Signature Theatre's 21/24 Lab: 'The Hollow,' 'The Boy Detective Fails'

Signature's "The Hollow," is the work of, from left, composer Matt Conner, writer Hunter Foster and artistic director Eric Schaeffer. (By Lavanya Ramanathan -- The Washington Post)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

Capital Fringe Festival notwithstanding, summer on the local theater scene can be molasses slow, with new shows making their way to the stage at barely a trickle.

At Signature Theatre, however, two cliques of composers, writers and actors have been working furiously to bring preview concerts of two new musicals to the stage -- after just three weeks of rewrites and rehearsals. The commissions, "The Hollow," by writer Hunter Foster and composer Matt Conner, and "The Boy Detective Fails," by composer Adam Gwon and writer Joe Meno, have been a year in the making and premiere next week as the first offerings of the 21/24 Signature Lab initiative.

"The whole idea was to actually give them time to be in a rehearsal room with actors to really help develop the show," says Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer. "We say it's like summer camp, because we're all just digging in and having a great time."

The project cultivates works by emerging composers in their 20s and 30s, with the musicals ultimately presented to audiences as part of the development process.

"The Hollow" pairs actors Foster and Conner (both of whom were in Signature's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" last year) in a retelling of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The two spent a year fleshing out the story in a way that tries to avoid the missteps of such Broadway failures as "Dance of the Vampires."

"When you're dealing with a gothic horror tale," Foster says, "I don't think we wanted it to be Frankenstein's monster or Dracula coming out in a cape. We wanted it to be about more than that. . . . It has to be more suggestive, more theatrical."

Meno and Gwon's offering, "The Boy Detective Fails," has technically had a little longer to steep than "The Hollow." The musical was originally a play-cum-novel written by Meno and staged in 2006 in Chicago. The play takes the Encyclopedia Brown and Hardy Boys model of young sleuths and turns it on its ear; it catches up with its boy wonder at age 30 as he's being released from a mental institution.

The revival of the work that he began in 2003 appeals to Meno. "As a writer, nothing's ever finished," he says. "In the back of your mind, you know, this is not really done, you've just moved on to something else. So to be able to go back and explore what you really liked about it, it feels like a great gift."

21/24 Signature Lab Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-573-7328. "The Hollow": Thursday at 6 p.m., July 24 at 8:15 p.m. "The Boy Detective Fails": Thursday at 8:15 p.m., July 24 at 6 p.m. $20 per show; $30 for both.

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