Best of The Season

By staff November 1, 2008

Ready or not, here it comes—another Sarasota arts season barreling down the tracks, packed with all kinds of treats for lovers of theater, dance, music, art and more. But too much of a good thing can make you feel overwhelmed, so we’ve chosen some of the highlights of a packed calendar for you, to make planning your schedule easier.

You can read this story, complete with profiles of some of the stars coming to local stages this season, great deals on tickets and a wide range of artistic choices, straight through, or you can head right for the type of experience you’re searching for. But remember—sometimes it’s good to look outside your comfort zone. Think of the cultural season as a Chinese restaurant menu. Pick some from Column A and some from Column B, and you’ll enjoy a feast for the senses. Will you be hungry again an hour later? That depends on the size of your arts and entertainment appetite.

For the Adventurous

You like your works of art a bit edgy, posing new challenges or delivering material from fresh voices. You want something you don’t see every day. Here are a few choices to slake that thirst.

Remember playwright Jason Wells’ world premiere of Men of Tortuga a couple of seasons ago at the Asolo, with its look into the ruthless world of a corrupt corporation—or was that our government at work? Wells is back, this time with Perfect Mendacity, another world premiere, running May 15 through June 14 in an Asolo production at the Cook Theatre.

This time Wells shines his spotlight on a nervous whistleblower who works for a Halliburton-like entity—and gets caught between truth and lies trying to save his career and his marriage. Asolo vet David Breitbarth plays the lead; producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards helms the production, which may seem as if it’s ripped from today’s headlines.

The Asolo offers another recent work, this one by Steven Dietz, and it also raises questions about honesty and deception. Inventing Van Gogh, onstage Jan. 9 through April 16, tells the tale of a modern-day art authenticator asked to forge a legendary Van Gogh self-portrait. Nothing is straightforward here, especially as we merge time periods and meet Van Gogh himself, along with his friend Paul Gauguin. Breitbarth turns up in this piece, too, along with several third-year Conservatory actors testing their wings on the mainstage.

You’ll find visual art you’ve never seen before at Selby Gallery on the Ringling College campus with Traces: Contemporary Romanian Art. This is a rare opportunity to view works by Romanian artists aged 40 or under, who grew up under the repressive regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and are now creating art that reflects the rapid changes in Romanian society since his death, as well as exploring their chances to interact more fully with the world beyond their cultural borders. Videos, photographs, sculptures and other media are included in the show, which runs Nov. 14 through Dec. 16.

And more art you’ve never seen before, albeit hardly new: the Ringling Museum offers Treasures Rediscovered: Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, Feb. 21 through April 19. The exhibition, which features 22 stone devotional objects including Buddha heads, tomb doors, mortuary tablets and more, first saw the light of day at Columbia’s own art gallery just a few months ago; it’s a case of art truly "rediscovered," as the works had been stored, unexamined, for decades before being unearthed and analyzed by curators. The New York Times’ critic Roberta Smith called it "an eye-opening show."

Sarasota Ballet won raves last year with its innovative tribute to Mozart courtesy hot young choreographer Dominic Walsh, featuring both Amadeus and the world premiere of Wolfgang. Now Walsh returns in a collaboration with his own dance theater troupe and Sarasota dancers for performances of the complete Mozart trilogy, including Wolfgang, Amadeus and Mozart—again, a world premiere, one which heads from here to Walsh’s home of Houston, Texas. At the FSU Center for the Performing Arts April 24, 25 and 26.

Florida Studio Theatre offers several relatively new works this season; we’ll pick Boleros for the Disenchanted, by Jose Rivera (who won an Academy Award nom for his screenplay for Motorcycle Diaries) as the one to watch. The Puerto Rican-born playwright, who’s also an Obie winner, tells the story here of Flora and Eusebio, who meet in the 1950s in Puerto Rico and emigrate to the United States; Act II picks up decades later in their marriage, and the show includes plenty of Puerto Rican music, as well as a touch of something akin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s "magical realism." Onstage for nine weeks beginning Feb. 4.

