From the firm, fertile ground of Ethan Lipton’s one-man-plus-band musical No Place to Go (★★★★☆), Signature reaps a mighty fine production, staged adroitly by Matthew Gardiner, and ably carried by the company’s one-man-band leading man Bobby Smith.
Appearing in his 28th Signature production, Smith commands the mic, backed by a three-piece jazz band, portraying fifty-ish office worker George, a permanent part-time employee of an enigmatic agency that collects information. George is in Information Refinement, a dying breed in the corporate jungle, he tells us.
He’s also an emerging playwright, and songwriter for a band with no drummer, hence Sal (Grant Langford), Duke (Ian M. Riggs), and Jonah (Tom Lagana), the sax, bass, and guitar accompanying George as he sings, jokes, and monologues his tale of corporate confusion.
George’s company is relocating to a place incredibly far away in order to save expenses, and he must decide whether he wants to uproot and follow the job, or strike out to try something new.
The show itself offers a fresh approach to the follies and foibles of office workers via insightful humor, and in its use of song to capture how George’s conundrum poses not just a career crossroads but a paralyzing identity crisis.
The character — Lipton’s semi-autobiographical take on his own professional anxieties during the economic downturn a decade ago — bares his best and worst selves to the audience. In turn, Smith pours himself into delivering a George who feels honest and vulnerable, and can be cleverly funny, delightfully petty, or wistfully sad.
Staged in its original production with Lipton and His Orchestra in the jazz club environs of Joe’s Pub, the show unfolds on Signature’s ARK stage as a hybrid theater-cabaret experience.
Paige Hathaway’s scenic design places George and the band within a pitch-perfect balance of office realness and fantasy, surrounding the performers with bankers’ boxes, wood-paneled cabinets, and low-pile carpeting the color of astroturf.
The immediacy of Smith’s performance electrifies all the space in between, whether George is dropping knowledge or singing an Opry-style ballad to fallen comrades in “The Mighty Mensch.”
Whatever the song style, Smith and Gardiner, with a heavy assist from Max Doolittle’s nimble lighting design, find the right mood and swing — as in “An Only Man,” a silky, sax-y lament like some torch song Sade never sang that garners a sly laugh with its Yiddish yodeled bridge.
There’s a solid joke around every lyrical corner, and the score — credited to Lipton as well as members of his orchestra, including Riggs, who arranged the music for this production — proves readily adaptable to Smith’s talent for finding every note of emotion.
Many of the songs and speeches portray conflicting emotions, like “Aging Middle-Class Parents,” George’s paradoxically giddy folk tune about having to move back in with the folks. Smith molds a monologue about swimming around the carp pond of the arts into a scene of sardonic truth-telling, and turns the dance break of “Soccer Song” into something both silly and exhilarating.
By contrast, the finale, “Nothing But a Comeback,” from the music to the visual interpretation, beautifully evokes falling blindly over the edge towards what George calls the cushion or the void.
Who is this everyman, or anyone, without the thing they do, in addition to the thing they do, in spite of whatever they do for a living? Should he allow a company, who might not even care about him, define his worth? “We all on this planet are accountable to shareholders,” George supposes, so best to own majority stock in yourself.
No Place to Go runs through Oct. 16 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, with a Pride Night performance on September 23.
Tickets are $40 to $90.
Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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