Love it or hate it, the stage door is a fixture in the theater world. Which is exactly where Jeff and his friend Judy (or is it Judy and her friend Jeff?) find themselves night after night, waiting outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the musical If/Then to end in hopes of a Playbill signature from its star, Idina Menzel. But it’s a wait they don’t mind as lively debates about productions past, brushes with exes, and workshopping new show ideas fill the time. That is until a handsome stranger enters the story, challenging their friendship and relationship to each other. Which Way to the Stage by Ana Nogueira makes its DC premiere at Signature Theatre and throws you into the intersections of perception, connection, and identity, leaving you laughing, smiling, and solemnly reflecting on your awareness of and impact on others.
Attempting to reenter the theater world after taking a break to pursue her non-passion of real estate, Judy played by Dani Stoller struggles to find a place for herself and strains against society’s definition of a “real woman” being everything she feels she is not. Sexy, confident, and commanding are out of reach for the ordinary woman Judy feels trapped inside, undervaluing and obscuring her razor-sharp witty and fierce passion for storytelling. From start to finish, Stoller’s performance was electric and full speed as she rocketed the audience from joy to anguish to triumph. Stoller’s Judy idolizes the individuality and weirdness of Broadway’s greats — Liza, Barbra, Audra, Bernadette, etc. — and longs for what she perceives as their freedom rooted in not caring what people think…all while still being subjected to evaluation at each of her auditions.
Similarly bristling against the judgment of society’s gaze and expectations is Jeff, played by Mike Millan. Aching to take center stage and reclaim characters written by and for his community (but instead played by the leading ladies), Jeff finds his freedom in the art of drag. While there were too many moments to call out just one, Millan’s impressive command of expression and impeccable sense of timing (be it comedic or dramatic) was an incredible asset to the production. Whether as Barbra or Idina, Jeff’s performances are a place where rigid norms are all suspended. But even as Jeff claims his space, the outside world layers on its own perceptions, perspectives, and assumptions of who he is, just as he, in turn, does to his audience.
The same is true of Mark, played by Michael Tacconi. Having recently upended his life by moving from the world of finance to the world of theater, Mark approaches this question of self and identity by looking for the path of most ease and enjoyment, be it following the thrill of meeting Judy or the pull of his body toward Jeff. Benefiting from the privileges of wealth, good looks, talent, and charm (and oh goodness did he exude charm in some key moments), Tacconi’s Mark exists in a space of fluid labels and position, leaning into whichever most benefits him in the moment. In Mark’s mind, he can’t change the structures around him, so he might as well live life to the fullness of his own happiness, even if at the expense of others from time to time.
Rounding out the cast and also taking on many personas (literally) was Nina-Sophia Pacheco playing Actress/Bachelorette/Casting Director. Easily shifting from the gorgeous auditioner about whom Judy (and the rest of us) immediately made less than flattering assumptions based on appearance, to the incredibly intoxicated and abrasive bachelorette at Jeff’s drag show, Pacheco’s range was thrilling. She needed only a moment on stage to hold up a mirror to our own ugly assumptions about the loud, confident women we see on stage, on screen, or on the streets.
Orchestrating this wonderful production was Ethan Heard, making his directorial debut as Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director. With perfect pacing to match the intense rise and fall of the many earth-shaking scenes, Heard’s direction was thoughtful, nuanced, and deeply profound. The dramatic builds and comedic releases throughout seemed effortlessly balanced and stopped my heart with smiles or gasps more than a few times. Adding to the audience’s intense connection with this familiar world was the lighting design by Jesse Belsky, scenic design by Richard Ouellette, and costume design by Frank Labovitz. Each production element was charmingly extra (hello, neon) in how it transported us from the stage door to callbacks to Jeff’s drag show and seamlessly reframed our focus (don’t mind if I do, bling).
A comedy at its core rooted in friendship and reaching for your dreams, Which Way to the Stage at Signature Theatre runs headfirst into the fundamental challenge of our modern world: how do individuality, expression, and unique identity coexist when we are drawn to build community with others, finding belonging and validation with those who are “the same”? Despite messy questions with perhaps unknowable answers, what is certain coming out of this striking night of theater is that multitudes exist within the grey space of each of us. Meaning, if we let our lived truths, our choices, our good faith, and our love hold space for one another, then we will all find our way to the stage one day.
Running Time: Two hours without intermission.
Which Way to the Stage plays through January 22, 2023, at Signature Theatre’s
ARK Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$90), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
The program for Which Way to the Stage is online here.
Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on Thursdays and Sundays. Face masks are optional inside the performance spaces Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.