For Those Who Think Young

There’s a kid in all of us, and we’re better off for it. Celebrate that inner child with several offerings we like to think of as play dates.

For starters, there’s the circus. Circus Sarasota, that is. And though at press time we could not reveal the true identity of this year’s biggest star (just think of him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named), we can drop a tantalizing hint or two: He has a Sarasota background and he’s famous for being both daring and funny. Is that too vague or too obvious? In any case, his name will be revealed in November; in the meantime, the circus promises canine capers from David Rosaire and his Perky Pekes, eighth-generation equestrian artist Caroline Williams, quick-change stars Vladimir and Olga Smirnov, contortionist Alexey Goloborodko and juggler Semeon Krachinov, plus ringmaster Joseph Bauer Jr. and aerialists Dolly Jacobs and Yuri Rjkov. Performances are Jan. 30 through Feb. 22 under the Big Top near Ed Smith Stadium.

From the circus as it is today to the circus as it evolved…ladies and gentleman, girls and boys, it’s Barnum, a musical "suggested" by the life of P.T. Barnum, for the Asolo’s season opener Nov. 15-Dec. 20. This hit about the legendary showman and his stars Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind and other circus performers is perfect for a Sarasota audience, and it stars in the lead role none other than Tony-nominated Brad Oscar, who won accolades when he took over the role of Max Bialystock in Broadway’s The Producers.

Another showman, the amazing Willy Wonka, turns up in not one but two productions around town. First up is the Manatee Players’ holiday production of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse hit Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s creation, Dec. 4-21. Then Venice Theatre takes a trip to Wonka World May 5-24. I’d bet both versions channel more of Gene Wilder than Johnny Depp, wouldn’t you?

To call Hobey Ford a master puppeteer is a little like calling Paris Hilton a camera hog—it just doesn’t begin to describe it. Ford, a recipient of three Jim Henson Foundation grants, designs and animates through his voice and storytelling abilities a legion of creatures including wolves, whales, dolphins and butterflies in his show Animalia, Jan. 17 at the Van Wezel. Whether you’re four or 40, you will forget that his lifelike animals are puppets.

And finally, no need to be scared of the symphony any more. That’s right, the Sarasota Orchestra, known for decades as the Florida West Coast Symphony, has changed not only its name but some of its programming to reach out and touch younger audiences, including those who may not have grown up listening to Beethoven and Brahms from their cradles. We’re talking a Pixel Pops series that unites video with live music, like Bugs Bunny on Broadway, Feb. 7, and Night at the Oscars March 28—a chance to see classic cartoon and movie moments on the big screen with the orchestra playing live the music that made those moments sing.

For Lovers of the Classics

There’s something comforting about the classics—a confirmation for us that the human artistic spirit has triumphed in the past and will triumph again. So even if you go into the concert hall gloomy, you should come out rejuvenated.

The Florida West Coast Symphony—darn it, we mean the newly renamed Sarasota Orchestra—hasn’t given up on its Masterworks performances even as it heads in some new musical and marketing directions. You can still count on the classics, especially in the Masterworks season closer April 2-5, which offers up both Beethoven’s First Symphony and his Ninth, complete with Ode to Joy brought to full-throated life by Key Chorale and vocal soloists. That should raise the spirits; and an earlier performance, Feb. 21 and 22, of Gustav Holst's The Planets, accompanied by NASA images of our solar system, should likewise send them soaring skyward.

Back down on the ground with Victor and Verdi...that’s Sarasota Opera artistic director Victor DeRenzi, of course, who shares his never-ending love of the great Giuseppe with a presentation of his Don Carlos, the four-act version, sung in French. (The opera promises the original five-act version in a future season.) Don Carlos tells the story of an ill-fated love (is there any other kind in opera?), this time between Elisabeth, wife of King Philip of Spain, and the king’s son, Don Carlos. Sounds pretty steamy, plus it’s set during the Spanish Inquisition, and you know what a blast that was. Opens March 7, with six other performances through March 28.

