The biggest question for theater lovers for the new year has now been answered: Can Signature transition to its new theater and still put on shows with the immediacy, intensity and intimacy that has been their hallmark for 13 years in the old "garage" on the other side of Four Mile Run?
The answer is an unqualified "yes," and that means that the first show in the new space, "Into the Woods" is an unqualified success.
Signature, and its Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, have made their
reputation in large part on superb productions of the works of Broadway's acknowledged master of the modern musical, Stephen Sondheim. It was a Sondheim musical, "Sweeney Todd," that first brought both the company and the director to prominence back in 1991. Since then, the Signature has mounted seven more Sondheim shows, some more than once.
When Sondheim's "Into the Woods" was announced as the first show in the new two-theater complex on the top floors of the new Arlington County Library which anchors the new west end of the village of Shirlington, it was viewed as both an affirmation of the company's past and a bridge not just across the creek but between past successes and future dreams.
It has proven to be just that.
"THE MAX," the 299-seat theater named in honor of Maxine Isaacs and James A. Johnson, the lead donors in the capitol campaign to fund the theater, has many things that the old 136-seat theater didn't have. The most immediately noticeable thing it has is height. The old house had girders not too much above head height. Many long-time Signature followers well remember the stunted tower from which Rapunzel let down just a few feet of hair in the first Sondheim musical the company mounted in that space.
That was the first production by Signature of "Into the Woods." How appropriate, then, that the key feature of the set design by Robert Perdziola for this new "Into the Woods" is a tower that seems to go up forever. The Rapunzel who occupies it is the silver throated Erin Driscoll, one of the most talented of the 17 very talented performers making up the cast of this new production. For the first show in the new theater, Schaeffer cast exclusively from the list of veterans — people who had performed in Signature's old space.
Schaeffer brought back Daniel Cooney and April Harr Blandin to play the baker and his wife who go into the woods in search of items required by a witch to make a potion to reverse a curse. Eleasha Gamble is the witch and is particularly good when appearing as the ugly crone before her transition to lovely lady as a result of the potion's magic.
No fairy tale is complete without a prince or two, and Schaeffer has two very good ones, Sean MacLaughlin and James Moye. Donna Migliaccio is the dynamic mother of Jack who sells his cow for magic beans. Jack is a tremendous Stephen Gregory Smith. Other fairy tales give us the bright and insightful Little Red Riding Hood played by Lauren Williams and Cinderella, the fabulous Stephanie Waters.
SOME IN THE "dress circle" single-row balcony that surrounds the house complained of difficulty hearing some of the dialogue, but from the seats on the main floor the sound was spectacularly good for a theater's first show in a new house.
No one, however, had any difficulty hearing the voice of the giant from the sky. It was a pre-recorded voice that reverberated throughout the building accompanied by the booming of sound designer Tony Angelini's sub-woofers hidden under the seats to shake up the whole house. The voice sounded strangely familiar. A quick check of the back pages of the program removed any doubt about that identity of this "Into the Woods" giant — it reads: "A
very special thanks to Angela Lansbury."
We told you Signature's reputation isn't just local.