Sarasota's cultural scene blooms year-round, with the biggest profusion of plays, art shows, concerts and dance performances beginning this month and continuing through April or so. But if you wait until the last minute to pick your bouquet of arts offerings, you might be disappointed.
"Be prepared" is the motto. That way you don't risk being turned away at the box office or politely informed over the phone that no tickets are available that night. Plus, planning out your schedule in advance means you can experience that thrill of anticipation a little bit longer.
I've filled out my calendar already, and here's a look at what I'm anticipating this season.
First of all, I'm just glad we still have an FSU/Asolo Conservatory to go to after last spring's down-to-the-wire negotiations to keep it in Sarasota. Second, I'm glad the Conservatory is introducing a work new to American audiences this month: The Competition, by Russian playwright Alexander Galin, will have its first-ever English production here Nov. 26-Dec. 14. The story centers on a Japanese talent contest held in the new Russia, but first prize isn't what the contestants bargained for. Galin is best known for his play Stars in the Morning Sky, which focused on Russian prostitutes hidden in the shadows during the Olympics.
Another play new to Sarasota comes from playwright-actor Jeff Daniels, whose comedy The Vast Difference was a hit for Venice Little Theatre's Stage II last season. This season Stage II tackles a more dramatic Daniels' work, Boom Town, which mixes love, small-town politics and betrayal in an explosive combination. That's onstage Nov. 13-25.
Selby Gallery at the Ringling School of Art and Design pays tribute-sort of-to Sarasota's circus heritage with its show this month, Dark Shadows and Curious Circuses, on view Nov. 7 through Dec. 12. As you can tell from the title, it's not about cotton candy and happy clowns. But the talents featured, including Kimberly Gremillion, whose photographs depict a shadowy, mysterious circus world, and acrobat-turned-artist Ken Morgan, do have intimate knowledge of the art form.
Of course I wouldn't miss squeezing in as many films as possible during the Sarasota Film Society's 15th annual Cine-World Film Fest, Nov. 7-16 at Burns Court Cinema. While waiting to snag some of the latest titles that have turned up at the Toronto, Cannes and New York film festivals, Dick Morris and company have also managed to score the coup of bringing the Robert Downey Jr. film The Singing Detective and its director, Keith Gordon, to town, along with Robert Altman's latest, The Company (about a professional dance troupe), documentarian Joseph Consentino and actor Laurence Luckinbill, who'll present a short film version of one of his one-man shows.
And speaking of festivals, the Sarasota Reading Festival, Nov. 1 downtown, offers a host of authors including Sarasota's own N.M Kelby, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and mystery maven Stuart Woods. I'm especially curious about New York Observer publishing columnist Sara Nelson, whose book So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, singles out SARASOTA Magazine's very own Robert Plunket for praise, especially his second novel, Love Junkie. Obviously I need to meet a woman of such highly discriminating tastes.
It's hardly traditional holiday fare, but it's exciting that the Van Wezel finally gets to host a touring production of Miss Saigon, Dec. 9-14. While the Van Wezel's stagehouse renovation of a couple of seasons ago may make it easier to bring in a show of this size, this production also comes with a new concept that emphasizes the humanity of the story over the spectacle.Some lighter Van Wezel fare that I can definitely take the kids to: Seussical: The Musical, another Broadway show that's been reworked somewhat for its tour. Gotta love the Cat in the Hat; actor Peter Roman dons the headgear for one show only Dec. 24.
The Van Wezel is branching out this season to the Players Theatre, where it offers four shows including this month's Forbidden Broadway. It's been a while since I've seen a production of this Gerard Alessandrini spoof, and there are lots of more recent shows for the creators to poke fun at, including The Producers and The Lion King. That'-s onstage Dec. 22, 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 at the Players.
More spoofery is in the works with the Sarasota Ballet's one-time only rendition of The Nutty Nutcracker. Sure, you can still see the traditional Tchaikovsky ballet Dec. 20-23 at the Van Wezel, but I can't pass up the chance to see local ballet supporters take to the stage as grandparents, maids, assorted rats and Madame BonBon, among other characters, on the 23rd. Those roles went to the highest bidders at a dinner-auction last month, so we'll see who's willing to pay to play and how choreographer Robert de Warren manages to keep them from tripping over each other.
The after-holiday season revs into high gear with some pretty daring offerings both in theater and the visual arts. I'm talking about another FSU/Asolo Conservatory production, The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, famed for his sometimes controversial films such as The Company of Men and Nurse Betty. This one puts together a naïve art gallery guard with an intriguing female art student for an ultimately shocking denouement. Onstage Jan. 7-25.
Theatergoers might not normally consider composer Stephen Sondheim controversial, but his collaboration with writer John Weidman on the musical Assassins definitely has struck some nerves ever since it premiered off-Broadway in 1990. The subject matter-assassins from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald to wannabe John Hinckley Jr.- is just too uncomfortable for some. That's one reason it's seldom produced, but VLT's Stage II is taking the chance Jan. 22-Feb. 8, in its first-ever musical production, an area premiere.
