Betting on next season, Signature plays a full house


”Really Really” at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Scott Suchman/Signature Theatre)

As plans for the new Washington theater season take shape, the lineup across the region is looking ever nervier. Although an occasional company is going for the tried-and-true — witness the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s scheduling revivals of “Private Lives” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” — the prevailing trend for 2013-14 seems to be in the more exhilarating vein of go-for-broke.

Or, if not quite that extreme, the seasons being unveiled suggest that the fever for giving theatergoers rich menus has not come close to breaking. It shows up in the lists of nonprofit troupes as varied as Round House Theatre, Forum Theatre and Arena Stage, as well as in the enticing announcement of a world premiere commercial venture, “If/Then,” starring Idina Menzel at the National Theatre this fall.

And now, Signature Theatre — which took a bit of a breather this season, with a schedule heavy on musical revivals — is bouncing back at what looks like full force. In an extraordinarily ambitious rollout of nine productions, the company says it will produce three world-premiere musicals, one world-premiere play, the regional debut of a new British play, a developmental run of yet another world-premiere musical and revivals of, gulp, “Miss Saigon,” “Gypsy” and “The Threepenny Opera.” Among the new musicals will be “Beaches,” based on the novel that also spawned the 1988 Bette Midler-Barbara Hershey movie weepie of that title, and other musicals by Signature composer Matt Conner and Signature actor Ed Dixon.

“It all just kind of worked out,” Eric Schaeffer, the Tony Award-winning company’s longtime artistic director, said matter-of-factly. He will be directing all four of the new musicals, as well as the revival of the early ’90s mega-musical “Miss Saigon” —this time, without the famous helicopter dropping from the ceiling.

Opening the season with “Miss Saigon” (Aug.15-Oct. 6) recalls the late fall of 2008, when Signature presented its winningly pared-down and full-throated staging of “Les Miserables.” Schaeffer has a long-standing relationship with “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon” producer Cameron Mackintosh , so remounting a second show by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil is not surprising. What is always a risk, of course, is re-conceiving a musical built for big houses into one for Signature’s relatively minuscule 276-seat main stage.

“We’re going to do it environmentally,” Schaeffer said of the wartime love story between an American G.I. and a South Vietnamese woman. “The audience is going to be immersed in the jungle, so that you really feel you’re in the world of Vietnam.”

Along with “Miss Saigon,” Schaeffer’s directorial duties in the Village at Shirlington will include the season’s three world-premiere musicals. The first of them is “Crossing” (Oct. 29-Nov. 24), by Conner and Grace Barnes, creators of the Edgar Allan Poe musical “Nevermore.” The next is “Beaches” (Feb. 18-March 30, 2014), with music by David Austin and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart — upon whose novel the movie and musical are based — and a libretto by Dart and Thom Thomas. The final one is a musical spoof, “Cloak and Dagger” (June 12-July 6, 2014) by Dixon, who played the butler Max in Signature’s “ Sunset Boulevard .”

Schaeffer will also stage the first entry in the company’s “Siglab” series this summer, when all seats will be $30. “Spin” (July 9-27), with music and lyrics by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill, is adapted from a 2008 Korean film, “Speedy Scandal.”

As the talent behind several of the musicals suggest, the company is looking to deepen collaborations with artists it has worked with before. This is the case with its world-premiere play, “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” (Oct. 15-Dec. 8) by Paul Downs Colaizzo, whose new-play hit for Signature last season, “Really Really,” has just announced a second extension of its run by off-Broadway’s highly regarded MCC Theater. While “Really Really” is a scalding look at an emerging generation swaddled in entitlement, “The Falls of Autrey Mill” infiltrates America’s upscale suburbs. A director is yet to be named.

The peripatetic Matthew Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director and an increasingly active presence around the region (he’ll direct at both Ford’s Theatre and Round House next season), will be at the helm of a play and a musical running almost simultaneously at Signature in late winter and spring of 2014: the regional premiere of Philip Ridley’s “Tender Napalm” (March 4-April 27, 2014), and the brilliant if tricky Brecht-Weill masterpiece “The Threepenny Opera” (April 22-June 1, 2014).

Though much of the casting, encompassing more than 100 actors, for this huge season remains to be accomplished, two leads have been filled, in Signature’s revival of “Gypsy” (Dec. 17-Jan. 26, 2014). It will be staged by Joe Calarco, director-creator of of the excellent “Shakespeare’s R+J.” His Mama Rose, the stage mother to devour all stage mothers, is Sherri L. Edelen, and her long-suffering fiancé Herbie will be played by Mitchell Hebert.

Gypsy Rose Lee is still to be cast. Among the other parts to be filled: “Miss Saigon’s” Kim, Chris and the Engineer; “Threepenny’s” Mack the Knife and the Peachums, as well as the devoted pals of “Beaches.” Lots of big shoes, in a season bulging with aspiration.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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