They had me at “Sondheim,” but there are plenty more reasons the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre — the Arlington troupe known for musicals — shapes up as my favorite D.C. company.
I’m not saying Signature is hands-down the best theater in Washington. Like big-time college sports rankings, the top spot changes depending on which outfit gets hot and who slumps. The beauty part is having a crop of legitimate contenders. Surveying the field around town, it’s hard to pick just one.
But Signature showcases a lot of assets, from its singular glam factor to plain old ease of use.
A night at the theater can mean everything from parking and dinner, to elbow room in the lobby and in the seats, all on top of the price of a ticket. The city’s entertainment czars know this; that’s what drove the remarkable expansion of theater after theater a decade ago, with boosted capacities and bigger lobbies. Even now, more money is being raised to convert comparatively new complexes into more fully rounded destinations. Note the $14 million project at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, which will relocate to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh stage this winter, riding out a renovation that will create a new bar-cafe-hangout space.
Signature already gets a lot right. Here’s why, after nearly two decades covering theater for The Washington Post and watching Signature almost since its beginning, the company scores high for me:
By luck and by design, Signature clicked into a higher gear with the move in 2007 into its two-stage venue, part of that citywide theatrical rebuild that included almost every major Washington troupe. The luck part is the neighborhood: Shirlington, not far south of the Pentagon, is an accessible enclave that seems tailor-made to support a theater. There’s no immediate Metro, but the drive from downtown is short (though it can be dragged out by rush-hour traffic down Interstate 395). Free parking is available in two adjacent garages.
You can eat at nearly 20 restaurants within two blocks, including the Carlyle, Busboys and Poets, Samuel Beckett’s Irish gastro pub and the wine bistro Cheesetique, with everything from Thai to Tex-Mex and Italian in the mix. Palette 22 combines a street-food menu with an art-gallery vibe; Copperwood Tavern peddles farm-to-table fare. In a pinch, you can make do at the small bar at the theater.
The floor plan has mostly worked out, too. Despite sharing a building with the local library (which is on the ground floor, with Signature above), the theater feels showbizzy as soon as you enter. Taking a cue from “Cabaret” and “Chicago” songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, the wide, curved stairway dances with colored lights. The high-ceilinged lobby creates a touch of glamour with oversize production photos and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the urban village. In the spacious lobby, you can hang out at cafe tables and maybe listen to live piano music.
The ace in the hole is that by and large, the shows are terrific. In this region, Signature remains the gold standard for producing musicals, especially Stephen Sondheim works. Now playing on the Max main stage, which seats up to 300: “Passion,” Sondheim’s late-career meditation on obsession, a three-way romance that verges on gothic. The staging casts a shimmering spell in 100 intermission-less minutes; as usual, the music sounds glorious and the staging has style, from the ensemble’s flattering uniforms to the tale’s precise, mood-setting lights.
Style is the word, really: Going to Signature usually involves an appealing combination of elegance, intimacy, accessibility and panache. It’s small enough to feel personal — the smaller Ark stage seats 100 or so and has become a useful cabaret showcase for the musical talent the troupe has nurtured. The two-character British drama “Heisenberg,” by Simon Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”), begins performances there Tuesday.
The modest, best-of-both-worlds scale has allowed the company to remain a valuable platform and proving ground for all sorts of musicals. Here’s what you may have seen recently: a full-throttle “Jesus Christ Superstar” and a powerful “West Side Story”; Sheryl Crow’s musical take on the movie “Diner”; an early look at the new musical adaptation of “Freaky Friday” that’s now in rotation on the Disney Channel; “Kid Victory,” a challenging new piece from legendary composer John Kander; a gorgeously produced “Titanic,” which continues to steer a course toward Broadway (casting notices are now up); a practically perfect revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”; an imperfect but important local premiere of Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys”; the fetching pop song cycle “Light Years” by Robbie Schaeffer of the folk band Eddie From Ohio; and the daffy tap-dance extravaganza “Crazy for You.”
Add to that some really good plays, such as Audrey Cefaly’s “The Gulf” and Annie Baker’s “The Flick” and “John,” in exemplary productions, and you have a troupe with a will to risk and a zest to entertain. This season’s slate includes “Billy Elliott,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Spunk” and — the one I’m most looking forward to — “Grand Hotel,” with cabaret offerings ranging from Motown to Judy Garland.
Still, giving the top spot to Signature — where ticket prices are generally a notch under the $100-plus rate for shows at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre Company and a tick above the $60-$80 range at Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth — isn’t a slam dunk. For a buzzy night out, nothing beats the National Theatre when it’s got a Broadway tryout, and next month’s new “Beetlejuice” musical already has its ticket punched for New York.
But this exercise is limited to the resident D.C. theaters, the locally rooted companies producing their own work. That knocks out the Kennedy Center, too.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is my close second: It’s downtown, on Metro, with tons of food in Penn Quarter and a track record of exciting classics that propelled growth into two substantial stages (the 451-seat Lansburgh and the 775-seat Harman Hall) exactly as the neighborhood was being revitalized. When the STC is humming, you get that big-audience explosion of laughter, or — as at last winter’s “Hamlet” — the gripping silence of mass rapt attention.
A case can be made for the mainstream fare at Arena Stage and, let’s face it, for decades, that’s been the choice for many Washingtonians, and even for out-of-towners on a theater pilgrimage. A 2010 expansion added a 200-seat space for new works, the Kogod Cradle, to its main stages — the 514-seat Kreeger Theater and its historic in-the-round 683-seat Fichandler stage.
Arena premiered the Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen” and, just two months ago, a nutty candy bar musical comedy adaptation of the Kevin Kline-Sigourney Weaver movie “Dave,” both in the Kreeger (and produced with outside partners). But the Fichandler is not my favorite place to see the musicals that have been company tentpoles for years; such great shows as “Oliver!” and “The Pajama Game” tend to look reduced, even quaint, in the round. (The Fichandler generally amplifies great plays but diminishes great musicals.) And the Cradle still has not become a magnet with its own energy or identity. Only one of Arena’s nine shows in the 2018-2019 season is slated for the Cradle.
One more wrinkle: food. The desert-isle feel of Southwest Washington has just changed dramatically, but parking and eating near the newly developed $2.5 billion Wharf waterfront can be a challenge. The limited in-house restaurant at Arena has never really worked, segregated as it is, upstairs in the weird, wide atrium lobby. That lobby has a spectacular view toward the marina, but it’s used a lot for weddings. That doesn’t check any boxes for theatergoers.
First-timers visiting Woolly Mammoth routinely tell me how much they like the industrial-feeling underground space near Seventh and D streets NW. The young audience, aggressive ancillary programming and bold-to-wacky new scripts performed in top-notch fashion in the 265-seat theater are all positives. Still, you have to be really onboard with Woolly’s adventurous brand — which may be repositioned by new artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes — for it to be your absolute No. 1.
A more plausible choice might be Studio Theatre, with its four stages at 14th and P streets NW, a strip teeming with restaurants, and an eight-show slate of contemporary plays that you can bank on being smartly acted and designed. Its musicals are rare, though, and while Studio’s comedies can be killers — “Bad Jews,” “Hand to God” — it’s largely a drama shop (often with a British accent in its choice of plays, just so you know).
I’ll stick with Signature. It’s an artfully entertaining outfit with a decades-long record of punching above its weight.