Another risk-taker this month: Selby Gallery's Safe Sex show, which explores the history of the great American pin-up. It's still a provocative topic in these postfeminist times; this exhibit presents material dating back to the 1920s and up to the 1960s' pin-up-inspired works of Mel Ramos and beyond. Prepare for a lively opening night discussion, Jan. 9. The show continues through Feb. 11.
After all this contemporary controversy, I may need to escape to the world of the Renaissance to Rococo, a Ringling Museum exhibition that presents masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. It's a rare opportunity to see works by Caravaggio, Goya and Zurbaran, among other pieces dating from 1518 to 1850. .I'll also be turning out to see what choreographer Mark Morris is up to now, when his dance company returns to the Van Wezel, Jan. 27. Morris is famed for his use of unconventional dancers and wide-ranging musical selections; he's always intriguing. And I'll be stargazing along with the rest of Sarasota when the Sarasota Film Festival turns downtown into Tinseltown for a week, Jan. 23-Feb. 1. No word on celebs or film titles at press time, but festival events including Cine-Symphony, Luncheon Under the Banyans, and the Ritz tribute dinner will all be returning.
As predictable as that groundhog seeing his shadow, February also means the opening of the Sarasota Opera season. This one, the 45th, offers those stalwarts of opera, Puccini's Tosca and Mozart's The Magic Flute, but I'm intrigued by the other two offerings, Massenet's Werther (based on the famous Goethe novel about a young man's hopeless love) and Verdi's Il corsaro (taken from a Byron poem and mingling harem slaves, pirates and exotic locations) simply because I've never seen either of them. The latter is part of the opera's ongoing Verdi cycle, and so it's conducted, of course, by Verdi aficionado and artistic director Victor DeRenzi.
For more spectacle and suspense, I'll hurry over to the Big Top on Ringling Boulevard for this year's edition of Circus Sarasota, Experience the Tradition, which runs Feb. 6-29. At press time circus organizers were only able to promise quick change artists David & Dania, the NBA's most popular half-time show, but they were also working on booking the Fabulous Wallandas to perform their famous seven-person pyramid. Stay tuned for more on that.
The Manatee Players had to replace their originally scheduled February production of Harvey with The Women, and personally I'm just as glad they did. (No offense to the rabbit.) This Claire Booth Luce comedy about a group of--well, I think the word used most often is bitches-may not seem quite as scathing as it did when first produced nearly 70 years ago, but it's still sharp enough to have had a recent Broadway revival, and it should bring out some of the area's finest female actresses to audition. That's onstage Feb. 19-March 7.
Giving the men equal time, the exclusive Florida premiere of A Few Good Men.Dancin' brings 25 male dancers from Broadway, Cirque du Soleil and top dance companies across the nation to the Van Wezel stage to strut their stuff in styles ranging from rock, jazz, salsa, swing and classical to bits celebrating boxing and the martial arts. Sounds sweaty; ladies, bring your binoculars. A Few Good Men arrives for two shows Feb. 29.
How about a little nostalgia this month? That's what you'll get when Frank Gorshin brings his acclaimed Broadway show, Say Goodnight, Gracie to the Van Wezel for two performances Feb. 11. Gorshin, of course, has long been famed for his impersonations of famous folk, but his portrayal of comedian George Burns is much more than that-it's heartwarming as well as funny as it tells the story of a great show business couple.
And one of Sarasota's favorite actors, Michael O. Smith, seems perfectly cast as the swaggering albeit likable Teddy Roosevelt in the world premiere of The Bully Pulpit, onstage at FST Feb. 10-April 10. It's a show writer-actor Smith's been honing for a while, and now we'll finally get to see the results.
More nostalgia with the Golden Apple's production of Bells Are Ringing, an Adolph Green-Betty Comden-Jule Styne musical from the 1950s that was a star vehicle for Judy Holliday. It's a light-hearted little story about an answering service operator (remember those?) who gets involved in the personal lives of her clients, and it's onstage March 9-May 2. Kyle Turoff takes on the Holliday role, and she'll be directed by Will McKenzie, who's directed numerous TV sitcoms as well as earlier successful shows at the Apple, including last season's Kiss Me, Kate. McKenzie, by the way (whom some may remember as Larry Bondurant from the old Bob Newhart show), likes Sarasota so much now he's bought an apartment here.
And nostalgia of a more recent vintage when the Van Wezel presents An Evening with the Stars of Saturday Night Live, March 28. I've watched SNL through good years and bad; this tour offers us alumni Joe Piscopo, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon, so it should revive memories of the '80s and early '90s.
No performer names yet at press time, but the Sarasota Jazz Festival roars back into town March 21-27, with jazz filling Phillippi Estate Park, the Van Wezel and various venues accessible by the jazz caravan trolley March 25.
