Saturday, August 8, 2009 -There was plenty of time on the 2 hour jaunt to Signature from the Twinbrook Metro to try to figure out which activities I could attend. There were master classes scheduled with Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, actress/singer Felicia Curry, choreographer Karma Camp, and Associate Director Michael Baron. There were highlights from the new season’s musicals. Sondheim songs, and a cabaret that highlighted new works to be presented at Signature, including songs from the upcoming production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Sycamore Trees.
There were mini-concerts with three of my favorite performers – Julia Nixon (Helen Hayes Award winner for her riveting performance as Caroline in Studio Theatre’s Caroline, or Change), singer and actress Emily Skinner, about to open in Dirty Blonde, and Katie Thompson, who stole Giant from her co-stars earlier this year. As time slipped away, I realized it would be impossible to see everything. I decided to see the performances by all the young actors I had written about in my Theatre Schmooze Scene Stealers columns for DCTS.
Here’s how Signature Theatre’s Assistant Director Matthew Gardiner described the day. “Signature Theatre’s Target Open House is a great way for us to show the community what Signature is all about. This year’s event featured performances or master classes beginning every 15 minutes from 12-9 PM, and all for free. This year focused more than ever on the many talented artists who are living in DC. We featured over 65 of DC’s best and brightest performers. Hopefully the event not only highlighted our theatre and our upcoming season, but the amazing talent we have here in Washington.”
I got in line hoping to see the American Musical Voices Cabaret in The ARK which was beginning in 5 minutes, but was turned away along with dozens of others. (Thanks so much Metro for all that single tracking on the Red Line!). Fortunately, there was another performance later at 7:45 pm.
I schmoozed with Chris Mueller, the resident photographer, (who I loved in The Music Man at The Washington Savoyards) and took a picture of the three Pafumi siblings – Elijah, Jeremiah, and Gabriella – holding The Regional Theatre Tony Award that Signature had just won this past June. Chris coerced me into posing with The Tony, and I finally held Broadway’s highest award in my hand. I began my imaginary acceptance speech by thanking Lorraine Treanor of DC Theatre Scene, my family, and mentor Theatre Mania’s Peter Filichia.
Outside, The Plaza was packed with Signature regulars and visitors from the neighborhood surrounding the stage where Maria Egler and Steve McWilliams performed a song from Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, which I thought was the best musical of this year’s Fringe Festival, (along with DCTS’s audience favorite Landless Theatre’s Diamond Dead).
More familiar faces in the crowd: Katie Thompson and Dan Cooney were about to perform in the Nevermore Reunion, Florrie Bagel’s parents – Marilyn and Tom Bagel, and Elisa Rosman, who is the musical director of Elden Street Players’ production of Passion, which received rave reviews from the local critics. My theatre going social group, The Ushers, will be seeing the show this coming Saturday.
My friend Kenny arrived made the big sacrifice of the day – Ken left each performance early to get in line for the next show. The poor guy only saw one complete performance. That’s a good friend!
Walking back into the Mead Lobby, I bumped into Eric Schaeffer and congratulated him on winning the Tony, and asked if he had had a chance to hear my recent podcast with Marc Kudisch at 9 to 5 in NYC, where Marc did a spot-on hilarious impersonation of him. Eric said he loved the interview. I thanked Eric for hiring so many of the young actors who were featured in my Scene Stealers articles for his upcoming season.
2:45 PM In The Ark: Signature Sings Sondheim:
No one does Sondheim better than Signature Theatre, and this performance featured five of our best local voices and talents – Florrie Bagel, Matt Pearson, Aaron Reeder, Chris Sizemore, and Erin Driscoll.
It was such a joy sitting with Florrie’s parents and watching them beam as Florrie performed “What More Do I Need” from Saturday Night, “Another Hundred People” from Company, and “I Remember” from Evening Primrose. She didn’t just sing these songs, she lived them. With her gorgeous voice, and her expressive face and hands, and in her unique enthusiastic way, Florrie sold each brilliant Sondheim lyric.
Jenny Cartney not only accompanied the performers on the piano, but she played the overture from A Little Night Music, and sang “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies. I have never heard Jenny sing before, and her performance was emotional and beautiful.
Matt Pearson sang “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd and “Children and Art” from Sunday In The Park With George in his rich tenor, and Aaron Reeder beautiful baritone thrilled the audience with his renditions of “Everyone Says Don’t” and “With A Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle, Erin Driscoll, who will be playing Johanna in the upcoming production of Sweeney Todd, sang “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney and the funny “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into The Woods. Chris Sizemore blew the roof off with his powerful performance of “Being Alive” from Company. What a great way to start the day, with such fantastic performances by these exceptional young singers.
