Monday, January 22, 2007

Not just another opening and another show Saturday evening but an all-out glam-gown and black-tie blast to welcome Signature Theatre’s entirely new complex and the formal opening of the Stephen Sondheim classic, “Into the Woods.”

“Stretch limousines come to Shirlington,” one wag remarked seeing the invitation-only crowd of guests and donors alight in front of the pulsing vertical band of neon blue light that marks the $16 million two-stage building nestled above the new Arlington County Public Library.

More apt was the remark of patron Victor Shargai, backbone of the Helen Hayes Awards, calling the occasion “a meeting of the clan.” The scene had a small-town feel in the very best way. The audience — treated to a champagne reception followed by a three-hour show and then dinner with late-night dancing — was intimate and knowing.

“Happily Ever After” was the upbeat title of the gala, reflecting the feelings of longtime supporters of Signature’s professional farseeing work — especially that of Eric Schaeffer, the unassuming artistic director and co-founder whose reputation has grown along with the theater’s ambitions. After beginning life 17 years ago as part of the Arlington Arts incubator program with $500 and 128 subscribers, the theater now has more than 4,500 season-ticket holders signed up and a budget of $4.5 million. Appropriately enough, co-founder/actress Donna Migliaccio has a key role in the current production that features a large cast of Signature regulars.

No paparazzi waited on the outside plaza, but if they had they would have found more than a few local and national celebrities of note. They included a smiling Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser enjoying what he called “theatrical diplomacy,” and a smiling Kathie Lee Gifford, the TV-famous entertainer whose musical “Saving Aimee,” based on the life of fiery evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, will have its world premiere at Signature in April. (Local connection: Miss Gifford grew up in Annapolis and Bowie, Md.)

Miss Gifford’s connections with Mr. Schaeffer go back to a time when, after meeting him at a dinner party, he importuned her to let him see any work she was writing; he ended up directing her musical for children off-Broadway and her part in a Broadway revue called “Putting It Together.” She said the reviews were the best of her life.

What is the secret of Mr. Schaeffer’s success? “He likes actors,” said New York actress Florence Lacey, who has been in five Signature productions. “Eric just charms any one of us until he gets what he wants,” Miss Gifford added with obvious admiration. “He’s a miracle.”

Major donors to Signature’s Capital Campaign who were present include three couples who each gave $1 million or more and have portions of the building named for them: Maxine Isaacs and James A. Johnson, Arlene and Robert Kogod and Gilbert and Jaylee Mead. “The thrill of a lifetime,” said Ms. Isaacs, seeing the word MAX in strong black and white above the main stage entrance. Helen Lee Henderson, of the HRH Foundation, a gala sponsor along with Giuseppe and Mercedes Cecchi and the Reinsch Pierce Family Foundation, has her initials gracing Mr. Schaeffer’s office: “His Royal Highness,” she laughed, praising his talents as “phenomenal.”

“It’s been an amazing two weeks of celebration,” said Mr. Schaeffer onstage at the finale, thanking those responsible. “No rest. … Getting the show done. … Ten thousand people came to last weekend’s open house.” He spoke of being a kid from a small town in Pennsylvania’s Amish country having a dream to first work, then direct, and finally to build a theater. “It’s really overwhelming,” he told the applauding crowd.

None of the Isaacs-Johnson family “can sing nor dance nor act” but “to be able to help people do that is our privilege,” said Ms. Isaacs, Capital Campaign co-chair along with Frank Guzzetta, the head of Macy’s North. Honorary Chairman Stephen Sondheim wasn’t present Saturday but sent his own words of support for a memorial booklet given to guests that reads, in part: “In 17 short years, Signature Theatre has changed the musical theater landscape in Washington.” The current musical is the 12th one of his directed by Mr. Schaeffer.

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