- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Come one, come all: Open house at Arlington’s brand-new Signature Theatre takes place this weekend with two days of mostly free programs and entertainment to mark the official unveiling of the institution’s two-stage complex in the ever-expanding Shirlington Village area.

Beginning at 11:30 a.m. today with free ticket distribution for a noon concert by Euan Morton, there will be a full schedule of master classes, family activities, backstage tours and even a sneak peek at a rehearsal of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods” directed by Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s co-founder and artistic director.

The opening celebration concludes Sunday with a 10:30 p.m. musical set titled “Little River Turnpike” by three noted Signature performers. It follows a 7 p.m. preview performance of “Into the Woods.” Most events are 45 minutes long and are being presented on a first-come first-served basis. A few require signing up for tickets in advance.

Live piano music will be on tap throughout, as will free food and drink supplied by Target, the open-house sponsor. Tours are scheduled every hour on the hour. Child-friendly activities include creative play in the costume shop and participation in a neighborhood scavenger hunt. An unusual offering is a master class in auditioning to be held both days with preselected university students; the public is invited to watch. For a complete schedule of offerings, see www.sig-on line.org/openhouse.htm.

In the past 17 years of the theater’s existence, Mr. Schaeffer has earned wide recognition for his work interpreting the Sondheim repertoire. “Woods,” Mr. Schaeffer’s 12th Sondheim musical, is an imaginative take on familiar fairy tales that can use nearly all the state-of-the-art facilities in the theater’s main stage, called the Max, which seats 299 people. A smaller second black-box theater, known as the Ark, seats 99 but has the ability to increase to 175. (Signature’s former space had room for just 156.)

The move into the new, 48,000-square-foot, surprisingly intimate space is a major milestone for the nonprofit professional theater. For most of its life, it was based in a former factory for plating car bumpers, but it gradually developed into a nationally recognized home for musical theater and original contemporary works.

Familiar interior architectural elements in the new $16 million complex help convey the spirit of the original space, including a passage into the Max, a sound-and-light lock that acts as a themed environmental segue into the theater proper.

The style throughout is defined in press materials as a “refined industrial aesthetic” reflecting the theater’s garage origins. Enhanced staging flexibility is key, as it was in Signature’s former home.

Where artists and support staff once had to work without adequate rehearsal or dressing-room space under ceilings barely 11 feet high, they now have theaters with 29- and 16.6-foot ceilings, six catwalks, custom-designed chandeliers and artwork in comfortable lobby areas, a retail store, three rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms for up to 41 performers and scenery and costume shops.

Lodged above a new public library, the glass-fronted exterior is a dramatic two stories high. Arlington County provided $5.5 million for the shell, the first public-private partnership in county history; Signature was responsible for the rest. More than $1.4 million was spent on acoustics alone.

“You don’t move forward by playing it safe,” Managing Director Sam Sweet remarked during a recent press tour.

True to universal theater tradition, major portions of the complex are named for prominent local donors: the Max after Maxine Isaacs and James A. Johnson; the Ark and a first floor Kogod Lobby after Arlene and Robert Kogod; a full-service main Mead Lobby after Jaylee and Gilbert Mead in honor of their son Rob Mead. A pianist will play regularly there before and after every show as well as during intermissions. Free parking is provided for 550 cars in an adjacent garage.

“Into the Woods” will run from Jan. 16 to Feb. 25, followed by a world premiere of the musical “Saving Aimee,” with book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford, April 10 to May 13.

A Female British Invasion Play Festival includes a world premiere of a play based on real events about a Mennonite girl accused of infanticide in 1809. An evening of “Singing Shakespeare” and a production of “Hamlet” performed in Hebrew are part of the citywide festival dedicated to the Bard. The Washington premiere of “Songs for a New World” by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Mr. Schaeffer, is planned in May for the Concert Hall at Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center.

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