3:45 PM In The Max: Katie Thompson in Concert:
She’s a force of nature, and she had to be exceptional to steal a 4-hour performance of Giant this year, playing Vashti, so I couldn’t wait to see Katie Thompson’s mini-concert. Not only is she a fantastic singer, Katie is also a great piano player and songwriter, and the audience got a taste of her many talents.
Sitting at a Baldwin piano, for 30 minutes, Katie entertained the audience with emotional songs about finding love, falling out of love, and about her divorce: “I decided when I got divorced that I would write only one song and this is it”, and she sang the powerful, taunting “Soft Pillow”. The lyrics, “I’ll lie with an ex and drool as much as I want” drew laughs and cheers from the appreciate audience. You just wanted to snuff out that ex with that soft pillow. And when she sang “Stay”, I got chills up and down my spine. But when Katie sang Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, the audience erupted into applause and cheers.. You can hear Katie sing it here.
Katie sang one of her newly-written songs, telling a funny story about one of her recent co-stars who she was dating for two weeks, “a nice bald Jewish guy. He was so cute, but had another girlfriend as it turned out. So, instead of being mean, I wrote this song, and he doesn’t know about it yet!” And the song (whose title I don’t know) had these funny, but not mean, lyrics:
“You are confused to turn me down.. If you want me, come find me”. The audience ate it up and roared. And Katie told how composer Michael John LaChiusa helped her write a key change that “people won’t notice”. It was a funny story told by a hysterical storyteller.
Katie sang two funny songs from her new musical R.R.R.E.D. the Musical Manifesto – “I’m Not Pregnant, I’m Just Fat” and “I Like You”. (watch a trailer for it on her website here.)
The show about redheads who decide to procreate (with each other) to ensure that there will always be redheads in the world, will be performed at this on this year’s NYMF (New York Musical Theatre Festival) at 45th Street Theater on October 1-3rd . Here’s the ticket link.
I’m now a Katie Thompson fan for life!
5:00 PM In The Max: Signature Season Highlights Concert:
Before the performance began, Brad Hathaway of Potomac Stages handed out his annual [and we later learned, the final] Ushers Award to Signature for The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Visit, voted upon by local theatres’ ushers.
The concert contained highlights from this season’s musicals Show Boat, Sweeney Todd, [title of show], Sycamore Trees, and First You Dream: The Kander & Ebb Concert, performed by Nick Blaemire, Erin Driscoll, Eleasha Gamble, James Gardiner, Will Gartshore, VaShawn McIwan, & Stephanie Waters. Harry Winter served as the emcee. The energetic Howard Breitbart accompanied the singers.
Eleasha Gamble got the crowd cheering with her razzmatazz rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “City Lights” from The Act. Will Gartshore in his velvety tenor introduce the audience to a song from Ian Gordon’s score of Sycamore Tree, as he sang “You Can Fly”. He then joined James Gardiner in a duet version of “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd. Erin Driscoll’s soaring performance of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” filled the Max with her gorgeous voice. I can’t wait to see her as Johanna in Sweeney Todd.
Nick Blaemire quietly and sweetly sang “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. Erin sang “Souvenir” from Sycamore Trees, and the tone turned lighter when the Glory Days creators James Gardiner and Nick Blaemire got the audience laughing with hilarious “Original Musical” from [title of show], about two guys who want to write a Broadway musical. I hope brother Matthew Gardiner who is directing Signature’s upcoming production of [title of show] won’t let nepotism get in the way and cast these his brother James and Nick as the two show writers.
Heidi Blickenstaff, who was in the original cast of [title of show], would have been proud when Stephanie Waters sang her 11 o’clock number, “A Way Back to Then” with so much emotion. I loved it!
Three songs from Showboat brought loud applause from the audience. First, Eleasha boomed “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine”, swaying her hips and stirring everyone into a frenzy. Will and Stephanie sang the duet “Make Believe” with gorgeous harmonies, and Signature newcomer set the Max stage on fire with his powerful rendition of “Ol’ Man River”. It was a “Wow”!
The performances ended with James and Nick, and the company singing “”Nine People’s Favorite Thing”, from [title of show]. I am looking forward to the musicals that Signature is offering in the 2009-2010 season.
6:15 PM In The Max: Emily Skinner: Broadway, My Way:
I have been an Emily Skinner fan for 12 years, since I saw her in her joint Tony Award nominated performance with Alice Ripley, playing Siamese Twins in Side Show. Emily is a native Virginian, who has starred in the NY productions of Jekyll & Hyde, James Joyce’s The Dead, The Full Monty, and Dinner and in Signature’s The Witches of Eastwick and Ace. She is about to play Mae West in Signature’s season opener Dirty Blonde.
