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Arlington’s Signature Theatre will put its best musical foot forward online in 2021

Tracy Lynn Olivera, Awa Sal Secka, Katie Mariko Murray in “Simply Sondheim” at Signature Theatre. (Christopher Mueller/Signature Theatre)
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In a sign of how radically theater companies have had to reinvent themselves to survive in a time of stifled live performance, Arlington’s Signature Theatre announced on Wednesday a 2021 lineup that includes a play and no less than four musical productions filmed entirely for the Web.

The roster was produced amid the extraordinary pressure on the company to bounce back after the June departure of its founding artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, who resigned after an actor accused him of sexual harassment. It also embodies a response to the calls for more inclusion of artists of color at White-led theaters that arose in the outcry over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“It is a statement of what is feasible at this moment in time and what is feasible artistically,” Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director, said in a Zoom call with other key staffers, including longtime associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner. “We have to be as economical and ambitious as we can be.”

Since the widespread shutdown of performance spaces in March, theater companies have had to scramble programmatically — drawing up plan after plan for returning to live production, only to have to erase those proposals as the pandemic worsened. Signature’s new agenda for the coming months seems relatively foolproof: As Boland and Gardiner explained, the shows are being filmed, with enhanced cinematic flourishes, in the larger of Signature’s spaces, the Max.

2020 Tony Award nominee Daniel J. Watts digs through his memory's attic for a delectable treat bursting with lyricism, dynamic tap dance and heart. (Video: Signature Theatre)

Subscribers will pay $200 for the five-show, on-demand bundle, with a timetable to begin in January and firm dates for the productions’ multi-week runs to be announced as the winter and spring unfold. The first offering, which has already been put on film, is a nod to Signature’s most entrenched tradition, an embrace of the work of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The new edition of “Simply Sondheim” — a cabaret production unveiled in 2015 to mark the company’s 25th anniversary — is a newly imagined version with 30 Sondheim songs staged by Gardiner.

It features a 16-piece orchestra and a cast of 12: Washington artists such as Donna Migliaccio and Awa Sal Secka and New York-based performers, including Norm Lewis, Conrad Ricamora and Emily Skinner. (Migliaccio, for example, will sing Mrs. Lovett’s “The Worst Pies in London” from “Sweeney Todd”; Skinner, “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”)

Three recently developed shows, some in new incarnations, will follow. In order: Daniel J. Watts’s “The Jam: Only Child,” the story, in spoken word and music, of the performer’s upbringing as the child of a single parent. A sold-out hit in January at New York’s Public Theater, it will be directed again by Liliana Blain-Cruz, recently appointed resident director for Lincoln Center Theater.

Then comes “Midnight at the Never Get,” Mark Sonnenblick’s two-character chamber musical set at a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village in 1965. Gardiner will direct this new version of the piece, which was produced by off-Broadway’s York Theater Company at St. Peter’s in 2018.

"Simply Sondheim" features over 30 songs from the composer’s canon performed by a cast of 12 and orchestra of 15, directed by Matthew Gardiner. (Video: Signature Theatre)

Following that will be Signature’s rendition of the Broadway-tested “After Midnight: Celebrating the Duke Ellington Years,” an anthology of the music of Ellington, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields and Harold Arlen. The director-choreographer is Jared Grimes, and music direction is by Mark G. Meadows. And completing the online season is a play by Dominique Morisseau (“Skeleton Crew”): “Detroit ’67,” a five-character drama that takes place amid the riots in the Motor City during the summer of 1967.

The on-demand offerings are the first test of a post-Schaeffer Signature, which is engaged in a national search for a new artistic director. Boland described this transitional period as “pretty seamless,” partly because the rest of the executive team has been together for years. “Matt has had a seminal artistic role at Signature for a decade,” she said. Gardiner, for his part, said that regardless of how this online rollout is received, “we know we’re putting artists to work. It has made me feel like we have given them purpose.”

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