In taking on a project of this scale, the Tony-winning Signature, a destination for vintage and original musicals, will be attempting a risky departure from the traditional template of D.C.-area theater. The bet is that diverse ticketbuyers from across the region will flock to a concert venue for a musical with a well-loved pop score and festive atmosphere. Shimmying in the aisles, its promoters say, will definitely be encouraged.
“We want this to be a huge dance party,” Schaeffer said of the event, which will run from June 25 to July 5. It will be sponsored by Amazon and the Max Productions, the production company of longtime Signature benefactor Maxine Isaacs, for whom Signature’s main stage, the Max, is named. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“We hope it crosses over to the Anthem’s audiences used to going to concerts,” Schaeffer added. “Wouldn’t it be great if all of a sudden all these glow sticks come alive and there is not one mirrored ball, but like a thousand?”
Rarely do Washington troupes dream up projects for spaces outside their own venues — and certainly not one with the commercial appeal of “Mamma Mia!” Several years ago, the Shakespeare Theatre Company rented the Bier Baron Tavern in Dupont Circle for a site-specific touring show, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” and even earlier, Signature moved a revival of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” from its original space in the Village at Shirlington to the now-closed Warehouse Theatre on Seventh Street NW.
But the notion of beefing up a season with a show that might outperform a production in its own building — a revival of “Hair” will be playing at Signature during the “Mamma Mia!” run — is a fresh one in these parts. Not that profit motive is primary in this instance, according to Maggie Boland, the group’s managing director. What ignited the company’s imagination was the prospect of more firmly entrenching Signature’s reputation across the Potomac River. Sixty percent of the theater’s subscribers live in Northern Virginia, and though a hit musical can attract customers from Maryland and the District, Signature has found that traveling to Virginia for a show remains an odd sort of psychological impediment for some theatergoers.
“There’s no question that there are still a ton of theatergoers in this market who don’t come to Signature,” Boland said. “Our goal is to lure some of them across the river to see our productions.”
Boland declined to disclose financial details, but she said that Anthem management recognized that renting the space was a leap of faith. “We’re both trying something new, and they were willing to come up with a rental package that could work,” she said.
Signature has signed on its design regulars, including set designer Paul Tate dePoo III, sound designer Ryan Hickey and costume designer Kathleen Geldard. A newcomer to Signature, Cory Pattak, will light the Anthem arena, and Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner will choreograph.
As an African American actress, Payton, a mainstay at Signature, amounts to a trailblazer in the central role of Donna.
“Nova is a star,” Schaeffer said, “and she deserves a vehicle to show who she really is.”
Signature is accustomed to playing to much smaller audiences — the Max seats only 275 — so the organization faces a formidable marketing task in filling the Anthem. (Tickets will go on sale Friday morning at TheAnthemDC.com and ticketmaster.com and will cost $44.99 to $129.99.)
Boland said the goal is to do an Anthem gig annually, albeit with different shows, “if we can build a brand for it and keep up the community’s interest. This was an opportunity to take a space and make it our own.”