From the moment the lights went down in The Max, Emily had the audience in the palm of her hand, and laughing: “I’m Emily Skinner, and I do musicals! My mother went into labor while watching Hello Dolly. I was the kid who you liked for 5 minutes , and then wanted to slap. I was prescribed Ritalin but after 2 days when I got so glassy-eyed, my mother took me off it. I finally figured how to use my hyper-energy when my kindergarten teacher told me, ‘You have 10 minutes every day to perform in front of the class, but you must behave the rest of the day”. I tried to be all the Jackson 5 at the same time.”
The Emily Skinner I have admired for a long time can do it all, and her program displayed all her diverse talents from comedienne to Broadway belter to operatic singer. After opening with “Sisters”, Emily sang the very funny and vocally demanding “Here Comes The Ballad” as a tribute to musical theatre legend Barbara Cook. It’s a song that Barbara Cook sang to laugh at her reputation of being an ingénue.
Next came a gorgeous rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which was written for Gertrude Lawrence. Emily told the story of how Ms. Lawrence fell into the orchestra pit on opening night of “Oh, Kay!” while singing the song, and how she picked herself up and returned to the stage, and finished the song.
Next came a funny song called “Bald Headed Men” by Christine Lavin, dedicated to Emily’s new boyfriend, who is – you guessed it – bald: “Everybody knows it’s testosterone that turns a bushy haired man into a chrome-dome – but testosterone is what makes a man a man – the more that he’s got the more that he can do the things that make the women go OY!”, followed by “No One is Alone” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, sung with heartfelt emotion.
Now, it was time for Emily to sing something bad and outrageous – “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid a la Eve Arden and Dorothy Loudon. You had to be there to see what she did with this song. She was scary! Emily was born to play the evil Ursula, and someone better put her in that role in a future production. I would travel a thousand miles to see her!
Next, “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” from the show Elegies for Punks and Raging Queens brought many tears from the audience. The show is a song cycle with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and additional text by Bill Russell. The work features songs and monologues inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Each of the monologues are written from the perspective of characters who have passed away from AIDS. The songs represent the feelings of family and friends. Emily loves the show and sang the song hoping that people will see the show, and will remember those whose stories were stitched into the quilt.
Emily has always wanted to play Mae West. It all started when she was doing a show a few years back, and the critics called her The Mae-Westian Emily Skinner – “but I wasn’t trying for that!” So, as a preview for Dirty Blonde, where she plays Mae West, Emily swayed her hips to “Come on Up And See Me Sometime”, for which Mae West co-wrote the lyrics. “I’d love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair. Come see the show, but don’t bring your cell phone… Let’s give these people what they’re waiting for – a big climax!”
Emily told the audience how the day after 9/11, the show went on at The Full Monty, and in the weeks that followed, free tickets were given to NYC police and firemen and their families – as a way of saying thank you to them for their courage and sacrifices on 9/11.
After one performance, a large man gave her a huge crushing hug outside the backstage door, and told her that nine of his fellow firemen had died on 9/11, and that he wanted to thank her for her performance. He looked at Emily and told her, “This is the first time since that awful day that I have been able to feel”. And, then, this same man hugged and thanked every actor and technical staff who came out the stage door. (I’m welling up typing this). How apropos to end her performance with “We’ll Meet Again”, written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles: “For all we know, we may never meet again.”
7:45 PM in The Ark: American Musical Voices Cabaret:
The final performance that I attended was a cabaret by some my favorite young composers Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Joseph Thalken, Matt Conner and Adam Gwon, whose musicals have been or are being developed for Signature Theatre, through the generosity of the Shen family. The outstanding cast and performers were Felicia Curry, Sam Ludwig, Stephen Gregory Smith, Bayla Whitten, Weslie Woodley, and Rachel Zampelli. Gabriel Mangiante, brilliantly accompanied the performers on piano.
Felicia Curry served as the hostess and began the evening joining Sam Ludwig on Ricky Ian Gordon’s short, but beautiful “Heaven”. Weslie Woodley’s gorgeous rendition of “Finding Home” from Dream True, also written by Mr. Gordon, followed.
Rachel Zampelli sang a very funny Joseph Thalken song about a happy “3-way” couple, called “Cottage for Three”. Felicia Curry raised the roof with her powerful rendition of “Black is a Moocher” from Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party. Weslie and Stephen Gregory Smith joined together to sing the haunting “People Like Us“, also from The Wild Party.
