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A Grand Start To A Mini-Festival

Signature opens the first of a pair of musicals by LaChiusa.

Musical theater lovers whose tastes tend toward the rich and intellectually challenging darker side of the art form will find just what they "wanna see" in "See What I Wanna See," the first of Signature Theatre’s two productions of musicals by John Michael LaChiusa.

LaChiusa is one of the best known of the new crop of composers and writers who have emerged in the past decade or two. He first came to the attention of local audiences in 1995 when Signature Theatre presented his much lighter piece, "First Lady Suite," which told stories of Eleanor, Mammie, Jackie and Lady Bird interwoven into a fantasy revue.

Since then, he has created "Marie Christine," a troublingly dark musical drama for Audra McDonald based on the Greek tragedy of "Medea" and "The Wild Party, "a bizarre jazz piece based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March which had a brief run on Broadway with the likes of Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. In 2004, Signature premiered his portrait of obsession based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, "The Highest Yellow."

This time out, LaChiusa turns his musical, lyrical and theatrical talents to a triplet of stories from the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of which was the basis for the famous film by Akira Kurosawa, "Rashomon," which told the story of a rape from three perspectives, those of the rapist, the victim and the victim’s husband. LaChiusa tells this story, setting it in 1951 in Central Park on the night that Kurosawa’s movie opened in New York City.

LaChiusa blends that disturbing story with another of a priest who, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 has lost his belief in a god. As some sort of demented practical joke, he sets up the expectation of a miracle in Central Park, which, while no one else witnesses it, results in a private miracle for himself. Pulling the two stories together, in addition to the New York City Central Park location is a third tale of a the fatal final encounter for a pair of lovers.

LaChiusa writes musical numbers that resemble musicalized scenes more than simple songs. While his melodies are clear and his lyrics poetic, they don’t form the usual 32-bar song with an "a" section and a "b" section in what literature analysts identify as an aaba format. Instead, many are sharply defined monologues for individual characters, which reveal a great deal about their personalities and describe the events of the story.

\Signature’s production of "See What I Wanna See" is directed with a sharp eye for detail by Matthew Gardiner who has been assistant director on many fine shows here and who directed and choreographed "tick, tick … BOOM!" at MetroStage last year and won the Helen Hayes Award for directing Studio Theatre’s "Reefer Madness." A six piece orchestra sounds marvelous in the superbly evocative orchestrations of Bruce Coughlin which use both a flattened line on a regular flute to give a semi-Japanese sound to the piece and a rarely heard bass flute to give the piece a solid underscore.

Bobby Smith plays both the janitor who discovers the crime scene for the first story and the priest who sets up the events of the second. He’s good in both roles but strongest as the tormented priest.

The cast also includes Tom Zemon in full voice as both the husband of the rape victim and as a CPA who has given up worldly activities to live a homeless life in Central Park, Rachel Zampelli as the rape victim and also an actress in Central Park, Channez McQuay as the medium through whom part of his story is told and Matt Pearson as the rapist/murderer.

Now Signature, with the financial support of the Shen Family Foundation which provided a million dollar grant to establish "The American Musical Voices Project," mounts nearly simultaneous productions of two of LaChiusa’s newest works. "See What I Wanna See" runs through the end of May in the smaller of Signature’s two theaters, "The ARK."

Later this month, Signature will mount the world premiere of LaChiusa’s musical "Giant," based on the novel by Edna Ferber which was made into a movie with James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in 1956. That is expected to be a huge production in their larger house, "The MAX." In the role originated by Hudson will be Broadway veteran Lewis Cleale.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>