You might think, with the constant din of news about the economy and cutbacks in just about every aspect of our lives, that Sarasota’s 2009-10 arts season would be a puny one. You might think wrong.
After shuffling through schedules, talking with artistic directors and discovering the wealth of performers, choreographers, speakers and artists who will be staging work here this season, I realized the problem wasn’t coming up with enough to write about. No, the problem was agonizing over what shows or events not to include in order to pare down the list to 26 top tickets from November to May. The economy may be constraining our cultural groups, but they’ve still managed to mount a rich and vibrant range of artistic offerings, and that’s reason for our culture-crazy city to rejoice.
You’ll also find a comprehensive year-round calendar of upcoming arts events in our season preview package (see page 67). We hope you’ll hang onto it and it will help you in planning your own cultural schedule. Of course, more shows and concerts are always being added throughout the year; for the latest information, check out our arts and event calendar at sarasotamagazine.com, where we’ll try to keep a handle on the ever-changing arts scene.
In the meantime, give thanks this upcoming holiday season for the bounty of cultural blessings that continue to entertain, uplift and engage us all here in Sarasota. Here’s a month-by-month look at the 26 that top my list.
One of the most highly visible samples of our artistic energy here is the Sarasota Season of Sculpture exhibition, which takes place along our downtown bayfront every two years. Whether you love or hate the monumental works that line the shores, chances are you’ll be talking about them. It’s hard to predict which piece will generate the most discussion, à la Unconditional Surrender, this time around; but the show, with the theme of Organic Lyricism, offers 12 large-scale sculptures in a variety of styles and media by such artists as Robert Ressler, David E. Davis, Larry Bell, Peter Voulkos and Magdalena Abakanowicz. All pieces are from The Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J. Oh, and that sailor still stands as well.
On the theatrical side, the Asolo Rep’s much awaited collaboration with the Sarasota Ballet on Susan Stroman’s Tony-winning Contact actually opened last month, but if you haven’t caught it yet you have until Nov. 22 to appreciate this unique fusion of music, theater and dance, all tied together in three stories about our basic need for love and human connection. It’s directed and choreographed by Tomé Cousin, the only person sanctioned by Stroman to re-create the piece; and it features a mix of Broadway vets (Shannon Lewis, Nadine Isenegger, Wilson Mendieta, Steve Sofia), Sarasota Ballet dancers (Octavio Martin, Kate Honea and Logan Learned among them) and returning Asolo Rep performers (James Clarke, Matt Baker).
More musical theater, albeit of a different variety, with Venice Theatre’s area debut of Tony-nominated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a Broadway hit based on the film starring Michael Caine as a debonair con man who teams up with a younger, cruder version of himself (Steve Martin in the film) to take a bunch of wealthy old ladies for all they’re worth on the French Riviera. Our local version of the suave Caine, theater veteran (and attorney) Chris Caswell, plays the lead here, with fellow VT actor Doug Landin as his cohort in crime. It’s one of those droll, slickly done comedies that manages to entertain at every twist and turn. On the mainstage Nov. 10 through Dec. 6.
Doctor My Eyes, Take It Easy, Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty—all you have to do is hear one of these songs on the radio to summon up memories of just where you were when you first heard them. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, the creator of these and many more iconic songs, himself appears never to have run on empty; he’s been penning meaningful rock tunes for four decades and shows no sign of stopping. He takes to the Van Wezel stage for the first time Nov. 18; try to snag your tickets before the baby boomer herd hits the box office.
Another Van Wezel first is the touring production of Avenue Q, the slightly subversive Broadway hit that blends real people and puppets to tell the story of some young wannabes struggling to find themselves in a rundown tenement neighborhood of New York. Don’t think those puppets mean that it’s kiddie fare; Avenue Q is recommended for ages 13 and up thanks to some adult language and content, but for teens and young adults—or older ones who appreciate hip humor—it’s a hoot. Onstage Dec. 10 and 11.
