Feasting on Sarasota's Cultural Richness

By Megan McDonald November 8, 2011

I saw Audra McDonald perform at the Van Wezel this past Sunday.

I’m back in Sarasota after spending the last two months in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Now, Fort Wayne is a lovely place with an arts community that’s larger than I’d expected. But compared to Sarasota? Well, let’s just say I feel like one of those Chilean miners, giddy and blinded by the light after being down in a dark hole.

I was so eager to take big bites from the area’s cultural buffet that I’ve been racing from performance to exhibit  to fund-raising dinner, barely leaving myself time to unpack.  I arrived just in time on Oct. 30 to catch the final performance of the Sarasota Ballet’s opening series .  It was exciting to see talented dancers I’ve enjoyed in the past joined by many promising newcomers. The highlight of the program was principal dancer Ricardo Graziano’s choreographic debut: the delightful, visually dazzling Shostakovich Suite.

Later in the week, I joined virtually every arts leader in town at the Sarasota Opera House for the celebration of the new issue of US Airways magazine, which has a 46-page section about Sarasota’s cultural richness. The advertising section was paid for by arts organizations, private donors and funds  from the county’s tourist tax program. Congratulations to arts supporter Harry Leopold, who galvanized support for the project after seeing a special section about another city in a previous issue of the magazine. Stephen Mitchem, the magazine’s vice-president and publisher, said the Sarasota issue represented  “the largest community collaboration we’ve ever done.”

Herald-Tribune publisher Diane McFarlin summed it up best, saying the project was the latest evidence that Sarasota is a community that is “consistently aspiring.”

My cultural calendar also included a performances of The Brothers Karamazov by the FSU/Asolo Conservatory and the powerful musical Next to Normal  at Florida Studio Theater (click here to read Kay Kipling's review). I even caught the  one-hour, outdoor version of Sarasota Opera’s Madame Butterfly at the Sarasota Chalk Festival. Kudos to the singers from the opera’s apprentice program, who kept the audience enthralled despite the strong sun and the competing noise from adjoining streets.

But the best event of the week was still to come – Sunday’s thrilling Van Wezel concert by Broadway and television star Audra McDonald. I expected to be wowed by her gorgeous voice, on full display in a program that encompassed Gershwin, Berlin , Sondheim and a host of up-and-coming composers. But it was McDonald’s captivating personality that made the Van Wezel seem like a cozy cabaret.

The audience roared when McDonald took the stage, and greeted every song with enthusiastic cheers. An obviously grateful McDonald noted that she’d performed before a “very nice, but very quiet” crowd in Naples the night before.  “It’s so nice to sing for people who are alive,” she said.

Her show-biz savvy audience at the Van Wezel included many local performers, including virtually the entire cast of  My Fair Lady, which is now in rehearsal at the Asolo Rep. As it happens, that production’s director, Frank Galati, directed McDonald in her Tony Award-winning performance in Ragtime on Broadway in 1998. I’m guessing that McDonald and Galati enjoyed a happy reunion in the green room after the concert.

For more arts and culture news, follow Charlie Huisking on Twitter @CharlieHuisking.

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