After last year’s historic Opera House renovation, the big news this year is that for the first time the opera, celebrating its 50th year, is giving us a fall season, which it kicks off Nov. 7 with Rossini’s ever popular The Barber of Seville. Maestro De Renzi conducts this brand-new production, for five performances only, so opera aficionados can get an early start on their arias.

It’s always good to know there’s a new generation coming up to keep performing classical and chamber music; that’s just one of the appeals of the Perlman Music Program’s winter residency in Sarasota, which offers music students great training and us the chance to catch them at it, at both a number of free events throughout the community and the closing night Celebration Concert, Jan. 3 at the Sarasota Opera House. Details on times and locations for those freebies will be revealed soon.

Last but certainly not least, the celebrated New York Philharmonic makes its first-ever appearance at the Van Wezel, just months after breaking new ground with its performances in culturally isolated North Korea. Conductor Lorin Maazel leads the orchestra in works by Berlioz, Schumann and Beethoven, Feb. 25. And you can only pray that there's a ticket left with your name on it.

If You Want to Get Campy

You can define "camp" as "something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate or out-of-date as to be considered amusing; something self-consciously exaggerated or theatrical." Or you can just look at a picture of Dame Edna.

Better yet, you can see Dame Edna Everage (aka Australian comedian/actor Barry Humphries) herself when she makes her very first guest appearance at the Van Wezel, April 6 and 7. But you’d better hurry, possums, because there’s just no doubt that this lilac-haired lovely will sell out; she/he is still just that hot, 50 years after her stage debut.

There’s another diva treading the boards when the Asolo presents Souvenirs, the (mostly) true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite so determined to make it as a concert singer that, eventually, she does, despite the seemingly insurmountable handicap of being completely tone-deaf. Camp it may be at times, but this Broadway hit delivers some emotional impact, too, especially if, as announced, New York star Judy Kaye stars as the deluded Florence. Let’s cross our fingers Kaye doesn’t get offered another big, juicy Broadway role before June 5, when she’s slated to open in Sarasota.

Finally, for all of you baby boomers with fond memories of laughing yourself silly at the cult movie hit Reefer Madness in your college days, Venice Theatre’s Stage II gives you another chance to learn of the dangers of taking just one puff off a "marihuana" cigarette. Welcome back to the Reefer Den, where innocent young lovers Jimmy and Mary soon come under the influence of an evil pusher and a whole bunch of people end up dead in graphically disturbing ways. Even better than the original 1936 "drug menace" film, this Reefer Madness has songs, like "Listen to Jesus," "Jimmy," "The Brownie Song" and "The Orgy." First time for a local production; it will get audiences high Jan. 8 through Feb. 1.

For Musical Theater Junkies

There’s no need to feel abashed about your tendency to burst into show tunes at your desk in the middle of the day; in Sarasota, you’re among friends. Musical theater thrives here like kudzu after a Southern rainstorm. The problem is finding the time to get to every show; we count nearly 40 musical productions onstage this coming season.

Among the ones we’d recommend for junkies with a time (or money) challenge: the first-ever local production of Titanic, at the Players March 12-22. The five-time Tony winner, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone, tells the true story of that doomed ocean liner through the eyes of real-life victims, including the owner, the architect, the captain, a young telegraph operator and a stoker. With a large cast and an epic story to tell, it's bound to be a challenging voyage for the Players, but please, no jokes about going down with the ship.

Perhaps less demanding, but still a new entity for local audiences, will be the Players’ Smile, a Marvin-Hamlisch-Howard Ashman collaboration focusing on the backstage troubles of a California beauty pageant. Smile is something of a "lost" musical, having run only 48 performances in New York back in 1986 and with no official cast recording ever made; but that only adds to the lure of seeing something virtually none of your fellow musical theater addicts have ever seen, either. Onstage April 16-26.

If you want a surer bet, though, how about The Producers, the biggest Broadway hit ever, receiving its first Florida community theater production Nov. 11 through Dec. 7 at Venice Theatre? Director Murray Chase is doing a bit of color-blind casting here; talented young African-American actor Charles McKenzie plays the nebbish Leo, while longtime area fave Larry Golden is the wily Max Bialystock. And Heather Kopp, who’s been demonstrating her versatility a lot lately on stages both community and professional, ratchets up the sex appeal as Ulla. Like Max and Leo’s surprise hit Springtime for Hitler, this one seems doomed to success.

