The Washington Post

Next Season Preview: Signature Theatre

Lucky No. 7 in our series of theater previews occurs today with an exploration of the 2014-15 season at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.  It’s a lineup that includes three world premiere musicals (Get ready, “Diner” and Sheryl Crow fans!); one world-premiere revue (for you Sondheim-o-philes); three musical revivals (Wilkommen, bienvenue, etc…) and the regional premiere of a contemporary play (Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre debuted it). For those who want to compare and contrast: previously examined in this space were the new seasons at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, Round House Theatre and Synetic Theater.) So here goes:

Company trademark: Sondheim musicals, original musicals, vintage musicals, reimagined musicals. Also, sometimes, plays.

The season:

— “Sunday in the Park with George,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Matthew Gardiner (Max Theatre, Aug. 5-Sept. 21)

— “Elmer Gantry,” book by John Bishop, music by Mel Marvin, lyrics by Bob Satuloff, directed by Eric Schaeffer (Max, Oct.7-Nov. 9)

— “Sex with Strangers,” by Laura Eason, directed by Aaron Posner (Ark Theatre, Oct. 14-Dec. 7)

— “Diner,” book by Barry Levinson, music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow, directed by Kathleen Marshall (Max, Dec. 9-Jan. 25, 2015)

— “Kid Victory,” music by John Kander, book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, directed by Liesl Tommy (Max, Feb. 17-March 22, 2015)

— “Soon,” book, music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, directed by Gardiner (Ark, March 10-April 26, 2015)

— “Simply Sondheim,” conceived by David Loud and Schaeffer, directed by Schaeffer (Max, April 2-19, 2015)

— “Cabaret,” book by Joe Masteroff, music by Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Gardiner (Max May 12-June 28, 2015)

Highlights: Where to start? With “Diner,” of course. Levinson, director of the 1982 movie that starred Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg and Ellen Barkin and Crow, teamed up several years ago to turn “Diner” into a musical set in Baltimore in the late ’50s. Plans for a tryout in San Francisco and Broadway run in spring 2013 were announced and then canceled, amid talk that the show needed more work. Now, the creative team, allied with a new producer, has brought the project to the playhouse of artistic director Schaeffer, who bumped a previously announced revival of the musical “The Fix” to the 2015-16 season to make room for this world premiere. The roster included other unveilings: Kander, collaborating with a new songwriting partner, Pierce, after the death of Ebb, will be on hand with “Kid Victory,” a co-production with New York’s Vineyard Theatre, about a teenager who returns home after going missing for a year. Blaemire, a Bethesda native who composed the music for Signature’s promising (and prematurely sent off to Broadway) “Glory Days,” is back with “Soon,” a musical taking place in a globally super-warmed future and in the apartment of a woman who has shut herself off from life. The fourth world premiere, “Simply Sondheim,” is a revue celebrating Signature’s 25 years in existence, all of them devoted at least in part to Sondheim’s extraordinary oeuvre.

The season is bookended with a pair of well-known musicals, Sondheim and Lapine’s Pulitzer-winning “Sunday in the Park with George” and Kander, Ebb and Masteroff’s  Tony-winning “Cabaret,” both directed by Schaeffer’s second-in-command, Gardiner, who most noteworthily shepherded the company’s revival of “Dreamgirls” in 2012. Signature is also staging a revival of the musical version of the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” which had its world premiere at Ford’s Theatre in 1988, and was later remounted there. There is one play on the agenda, Eason’s “Sex with Strangers,” stars Holly Twyford as an obscure writer who finds herself trapped by a snowstorm in a cabin with a well known blogger. It was first produced by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2009.

Analysis: The indefatigable Schaeffer and his loyal audience are forever in the hunt for that breakthrough property, and maybe this year they’ll strike a vein with “Diner,” “Kid Victory” or “Soon.” Or even all three. That so many shows developed at Signature have a somewhat undercooked feel, from “The Boy Detective Fails” to “Crossing,” from “Beaches” to “And the Curtain Rises,” attests to the truly promethean job it is, assembling a wholly integrated musical. “Kid Victory” will go on to New York, courtesy of its co-sponsors at the Vineyard, where “Avenue Q” was born. But the future path of “Diner” is more uncertain, and the reception here will be crucial in determining whether Levinson and Crow, who’ve been working on this project on and off for years, have got it right. Twyford in a new play–she starred there in Douglas Carter Beane’s very funny “And the Little Dog Laughed” in 2009–and the revivals of “Cabaret” and “Sunday in the Park” have season-anchor potential. The other wild card is “Elmer Gantry,” which Schaeffer will tackle before mounting a revamped stage version of the movie musical “Gigi” at the Kennedy Center. Despite multiple productions around the country, the work never made it to the ultimate proving ground in Times Square.





Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.



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Peter Marks · March 18, 2014

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