BWW Reviews: Signature's World Premiere of CLOAK & DAGGER Provides Frothy Summer Fun

BWW Reviews: Signature's World Premiere of CLOAK & DAGGER Provides Frothy Summer Fun

One of the fabulous things about the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre is that while you can certainly witness a production of a great Broadway musical classic (Gypsy, for example), there's never a shortage of world premieres each season. Those are the kinds of things that get me personally very excited because I want there to be a new and exciting future for the American musical, not just a past that we can only reminisce about. One can only attain that possibly bright future if new works are given a place to be tested out. To close out this season, Eric Schaeffer lives up to his reputation of providing a place for these works to grow by bringing his loyal audience a new world premiere musical by Broadway (and Signature) vet, Ed Dixon. Cloak & Dagger - while not one of those shows that's probably going to go down in the history books in its current state - has a couple of things going for it that make it an attractive viewing opportunity as we ease into the summer months.

A fun spoof on film noir that's loosely based on the Maltese Falcon, Cloak & Dagger takes us into the world of Nick (Doug Carpenter), a low-level New York City detective who is a bit down on a his luck. Out of money and out of options, his path changes when Helena Troy (Erin Driscoll) - a very pretty blonde in a stunning red dress - comes into his now emptied and dimly lit office to inform him of her plight and need for assistance. A mad search for a valuable golden venus statue, a bit of a 'whodunnit' murder situation, numerous encounters with unsavory individuals (all played by Christopher Bloch and Ed Dixon) along 42nd Street, in Little Italy, and beyond- the question becomes how will it all end for Helena Troy and, for that matter, Nick? (See the show to find out.)

With flavors of City of Angels and 39 Steps throughout, a play on a well-recognized Charles Dickens' quote ("it was the best of times....") and references to several other classic musicals, what Mr. Dixon offers here isn't entirely new or different, or even all that inspiring. The oft repeated jokes become tedious even if they're intentionally groan-worthy given the spoof factor. The book, such that it is, could be seen as predictable. Likewise, in less than 90 minutes - as we meet the numerous unsavory characters that Nick and/or Helena encounter - questions may emerge as to why so many of them are women. Is there an artistic reason or is it a way to create an opportunity for Mr. Dixon and Mr. Bloch to play drag and get a few (cheap) laughs? The duo certainly does receive numerous laughs especially at one point when they wear what Helena Troy is wearing. Questions of whether this is necessary pushed aside, I will say they display their enviable character acting skills as well as their ability to handle more costume changes than they probably desired throughout the show and keep the standard high. In lesser hands, it would have probably been a disaster.

Though a little more variety - and perhaps a few more interesting twists - would have spiced things up a bit, I do have to give credit where it is due and suggest that the book works mostly ok because we have four stellar performers giving it life and take every opportunity they have to sell it. They recognize full well the likely justified archetypal nature of all of their characters and just go with it, not trying to make the musical any more than it is. In this case, I would call out Driscoll and Carpenter especially because as the only two performers to play the same character throughout, they managed to make me forget my usual disdain for archetypal characters for mostly the entire performance. This is a testament to the strength of their performances.

Variety becomes an issue too with the music and lyrics though I certainly recognize the pastiche factor at play. Even if they aren't the kind that I will go on remembering forever (and that is possible with pastiche music - take Stephen Sondheim's Follies for example), I will say I found some of the music to be catchy. Jordon Ross Weinhold's orchestrations - featuring two reed parts, keyboard, and drums - are one reason for this, especially when they were well-played by the band led by the always excellent Musical Director Jenny Cartney on keyboard. My issues with creating orchestrations via nifty computer programs aside (let's just say I long for the good old days of musicianship), they sounded pretty darn ok.

Much of the music works well with the book and overall concept of the show. "Who Put the Mob in Mobster?" is very fun and features that kind of melody that's irresistible. Erin Driscoll's performance of "Doors Close" - perhaps the strongest musical offering in the show - likewise, allows her to beautifully showcase her strong midrange and ability to emotionally connect with lyrics. This vocal moment, the one when I was completely entranced, was most definitely a continuation of the trend that Ms. Driscoll has set this season at Signature and Ford's theatres of having standout vocal moments in a production.

Staging-wise, Eric Schaeffer does what a few other directors haven't been able to do this season and manages to make an intimate musical to unfold on relatively large stage space in a way that doesn't make it really noticeable that the action was only taking place on a small subsection of the stage. Daniel Conway's scenic design, Kathleen Geldard's costume design, Colin K. Bills' lighting design, and Lane Elms' sound design are integral parts of setting the mood and essence of the piece. All of the technical elements work well together and one has to give particular props to Ms. Geldard for capturing the essence of so many different characters in her costumes, especially the ones Bloch and Dixon wear.

All in all, Cloak & Dagger may not be the next great musical, or even an example of a very good one, but as presented at Signature, it does provide an entertaining way to spend an evening. Kudos to both Dixon and Schaffer for their commitment to new works and I look forward to see what happens with this one.

Running Time: Less than 90 minutes with no intermission.

"Cloak & Dagger" is playing at Signature Theatre's Ark Theatre space through July 6, 2014. The theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, Virginia. Tickets can be purchased by calling 703-820-9771 or by clicking here.

Photo: Helena Troy (Erin Driscoll) tosses an intriguing case to Nick Cutter (Doug Carpenter) in Signature Theatre's "Cloak & Dagger." Photo by Margot Schulman.

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