Signature Sings: Part 1(1989-1994)

October 14, 2009

As part of the Signature Theatre 20th anniversary celebration, the theater is using their cabaret series to highlight productions of their past… in 5-year increments.  (Got that?)  So the first show featured Erin Driscoll, Eleasha Gamble, Amy McWilliams, Matt Pearson, and Stephen Schmidt singing songs from  Signature shows produced 1989 – 1994 including Sweeney Todd, Company, Wings, Assassins, and Into The Woods.

The evening is more mini-revue than cabaret in as much as the performers are singing as characters rather than sharing personal points of view using the material.  And there is a good deal of staging in the theater space.

That said, director Michael Baron has assembled a lot of material from the five shows being summarized* and keeps the evening moving along.  He makes an attempt to re-contextualize some very familiar material (e.g. Company’s Barcelona as a morning after menage a trois rather than a duet; Ladies Who Lunch as a duet with a Sex in the City vibe).  However, the show seems to work best with more straightforward presentations of the material.  And this is never truer than when either Erin Driscoll or Eleasha Gamble are on stage.  Driscoll was exquisitely mesmerizing in two songs from Wings and an total charmer in On the Steps of the Palace, sitting on top of the piano in only one shoe.  Gamble’s version of Last Midnight was absolutely riveting. 

The five performers sounded amazing in the group numbers.  Music director Jay Crowder deserves special praise for not only furnishing a completely nuanced evening of sound, but also for his amazing work in reducing numbers like Company and Everybody’s Got the Right cohesively for five performers.

As someone who passed the auditions for the first Signature production of Sweeney Todd in the Gunston Arts Center and saw that original production twice, I was especially happy to see the evening pay tribute to the history of Signature flashing photos from the productions of the shows onto the stage.  It is also terrific that people involved with the shows have written in with memories and that each performance will feature a different guest.  Tonight  Dana Kruger, the star of Wings, was particularly charming with her memories of the production.

The encore of the show was The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, the opening number of Signature’s first show, Sweeney Todd.  And it seemed poignantly appropriate to end the evening where it all started.

Signature Sings: 1989-1994
October 13 – 18, 2009

TICKETS  $33  Click here or call 703-820-9771


Tuesday 8:30pm – Dana Kruger

Wednesday 8:30pm – Judy Simmons from the original companies of Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and Company

Thursday 8:30pm – Karma Camp, choreographer of Company

Friday 7:30pm – Jon Kalbfleisch, music director for Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Company, Wings, and Into the Woods

Friday 9:30pm – Liz Isbell from the original companies of Sweeney Todd and Company

Saturday 7:30pm – Buzz Mauro from the original companies of Assassins, Company and Into the Woods

Saturday 9:30pm – Artistic Director and Signature co- founder Eric Schaeffer, director of Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Company, Wings and Into the Woods

Sunday 2pm – Michael Sharp from the original companies of Sweeney Todd, Assassins and Into the Woods

First You Dream at Signature

September 13, 2009
Julia Murney and Heidi Blickenstaff (left to right) sing "The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far," from Kander and Ebb’s "The Rink," in Signature Theatre’s production of "First You Dream."

Julia Murney and Heidi Blickenstaff (left to right) sing "The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far," from Kander and Ebb’s "The Rink," in Signature Theatre’s production of "First You Dream."

The most compelling reason to see First You Dream at Signature (which should be more than enough) is the combination of six protean performers, an amazing 19-piece orchestra, and terrific material well supported by clear direction, efficient choreography and top-rate sound and lights.  And the worst seat at Signature offers a more intimate, direct performance experience than a seat mid-way in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower’s Theater or a Broadway house.