Ringling Museum curator of European art Virginia Brilliant is excited about the Gothic Art in the Gilded Age exhibition opening there this month, and it does sound like a great chance to see the 300 or so Medieval and Renaissance treasures—paintings, sculptures, ceramics, miniatures and more—that first formed the collection of 19th-century Parisian art dealer Emile Gavet, then made their way to the Newport mansion of William and Alva Vanderbilt, and finally ended up in the hands of John Ringling. Probably a quarter of the pieces on display here, Dec. 16 through April 4, have not been glimpsed by Ringling patrons before, and none has ever been seen in the context they will be for this show, which re-creates the extravagant way they were grouped in Gavet’s apartment and the Vanderbilts’ own Gothic room. No wonder Brilliant calls the installation “mind-boggling.”
I don’t believe any area theater has ever presented Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo before (let’s face it, you don’t see much Brecht here at all), so it’s kind of cool that the Asolo Rep is presenting it during this International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary celebration of the first telescope viewing of the heavens by the play’s subject, Galileo Galilei. (Apparently the Asolo is the only theater in the country doing the play this year, too.) Should be interesting to see how director Michael Donald Edwards brings this tale of a man persecuted in the battle between science and religion to the stage, probably with sort of a bare bones set, à la his earlier productions of Equus and Amadeus. Onstage in rotating rep Dec. 11 through Feb. 23.
The Sarasota Ballet scored a hit two seasons ago with boundary-breaking choreographer Matthew Bourne’s The Infernal Galop; now they’re bringing dance audiences the American premiere of Bourne’s Boutique, set in swinging 1960s Carnaby Street, the first of Bourne’s work set on classically trained dancers (before his famous all-male Swan Lake). It’s part of a triple bill that also features Peter Darrell’s dramatic Othello and Sir Frederick Ashton’s charmer Les Rendezvous, Jan. 29-31 at the FSU Center.
Speaking of classically trained dancers, Chita Rivera started out that way before she headed for the bright lights of Broadway with star-making turns in hits like West Side Story and later Tony wins for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Now the indomitable Rivera brings her career retrospective show, My Broadway, to the Van Wezel for one performance on Jan. 20; it’s a must for musical theater aficionados.
You’ll have to use your time well to take in both the ballet’s production this month and the Sarasota Orchestra’s Masterworks performances, also set for Jan. 29-31. But you can do it if you plan ahead, and it’s worth it to catch the juxtaposition of Beethoven’s serene Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) with Stravinsky’s very different sounds of nature in that primal evocation of life’s beginnings, The Rite of Spring, the dissonant modern masterpiece that shocked Paris audiences into rioting back in 1913. Sarasota crowds will be better behaved, of course, but Rite still arouses spirited discussion amid music lovers.
There’s also room for discussion with Selby Gallery’s exhibition this month, titled simply REAL(ists). That’s because the show plays with the word “real” in works by 40 artists whose style ranges from very objective to more subjective, thereby encompassing urban and social realism and surrealism as well. One of the stunners in the show, though, should be the 55-inch-by-70-inch photorealist work Monopoli by talented young painter Raphaella Spence, who spent time dangling from a helicopter to shoot pictures of our own Sarasota shoreline in order to reproduce it in perfect detail; one local collector promptly snapped that one up before agreeing to display it here. On view Jan. 15 through Feb. 16.
Perhaps you followed daredevil Nik Wallenda’s “Walk Across America” tour this summer on national television; his strolls, of course, are a little different from yours and mine, in that they take place high above such wonders of nature as the Allegheny River or the Grand Canyon. The Sarasota native (great-grandson of Karl) and his troupe headline this year’s Circus Sarasota, Feb. 12-28 under the Big Top (exact location not yet confirmed at press time), so there’ll be plenty of high-wire thrills. Also on the program: popular clown Renaldo, one-armed juggler Casey Boehmer, musical quick change artist Martine Chabry and much more.
The woman the San Francisco Chronicle calls “the American musical’s greatest living star,” Patti Lupone, makes her Van Wezel debut with the show Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda! Feb. 19 at the Van Wezel. As you can tell from the title, the show gives Lupone and us the opportunity for her to perform songs from shows she was never in, as well as the ones she was, like Evita and Gypsy. She’s got a powerhouse voice and a delivery that will undoubtedly leave Van Wezel audiences in awe.
More Broadway show tunes courtesy the Manatee Players’ Curtains, the non-professional premiere of the final collaboration of Fred Ebb and John Kander, which starred David Hyde Pierce on Broadway. It’s a murder mystery within a musical comedy, as a police detective who’s also a musical theater fan finds himself investigating the opening night murder of a star who’s noticeably devoid of any talent. OMG, I have so wanted to do that myself! Onstage Feb. 18 through March 7.