Two other sure bets for the musical theater crowd: the Van Wezel’s touring production of mega Tony winner The Drowsy Chaperone, onstage for one performance only Jan. 25; and Defying Gravity, a tour-de-force revue featuring the works of composer Stephen Schwartz. The former takes us to the magical dream world of old-time musicals, with a show-within-a-show format; the latter brings Schwartz himself to the stage to perform a host of his songs from shows like Wicked, Pippin and Working with Broadway stars Debbie Gravitte, Liz Callaway and Scott Coulter, March 1.

And if you’d like a musical with a different sound, why not give Hank Williams: Lost Highway a try? Williams’ country hymns to cheating hearts, lovesick blues and jambalaya might seem a long way from Broadway, but they sure influenced generations of songwriters and singers in a lot of musical genres, and Williams’ often sad life was the template for the talented-but-tragic star cliché. This one’s already onstage, through Nov. 16 at the Manatee Players; get it before it's gone.

For Indie Film Fans

So you just don’t get the rush from the latest comic-book sequel that you do from seeing the best in foreign and indie films, especially in the atmosphere of a festival, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts who like to discuss weird camera angles? Our local film festivals are right up your aisle.

First there’s the Cine-World Film Festival (Nov. 7-13), a standby for 19 years now at downtown’s Burns Court Cinema. As usual, it’s too early at press time to predict exactly what fare you’ll enjoy, but we do know that the Sarasota Film Society staff scours Toronto, New York and other film festival venues to come up with a broad representation of what’s likely to please your art-film-loving heart.

The Sarasota Film Festival has been in the news more lately for leadership turnover and financial issues than its smash hit output, so we don’t know yet if the fest will deliver on its mission of serving up a host of hot-from-the-editing-room movies and those stars we love to ogle from the sidewalk outside the Hollywood 20. Our prediction: Expect a scaled-down schedule, but we doubt if the board will let this 11-year-old event go dark. Right now it’s slated for March 27 through April 5—check our Web site for the latest scoop.

Star Power

Judy Kaye’s been musical theater directors’ go-to-girl ever since she stepped in for Madeline Kahn in the lead of Broadway’s On the Twentieth Century 30 years ago, but her career extends back even farther, starting as Lucy in the L.A. company of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She’s shone as Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera (for which she won a Tony), Emma Goldman in Ragtime and Mrs. Lovett in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd. And then there’s Souvenir, her latest Broadway triumph, which she’s slated to repeat at the Asolo this June. Only a singer with Kaye’s range and skill could hit the right (or wrong) notes as legendarily awful singer Florence Foster Jenkins.

What do you do after overseeing the end of the Soviet Union, initiating an era of perestroika and winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Take to the lecture circuit, of course, as former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev does in the Ringling Town Hall series March 23. Remember things at the height of Gorbymania? Will the Van Wezel be overrun with hordes of glasnost groupies? Two lectures, one morning and one evening; and there’s always a chance that a subscriber to this very popular series will come down mysteriously ill…

The Sarasota Opera is often a happy hunting ground for rising young stars, and Julianna DiGiacomo, who’s made something of a habit of learning new roles rapidly, is no exception. She’s won raves for her portrayals of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte for New York City Opera, plus snagging the Richard F. Gold Debut Award for the latter; she’ll play hopelessly-in-love Queen Elisabeth in the Sarasota Opera’s Don Carlos this season. DiGiacomo credits years of playing tennis for giving her the stamina and breathing technique a diva-in-training needs.

Playbill says "it’s only logical" that Brad Oscar, the actor who played impresario Max Bialystock in The Producers on Broadway (after Nathan Lane), on the road and in London would also play American huckster-showman P.T. Barnum, as he does in the Asolo’s production of Barnum opening in November. Oscar has also taken on the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, that devil Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees, and, of course, his other Producers role (for which he received a Tony nod), demented Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind. Most recently, he played multiple roles in the campy The Mystery of Irma Vep in his native Washington, D.C. Now he’s onstage as the prince of humbug himself.

