Solid and Fertile Ground for Ethan Lipton’s One-Man-Band Musical nowhere to go (★★★★☆), Signature has reaped a strong, excellent production, subtly performed by Matthew Gardiner and subtly performed by the company’s one-man bandleader, Bobby Smith.
Appearing in his 28th signed work, Smith conducts the microphone, supported by a three-piece jazz band, and depicts George, a fifty-something office worker, a permanent part-time employee of a mysterious agency that gathers information. He told us that George worked on information refinement, a dying breed in the corporate jungle.
He’s also a budding playwright and songwriter for a band without drummers, so Sal (Grant Langford), Duke (Ian M. Riggs) and Jonah (Tom Lagana) in George sings along with saxophone, bass and guitar, jokes, and monologues his tale of corporate chaos.
To save money, George’s company is relocating to a very remote location, and he has to decide whether to uproot and continue the job, or go out and try new things.
The show itself offers a fresh approach to the folly and weakness of office workers through insightful humor, and uses songs to capture how George’s conundrum is not only a career crossroads, but a paralyzing identity crisis.
The character — Lipton’s semi-autobiographical rendition of his career anxieties during the downturn a decade ago — shows audiences his best and worst self. Smith, in turn, devotes himself to a George who feels honest and vulnerable, and can be intelligently funny, pleasantly petty, or longing for sadness.
Presented by Lipton and his orchestra in a jazz club setting around Joe’s Pub, the show unfolds on Signature’s ARK stage as a hybrid theatre-cabaret experience.
Paige Hathaway’s landscape design places George and the band in the perfect balance of reality and fantasy in the office, with performers surrounded by bankers’ boxes, wood-panelled cabinets and low-pile faux-turf-colored carpet.
Smith’s direct performance energizes all the spaces in between, whether it’s George giving up knowledge or singing an Opry-style ballad to a fallen comrade in “Mighty Man.”
No matter the style of the song, Smith and Gardiner were able to find the right mood and swing with the great help of Max Doolittle’s flexible lighting design – just like on “An Only Man”, like the torch song Sade never sang The silky, saxophone-inspired lament of its Yiddish yodel bridge gets a sly laugh.
There’s a good joke in every lyrical corner, and the score — credited to Lipton and the members of his orchestra, including Riggs who arranged the music for the piece — proves easy to adapt to Smith looking for every emotion talent for musical notes.
Numerous songs and speeches depict conflicting emotions, such as “Aging Middle-Class Parents,” George’s paradoxical giddy ballad tune about having to move back to folks. Smith crafted a monologue about swimming in an artistic carp pond into a satirical truth-telling scene, and turned the dance break of “Football Song” into something as silly as it was uplifting.
By contrast, the finale “Nothing But a Comeback,” from the music to the visual interpretation, perfectly evokes a blind plunge into what George calls the edge of a cushion or void.
Who is this common man or anyone without what they do, except what they do, despite what they do for a living? Should he allow a company that may not even care about him to define his value? “Everyone on our planet is accountable to shareholders,” George assumed, so it’s better to own a majority.
nowhere to go It will perform at the Signature Theatre at 4200 Campbell Blvd in Arlington on October 16th, followed by Pride Night on September 23rd.
Tickets are $40 to $90.
Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.