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Signature’s Small Musical a Charmer

A Musical About Writing a Musical

Friendship and a shared passion for musical theater are both the subject of Signature Theatre’s latest show and the hallmarks of the production. While Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is up in New York opening his own Broadway show, his Shirlington company is hosting young performers and creators in a musical about musicals going to Broadway.

The strangely titled "[Title of Show]" is a success story dear to the hearts of musical theater fans everywhere. It began as a project of two young men who wanted to write a musical to submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival but didn’t quite know what to write about. So they wrote a musical about two young men writing a musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. (On the application for the festival the first blank to be filled in was "[Title of Show]" which they kept as the name of their musical.)

The musical needed a cast of four — the two young men who were writing it and the two young women who helped them work it into performable shape. It didn’t require a lot of scenery, just four chairs. Orchestra? No, just a keyboard player sitting on stage with them.

The show was accepted by the festival and was so well received that an off-Broadway production followed — so they wrote additional scenes about getting an off-Broadway production. Then the nearly unthinkable happened. It was so well received off-Broadway that a Broadway production was staged — still with just a cast of four and one keyboard player. It managed to last over 100 performances on Broadway and now the piece is being performed in professional theaters around the country.

Signature’s mounting brings together some very talented young performers who have worked together before and a sense of camaraderie pervades the nearly two hour intermissionless performance. Sam Ludwig and James Gardiner team with Erin Driscoll and Jenna Sokolowski. Sokolowski was in "Urinetown" with Driscoll who was in "Sweeney Todd" with Ludwig who was "Les Miserables" with Gardiner. In fact, at least two of the four appeared together in half a dozen shows over the past half decade.

Add James Gardiner’s brother Matthew to the mix. He is the resident assistant director at Signature and takes on full direction and choreography duties for this production with a sure hand. Among other things, he sees to it that both the spoken dialogue and the sung lyrics are clear and understandable, pacing the performance so that the laughter — of which there is a great deal — doesn’t cover up important plot points.

The musical is humorous and self-referential, peppered with dozens of in-jokes about musical theater, the funniest of which actually is a sight gag inserted by director Gardiner about "Glory Days," the show James co-wrote and on which Matthew was assistant director that, like "[Title of Show"] managed the unpredictable accomplishment of transferring to Broadway. Unlike "[Title of Show]," which ran for three months, "Glory Days" closed immediately. In the song in this show in which the cast sings about flop musicals, the program from "Glory Days" is given a featured spot.

The warmth and humor of the show captures the youthful blend of self confidence and angst that afflicts many in their mid-twenties. It is precisely that blend, however, that makes it so infectiously entertaining. (Be forewarned, however. It also features some of the language that twenty-somethings tend to overuse that in more mature circles is frowned upon in mixed company.)

There are songs about the hopes and fears of youngsters just setting out on their adult lives and pursuing their dreams, as well as those about the peculiarities of musical theater. You don’t need to understand all the in-jokes to enjoy the show. Whenever a reference to an obscure old musical or song or performer crops up (which is approximately every 30 seconds) it is quite clear that it is a reference and just what its meaning is intended to be.

Besides, Ludwig, Gardner, Sokolowski and Driscoll deliver the lines and sing the songs with such relish and enthusiasm it is a pleasure to go along for the ride.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.