, Gabriella Goyette, Rodney D. Hussey, Larry D. Hyldton, Cedrick Sanders, Brian Quenton Thorne, Letitia Williams, Sean MacLaughlin, Christyna Dail, Sean MacLaughlin.

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January 4 - 5, 2002 (Cabaret)
Simply Barbra

Reviewed January 4
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes

So much more than just a cabaret act and much, much more than a mere impersonation of Barbra Streisand, Steven Brinberg creates an experience that leaves you feeling that you have witnessed a Streisand concert and a cabaret and an exhibition of impersonation skill – all in a single, seamless and well constructed act.

His (her?) reputation precedes him (her.) Four shows in two nights at Signature Theatre sold out well in advance. This is where the cabaret program used to be one show out in the lobby, then grew to two shows a night and then two nights and it is no longer in the lobby, they use the main 136 seat house now.

From the opening "The Way We Were" to the closing "People," Brinberg establishes a persona that is 90% the public image of Barbra Streisand and 10% Steven Brinberg. That is a good ratio because it keeps the audience "in on the gag" never asking them to believe that it really is Streisand on the stage but frequently allowing them to slip over into experiencing what it must be like to be at a Streisand concert. He establishes a strong rapport with the audience by mixing patter between the songs in which he never breaks out of the conceit but also never crosses the line into an unacceptable dishonesty.

The heart of the show is Brinberg’s respect for Streisand’s musical abilities – multiplied by his own capabilities. Not only is he a gifted impersonator, he is a very good singer whose voice is capable of delivering the material beautifully. Oh, he adds the magnified mannerisms of his subject with an impersonator’s deft hand, but it is layered on top of a fine vocal performance and is not used to disguise limitations.

But what an impersonator! He has one number ("I’m Still Here") which he delivers as Streisand impersonating a range of other "divas" from Carol Channing to Ethel Merman to Billie Holiday. Each is a slam-dunk of an impersonation on its own but the marvel is that he never breaks the Streisand persona while doing it. Then, too, there is a single twenty-second bit where he runs Katherine Hepburn’s vocal mannerisms through a time machine sliding in a single sentence from Hepburn in the 1930s through the 1990s which is nothing short of astonishing.

Add the very tasteful accompaniment of pianist Christopher Denny and the first show was a seamless delight. I've heard Denny support other cabaret artists and been impressed by his ability to fill in precisely where his principal is weakest. With Brinberg’s lack of weak spots, his playing was almost uniformly in the background but so tastefully done and so musically right that it was a pleasure. It has been reported that he injured himself and that Howard Breitbart, no slouch in the accompaniment business, filled in for half the set. How I wish I’d been at that one too.

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October 30 - December 9, 2001
Zander’s Boat

Reviewed November 5
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

The American premiere of a play by Scottish playwright Grace Barnes is an evening of imagery for eye and ear. Signature provides its usual top-quality production values and a superb cast delivering memorable performances. Barnes makes her American debut as a director.

Storyline: Three women on a rocky beach on their native Shetland Island tell the stories of their loves and losses. The story-play weaves a fabric out of the individual elements of each of the three character’s stories. The eldest (Linda High) has lost a son. The youngest (Colleen Delany) is losing a husband over the strain of not being able to conceive a child. The other woman (Amy McWilliams) has seen her marriage fail on the rocks of adultery.

The stories emerge piece by piece as each of the characters relate a part of their tale. Each of the characters inhabit the same world and, so, the details and images provided by one illuminate the world of the others.

That world, represented elegantly on a rocky beach set by Eric Grims with muted lighting by Jonathan Blandin emerges out of the mist in little touches rather than springing to life. Original music by Shetland Island native Alice Mullay draws from traditional melodies from the islands and Hana Sellers completes the aural effect with sometimes subtle sounds of ripples and waves. The effect is of an atmosphere, but the three ladies are very real characters and their stories are of the defining events of their lives.

Presented in one act, the short evening leaves you fully satisfied, having gotten to know not just three interesting women but, through them, the world they inhabit.