By NY Theatre Buzz columnist Richard Seff
I pop out from New York every so often. This time I came to Washington, and, though I’m certain you’ve already read a lot about the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA here is my take on it.
I start with what I call an Event. Over the last weekend in May, I toured the Signature complex, recorded a podcast with Chita Rivera, had an introductory chat with Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, had two marvelous meals in restaurants adjacent to the theatres, and saw The Happy Time and The Visit. Working backward, it’s that last I want to talk to you about first.
It strikes me as something of a miracle that a new piece by three Tony Award winners (John Kander, Fred Ebb, Terrence McNally), starring two double Tony winners (Chita Rivera and George Hearn), directed and choreographed by double Tony winners (Frank Galati and Ann Reinking) and a Tony winner for orchestrations (Michael Gibson) should be trying out in a regional theatre in the good old USA. I mean, I am certainly old enough to remember when these credentials would have guaranteed a tryout in a huge out of state theatre (the Max at the Signature has only 270 seats) on its merry (sometimes not so merry) way to Broadway. So just to look at the poster outside the Signature sent shivers up my sentimental spine, for clearly, something important was going on inside.
And the happy news is that the evening totally reflected its blue blood list of creators. Kander and Ebb have given us major musicals in the past (Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman are merely samples), but in my opinion The Visit is the jewel in their crown. Perhaps it’s because its source is a major play by Friedrich Dürenmatt, one which served Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in its American premiere in the 1960s. But certainly it’s because it’s the most complex, mature score the composers have given us. Kander’s melodies are haunting when haunting is required (“Love and Love Alone”, “You, You, You”), entertaining when the happy villagers are temporarily happy (“Yellow Shoes”, but note the sadness and despair underneath), reflective and incisive to match the mood of the scene from which they emerge (“Winter,” “I Know Claire”). I found myself always involved, often mesmerized not only by the rangy score, but by the book as well, as McNally wisely hued close to the Dürenmatt source, deviating only when this team decided to depart to areas that more suited this musicalization, and those departures are seamless. Not an easy task, but this prize winning playwright has managed it before in many other adaptations (i.e. The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance, Spider Woman).
Frank Galati, who staged the piece in an early production in Chicago, has reconceived it for Signature, not only because the stage’s configuration is different this time out, but because the material has changed as well. New material for Anton, the male lead, which makes him more of an equal combatant in this battle for a life, has required new focusing, and Galati has achieved it with great imagination and skill.
Of course it helps enormously to have two stars of megawatt power in the lead roles. Rivera has aged incredibly well. She proved only last season that she can still outdance about everyone on Broadway. But this time she gets to show that she can act as well as any of her non-musical peers, handling the subtle shifts that occur constantly as her character’s story unfolds. She’s done four other Kander and Ebb musicals, so they now know how to play to her strengths as a singer. “Love and Love Alone” will never be interpreted more effectively than it is deep in the second act. “I Walk Away,” “Look At Me,” “A Confession” equally suit her and thrill us.
And for George Hearn they’ve come up with “I Must Have Been Something” among other goodies, which allows Hearn’s mellifluous baritone to shatter us with feeling. The chemistry between the two stars is palpable, and it was confirmed as they left the stage together after their final call, arms entwined about each other’s waists, whispering to each other. I always love to conjecture what actors say to each other at such moments. Lawrence Olivier was reported to have said, after a triumphant night as Othello, “Well, we fooled them again.” I think in this instance it had to be more like “Is not this the most delicious triumph either of us has ever had?” If other words were exchanged, I don’t want to know. For I’ve seen most of their triumphs, and this one hits the brass ring. I can only hope that some wise and caring producer picks this production up, and gets it into the Big Apple as soon as a suitable theatre becomes available. These performances, this material, must be preserved. Running in D.C. only until June 22, I highly recommend you hire the baby sitter (this one’s not for kids) or pawn the silverware and get over to Signature for the theatrical treat of a lifetime.
Now, in flashback, I begin my odyssey. I boarded the crack AMTRAK Acela Express at New York’s Penn Station, and landed in D.C. in 165 minutes. I barely had time to read two chapters of Julie Andrews’ Home, down a ham and cheese at my seat, and notice Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore whizzing by before we rolled in to the magnificent Union Station in the nation’s capitol. A wild blue top taxi driver, who had no idea where he was going, managed to cross the Potomac and find the Sheraton National with the help of an emergency phone call, so I was deposited at my weekend home. We pulled up just as what seemed like 300 international cyclist champs arrived in vans, buses, limos and private cars to compete in a weekend race. I scooted to the Registration Desk just in time. Behind me was a long line of boys and men all bursting with energy in black spandex shorts and tank tops. All very surreal and bizarre. I found my room, and eventually managed to enter with my card key. I don’t travel light, so unpacking took a while. Lorraine Treanor, who runs this website, picked me up at 3:30 and drove me to the quite remarkable Signature complex and surrounding Shirlington Village. Had I been invited to design all of it, this is what I would have come up with. Cobblestone streets, shade trees in abundance, dappled sunlight filtering down on smooth sidewalks lined with restaurants and coffee shops to suit every taste and budget.