If the Nationals* hit it out of the park as often as this team does, we’d have a World Series team.**  Each of the six cast members is wonderfully showcased and shines often.  Norm Lewis scores early as a charming song-and-dance man in Sara Lee and is a surging force of nature in a medley of Love and Love Alone and Life Is. (I do have to admit, though, that his previous work as Sweeney is so deeply etched in my mind that part of me kept expecting him to eventually wield a razor.***)  Matthew Scott’s medley of Cabaret and I Miss the Music (from Curtains) was absolutely riveting and James Clow easily travels from comic (Every Day of the Week) to touching (My Own Space).

On the distaff sides, Eleasha Gamble had a tremendously affecting and powerful take on City Lights.  Watching Julia Murney’s choices was like a master-class in acting, whether it was capturing the focused ambiguity of the character in Colored Lights, portraying a cocaine-addled murderess in the Cell Block Tango, or communicating blunt emotional directness in The Money Tree.  And Heidi Blickenstaff, Heidi Blickenstaff, Heidi Blickenstaff !!!!!  It’s not just residual goodwill from [title of show] that has me doing cartwheels, but this emotional belter (Maybe This Time) showed she can find interesting new moments in material that has been long (over)done.  Several of her choices in Ring Them Bells just had me cheering in their freshness and immediacy.

It’s hard not to make this write-up a laundry list of all the terrific moments, and I really had to edit – there’s more great work you’ll be able to discover for yourself.

It says something about the priority of the production that the 19-piece orchestra took up ¾ of the stage.  They sounded great and they had several terrific featured spots in the show.  And at the show I saw, the audience sat through the exit music. 

That orchestra was placed on black risers, very much like the set of the revival of Chicago.  Part of me hopes that this is part of a brilliant marketing plan by director Eric Shaeffer to produce a show that can play on the set of Chicago on off-nights.

Of course, these performers don’t look good in a vacuum.  And part of the best work that the production team was to let the performances look organic, so one didn’t really know what came from the director and what came from the performer.  Similarly, the choreography kept people organized, had a couple of brilliant moments (particularly re-imagining the song Boom Ditty Boom from 70 Girls, 70 as a war between the sexes), and never made the performers look like they were over-extending themselves.  Also, it’s easy for things to get lost on the very wide stage in that space, and the focus between the staging and lighting was terrific.

So, let’s get to the quibbles. 

My biggest complaint about the show is structural.  I didn’t generally understand why the numbers were chosen, or how one thing led to another.  The rhythm of the first act was showstopper, showstopper, showstopper.  While no one can argue that it’s entertaining, it also meant that there was a certain lack of emotional momentum, something that was much better in the second act. 

Also, the way the show was structured and the choice of material didn’t give me any new insights into the work or worldview of Kander and Ebb.  On paper, First You Dream seemed like a great song to build a Kander and Ebb revue around, since their work is so full of dreamers – Sally Bowles, Roxie Hart, Molina to name but three.  But since dreamers and dreaminess wasn’t the thrust of the piece, the song doesn’t have the heft to support the piece.  In most cases, the orchestrations used for the material sounded interchangeable from the original theatrical versions.  Where I found the show most artistically successful were in moments such as the Cabaret/I Miss the Music Medley, a trio of songs about the movies, and the re-though Boom Ditty Boom was where the creative team put their own ideas about the material very far forward.  And part of the problem of keeping the show on such high octane was that it doesn’t leave much room to build a huge, explosive finish.  Even so, Show People from Curtains felt like an anemic choice for a closer.****

I have to recognize a previous comment on this blog that complained about the material selections in the show, citing them as obscure. When I got to the theater, I was surprised about that criticism because in the first act alone had such Kander and Ebb chestnuts as Ring Them Bells, Sara Lee, City Lights, Sing Happy.  However, when going to intermission, I was reminded of this opinion when the gentlemen behind me were bemoaning the fact that the songs in the first act were “OK, nothing great” and that all the “good” songs from Chicago and Cabaret were being saved for Act II.  The previous comment also bemoaned that the songs New York, New York and Cabaret were given short shrift.  And I have to say that if you are someone who lives for those two songs, it’s perfectly valid that you’ll leave this production disappointed in the way they were presented.

