The Asolo Rep's My Fair Lady.

I’m old enough to remember when baseball teams regularly played double-headers, particularly on holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

Well, last Friday, I treated myself to a cultural twin bill, and it was indeed a red-letter day.

In the afternoon, I attended the Sarasota Ballet’s exquisite and thrilling performance of Diamonds and The Two Pigeons at the Van Wezel. Then, I raced up to the Mertz Theatre for the Asolo Rep’s opening-night dinner and the revelatory performance of My Fair Lady that followed.

The mounting of George Balanchine’s regal Diamonds was a collaboration between Sarasota Ballet and the renowned Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The two companies had joined forces earlier in the fall in performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

At the matinee, Sarasota Ballet’s Danielle Brown and Ricardo Graziano were the lead couple in Diamonds, radiating beauty and elegance. In Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons, Sara Sardelli and Logan Learned performed their lead roles with exuberance and charm. And what a rare gift it was to have the dancers accompanied not by the normal taped music, but by the Sarasota Orchestra, under the assured leadership of conductor Emil de Cou. Let’s hope that experience inspires donors to contribute to the company’s Live Music Endowment Fund.

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Here I am with Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards on opening night.

A few Asolo subscribers have asked me why the Asolo is doing My Fair Lady, a musical so popular that most theater-goers have already seen a dozen previous productions.

The main answer is because a theatrical genius, Frank Galati, had agreed to direct it. Galati earned a Tony Award on Broadway for directing The Grapes of Wrath, and a Tony nomination for directing Ragtime. He staged a stunning production of Twelve Angry Men at the Asolo, and his My Fair Lady is so fresh, so captivating, that you feel you are discovering it for the first time. (Read Kay Kipling's review by clicking here.)

As Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, Andrea Prestinario and Jeff Parker lead a large cast that doesn’t have a weak link. But it’s Galati who set the tone for this marvelous production. I hope the Asolo remains on the street where he lives for many years to come.

FST Announces Plans for Major Expansion

Florida Studio Theatre sometimes doesn’t get the attention that larger arts organizations do. But is there a bigger cultural success story in town?

FST is already performing to sold-out audiences in three theaters on Palm Avenue and First Street. With 11,000 subscribers, FST is running out of room to serve future audiences. That’s why artistic director Richard Hopkins recently announced plans for a $5.8 million expansion. The project will include the renovation of the Gompertz Theatre (which will get 70 more seats and a new sidewalk café) and the construction of an 18,000-sq-ft. new building . It will house a new 130-seat cabaret theater and a 100-seat laboratory theater for experimental productions. With the new spaces, FST estimates it could see its subscriber base grow to 20,000.

Amazingly in this economy, FST has already raised $4.4 million for the project, which will be completed in phases over the next four years.

Well-deserved Honor for Bob Johnson

Like many long-time residents, I figured I knew a lot about former State Sen. Bob Johnson. During his distinguished legislative career, he made an enormous impact on this community. He secured pivotal state funds for wide array of educational, cultural and environmental organizations and projects, including New College, the Ringling Museum, the Asolo Rep and the Sarasota Opera.

But when Johnson received the YMCA’s First Citizen Award earlier this month, I realized when I glanced at the program that his list of accomplishments was even longer than I had remembered. And during his poignant acceptance speech, I learned that Johnson faced personal challenges I never could have imagined. The son of an abusive father, Johnson was brought up in poverty and began working when he was a young child. Yet he had the will and determination to get to Florida State University (arriving with all his worldly possessions in one sack) and later, to law school.

As he proudly noted, he achieved great success in the legislature even though he was in the minority Republican party throughout his career. But that was a different era, when politics was not as partisan and poisonous as it is today. As Johnson said, he could debate with the Democratic Senate president during the day “and go fishing with him at night.”

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