Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review: 'Sunset Boulevard' Rises at Signature

Signature Theatre is taking the dare and staging another mega musical on their intimate stage. Two years ago the theatre found success with ‘Les Miserables’ and its possible that history will repeat itself with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

Based on the 1951 Billy Wilder directed film classic, the show is about faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond (Florence Lacey) now a recluse clinging to memories and dreams of a comeback. When Joe Gillis (D.B. Bonds), a down on his luck screenwriter stumbles upon her mansion, they both find opportunity in their chance meeting. Always along Norma’s side is her faithful butler Max (Ed Dixon) who has secrets of his own. Joe eventually falls in love with budding writer Betty Schaeffer (Susan Derry) and finds he cannot escape from the clutches of Norma’s dark world and its material temptations.

Lacey’s features may be too soft to convey the brilliance of a silent career, but she captures the fragile desperation of Norma and is on the verge of finding the insanity that the role demands. When it counts she sings magnificently. Her performance of the comeback anthem “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is intense and she rips the heart out of “With One Look.”

Bonds has the task of bridging Norma’s has-been world with the joy of the Hollywood hopefuls. At this performance after opening night, he appeared tentative as Joe. Perhaps a bit too boyish looking, he does manage to convey the cynicism in the title song and both he and Lacey work magic when they sing “The Perfect Year.”

Dixon continues the succession of actors to embody the deadly serious authority of Max. Derry conveys the innocence of Betty and scores in the romantic duet with Bonds in “Too Much In Love to Care.”

“Let’s Have Lunch”, “The Lady’s Paying” and “Every Movie’s a Circus” are three ensemble numbers that bring excitement and movement. Choreography by Karma Camp makes appropriate use of the limited stage space.

The book writers and lyricists, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, respect the original movie source and allow Lloyd Webber to hijack the dramatic moments for the best musical numbers. The score remains rich, lush and melodic thanks to the Broadway sound of the 20-piece orchestra.

Inevitably the production will be compared to the 20-ton gorilla that was Norma’s massive Hollywood palazzo and giant staircase on Broadway. Instead scenic designer Daniel Conway turns the auditorium into a back lot studio complete with ropes and catwalks hovering above. The stage echoes the original with plush baroque accents around a tiled thrust stage. The orchestra is placed on a balcony obscured by a Mediterranean-like grillwork.

There is nothing wrong with the look of the modest staircase that Norma climbs throughout the evening except in its revelation. This motion gives the impression of those stairs pulled from a ceiling to enter an attic. But the replica of the antique limousine succeeds in making an appearance to strut the length of the stage. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard remain as sumptuous as on Broadway from the ‘50s look of the young hopefuls to Norma’s gowns

One scene that works fluidly is the chase sequence that sets the plot in motion via a black and white film projected above the stage. This almost makes up for Joe’s final scene which is handled rather clumsily.

In the end the proceedings lead to a shattering reality and a road littered with broken dreams. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at its core is a true dramatic musical. Even without a marquee name, the show stands on its own as a dynamic story with wonderful music. In this paired down production the result is still touching and haunting.

(All images: signature theatre)

  • What: Signature Theatre presents Sunset Boulevard
  • Where: Signature Max Theatre, Washington, DC
  • When: Tue-Wed 7:30pm; Thu-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm & 7pm
  • Running Time: 2 hours 30 min
  • Ticket Prices: $59- $85
  • Opening: Dec 10, 2010 (previews from Dec 7, 2010)
  • Closing: Feb 13, 2011
  • Website:
  • Click 'Read more' below for more production photographs.

Preview: 'Sunset Boulevard' at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre's set design model for "Sunset Boulevard"
Trailer for 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Signature Theatre.

Clips from the production playing Dec 7, 2010 to Feb 13, 2011

Signature Reveals 'Sunset Boulevard': The Venue

Signature's current production.
Theater at a corner of Cambpell Ave (image: Signature)
Exterior (2008)
Anchoring a corner of Shirlington's main avenue is the Signature Theatre, a nationally known producer of musical theater and contemporary works. Part of this vibrant arts neighborhood since 2007, Signature moved into its $16 million building after thirteen years in its original warehouse space.

