Nearly a decade after the musical Titanic docked in New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Arlington’s Signature Theatre brings to the stage a production that is everything the original was not. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Broadway production earned lackluster reviews. Nevertheless, Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer remained a fan. “I’ve always loved the musical Titanic and I have felt that Signature should reinvent this musical for our audiences in an exciting new way,” he has said. With creative staging, an uber-talented cast, deft direction by Schaeffer, choreography by Matthew Gardiner, and an outstanding 17-piece orchestra (conductor, James Moore, musical coordinator, Jon Kalbfleisch), Signature has given new life to this musical.
Signature’s “ship of dreams,” is a three-story set in the center of the MAX Theatre with metal stairways rising from the stage to the rafters. Paul Tate Depoo III’s innovative scenic design arranges seats on all four sides of the stage so that the audience is never far from the action. While the story is well known – an ocean vessel that was regarded as a technological marvel meets a disastrous fate due to human error – Schaeffer manages to keep the tension high.
Sam Ludwig and Stephen Gregory Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
As the passengers begin to file in, there are looks of amazement on their faces as they glimpse the Titanic’s majesty. In“How Did They Build the Titanic?”, Sam Ludwig as third class passenger Frederick Barrett, runs down the amazing stats for the ship. Forty-six thousand tons of steel/ Eleven stories high! /She’s a great palace, floating… /Quiet as a lullaby There’s no attempt to outdo the lavish sets that dominated James Cameron’s film version. With one crystal and gold chandelier showcasing the ship’s elegance, much is left to the imagination. It works.
Stephen Gregory Smith, Katie McManus (Photo by Colin Hovde)
The social makeup of the cast is on full display thanks to costume design by Frank Labovitz and wig design by Anne Nesmith. We meet the famous names in first class – the Astors (Matt Conner and Jamie Eacker) – as well as those below, like third class, celebrity- obsessed Alice Beane (an amusing performance by Tracy Lynn Olivera). Christopher Bloch plays the captain, who plans to retire after the ship reaches New York. While he’s an experienced navigator, he succumbs to pressure from J. Bruce Ismay (Lawrence Redmond), chairman of the White Star line, which owns the Titanic, to increase the ship’s speed in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. That move, of course, would prove to be the first of many mistakes made that doomed both the ship and its passengers.
The cast of Titanic (Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III)
Kevin McAllister conveys military bearing as one of the ship’s officers, going so far as to take responsibility for the ship hitting the iceberg. Christopher Mueller and Sean Burns are touching as young members of the ship’s staff who show incredible courage as they continue to serve the passengers who remain behind. There’s a touching moment in the ballad, “Still,” when Ida Strauss (Florence Lacey) refuses to board the lifeboat, opting to stay behind with her husband, Isidor (John Leslie Wolfe).
Christopher Bloch, Nick Lehan, Lawrence Redmond, and Bobby Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Bobby Smith, a Signature regular who last dazzled audiences in La Cage aux Folles, plays the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. His emotional lament is heartfelt in “Mr. Andrews’ Vision” – Just a cursory look at the blueprints here/ Shows the weaknesses that we have missed/ How the water poured in/A three-hundred-foot gash/And caused the bow to flood and to list.
The special effects that dramatize the sinking and the fate of those who died in the water are simply stunning. Who needs CGI when you have the brilliant minds behind this production?
While there are more than two dozen songs in Titanic, Maury Yeston’s musical score failed to produce even one hit. The strength of the Signature production is the large cast’s impressive vocal talents, on full display in the ensemble numbers at the beginning and, thrillingly, at the end of the show.
Top photo: The cast of Titanic, photo by Colin Hovde
4200 Campbell Avenue
Through January 29, 2017
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, closes out its season on a sky-high note, with an exuberant La Cage aux Folles, directed and choreographed by the uber-talented Matthew Gardiner. An exceptional cast and a skilled production team more than do justice to Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics. Chances are you will exit the theater humming the musical’s anthem, “The Best of Times.” (Truly, this is the best time you will have in musical theater this summer, so get your tickets now for this limited run through July 10.)
Lee Savage’s scenic design transforms Signature’s stage into a St. Tropez nightclub. (Jason Lyons’ lighting design alternates between bright lights and muted tones, signaling when we are actually watching the show or witnessing action backstage.) To the right and left of the stage are the wings where the drag queens who make up the nightclub’s chorus line busy themselves applying makeup, donning wigs, pulling on skin-tight garments, and sliding into stilettos. The club’s owner and MC, Georges (an excellent Brent Barrett), wearing the first of many dazzling blazers, welcomes the audience and introduces Les Cagelles singing “We Are What We Are,” setting the tone for what follows. As with all the numbers, the dancing is energetic and athletic, while the colorful, flamboyant costumes are a feast for the eyes. Also note that this production called for 45 wigs to complement those costumes. (Costume design, Frank Labovitz, wig design Anne Nesmith.) The team of male dancers has mastered the art of kicking and leaping on high heels with nary a wobble or misstep. Impressive.