Dominic Walsh began his dance training in Chicago and then joined Houston Ballet, where he danced for 17 years before breaking away to form his own company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Acclaimed for his onstage work by New York critics Anna Kisselgoff and Clive Barnes, Walsh has in the past couple of years gained acclaim for his choreography as well, with phrases like "unique originality" and "sophisticated excellence" being bandied about. Walsh may not himself take the stage when the Sarasota Ballet performs his Trilogy: Wolfgang, Amadeus and Mozart, but his artistry will be evident in every step.

Great Deals

Yes, you can love the arts and a bargain at the same time. Here are a few ways to save some money and still catch the performances you want to see—especially if you’re on the younger side.

Sarasota Orchestra: Reaching out to youth, the orchestra has student tickets for $10 based on availability. And whatever your age, if you sign up for its "E-Club" you will get updated news of coupons or special offers throughout the season.

Sarasota Opera: The opera is thinking of the student audience, too; those 22 and younger can catch a performance for $10, one-half hour before curtain, if available.

Sarasota Ballet: For the first time the ballet is offering a Downtown Series option; you can attend just three of its performances, including Anna Karenina, at its downtown venues, the Sarasota Opera House and the Van Wezel, rather than signing up for all of the shows including those at the FSU Center. That can mean a price as low as $54 for all three.

Asolo Repertory Theatre: Asolo Rep distributes student rush tickets for $10 (in the Mertz Theatre), $5 (in the Cook) when available, plus there are general rush tickets for $10 in the Mertz (balcony seating), $8 in the Cook (last row). There’s also a $99 Play Pass for last-minute seating to any show in the season; not guaranteed, though, if the show sells out. And AAA members can score with 20 percent discounts in advance; two-for-one tickets the day of show.

Florida Studio Theatre: Like the orchestra, FST has an e-mail club; sign up on its Web site and you will find out about special discounts as they become available.

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall: The hall offers student rush tickets after single-ticket sales; several weeks before a show opens, if ticket sales have been sluggish, teachers and students get an e-mail blast alerting them to that fact, so it pays to get on the list. The hall’s e-mail club also offers a chance to win free tickets, at its Web site.

Sarasota Magazine Arts Ticket Book: And don’t forget the best deal in town; subscribe or renew your subscription to Sarasota Magazine and receive this two-for-one ticket book as a bonus, saving big on all kinds of concerts, shows and performances.

Tickets, Please!

Where to call to make your reservations.

Art Center Sarasota: 365-2032

Artist Series of Sarasota: 388-1188; 360-7399 (box office)

Asolo Repertory Theatre and FSU/Asolo Conservatory: 351-8000

Banyan Theater Company: 358-5330

Circus Sarasota: 355-9335

Florida Studio Theatre: 366-9000

Fuzion Dance Artists: 345-5755

Gloria Musicae: 954-4223; 360-7399 (box office)

Golden Apple Dinner Theatre: 366-5454

Jazz Club of Sarasota: 366-1552

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art: 359-5700

Key Chorale: 921-4845

La Musica International Chamber Music Festival: 346-2601; 366-8450, ext. 3 (box office)

Longboat Key Center for the Arts: 383-2345

Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre: 748-5875

New Music New College: 487-4155

Players Theatre: 365-2494

POPS Extras!: 362-7632

Sarasota Ballet of Florida: 351-8000

Sarasota Concert Association: 955-0040

Sarasota Concert Band: 364-2263

Sarasota Film Festival: 364-9514

Sarasota Film Society: 955-FILM

Sarasota Opera: 366-8450

Sarasota Orchestra: 953-3434

SoulSpeak/Soul Moves: 366-6468

Sarasota Pops Orchestra: 926-POPS

Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design: 359-7563

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall: 953-3366 or 953-3368

Venice Art Center: 485-7136

Venice Symphony: 488-1010

Venice Theatre: 488-1115

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe: 366-1505

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