The 48,000 square foot facility includes two black box theaters which allows for versatile staging. This also means the seating plan changes based on the production requirements. Their main stage Max theater seats 299 and the smaller Ark theater seats 99.

Signature now competes with the major venues in Washington, DC in attracting theater audiences. Their presentation of Broadway quality productions in an intimate playing space attracts an audience of over 80,000 each season.

Second floor bar & lobby (2008)
The theater's box office is located at street level. The main theatre is on the second floor and its smaller venue located on a third level. The second floor lobby feels more like a bar in a loft space with high ceilings and exposed pipes. A glass wall measuring 14 feet high and 140 feet wide offers a full length view of Campbell Ave straight through the heart of Shirlington.

My first visit to Signature was to experience their spectacular production of 'Les Miserables' which was a brave departure for the theater to stage an epic musical in an intimate theater space. That was in the month of December 2008. With 'Sunset Boulevard' also premiering during the winter months, my hope is one day to visit Signature in a warmer time of year.

More info at Single tickets available online at Patrons needing taxi service is requested to notify the theater by intermission. Parking is available on site. Backstage tours offered only on certain dates.

Above & below: lobby photos (images: Signature)

Bridge to second floor lobby (2008)
Second floor lobby theater shop (2010)
Lighting detail over main stairway to the theaters (2008).

On the Menu: Aroma Indian Restaurant

Walking along Campbell Avenue in Shirlington, the choices are many for lunch or dinner. Since it's been a while since I've eaten Indian cuisine, I ventured into Aroma. The restaurant sets some high standards for itself with 'Finest Indian Cuisine' under its name.

Since the dinner crowd was only beginning to stir I was offered my choice of table and took one by the window. The restaurant became full within the hour with walk-up diners occupying half of the dining room and a private party sectioned off occupying the other.

Since I'm not too familiar with the heat or flavor of Indian Cuisine, the Mixed Grill ($17.95) plate under the Chef Recommendations looked promising. I was surprised when a server came table side to stir fry the dish of tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, seekh kababa, tandoori shrimp and mixed vegetables. Sides of nan bread, jasmine rice and a saucy chickpeas dish were served with the entree. Preceding the meal was a basket of papadum (wafer thin flour crackers) and a coriander chutney in lieu of the standard bread and butter.

Mixed Plate
The tandoori chicken and shrimp had enough heat from its pepper marinate for my taste buds. I was expecting a richer flavor from the chicken tikka. The seekh kababa resembled a meaty sausage and your enjoyment of it will depend on your taste for lamb. The nan, rice and chana masala (chickpeas) helped to balance the meal between bites of the different flavored proteins.

The meal was filling and was far too much for me to finish on my own. A glass of Riesling ($6.50) from California made a sweet companion to the spicy entree combination plate.

The dining room is a combination of warm lighting, dark wood and Indian accents and a ceiling of slim bamboo trunks. Tables along the banquettes are closer together than the tables in the middle of the dining  room.

Chana masala
Nan bread
As the restaurant became full, it appeared the servers were in no rush to turn the tables. It was difficult to get a server's attention to bring the bill but I was not waiting endlessly when someone came to clear my table. I asked for the bill and it came soon after. 

The meal was tasty and filling if not terribly exciting. But with so many choices in Shirlington, another restaurant will have its turn the next time I'm on this avenue.

More info at Open Mon-Sun 11:30am-10pm, Fri & Sat until 10pm. Aroma operates a second location in Washington, DC. 

Jasmine rice

Shirlington: The Urban Village of Arlington

Shirlington's main street Campbell Avenue (Dec 2010)
The evening presents a return visit to Shirlington, Arlington's arts and entertainment capital, where my next destination, the nationally-known Signature Theatre Company, is located. In the same complex of the theatre is the Shirlington Library. Add to this an entire avenue of specialty shops and restaurants anchored by a Hilton Garden Inn hotel and an AMC Loews seven-theatre multiplex.