Stephen Gregory Smith introduced Matt Conner’s work and Rachel Zampelli began by singing the long and tongue-twisting “Run Away” from Partial Eclipse, A Rock Song Cycle, followed by Sam Ludwig’s solemn performance of “Blue” from The Hollow, that Matt and Hunter Foster are writing. Stephen Gregory concluded with a beautiful rendition of ”Bed and Breakfast” from Partial Eclipse.
Bayla Whitten sang composer Adam Gwon’s “I’ll be Here”, from his musical “Ordinary Days”. It was a song with many emotions – a very beautiful love story that turns tragic. The woman sitting to the right of me cried. Stephen and Bayla lightened the mood by singing the adorable, “I Like” from The Boy Detective Fails, which had a very successful and well received reading on July 23rd.
Sam Ludwig’s powerful rendition of Adam Guettel’s “How Glory Goes” from Floyd Collins, reminded me how much I love that song and Adam’s work, and why I named Sam my favorite musical theatre performer for 2008 in my Best Musical Performances article.
I had a great time at the Open House. Thanks to Target and to Eric and all the staff at Signature for arranging this wonderful day. And, special thanks to the house managers and volunteers who gave so much of their time to ensure the event was a success.
Why doesn’t WTOP and/or Joe Barber EVER mention Signature? He/they comment on every other cultural event in the region. It’s preposterous.
I got no answer to this query when directly online to both. Thank you for any insight.
Harry Winter says
Wonderful article, Joel. Thanks for including the story about the fireman and Emily. Wow – it’s that sort of thing that makes it all worth while. See you in October with “Showboat.”
Julia Nixon's performance was also wonderful. Julia's backup drummer, a young lady, had passed away a day or two earlier, as the result of an accident, and Julia and her marvelous accompaist, were both quite emotional, which added to the passion of the performance. Julia's banter with the audience added a comaraderie, as well.; Julia Nixon's performance was also wonderful. Julia's backup drummer, a young lady, had passed away a day or two earlier, as the result of an accident, and Julia and her marvelous accompaist, were both quite emotional, which added to the passion of the performance. Julia's banter with the audience added a comaraderie, as well.;;
Doug Poms says
Very good and comprehensive article, Joel. The open house was a real treat for many. I especially enjoyed the Sondheim concert, Emily Skinner and the preview concert for the upcoming season. Thank you Signature. The upcoming 20th season looks to be filled with amazing shows and talent.
Richard J. Summers says
Listening to both Nick and James sing from Title of the Show was wonderful. I hope both of them return to Signature to perform in the show this year since I quickly rushed down to the box office right after their performance assuming that they would be. Let’s keep out fingers crossed.
Barbara B says
I also purchased Katie Thompson’s CD – in fact I purchased two copies and will give one as a gift to some people who have probably never heard of her. I’m hopeful we haven’t seen the last of Katie and that Eric or some other theater in the area will bring her back for a cabaret or other performance.
Elisa Rosman says
Joel, thanks for a great summary of a great day! And thanks so much for the “Passion” shout-out…see you there on Sat.!
I agree it was the best Signature Open House. Now I’m kicking myself in the butt for not going to the Katie Thompson cabaret. I’ve heard so many peopel rave about it. A neighbor bought on of Katie’s CDs after the show. Every year my “must see” is Eric Schaeffer’s master class. This is the third year, and I think I could be a coach to anyone auditioning for him. LOL. Regarding the concert consisting of songs from the upcoming season, I got a kick out of Nick and James singing from ‘Title’, knowing that it seemed autobiographical. As far as the concert finale on the Shirlington Plaza, the performances were great – Emily Skinner doing the ‘Mama” song from Chicago was fabulous. Agree thanks to all who worked so hard to make it happen. Also, the sponsor who donates much to the arts in this are.
Judy Karo says
Julia Nixon’s performance was also wonderful. Julia’s backup drummer, a young lady, had passed away a day or two earlier, as the result of an accident, and Julia and her marvelous accompaist, were both quite emotional, which added to the passion of the performance. Julia’s banter with the audience added a comaraderie, as well.
Len Bogorad says
I agree that the Open House was fabulous. We also thought that Katie Thompson’s and Emily Skinner’s mini-concerts were particularly exceptional.
The only negative aspect of the Open House was that it was so difficult to decide what to see at any given time.
Although there were a lot of people there, we found that if we limited ourselves to the performances in the Max, we could get in line for the next performance as soon as the previous one let out and make it in even though there were a lot of people ahead of us.
Barbara B says
Joel, a very good summary of some of the shows performed at Saturday’s Open House at Signature Theatre. I was able to squeeze in 6 shows after I finished volunteering at the outside reception desk. I think it was Signature’s best Open House ever (it was their 3rd Open House). Congrats to Signature on what appeared to be a very successful day – believe they sold quite a few tickets to the upcoming season.