Show tune nirvana: Transcendence under the stars

Jun 18

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Transcendence Theatre Company’s sixth season of “Broadway Under the Stars” commences with the high-spirited revue Another Openin’ Another Show! through July 2 and a season of shows that continues through Sept. 10 at Jack London State Historic Park. Performances are in the ruins of a vineyard, a spectacular outdoor venue. Photos by Rebecca Call

Transcendence Theatre Company has a lock on the show tune market. Sure, other companies might be doing musicals, but only Transcendence offers multiple musical revues each summer performed in a spectacular outdoor setting amid a festival-like setting of food, wine and abundant merriment. Now in its sixth season at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen (Sonoma County), Transcendence more often than not lives up to its name with expertly assembled revues performed under the stars (at least by Act 2 when the sun has set and the first stars begin to appear) in the ruins of an old winery, with vines creeping up the hills in the background.

This year’s opening show, Another Openin’ Another Show!, is two hours of show tune bliss (well, mostly show tunes with a couple of pop tunes thrown in for good measure). Director Tony Gonzalez and Transcendence Artistic Director Amy Miller have built the two-hour revue to honor the 10-year history of the company, from a wedding toast in 2007 that inspired Miller to begin her journey to 2011, when Jack London State Historic Park was slated for closure but Transcendence swooped in with a plan to raise money and get people into the park. The birth of Transcendence has been a gift for all involved, most especially the audiences they pack in and delight with their talented company of performers, most of whom have left grimy New York City behind for a few months to come frolic in the Valley of the Moon.

Act 1 focuses on the birth of a dream and seeing it to fruition. Act 2 is about obstacles, limits and keeping the dream alive. And it so happens there are abundant show tunes to address all of those topics, and enough imagination here to re-invent songs we’ve heard many times and the wisdom to know when just to do a great song the way its creators intended.

Among the re-conceived tunes are “Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy performed by a woman and two men (Colin Campbell McAdoo, Eric Jackson, Lori Fox), “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables sung by a man (Stephan Stubbins), “Let It Go” from Frozen (not technically a Broadway show tune yet, but it soon will be) sung by a trio (Erin Maya, Meggie Cansler, Natalie Gallo) and “Electricity” from Billy Elliot performed by three adults (Andrew Hodge, Nick Kepley, Tim McGarrigal). Each of these re-inventions works and infuses new life into the songs. In the case of “Let It Go,” for instance, the arrangement/orchestration by musical director Daniel Weidlein makes the song sound like it wouldn’t be out of place in Dreamgirls, and “Gimmick” proves it can be hilarious in any iteration.

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The more traditional interpretations include a “Sound of Music” directed at the sunset-dusted Sonoma Hills, a Jersey Boys two-fer (“Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”) that demonstrates why those songs will always be crowd pleasers and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” from the show of the same name that dazzles with vocals (by Lauren Sprague and spectacular dancing/tapping by the ensemble (choreography is by Jim Cooney).

While many of the songs here are familiar, including pop songs “Lean on Me” (featuring inventive choreography for a group of people sitting at a table) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (a rock classic that was always meant to be a show-stopping show tune), some are not. It’s always risky when you include songs from shows that your audience might not know, but there’s no shortage of worthy songs from lesser-known shows, and Gonzalez, Miller and company make some terrific choices with the opener/closer “One Second and a Million Miles to Go” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County and another from Brown’s Parade, “Old Red Hills of Home.”

This is one of those showcases in which it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite, but I’m going to give it a shot: “My Shot” from Hamilton burns up the stage with a powerhouse lead vocal by Nikko Kimzin and impressive backup from the rest of the company. Gallo makes you hear “San Francisco” with fresh ears, and the women who murder merrily in “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago do so with such comic glee you almost forget the number is practically dripping in blood.

The 23-member company breezes through this show effortlessly (seems that way anyway, which is an enjoyable illusion), but they don’t stint on passion or emotion. It’s an efficient and expertly produced show, but it’s not slick. There’s a nice balance of light and dark, comic and romantic, and costumer Ariel Allen makes sure everyone always looks casually elegant. The outdoor setting lends itself to marvels. Some are planned (the release of doves, the use of the crumbling walls as performance area, the appearance of an adorable dog) and some are not: the hawk doing lazy circles in the sky (thank you Oscar Hammerstein) during “Seasons of Love” from Rent. As outdoor venues go, it’s hard to top this.

Transcendence Theatre Company has rightly established itself as a beloved summer tradition (though the company has also expanded with a holiday offering). Some of us need to experience show tunes beautifully performed on a regular basis. Others of us need a good excuse to spend a night under the stars with friends, food and vino on a warm night. Happily, Transcendence is happy to offer something for everyone.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Transcendence Theatre Company’s sixth summer season of “Broadway Under the Stars” continues with Another Openin’ Another Show through July 2; Fantastical Family Night July 14 & 15; Fascinating Rhythm Aug. 4-20; Gala Celebration Concert Sept. 8-10. Pre-show picnics begin at 5 p.m. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Jack London State Historic Park is at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Tickets are $40-$149 (with $5 of each ticket benefitting Jack London State Historic Park). Call 877-424-1414 or visit BestNightEver.org.

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