Arena, Breaking Into Song
Saturday, April 8, 2006
Striking up the band is becoming more than an occasional event at Arena Stage. Over the next year, the venerable theater -- although better known for productions of contemporary and classic American plays -- will present an unprecedented four musicals in its Southwest Washington complex.
The shows, which include two world premieres, will make the 12 months beginning in July the most musical-intensive cycle in the company's 56-year history, Arena officials say. Those shows will be among the nine productions Arena will produce this summer and during the 2006-07 season, which starts in September.
The musicals include a revival of "Cabaret," the recently conceived show "3 Mo' Divas" and the two world premieres: "A Civil War Christmas," by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel; and a musical version of "The Women of Brewster Place," Gloria Naylor's award-winning 1982 collection of interrelated stories about the lives of impoverished African American women.
Arena seems ever more eager to draw on the broad appeal of a category of performance that locally has been more of a house specialty for such companies as Eric Schaeffer's Signature Theatre. And large-scale musical productions have been more typical at the Kennedy Center, the National and the Warner.
The trend is partly a reflection of the tastes of the company's artistic director, Molly Smith, but also might be a concession to marketplace realities for Arena, which has nearly 1,200 seats to fill in two theaters.
"Musicals are something that bring in brand-new audiences," Smith said. Arena has had box office success over the past few years with revivals of such popular musicals as "Damn Yankees" and "South Pacific." Smith said new theatergoers might not be easily sold on, say, "Nine Parts of Desire," a play about Iraq that is also part of Arena's new season. "But they may," she said, "come in through 'Cabaret.' "
The march of the musicals begins in July with the arrival of "3 Mo' Divas," conceived and directed by Marion Caffey and featuring the song stylings of a trio of chanteuses. Then, in September, Smith will stage "Cabaret" in the Fichandler with her "Damn Yankees" stars Meg Gillentine and Brad Oscar in leading roles. Thanksgiving will usher in the premiere of "A Civil War Christmas," Vogel's ambitious interweaving of the stories of historical figures and the music of the period. And in May 2007, the capstone to Arena's season will be "The Women of Brewster Place," directed by Smith, with music and lyrics by Tim Acito. A director has not been selected for "A Civil War Christmas."
The non-musical offerings include two local premieres: "Nine Parts of Desire," Heather Raffo's solo piece about Iraqi women, will be staged in October; and February will bring August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean."
Arena also will revive three commercially successful Broadway plays: in December, "Noises Off," the backstage farce by Michael Frayn; next March, Terrence McNally's two-character "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"; and next April, "The Heidi Chronicles," Wendy Wasserstein's signature feminist comedy.
The productions of "Gem" and "Heidi," Smith said, are intended as tributes to Wilson and Wasserstein, both of whom died recently.