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BWW Feature: Signature Theatre's 25th Anniversary Open House: 'Signature Surprises' All Season Long!


"We're opening doors, singing 'Here we are'!" So sing the three fast friends of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, and that was the message of Washington-area (and Sondheim specialist) Signature Theatre to the overflowing crowd of thousands last weekend at their Open House celebrating the 25th Anniversary Season.

The free one-day event, held on Saturday, August 2, featured 15 different musical theater concerts, three different regionally-based musical artists (The Junkyard Saints, Levi Stephens and The Bitter Dose Combo) playing on the outdoor stage throughout the day, discounted tickets for every show of the season available at the box office, sing-a-longs, refreshments, arts and crafts activities for the kids. And music, music everywhere in the two main performance venues, the larger Max and intimate Ark theater; and also in the Mead Lobby area. In addition, The No Rules Theatre Company, in residence at Signature, welcomed patrons and previewed its upcoming season as well.

A wonderful talent that Signature possesses is the ability to balance works celebrating local talent and audiences, while still extending its reach to wider circles (New York and elsewhere). Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer (above left; photo by Christopher Mueller) told me on Saturday, "we always want to be surprising our audiences, pushing the envelope;" and for this momentous 25th season, that's certainly evident. Three world premiere musicals will be seen, including Sheryl Crow's Diner, John Kander's Kid Victory and Nick Blaemire's Soon, joining Sunday in the Park with George,Cabaret, and a revival of Elmer Gantry.

The highlight of the day was the aptly-named Season Highlights Concert, which gave audiences a sampling from each show of the season. Whether you were hearing a favorite from Sunday in the Park with George or Cabaret, or being introduced to new works from Diner, Kid Victory and Soon, the collection of performances was woven smoothly into a very appealing whole, and spoke well for the choices the Signature artistic team has made. Eric Schaeffer and Maggie Boland (Managing Director), welcomed the audience with remarks that emphasized the deep commitment, pride and anticipation within the Signature family as they embark on the new season. Twenty-five years is certainly a milestone in any endeavor, but it is particularly impressive here, given the tremendous growth, abundant success and many accolades experienced by Signature over these years. Washington audiences can certainly take community pride in the 2009 Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre, which can be seen when you visit the theater.

Opening the concert, Broadway's Wesley Taylor, who will star in Signature's Cabaret captured the audience with his seductive take on Wilkommen, and Brynn O'Malley (Dot/Marie), Claybourne Elder (Georges/George), also Broadway vets, and the rest of the cast of Sunday in the Park with George (directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner), made us very reluctant to say good-bye, closing the show with three songs: Finishing the Hat, Move On and Sunday. The Max venue has wonderful acoustics, which made the soaring Sunday, a real treat.

Between these two classic bookends, we heard Mary Kate Morrissey, who will star in the revival of Elmer Gantry this winter, sing With This Ring from Gantry, and Austin Colby doing Last Man Standing from one of the world premiere musicals, Diner. And we are extremely fortunate in Washington to have a pool of talent that just seems to be getting deeper and richer over the years; the Highlights concert also gave us performances from Nastascia Diaz and Nick Blaemire, each doing a number from Blaemire's Soon, (Bohemian Paradiso and Waiting, respectively); and Tracy Lynn Olivera performing the poignant In My Lawn,from Kander's Kid Victory.

The Highlights Concert clearly motivated patrons to go directly from their seats to the box office line to secure tickets to the shows they had just met. Some real winners that day included those who took advantage of the special Open House discounts for tickets to the entire array of shows for the season. James Gardiner, Director of Publicity and Promotions for Signature (and Helen Hayes Award winning actor!), reports that the box office ticket promotion sold $108,000 in tickets for the various shows this season; a new record.

Along with the Season Highlights cast, some true stars of Washington stages, all of whom have performed in multiple Signature productions, treated us to their talents as well: Maria Rizzo and Vincent Kempski from last season's Gypsy, Nova Payton (Dreamgirls), Erin Driscoll and Chris Mueller, (Miss Saigon), Tracy Lynn Olivera (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), and many others. The women were featured in the Signature Divas concert, and the men took over the stage for Signature's Leading Men; while the Family Cabaret offered something for even the youngest theater fans. Many, if not most of the concerts played to sold out crowds, and James was pleased to report that attendance grew over the course of the day.

