- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Connections of both a quiet and more dramatic kind marked Monday's formal debut of Signature Theatre's musical version of "Grand Hotel."

The evening also marked, informally, the start of the Washington area's fall theater season. Olney Theatre Center's "The Real Thing" opens Friday, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's "Rocket to the Moon" opens Sunday, Shakespeare Theatre's "The Oedipus Plays" opens Tuesday and Arena Stage's "Agamemnon and His Daughters" starts Sept. 7.

Signature's early date — a week earlier than usual — was done "to fit my schedule," explains Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer with his trademark giggle and smile. He was leaving the next morning at 8 for Green Bay, Wis., to direct Ann-Margret in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" for the New York-based production company SFX Theatrical (which changed its name to Clear Channel Entertainment last month). The peripatetic Mr. Schaeffer works several days each week for the company.

Among other projects, he also is artistic director for the Kennedy Center's upcoming Stephen Sondheim celebration, so, of course, the center's president, Michael Kaiser, was in Monday's audience in Arlington, as was Signature's new managing director, Sam Sweet, formerly of the Shakespeare Theatre. Mr. Sweet noted of his post that Signature "never really had a management team."

"They are a new dynamic duo," pronounced Hecht's Chief Executive Officer Frank Guzzetta, an enthusiastic long-term member of Signature's board. Like many others, Mr. Guzzetta raved afterward about Mr. Schaeffer's inventive two-hour nonstop operatic version of the novel "Grand Hotel," set in 1928 Berlin. (A previous musical of the same name garnered five Tony awards on Broadway in 1989.)

"Everything they do makes you feel connected," said Mr. Guzzetta, praising the "intimacy" of Signature's stage. "A small theater is where it's at."

"It's a play with music," commented Mr. Schaeffer, who is noted for his interpretive musical productions. "And I think people came not knowing the show. It's totally different. I wanted to reinvent the Broadway version, which had a lot of glitter. I didn't want that. Here, you actually see issues of class.

"One guy came up to me and said it seemed brilliantly reconceived," he volunteered, beaming.

Anne Allen, executive director of the Cafritz Foundation, which is one of Signature's major contributing patrons, called the production "one of the most innovative and exciting plays I've seen in a long time in a small theater."

The atmosphere in the lobby was plenty grand before and after showtime. Lighting was low. A red carpet in a darkened hall connected the lobby and the theater proper, where two properly attired doormen-actors greeted guests. The postshow reception included plentiful champagne and an immense German chocolate cake made by Alexandria's B. Keith Ryder imprinted with the outline of a hotel facade.

The entire play is "like a Robert Altman movie set to music," said tired lead actor Will Gartshore, playing a dissolute but tragic young baron who finally connects with his soul through his infatuation with an older female ballerina played by Patricia Pearce Gentry.

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