Show tune nirvana: Transcendence under the stars

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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.

Natural beauty, talent and…disappointment at Transcendence

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The glorious venue for Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars series is the winery ruins in Jack London State Historic Park in Sonoma. The performers, many of whom come with Broadway credits, are often spectacular. Photos by Rebecca Call

Walking into a Transcendence Theatre Company show for the first time two years ago was, well, a transcendent experience (read my review here). Part of that had to do with the stunningly beautiful setting: Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. If there’s a lovelier place to be on a summer night, sipping wine, dining from local food trucks and savoring the view, I don’t know it. The other part was the show itself, performed by an energetic, eminently talented company, most of whom hail from New York and touring companies. Show tunes were performed with brio and panache, staging was clever and exciting and the art of Broadway razzmatazz on a wine country summer night hit some glorious heights.

Heading back for opening weekend of the fifth season, much of what makes this such a special experience was in place: scrumptious offerings from gourmet food trucks, abundant (and delicious) wine and scenic beauty that transports you well before the show begins.

The amount of talent within the 25-member company is also, as expected, at an astronomical level, but the opening show itself, dubbed This Magic Moment (running through July 3), is disappointing. Unlike previous Transcendence shows I’ve seen, there’s a level of – I’m sorry to say – cheesiness that smacks of something you’d see in a theme park or on a cruise ship. There are as many pop tunes in the show as there are show tunes, with odes to the Beach Boys and Adele among them, and they inspire flashbacks to Up with People in the ’70s or the Solid Gold Dancers of the ’80s. Those are not comparisons you aim for.

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There is still fun to be had, though from the opening number it becomes clear that show tunes are going to be competing with pop throughout the evening as the company mashes up a bit of “Seize the Day” from Newsies with the Pointer Sisters hit “I’m So Excited.” A delightful “A Wink and a Smile,” the Harry Connick-penned tune from the Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack, gives Brooke Morrison and Eric Jackson an opportunity for some vintage-style charm, and then a labored comedy number blends a variety of rock tunes with speed dating.

Lexy Fridell, assisted by the golden-voiced John Yi and the powerhouse Q. Smith, triumphs with Stephen Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “Not Getting Married Today from Company, but then an awkward mash-up of “I Put a Spell on You” and “Love Potion #9” marks the first of a number of forgettable selections perfunctorily staged. Does anyone really care about “The Life I Never Led” from Sister Act or “Get Out and Stay Out” from 9 to 5: The Musical or “The Strongest Suit” from Aida (even when accompanied by an uninspiring “fashion show” set to ’70s mainstays “I’m Coming Out” and “Got to Be Real”)? Perhaps those lukewarm show tunes are only slightly more interesting than a string of pop tunes including One Republic’s “I Lived,” Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move” Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place,” Bruno Mars’ “Marry You,” a medley of Beach Boys hits, another medley of Adele hits and Whitney Houston’s super-schmaltzy “One Moment in Time.” It’s not that the songs are bad, necessarily (there are some classic songs in there), but they are performed unconvincingly. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” is performed by members of the male ensemble, a frisky idea that’s actually fun, but it’s couched in some sort of comic idea about an old man in a home reading a poem who ends up dancing in the number, thus blunting its pleasures.

Among the better moments are Nick Dalton and a very pregnant Shannon O’Bryan singing Maltby and Shire’s “The Story Goes On” (from Baby) and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific earnestly performed by Yi and Michele Maika Berg. The company performs a selection from The Phantom of the Opera (complete with ridiculous jets of stage smoke like something from a Meatloaf concert circa 1977) but unfortunately chooses the absolute worst number from that score, the execrable title song.

Certainly this is all a matter of taste, and after four seasons it’s not surprising that Transcendence is trying new things. The audience seemed delighted by the mix of show tunes and pop, whooping and cheering with gusto, but this kind of slick, schlocky entertainment doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me. If this were the first Transcendence show I had seen, I would not have returned for more in spite of the wine, the food and the magnificent venue.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Transcendence Theatre Company’s Broadway Under the Stars series continues through Sept. 11 at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. This Magic Moment runs through July 3. Fantastical Family Night is July 15 and 16. Dance the Night Away runs Aug. 5-21 and Gala Celebration runs Sept. 9-11. Tickets are $37-$134. Call 877-424-1414 or visit www.ttcsonoma.org.