Campbell Ave (Dec 2008)
Shirlington is conveniently accessed via taxi from Downtown Washington, DC as no metro station is located in the town's center. Taxi fare one way is about $18-$22 including tip depending on your destination in Downtown DC. Note that taxis are not obviously present in Shirlington so be prepared to call for one.

With so many dining choices in a concentrated area, there should be a cuisine to suit your palate. Then combine this with a play or musical at the Signature Theatre. Tickets should be purchased in advance. Visit for the current season's productions.

The word Shirlington is a combination of "Shirley" (from the Shirley Highway or Interstate 395) and "Arlington." Officially called an urban village, it is located in the southern part of Arlington County, Virginia.

More info at for a complete list of restaurants, shops and services. Click here for a detailed report about the redevelopment of Shirlington.

Review: 'Candide' Glitters at the Shakespeare

A sparkling revival of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ is lovingly filling the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC. Newly adapted from Voltaire’s satiric novel by director Mary Zimmerman, the work is brought closer to a perfect staging that has been much sought after in many a revisal ever since the work premiered on Broadway in 1956.

Zimmerman sums up the complicated tale: “It’s the story of a young man named Candide, who is the illegitimate nephew of a Baron in a small province called Westphalia. Along with the Baron’s daughter, he is tutored by a professor named Doctor Pangloss, who claims that Westphalia is “the best possible place in all the world.” When Candide falls in love with Cundegonde, his benefactors kick him out of the kingdom without a penny. The rest of the story follows Candide making his way in the world, having adventure after adventure. He is candid and honest and innocent, and he is mistreated and swindled over and over again. Cundegonde and her family also meet great misfortune in a war, so some of Candide’s adventures involve reuniting with her.”*

The glorious overture is still intact and the show quickly moves forward into some of its most well known numbers: “Life is Happiness Indeed,” “Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Oh Happy We.”

Adding to this funny and witty retelling are some well cast roles. Lauren Molina (Broadway’s ‘Rock of Ages’) as Cunegonde has the heavy task of performing “Glitter and Be Gay.” She is in fine form to display the comic tone of the song and the endurance to achieve its operatic proportions with ease.

As the na├»ve hero Candide, Geoff Packard delivers a delightful and finely sung performance. He is the hero of the story and has more than enough charm to win the audience over as he endures endless peril in each adventure. Hollis Resnik has the most showiest of the supporting roles as the Old Lady. She earns deserved applause for the tango infused “I Am So Easily Assimilated”.

The musical’s weakness is the tale itself which becomes tiring at the start of act two. One to two adventures too many, one wonders when does the misfortune end? Zimmerman manages to keep things alive utilizing the lavish sets by Daniel Ostling, the gorgeous costumes of Mara Blumenfeld and glowing lighting by T.J. Gerckens until the emotional “Make Your Garden Grow” is rendered by the ensemble at the end.

In a story that travels over oceans and through almost a dozen countries, Osltling creates a wood panel covered room where panels and trap doors shift to allow props and actors on stage or to reveal exotic backgrounds.

If some adventures falter, others make it up with enthralling stagecraft and performances resulting in a sumptuous revival. If a production of ‘Candide’ was Broadway ready again, this one could possibly be it even if for a limited run. The chequered Broadway history of this musical would agree.

(All images: Shakespeare Theatre Company)
  • What: Shakespeare Theatre Company presents 'Candide'
  • Where: Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC
  • When: Tue, Wed, Sun 7:30pm; Thu-Sat 8pm; Sat & Sun 2pm
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 45 min
  • Ticket Prices: $68-$88
  • Opening: Dec 7, 2010 (previews from Nov 26, 2010)
  • Closing: Jan 9, 2011
  • Website:
  • Click 'Read more' below for more production & rehearsal photos
*from the Shakespeare Theatre Company publication 'Asides'

Videos: 'Candide' at the Shakespeare Theatre

The Shakespeare Theatre Company presents 'Candide' at the Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC.