Florida Studio Theatre brings us Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined (opening Feb. 3, another area premiere), a powerful piece set in the bar of a brothel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the madam tries to keep the horrors of civil war and disease at bay. Nottage interviewed dozens of Congolese women with stories of rape and violence to tell before writing her play, which is bound to hit hard but does offer some glimpses of hope and survival.
Rent, taking the stage at Venice Theatre this month, hits hard, too, but in a more show biz-y way, as we meet the bohemian denizens of Manhattan’s East Village, striving to survive and create art under the shadow of AIDS in the 1990s. Broadway devotees all know the story of young composer Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly just before his La bohème-like musical’s off-Broadway opening, and how the show went on to Broadway and a Tony Award for Best Musical. Director-choreographer Brad Wages will tackle the challenge of presenting Rent in VT’s black box setting, Stage II, March 11 through April 11.
From a musical inspired by an opera to an actual opera: The Sarasota Opera continues its tradition of bringing to life seldom heard Verdi works with Giovanna D’Arco, based on the story of warrior-saint Joan of Arc. Composed in 1845, the opera takes liberties with the historical truth of Joan’s life and death (don’t expect to see her burned at the stake here—she dies from wounds received in battle, plus has a passionate love for France’s Dauphin!), but, as is often the case, it’s the music that matters most, and it’s an intriguing mixture of melodies both simple and grand. One critic calls it “a dandy show.” Onstage at the Opera House beginning March 6.
Speaking of a dandy show—superstar pianist Lang Lang creates fireworks wherever he plays, and he’s playing March 30 at the Van Wezel, with the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach. It’s the charismatic Lang’s first ever tour in the United States under maestro Eschenbach, and you can bet that tickets will be at a premium, but maybe you know a subscriber who’s not going to be feeling too well that evening…Lang also plays in a Sarasota Concert Association program at the hall on March 26, so you could get lucky and score a last-minute return ticket for that.
Also at the Van Wezel this month (March 8): the acclaimed Joffrey Ballet, performing under the artistic direction of Ashley C. Wheater, who himself danced with the Joffrey for some time in the 1980s. Although the Chicago-based company celebrated its 50th anniversary a couple of seasons ago, it’s anything but middle-aged in its approach to contemporary and classical dance; no word at press time on specific pieces being performed here, but the Joffrey can usually be counted on to knock your socks off.
Let’s do a little time tripping…first off, back to the days of Xanadu. No, not the Samuel Taylor Coleridge version nor the 1980 film musical with Olivia Newton-John that met with critical derision, but the 2007 Broadway hit that won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. True, it’s somewhat based on the film’s story involving a Greek muse come to earth, a struggling artist, and a roller disco, and it does still feature tunes from the original (Have You Never Been Mellow, anyone?). But this stage version with a script by Tony Award nominee Douglas Carter Beane manages to make it work brilliantly, earning the distinction of being called “Heaven on Wheels” by the New York Times. At the Van Wezel April 20 and 21.
And regressing a little further back…to the days of the Pinball Wizard and the Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy, the rock musical version of which takes us back to both the ’60s heyday of the band’s double album and the World War II era in which the story takes place. You all know the story of that deaf, dumb and blind boy; now see how the Players of Sarasota go all See Me, Feel Me on us, April 22 through May 2.
OK, now you’re ready for the ’40s, the decade nostalgically re-created in The Andrews Brothers, onstage around April 16 through May 23 on the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre stage (dates were tentative at press time). Actually, show creator Roger Bean has made something of a specialty of “jukebox musicals” crammed with memories and melodies: His The Marvelous Wonderettes, which also plays at the Apple this season, covers the 1950s and ’60s periods. I’m opting for The Andrews Brothers here for one reason and one reason only: drag. Yep, inevitably, the male backstage crew for the Andrews Sisters gets pressed into duty to perform a USO revue when the girls can’t make it. You know, the show must go on; cue the wigmaster.