Contributing to that healthy attendance, and something that really speaks to the community and family atmosphere and mission of Signature, was the abundance of volunteers and theater staff, including Eric, Matthew Gardiner (Associate Artistic Director) and James, all in Signature 25 T-shirts, and staffing ticket tables, hauling wheelbarrows of bottled water to the plaza, making sno-cones, chatting with fans, hosting concerts, and so much more. And as you surveyed a crowd enjoying a lobby concert, you could find performers who had just finished their time on stage somewhere else, coming to cheer on their colleagues and friends.

During one of those interludes, I had an opportunity to chat with Maria Rizzo, and asked her what Signature meant to her as a performer. She said that the greatest gift was the opportunities she's been given to work with celebrated directors, such as Joe Colarco (Gypsy) and, more importantly, to "stretch her work, try new roles and avoid the pigeon-holing" that can sometimes happen in the New York theater market. She had just finished singing in the Signature Divas concert, where we heard such gems as You Can't Get a Man With a Gun from Tracy Lynn Olivera, I Could Have Danced All Night from Erin Driscoll, Colored Women (from the Tony-winning musical, Memphis) from rising star, Ines Nassara, and a highly amusing take on Man of the Hour from award-winning, founding Signature member, Donna Migliaccio.

Underscoring Rizzo's feelings about the great opportunites she finds at Signature, James and I chatted this week about the appeal that Signature holds for local and out-of-town artists as well. He attributes a great deal of this success to the stellar reputation that Eric Schaeffer has throughout the theater community, and his creation of a "safe and welcoming" creative environment that allows for risk-taking. "The word of mouth about what a great place Signature is to work," attracts a wide range of artists who appreciate the savvy and openness of Washington-area audiences," James says. This season, those artists include the estimable John Kander, (recently honored with The Presidential National Medal in the Arts), and who is bringing his new musical, Kid Victory, to Signature in February '15. And while Signature has a loyal subscriber base, Schaeffer is not planning seasons to please or attract a particular demographic, but instead, to offer productions that he thinks will work as a whole, and make for enjoyable theatrical experiences for all involved, artists and audiences alike. I asked James how far in advance season-planning is done, and he said that Eric is well on the way with the 2015-16 season, and even into the following season.

The respect Signature commands is evident in the inclusion of another world premiere this season, an exclusive celebration of Sondheim's music, Simply Sondheim in April '15. This one-time only, very limited run event (with a special blessing from the composer himself) will be a veritable feast of Sondheim classics, with a 16-pieces orchestra, created by Eric Schaeffer and David Loud, directed by Schaeffer and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.

I also enjoyed talking to two delightful, long-time Signature supporters and patrons at the Open House, Sheila and Stewart (they remember attending productions in the original garage home of the theatre), who have even included Signature in their estate planning. Signature recognizes these individuals through their "Ever After" designation, marking them as treasured members of the Signature family. I wanted to know what motivated them to gift Signature in this way, and Sheila said to me, above all, they are "deeply appreciative" of everything that this theatre has meant to them, and to the local community, by bringing such a diversity of accessible theater to Washington. Stewart also spoke of the strong connection he feels because of the local heart of Signature that the theater has strengthened over the years. They each loved last season's Miss Saigon, and are most excited for Sunday in the Park with George this season.

The Open House worked its magic on Signature newbies as well. Natalie, a twenty-something theatergoer who lives on the District's Southwest Waterfront, was making only her second visit to Signature (her first had been to one of the recent cabaret concerts that the theater offers throughout the year), and found public transportation a great way to get to Signature from her home that day. Natalie thought the Open House sounded like a good way to spend the day as a theater fan, and a chance to sample the Signature offerings. Her favorite Sondheim musical is Sunday in the Park with George, and she said she was incredibly moved by the Sunday in the Park performances, newly committed to seeing Cabaret, and that she found herself staying through the very last moments of the Grand Finale concert to hear Nova Payton bring down the plaza with her rendition of Don't Rain on My Parade.

The Broadway on the Plaza finale also featured this year's Signature Idol Competition winner, Jade Jones, who had delivered a powerhouse rendition of Piece of My Heart and bested three other finalists that afternoon in a final round of competition judged by WETA's Robert Aubrey Davis (host of the weekly arts discussion show, Around Town) , Wesley Taylor and Eric Schaeffer. Having attended that event, I can confirm that Jade had stiff competition in her fellow performers; and it was fascinating to hear the judge's critiques after each performance.

So be thankful, Washington, delights and surprises are in store for everyone this season from Signature; and some good advice for the future: don't miss next year's event!

Find out about Signature's 2014-15 Season, and much more at

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Born and raised in the DC-area, Ellen spent countless hours as a child and adult nurturing her love of theater in the classic DC venues, (read more...)

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