Bobby Smith as Albin
The star of the show is Albin, aka “Zaza,” the most famous drag queen on the riviera. Bobby Smith (is there anything this actor can’t do?) is phenomenal in the role. His Zaza persona is the perfect diva, showing a fondness for elegant gowns and expensive jewels, relying on a devoted and zany servant, Jacob (an amazing DJ Petrosino), and relishing all the attention from fans. Yet as Albin, he’s vulnerable and insecure, often needing to be coaxed onto the stage. Smith handles both sides of his character oftentimes with a grand stroke, and other times with such subtlety – the shift of an eyebrow, the flip of a hand – that he’s mesmerizing.
Brent Barrett and Bobby Smith
Georges and Albin have been a couple for 20 years and together raised a son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlon), the result of a one-night encounter between Georges and the long-gone Sybil. Jean-Michel arrives to tell Georges that he is engaged to Anne Lindon (Jessica Lauren Ball) whose father is head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party, a group that has been working to close down the drag clubs. Anne’s parents are arriving to meet their daughter’s future in-laws. Fearful that Edouard Dindon (Mitchell Hebert) and his wife, Marie (Sherri L. Edelen), won’t approve the marriage, Jean-Michel lies about his family situation, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Georges to invite Sybil in place of Albin. Georges finally works up the courage to share with Albin Jean-Michel’s news and wishes. Rather than the angry outburst Georges expects from his longtime partner, Albin instead remains silent, a far more devastating reaction. Going on stage, Albin asks Les Cagelles to leave and alone sings the heartfelt, “I Am What I Am.” Smith makes Albin’s grief so palatable, we feel his pain. It’s an emotional end to the first act.
Albin, however, is willing to put aside his hurt feelings to help Jean-Michel. He agrees to dress like a man and attend the dinner as Uncle Al. Smith displays his enormous talents for physical comedy with his tentative attempts to walk like a man. Truly hilarious is the moment when he uncomfortably assumes the “man spread,” his legs placed wide apart. Jean-Michel, however, is unimpressed with Georges’ plan and unleashes a barrage, criticizing Albin’s lifestyle. Georges reacts angrily, reminding Jean-Michel with “Look Over There,” that Albin has been a good “mother.”
Albin (Bobby Smith, center) at Chez Jacqueline
When Sybil sends a telegram saying she can’t attend the dinner, Albin once again hopes to help, putting on a conservative dress, shoes, and jewelry, and appearing as Jean-Michel’s mother. Not only does Albin charm the Dindons, he manages to get a table for dinner at the popular Chez Jacqueline run by his friend (Nora Y. Payton). When Jacqueline asks Albin to perform he sings “The Best of Times,” impressing Anne’s parents until he finishes the song by tearing off his wig. Anne refuses to break off the engagement, while Jean-Michel apologizes, not to the Dindons, but to Albin. Georges and Albin agree to help the Dindons escape the paparazzi by dressing them in drag and taking them through the club.
While Smith is the standout, the rest of the cast is terrific. Barrett, whose Broadway credits include playing Billy Flynn in Chicago and Frank Butler opposite Reba McEntire in Anne Get Your Gun, also is familiar to D.C. audiences. His stage presence is perfect for the self-assured Georges and his tenor delights, particularly in “Song on the Sand,” and “Look Over There.”
DJ Petrofina and Paul Scanlon
Petrosino displays his versatility and comic timing as Albin’s servant, Jacob. Is it possible he last dazzled us in a much different role? As the macho Chino in Signature’s West Side Story? We are in awe.
Nora Y. Payton
It’s a tribute to the considerable talents of Payton, Edelen, and Hebert that even with less time on stage they have a major impact. As the club’s stage manager, Francis, Michael Bunce provides several comic moments. Kudos to Les Cagelles: Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isiah W. Young, and Phil Young.
Conductor Darius Smith, who also plays keyboard, directs an orchestra that sounds larger than it is and adds considerably to the enjoyment of this musical. Members are: Kelsey Mire and Ed Waters (reeds), Chris Walker (trumpet), Scott Ninmer (trombone), Bill Hones (bass) and Paul Keeling (drums).
La Cage aux Folles was on Broadway in 1983, decades ago when gay marriage was a future hope and gay couples were fighting to become parents, stressing that family could take many forms, as long as children had adults who loved and nurtured them. La Cage brings home that message once again.
Read the interview with Wig Designer Anne Nesmith
La Cage aux Folles
4200 Campbell Avenue