Transcendence (and show tunes!) under Sonoma stars

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The setting for Transcendence Theatre Company’s “Broadway Under the Stars” summer series involves the ruins of a winery and a hillside vineyard in the heart of Sonoma’s spectacular Jack London State Park. Photo by Robbi Pengelly. BELOW CENTER: Beautifully staged, a Transcendence show is as classy as its surroundings. Photo By Ryan Daffurn. BELOW BOTTOM: As the sun sets, the show tunes light the night with lively choreography and stunning performances by a Broadway-caliber cast. Photo by Ray Mabry.

“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
― Jack London

Those words took on special meaning when uttered at the start of One Singular Sensation, the first of this summer’s three Broadway Under the Stars shows from Transcendence Theatre Company in residence for a third summer at Jack London State Park.

The setting for the shows couldn’t be more beautiful. The audience is seated in the ruins of a winery, and behind the stage, just beyond the crumbling stone wall, are rolling Sonoma hills, trees toward the top and grapevines climbing in orderly rows along the sides.

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Fans of Broadway musicals and show music take note: you do not want to miss the work of Transcendence Theatre Company. If you worry about musical revues coming off like slick cruise ship shlock, worry not. This is a top-tier professional company in which the large, extravagantly talented troupers boast a bevy of Broadway and national tour credits. Direction, choreography and musical direction are all sharp, unadorned and focused on pure, energizing entertainment.

As thrilling as the performances are, I would also say that you don’t necessarily have to be a Broadway fan to have a grand time at a Transcendence event. The whole experience, from the drive to Jack London State Park (a gem of a state park full of history, hiking trails and a 2,000-year-old redwood) to the pre-show wine and food bacchanalia, it’s all part what could (and should) be a great Bay Area outdoor theater tradition.

And then there’s the show itself, essentially two-plus hours of shimmering Broadway songs and dances culled from classic and contemporary musicals performed by artists who seem to be thriving on the spotlight and the sultry Sonoma nights. The show begins just before sunset, and by the beginning of Act 2, night has kicked in, with the moon and stars giving the show’s colorful lighting design some stiff competition.

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The first show of the season, One Singular Sensation, which closed last Saturday (July 5), featured, among other highlights, “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls performed by three cowboys on real live horses and then dazzled with too many showstoppers to enumerate, but here are a few:

  • Sonoma native Lexy Fridell delivering a one-woman musical comedy in the form of the song “The Girl in 14G.”
  • A trio of Adam Halpin, James D. Sasser and Stephan Stubbins turning Sondheim’s well-worn “Being Alive” into something dazzlingly fresh
  • Fridell (again) and the charming Scott Barnhardt finding every laugh in “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spalmalot
  • The company performing a medley of TV theme songs that made the audience so giddy with delight it had to be experienced to be believed.

In short, One Singular Sensation was sensational. Kudos to director Melissa Giattino, musical director Benjamin Rauhala and choreographer Molly Alvarez (with Amanda Lehman, Dylan Smith and Kurt Domoney) for creating destination theater worthy of whatever journey it takes to get there.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION
Transcendence Theatre Company’s “Broadway Under the Stars” series continues with Fantastical Family Night July 25 and 26; The Music of the Night Aug. 14-24 and a Gala Celebration Sept. 5 and 6. Transcendence also presents its “Artist Series” with Lexy Fridell in Brace Yourself July 12 and 13; Carrie Manolakos and Morgan Karr in concert Aug. 1 and 2; Steppin’ Out Live! with Ben Vereen Aug. 9; Witness Uganda Aug. 19; Leah Sprecher and Stephan Stubbins in Oh What a Beautiful Mashup Aug. 28. Call 877-424-1414 or visit www.ttcsonoma.org.