This is the year that Signature Theatre is slated to move from its 136-seat black-box in a former chrome plating shop on South Four Mile Run Drive into its new, two theater space in Shirlington where it will have a 299-seat main stage and a 99-seat experimental stage.
The physical space will be impressive, but what shows will the theater be putting on? The leadership of the company isn't just sitting back waiting to see what composers may be offering or planning on revivals of the standard repertory. The company is actively involved in developing new musicals that will be filling their houses (and, they hope, their seats) for years to come.
Last Monday at the Kennedy Center, as part of the annual Page-To-Stage festival, Signature presented a program of songs from four musicals the company is developing. In addition, a recent grant from the foundation of former Wall Street investment banker Theodore P. Shen will underwrite the creation of new musicals over the next four years.
The concert at the Kennedy Center began with five songs from the latest project by Matt Conner, the actor turned composer who set Edgar Allan Poe's poetry to music for "Nevermore," which premiered at Signature last January.
This new project will tell the story of "The Underground Railroad," and the songs previewed on Monday were earnest, atmospheric pieces with gospel-flavored releases.
Sporting a more contemporary sound, songs by Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner for their youthful, male bonding musical included a rousing "Good Old Glory Type Days." While the title of the show is listed as "Ass Backwards" in the program, previous word from Signature was that it would be titled "SSA - Ass Backwards."
Tom Donoghue and Jermaine Hardy's tale of an interracial relationship, "The Next Big Thing," gave Stephen Gregory Smith and Eleasha Gamble a chance to shine on the song "Before I Close My Eyes," one of three numbers that seemed the most melodic of the evening.
THE FINAL SAMPLING was of songs from a show that has already been slated for production at Signature, "Saving Aimee," which will have its world premiere in Signature's new main stage next April. The musical is by Kathie Lee Gifford, David Pomeranz and David Freidman. Pomeranz and Gifford collaborated on the musical "Under The Bridge" which Signature's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer directed Off-Broadway last year. This new show is a bio-musical based on the life of famed radio evangelist of the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson.
The concert was captured on video as part of the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage program and is available for viewing online at their Web site, www.kennedy-center.org.
If these samples whetted the appetite for more, fans can anticipate the results of the Shen Family Foundation grant of $1 million to Signature.
Among the commitments the grant allowed are:
A production in the 2007-08 season of a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa whose "The Highest Yellow" premiered at Signature in 2004.
A 2008-09 production of a new musical by Joseph Thalken, composer of "Harold and Maude: The Musical."
Another new musical from Ricky Ian Gordon, composer of "My Life With Albertine."
WITH ALL THIS activity set for the future, the company isn't exactly dormant in the meantime. The 2006-07 season will conclude its run at the current space with a two-piano version of the classic "My Fair Lady" before they open the new space with Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," followed by "Saving Aimee," and then the American premiere of the musical "The Witches of Eastwick," which Eric Schaeffer directed for its world premiere in London. They even have a few non-musicals on the bill: "Crave," a new play by Sarah Kane to be directed by Jeremy Skidmore, and the world premiere of a drama about the fist woman to be hanged in Pennsylvania, "Nest," by Bathsheba Doran.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.