Uplifting Theater, from Pros to Amateurs

By staff November 1, 2009

Uplifting Theater, From Amateurs and Pros

Two great productions on Sarasota stages.

By Charlie Husiking

After five months away, I spent my first weekend back in Sarasota catching two buoyant, polished musicals performed by theater troupes that couldn’t have been more different.

On Oct. 23, I attended the Asolo Rep’s season-opening production, the Tony Award-winning “Contact.”

This dance-heavy show, conceived by choreographer Susan Stroman, features a cast of Asolo regulars, Broadway performers and members of the Sarasota Ba llet. It’s the first time in the show’s 10-year history that a U.S. theater company and a ballet company have collaborated on a production.

And how proud Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Edwards and Sarasota Ballet Artistic Director Iain Webb must be of this partnership. The New York dancers and the local ones blended seamlessly in this effervescent, three-vignette show that, with relatively little dialogue and plenty of fancy footwork, speaks volumes about the need for human contact.

Edwards really knows how to start the Asolo season with a flourish, as he’s demonstrated in previous years with “Amadeus” and “Barnum.” At a pre-performance dinner where the buzz was palpable, Edwards noted these tough economic times are challenging for arts organizations. But he praised the donors in the room because, “You want to live in a community where art matters, and we have to measure up. We are a barometer for what a community really values and is willing to draw the line for.”

Michael Donald Edwards with the cast of "Contact" on opening night.


The following night, I was in the Visual and Performing Arts Center Theatre at Booker High School for “Flight of the Lawn Chair Man.” Now, I’ve seen some amazing productions by the talented VPA students in the past. But it had been a while since I’d been there, and I wasn’t familiar with this musical, so my expectations were low.

Kelly Leissler in Flight of the Lawn Chair Man.

Wow, was I enthralled by the standout performances and the show’s catchy score and witty, satiric lyrics. Inspired by a real event, the musical tells the story of a sad sack Wal-Mart clerk who achieves his dream of flying by attaching helium balloons to his chair and rising to 16,000 feet. Without being the least bit sappy, the show celebrates those who have the courage of their convictions and are willing to stand up to authority.

Kelly Leissler was endearing as the title character, and  Danielle White , who played his girlfriend, has such an astounding voice she may as well have been wearing a t-shirt that said, “Next stop, Broadway.” But the entire ensemble helped make this show soar.

My only regret was that the auditorium wasn’t full for this final performance. The next VPA show is “Animal Farm,” from Dec. 9-12. These kids are too good to miss.

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