Sig­na­ture Theatre’s re­fresh­ingly “old school” Donna Migliaccio.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY CHRISTO­PHER MUELLER nel­­ley@wash­ Girlstar Book and lyrics by An­ton Dud­ley, mu­sic by Brian Fe­in­stein. Di­rected by Eric Scha­ef­fer. Through Nov. 15 at Sig­na­ture Theatre, 4200 Camp­bell Ave., Ar­ling­ton. Tick­ets: $40-$96. C

Verve, panache, moxie: Those are some of the words con­jured by Donna Migliaccio’s bright, sassy style. It’s a sig­na­ture she has forged on mu­si­cal theater stages for more than two decades, in of­ten flam­boy­ant roles that have in­cluded Ur­sula in “The Lit­tle Mer­maid” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”

Her fre­quent on­stage side­kick Bobby Smith gets a lit­tle Bar­bara Stan­wyck-y de­scrib­ing Migliaccio’s sunny throw­back palaver — “How ya doin’, kid?” he says with a glint in his eye and a side­ways smile. Sure enough, Migliaccio, cur­rently play­ing an out­size vil­lain in Sig­na­ture’s new pop mu­si­cal “Girlstar,” dis­plays a cer­tain vin­tage qual­ity in her pep and slang. She orig­i­nally stud­ied to be a jour­nal­ist, and you can pic­ture her crack­ing wise around the card ta­ble with the col­or­ful scribes in “His Girl Fri­day.”

“That’s m’ agent’s job,” she says col­lo­qui­ally about whether she wants to do more act­ing out of town. De­scrib­ing how she learned to hold a stage as com­mand­ingly as she does, she lightly tosses off a line that sounds like a Jimmy Stew­art tru­ism: “I learn from m’ bet­ters. And I learn from m’ worsers.”

“There’s a bit of old school about Donna, in the best way pos­si­ble,” says Sig­na­ture Theatre Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Eric Scha­ef­fer. He would know: Scha­ef­fer founded the com­pany with Migliaccio 26 years ago, when both were chaf­ing to tackle a higher grade of plays and mu­si­cals than those they were work­ing on in com­mu­nity theater.

When Scha­ef­fer says “old school,” he’s talk­ing about pro­fes­sion­al­ism, the kind of busi­nesslike yet col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach in a re­hearsal room that Smith calls “quar­ter­back­ing.” You could see it this month as all three grap­pled with fresh rewrites of “Girlstar,” a mu­sic industry fable with book and lyrics by An­ton Dud­ley and mu­sic by Brian Fe­in­stein. Migliaccio scru­ti­nized the new pages, asked brass-tacks ques­tions of di­rec­tor Scha­ef­fer and tip­toed through a barbed duet with Smith, who plays a char­ac­ter who has some dirt on Migliaccio’s power-hun­gry record pro­ducer. (The main char­ac­ter is, as the ti­tle sug­gests, a young girl dy­ing to be a star.)

Wash­ing­ton au­di­ences know they can trust Migliaccio for solid fun­da­men­tals. Af­ter all, it takes savvy to play the di­a­bol­i­cal squid Ur­sula and belt out the jolly show­stop­per “Poor Un­for­tu­nate Souls” the way she did last win­ter at the Ol­ney Theatre Cen­ter. Migliaccio won a He­len Hayes Award as Mrs. Lovett for Sig­na­ture in 1992; she has done the role there twice — “One of the best that’s ever played that part,” Scha­ef­fer ven­tures — and has been Hayes-nom­i­nated more than a dozen times. Migliaccio and Smith shared very grown-up turns last sea­son, prickly in “Three­penny Opera” and suave in the Stephen Sond­heim revue “Sim­ply Sond­heim.”

So it’s sur­pris­ing to hear that she doesn’t think of her­self as a re­fined singer.