After a walking tour of all of the above, we entered Signature, where I was to record a podcast with Chita Rivera. To quote a lyric of Fred Ebb’s, I was “walking among my yesterdays” for I represented Rivera and Kander and Ebb for the first twenty years of their careers, when I was a theatrical agent. Perhaps because we all started out together, we have been as family through those twenty years and the thirty that have followed. I wandered about the commodious lobby, which offers intermission and pre-theatre space to both theatres, the smaller ARC and the larger MAX. A valuable collection of photos, letters, telegrams, posters, memorabilia are beautifully displayed. There is a slide show which covers privately owned photos covering everything from the writers’ Broadway debut, Flora the Red Menace thru The Visit, one of their final collaborations. Ebb’s biting humor is on full display in his notes and letters, and to those of us who knew and loved him, the Signature has captured his essence in this elaborate display.
I’ve interviewed Rivera before, and once again our conversation flowed. You can check us out here on dctheatrescene to hear what she had to say, and you can do the same for John Kander here when he talked with me eight weeks ago at his home when he was still polishing the score of The Visit. Their candor, their passion for this work, their enthusiasm for the present and the future, are all clear on these podcasts, and partly explain why, as they sail well past the half century mark in their careers, their work has remained fresh and alive.
Then, after dinner, a long and refreshing sleep in my humongous kingsize bed at the Sheraton. Saturday morning was sunny and calm but there were reports of thunderstorms so I carted my foldup umbrella with me as I returned to the Signature for the matinee of The Happy Time and the evening performance of The Visit. We were all seated by 2:00, and the show was about to start when all the lights went out and the house manager announced we had lost power and were under “tornado watch.” Well! That was a first for me. There was a lot of nervous laughter, we were given progress reports and twenty minutes later, the first notes came tinkling out from Mary Sugar at the piano, conducting herself, the bass and the drums under David Holcenberg’s musical direction. We were off to St. Pierre, Canada, in 1920.
The original production of this rarely revived third Ebb and Kander musical had a bumpy start. Gower Champion, who directed it, had just come off of Bye Bye Birdie, the success for which he’d been given much of the credit, so even though this show followed Cabaret, a big hit for Kander and Ebb, Champion had most of the “muscle.” The director of a musical should be in charge, and in the early days of mounting a new show there is a always a minuet during which authors and director maneuver for control. Things went fairly smoothly at first, for an excellent cast was assembled, and though the authors had hoped for an older Jacques (Robert Preston had been pursued) they were certainly happy to have Robert Goulet, fresh from his smashing debut in Camelot and who was, like the character he was playing, French-Canadian. But once the set was assembled, it became clear that Champion envisioned rear-screen projections of photographs and the character sort of disappeared, lost in the vast spaces of the playing area in front of the screens. The musical tried out in Los Angeles, which is not a “theatre town”, and many of the film’s bigwigs were offering advice to Champion on how to “fix it.” So it became somewhat softened, and it was then that the three authors saw their vision blurring. Richard Nash, the author of the book, was not at all happy with the changes he’d been asked to make. In any case, the results were somewhat disappointing and the show, though not a flop, managed a run of only 286 performances, which did not earn back its investment.
In later years much of the edgier material was restored by Nash, Kander and Ebb and the Signature production featured the script used for a production at the Goodspeed in Connecticut. My feeling now, having seen an excellent cast under Michael Unger’s fine direction, is that it is an underrated score, and its book is clearly written by a playwright who understands character and complexity. Uncle Jacques is a tough nut to crack. He must be charming and likeable, though his immaturity and inability to face many truths about himself make him a poor mentor for his nephew Bibi, who is impressionable and influenced by him. In the Signature production, when these complexities are played well, the book ignites and we are totally engaged. This happens a lot in scenes with Jacques, Bibi and Grandpère, Jaques’ father. Michael Minarik has great strengths to bring to his Jacques. He sings well, he’s capable of digging deep for his feelings, and in his final confrontation with his father, he is genuinely moving. But his early scenes, when he first returns to St. Pierre, have about them a staccato manic quality, as though he were constantly on uppers. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t react, he flies through his lines, and when he uses force, his speaking voice is irritating and make if difficult to believe he is the darling blacksheep relative whom most everyone loves. David Margulies, a vastly talented character actor, takes the stage whenever he is on it, and brings weight, age, humor to Grandpère, and has great fun singing and dancing his two big numbers, which makes us not care that he’s not a trained singer or dancer. Jace Casey’s Bibi is charming and all we could wish for.
Jacques’ love interest Laurie is played by Carrie A. Johnson, whose warm soprano is a complete pleasure. She does great justice to “Seeing Things,” “I Don’t Remember You” and “Please Stay,” all of which remind us that Kander is one of the great melodists of the post-60s composers. A footnote to casting: At the matinée I attended, an understudy played “Suzanne,” Bibi’s mother, and brought renewed respect to the acting profession. Katie McManus was totally secure (or seemed so, which is even better) and carried “In His Own Good Time” superbly with the original cast member George Dvorsky.
The Happy Time has not been adopted by all audiences because its hero is flawed, and because in the conclusion of its storywe learn Jacques has continued his wandering ways. His growth does allow him to liberate Bibi from his unhealthy influence, but in this musical Boy (Jacques) does not get Girl (Laurie) and one of our favorite characters (Grandpère) dies. Both of these story points cut into the length of the show’s run. But if you’re looking for a musical that is often haunting in its story, and lyrical and lovely in its score, you’ll have a fine time, a happy time, with this one. Its run at the Signature is now over, but I hope it’s done again and again, for it reveals a mellower, more wistful side of the vast talents of Kander and Ebb, the perfect companion piece to The Visit, which his how I came upon it.
What a weekend! I’m still re-visiting it in my dreams. You are fortunate to have Signature Theatre in your part of the world. My advice is to visit it often.