This is a month for theater for me. First I'll try to recapture the feeling of a smoky French cabaret (without the smoke) when the Players of Sarasota presents Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, April 1-11. It's something of a departure from the rest of their more traditional musical season. Then I'm looking forward to two comedies at the Players venue (Van Wezel productions), The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron? April 13-18, Robert Dubac's hit about men and women and all that good relationship stuff; and My Cousin's Wedding, written by two Second City alums, which promises to force all engaged couples to consider elopement. That's onstage April 23, 24 and 25
And FST offers another world premiere this month: Brian Christopher Williams' Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins, which received a staged reading in the theater's New Play Festival last spring. It's set in the '70s and tells the tale of a teen coming to terms with being gay in the era of Vietnam and Miss-America-turned-gay-rights-protester Anita Bryant. That's onstage April 13-June 5.
The Westcoast Black Theater Troupe broadened its dramatic scope and its audiences last season with performances at the former Theatre Works space downtown. This month they continue on that path with their offering of Spunk, an adaptation of stories by Florida-born writer Zora Neale Hurston, April 8-18 at the same spot, now renamed the Gumpertz Theatre.
Appropriately for this spring month, the Sarasota Ballet of Florida presents a new production of Stravinsky's once-shocking Rite of Spring, with choreography by James Buckley. It's part of an evening dedicated to Stravinsky, and it should prove intense. You can catch those driving rhythms April 23-26 at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
Florida West Coast Symphony lays on the Beethoven this month with Heroic Beethoven 3, with soprano Twyla Robinson, a winner of the 2002 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, singing arias from Fidelio April 8. The composer's Symphony No. 5 is also on the bill. Also this month, pianist Stephen Hough joins the orchestra to tackle Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1 in Masterworks concerts April 1-4. And anyone who's ever seen Shine knows just how demanding Rachmaninoff can be.
OK, I know you may have seen one too many comedies about three unhappy suburban housewives whose husbands are locked in a basement meat freezer.but just in case you haven't, the Asolo's production of Michele Lowe's The Smell of the Kill, May 7-30 in the Cook Theatre, should entertain. It's a variation on the old "murder, maybe; divorce, never" gag that scores with one-liners skewering overgrown adolescent males and the women who are married to them.
The symphony more or less winds up its season with a Spring Fest on May 14 that features all four of its chamber ensembles. The evening's program is chockfull, with works by Fauré, Bartok and Debussy included, but the highlight should be Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, which will feature a narrator and local actors in this tale of a soldier who makes a deal with the devil. And that should wind up my season, too-until the summer months offer up their as yet-unannounced pleasures.
Soprano Jami Rogers is playing the Queen of the Night in Sarasota Opera's The Magic Flute this season, but it's her role as new mom that's claiming most of her nights lately. The mother of nine-month-old Beckett (and wife of tenor Kevin Anderson), Rogers admits it's sometimes a struggle to juggle motherhood and an opera career that requires travel around the world. But she likes challenges; although she's played the Queen before elsewhere, she says Mozart's music is difficult enough that she can't afford to take it easy when preparing or singing it. Sarasota audiences will remember her from last season's Ariadne auf Naxos, where she was a fireball as Zerbinetta; she says it was a great experience working here with people "who treat artists like artists." Off stage, she enjoys cooking up new recipes and hopes to one day return to another favorite pastime: reading.
The Manatee Players' new artistic director, Rick Kerby, has an extensive background in acting, directing and choreographing, including national tours of Yankee Doodle Dandy and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Heading up a community theater program is, he admits, "a new challenge," but one he feels prepared for thanks to his last job as entertainment director for the USO for metropolitan New York. He hit the ground running here, arriving in August and promptly getting to work choreographing and directing last month's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the future he hopes to add more up-to-date plays and musicals to the traditional mix at the Riverfront Theatre, to expand education programs and perhaps add a late night cabaret. "I just want people in the community to get really excited about the theater," says the 40-year-old Kerby. Maybe the "special skills" listed on his resume-fire eating, lasso tricks and rifle spinning-can help with that.
Although she worked for years at Yale and can discourse learnedly on the Ringling Museum's paintings of St. Jerome (her booklet on that subject, Of Lions and Red Hats, is due out Dec. 1), assistant curator of exhibitions Joanna Weber is no dry-as-dust academic. Since arriving here 10 months ago, Weber, the mother of two young children, has, she says, immersed herself in the world of Mote Aquarium, G.WIZ and soccer teams as well as the "fabulous art library" housed at the Ringling. The daughter of missionaries, Weber grew up in postings around the world and her taste in art is varied, too, running from the Ringling's Baroque masterpieces to contemporary artists like Philip Guston to African art from all periods. Her spare time avocation of painting reflects her dual role as curator and mother; one Weber work currently hanging on the museum's third floor depicts a laundry basket full of clean clothes.
When Oscar Bustillo, new assistant conductor of the Florida West Coast Symphony, arrived for his audition last season, he was impressed with the orchestra ("as good as any I've heard up North or elsewhere," he says) and the Sarasota arts scene-but he also couldn't hide his enthusiasm for something that was a rarity in New York, where he grew up: free parking. Most days his car will be parked at the Symphony Center, and the 35-year-old Bustillo, a graduate of the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, says he can't wait to pick up where he left off with the musicians here. Married to string player Yen-Ling Chen, Bustillo is also looking forward to a game of tennis or two and snapping some pictures (he worked as a photographer before heeding the call of music). Most important task for a conductor to pursue? "Listening, listening, listening."