Back another decade or so…to the poignant classic Charlie Chaplin film, the silent City Lights. In the Sarasota Orchestra’s Pixel Pops presentation of the film, April 16 at Van Wezel, the film is anything but silent, of course; we’ll hear, live, the original soundtrack score composed by Chaplin himself. The great Charlie also wrote, directed and starred in the movie, which the American Film Institute named the best romantic comedy and No. 1 silent film of all time. This event happens to take place on Charlie’s birthday, too.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe closes its season (at Art Center Sarasota) with a piece that synthesizes the trials and triumphs of several decades, as it takes a look at four women representing different generations of the same African-American family with Jar the Floor, April 23 through May 9. This play by Cheryl West, set in suburban Chicago, is WBTT’s only nonmusical this year. The company has struggled with financial issues at times, but a reconfigured board and new management plan are addressing those issues this year. And its artistic quality has often been high, so let’s hope Jar the Floor draws audiences who might have heretofore only known WBTT for its revues.
With the loss—temporary or permanent—of the venerable Sarasota Music Festival this year, La Musica International Chamber Music Festival, running April 9-21 with performances at the Sarasota Opera House, is bound to take on even more importance to chamber music lovers. Artistic director Bruno Giuranna and associate artistic director Derek Han return with a full roster of internationally known musicians, who will play works by contemporary composers John Harbison and Joan Tower (a regional premiere), among others. The theme for 2010 is “Resolution,” and honestly, aren’t we all in need of that?
And finally, in true cliffhanger fashion, one never quite knows what to expect of the Sarasota Film Festival, set for its 12th annual outing April 9-18 (and the subject of a story on page 94). Will the festival’s supporters ride to the rescue in troubled financial times to keep the movies (and the stars) coming? Or will the demands of mounting a 10-day-long event prove too much even for the heartiest band of film fans, turning the movie screens dark? We’re banking on the festival returning, but stay tuned.
In the ever-churning world of museum directors, Philippe de Montebello is the extraordinary exception to the rule: His 31-year role as director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art spanned nearly a third of that institution’s entire history, and for his last several years (he retired in 2008) the Paris-born De Montebello was the longest-serving leader at any major museum in the world. His accomplishments in nearly doubling the Met’s size, courting wealthy donors, adding to the already amazing collections there and serving as an ambassador for museums worldwide should make for fascinating discussion when he appears in the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Today series, March 31 at the Van Wezel. Maybe he’ll even have some tips for the Ringling Museum on planning for an independent future.
With or without her Pips, Gladys Knight has been a successful R&B and soul singer since the age of seven, with hits ranging from Midnight Train to Georgia to You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me to I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Still looking and sounding great at 65, Knight, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee back in the mid-’90s, takes to the Van Wezel stage Feb. 14 with a full orchestra, just in time for Valentine’s Day; it’s also the evening of the Van Wezel Foundation’s annual gala, and who knows? Maybe Knight will say a few words to her fans in the foyer. That’s What Friends Are For…
Heather Johnson, 37, has won critical acclaim both on opera and concert stages and is the 2006 recipient of New York City Opera’s prestigious Stanley Tausend Award.
Last season she made her Sarasota Opera debut in L’amico Fritz as Beppe, the gypsy—a convincing portrait that helped her win her the role of Carmen in Rostock, Germany, later in the year. So does she play a gypsy again this year at the opera house? No, she’s playing Hansel—that’s right, Hansel—in Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck’s beloved fairy tale opera. Turns out it’s the custom for the male Hansel to be played by a mezzo-soprano—although it’s another first for Johnson. The Sarasota Youth Opera Chorus also performs in the opera, which opens Feb. 27 (and boasts choreography by one-time Sarasota Ballet star Diane Partington).
The New York Times recently said of Christopher Wheeldon, 36, that he “may well be the world’s most in-demand ballet choreographer.” So it’s a coup for the Sarasota Ballet to present his There Where She Loved in performances April 2 and 3 at the Sarasota Opera House. Wheeldon, like ballet artistic director Iain Webb a Brit by birth, retired from dancing in 2000 to focus on his choreography for the New York City Ballet and other companies, eventually including his own, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, which opened its inaugural New York season last month. Wheeldon’s work wins praise from dance critics for its inventive partnering and mastery of stage space, and he’s frequently mentioned as a successor to the great Balanchine. There Where She Loved demonstrates the smooth and the rough sides of love through songs by Chopin and Kurt Weill.
This article appears in the November 2009 issue of Sarasota Magazine.
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