And of course sitting there in the theater, I found myself congratulating the team for certain choices (The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree from The Rink as the “caustic female duet” rather than The Grass Is Always Greener from Woman of the Year).  And of course there are songs that I wish had been chosen – wouldn’t we all love seeing Julia Murney do Everybody’s Girl?  But that illustrates, in its own Zen-like way, the advantages and disadvantages of trying to do a revue of a songbook with the depth and breadth of Kander and Ebb’s oeuvre.

Tickets and info

*I’m really not that much of a sports fan as the blog recently seems to suggest.

**However, they don’t do There Goes the Ball Game

***Spoiler alert – he doesn’t.

****It’s not even the closer for Curtains

“Lost Songs” at Signature

September 6, 2008

The Lost Songs of Broadway 1940 – 1950 opens the new season of the Signature Theatre cabaret series.  The show, directed by Michael Baron, presents a collection of songs from lesser-known musicals of the era.

The material is all chosen with taste.  Certain songs such as “Rub Your Lamp” from Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It and “All I’ve Got to Get Now Is My Man” from his Panama Hattie are certainly interesting discoveries. 

Cast members certainly had stellar moments: Eleasha Gamble (who seems unable to put a foot wrong onstage) scored with “Dat’s Love” from Carmen Jones; Will Gartshore provided an energetic “The Leader of a Big Time Band” from Something For the Boys (Porter again!); and Kimberley Sherbach and  Jobari Parker-Namdar were charming in “Can’t You Just See Yourself” from High Button Shoes.

The evening presents two pleasant, well-sung forty-minute sets of great material.  So why didn’t I have a transcendent cabaret experience?

The songs, although selected with intelligence and taste, seem randomly assigned and ordered.  There is no narrative or emotional arc, no major themes developed (say, the lesser-known Porter), no interesting juxtapositions, no medleys.

The patter for the evening presents brief, tongue-in-cheek, two-line synopses of the shows that the songs came from.  These do nothing to illuminate the particular songs being sung or give the audience any reason to care about the material being performed.

 While the cast are all talented musical theater performers, the songs are presented in a fairly neutral concert tone – not as songs sung by characters with a story to tell and not as songs expressing a burning thought that the singer needs to personally convey.  And at no moment does one ever feel that a specific performer is delivering a version of the material that no one else could deliver.  (As a matter of fact, it didn’t feel like any of the performers had known any of the material for more than a month — and consequently never provided more than a surface interpretation of the material.)

Similarly, the music direction by Gabriel Mangiante provides straightforward versions of the material, but misses opportunities that the talented cast would seem to provide for distinctive arrangements and fascinating harmonies.

(Pictured — Eleasha Gamble)

Signature finds “lost songs”

August 27, 2008

Signature Theatre’s Cabaret Series Kicks Off with

The Lost Songs of Broadway, 1940s – 1950s

Performances run September 3 – 6 in the ARK Theatre

The Lost Songs of Broadway 1940s – 1950s opens the Signature cabaret season next week

The show features Will Gartshore, Eleasha Gamble, Jobari Parker-Namdar, and Kimberly Sherbach in performing a collection of terrific tunes from some of history’s forgotten mid-century musicals.  With music director Gabriel Mangiante on the piano, the show promises material by Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Kurt Weill, Rodgers and Hart, Harburg and Arlen, and more in the show directed by by Michael Baron.  

Lost Songs performances are September 3 and 4 at 8:30 pm, with two shows a day on September 5 and 6, at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm.  The setting is Signature’s 110-seat ARK Theatre transformed into a dramatic nightclub complete with intimate table seating.  Starting an hour before performance time, patrons can visit Ali’s Bar in the Signature lobby and bring choice wine, beer, and sophisticated chef-prepared fare right into the Theatre.

Tickets for all shows are $30 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-7328, visiting, or at the Signature Theatre Box Office.

(photos: Kimberly Sherbach (t) and Eleasha Gamble (b))