'Candide' Commercial:

Setting up the stage:

Thought of 'Candide' director, Mary Zimmerman:

Shakespeare Theatre Welcomes 'Candide' to D.C.: The Venue

Glass facade
Entrance on F Street
Animated sign
A spectacular glass facade greets patrons to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC. Opened in 2007, the 800-seat theatre occupies the first five-and-a-half floors of an 11-story office tower.

The bay windows of the orchestra and mezzanine glass facade lobbies hang over the sidewalk below and afford the theatre patron with stunning city views. Because the upper level lobbies do not hug the auditorium or glass facade, they appear to be suspended bridges with views to the level below it.

The three lobby spaces and staircases, each with glass railings, and glass facade give the feeling of a airy uncrowded space. With so much glass, the lobbies are flooded with light during the daytime. Restrooms, entrances to the auditorium, concession stands, table seating and cocktail tables on both upper lobbies help to disperse the audience before a performance and at intermission.

Mezzanine level lobby
Orchestra level lobby
The theatre auditorium offers excellent sight lines, though the leg room is not generous especially in the mezzanine level seats. The stage can be altered to a thrust, open stage or proscenium configuration. The street level lobby contains the box office and gift shop. Just outside are animated signs advertising the theater's productions.

This is one of the few modern designed theaters where the visit to the theatre is a treat in itself. The production on stage has that much to live up to.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company, founded in 1985, also features its season productions at the nearby Lansburgh Theatre (451 seats). The company's theatre season includes plays written by Shakespeare, his contemporaries and those he influenced. More info at Single tickets $68-$88. Premium Seats available.

City view from mezzanine lobby
The musical 'Candide' is the current production

A Close Visit to Chinatown in DC

This is the closest I got to visiting Chinatown in Washington DC. But if you are in the neighborhood of the Verizon Center, National Portrait Gallery or American Art Museum you may want to see how this Chinatown compares to others. I would have to save the experience for another time since it was near curtain time for a matinee performance at the Shakespeare Theatre also nearby to Chinatown.

Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery

Building facade along F Street with the Downtown Holiday Market
occupying the sidewalk in front.
After the Downtown Holiday Market, I decided to check out the museum that the market fronts. The Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery are both located within this building, the former Patent Office and now the Reynolds Center, in Washington DC.

This visit was not planned so I stopped by the information desk and picked up some brochures about the museum. Rather than visit the permanent collection, I was more interested in seeing three architectural features of the museum's building: the Kogod Courtyard, Great Hall and Luce Foundation Center.

Above & Below: Kogod Courtyard

Kogod Courtyard: A glass covered canopy covers one of the largest public places in the city. The canopy was designed to appear to float above the museum. The canopy measures about 37,500 square feet with 864 panes of glass. Eight steel columns support the canopy which weights around 900 tons. The interior features ficus and black olive trees and includes the Courtyard Cafe. Such a feature would normally be breathtaking if not for the business and clutter down below (in preparation for an event) that distracted from the look of the open space.

Above images: Great Hall
Great Hall: The fully restored Great Hall dates back to the late 1800s after a fire destroyed the original third floor of the building. The hall boasts colorful floors of patterned tile and marble, wrought iron railings and an entrance hall topped by stained glass. Walk the hall and enjoy the grandeur of the space.

Above and below: Luce Foundation Center
Luce Foundation Center: The center is a study center for American art featuring over 3,000 works. But the center itself, a three-floor atrium, is an attraction. The $10 million renovation in 2006 restored the ornate columns and balconies, recreated the marble flooring and installed new chandeliers.

All three spaces are available for rental for special events. For more info about the museums visit: (National Portait Gallery) (American Art Museum)
The museum is open 11:30am-7pm daily. Admission is free.

Twin grand spiral staircases lead to Great Hall & Luce Foundation Center.
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