“My voice is like a Slinky to me,” Migliaccio says. “Can we make it go up the stairs? Can I du­pli­cate what I just heard?” She doesn’t have a vo­cal coach: “Prob­a­bly should,” she muses. “But my job in mu­si­cal theater is not to sing a song. It’s to tell a story. Mu­si­cally, I’m not about makin’ pretty sounds. I might make a big, showy sound on oc­ca­sion, but I’m about telling the story, first and fore­most.”

Pop is not her na­tive style, and some of the bright fin­ishes in “Girlstar” are mak­ing her think about how to work her voice. “I’m a lady bari­tone,” she says with a laugh. “I’m an alto with th­ese stupid low notes, and some sur­pris­ing high notes.” She demon­strates with a deep, round sound: “It’s get­ting lower all the time: C be­low mid­dle C.”

Migliaccio will turn 60 this spring, and she cack­les with pride as she says so. “I don’t have a prob­lem with that,” she grins. “I’m a late bloomer any­way. Every­thing I’ve ever done, I’ve done late. And I feel like I am re­ally in my full stride right now.”

Her late the­atri­cal start took root in high school, when she played an old lady in “Oliver!” (“I was al­ways the char­ac­ter woman. Even when I was 14, I was do­ing char­ac­ters,” she says.) She was a true Army brat, mov­ing from sta­tion to sta­tion with a big fam­ily, the fourth of seven kids. She went to col­lege in Hawaii — “ducky” is her word for those four years — and came to Wash­ing­ton af­ter grad­u­at­ing be­cause an older sis­ter was al­ready work­ing here. She wanted to write news­pa­per and mag­a­zine fea­tures but set­tled for a se­ries of po­si­tions with the Mu­tual Broadcasting Sys­tem, where she stayed for eight years un­til that ra­dio net­work started to col­lapse. When she and Scha­ef­fer cre­ated Sig­na­ture, Migliaccio was the troupe’s first man­ag­ing di­rec­tor even as she kept an­other day job as a le­gal sec­re­tary. Sig­na­ture grew fast, and Migliaccio, not trained to run a busi­ness, was a ca­su­alty when the board cut her salary and ba­si­cally let her go.

“I wasn’t mad at the theater, I was just mad at the sit­u­a­tion,” Migliaccio says. “From an emo­tional stand­point, it was like hav­ing my baby ripped from me.”

She wasn’t sure she’d stick with act­ing, un­til her par­ents en­cour­aged her to give it a shot. She built mo­men­tum through the decade but still groused through fal­low stretches un­til a mind-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with “Rag­time.” Migliaccio was cast as the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Emma Gold­man for the 2009 Kennedy Cen­ter pro­duc­tion but was left dan­gling about whether she’d be taken along as the show moved to Broad­way. Dispir­ited, she was sum­moned to New York for yet an­other au­di­tion. She told her hus­band that she hated her life.

He sharply told her never to say that again, and she saw his point. Then, on her way into the au­di­tion: “It was like God reached down out of the heav­ens and slapped me on top of the head and said, ‘Stupid: If they had found some­body else, they would have hired them by now.’ I had this huge surge of con­fi­dence, went into the au­di­tion and was as sure as I have ever been that I had nailed it.”

Migliaccio got her taste of Broad­way, and the lo­cal gigs have been steady ever since. She’s al­ways look­ing to do more plays (she’ll be in the two-han­der “Bak­ers­field Mist” at Ol­ney next spring) and maybe land more out-of-town jobs, like the “Lit­tle Mer­maid” she did last sum­mer for the Alabama Shake­speare Fes­ti­val.

“Life is good. Every­thing I have to [kvetch] about is pretty picayune,” Migliaccio says. “Don’t ya love that word?”

“My job in mu­si­cal theater is not to sing a song. It’s to tell a story,” says Donna Migliaccio, shown here spar­ring with Bobby Smith on the set of “Girlstar” at Sig­na­ture Theatre. The two are fre­quent on­stage part­ners.

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