Asolo Repertory Theatre sets full return to Sarasota theater season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Even as questions about safety protocols remain to be determined, Asolo Repertory Theatre plans to return to a full season of indoor productions next season beginning with a fall staging of the tribal rock musical “Hair.”

In an online video Wednesday afternoon, Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards announced a lineup that is primarily filled with the same plays and musicals that were intended to be presented over the last two seasons but were canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Among the previously planned productions are Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town,” the recent Broadway comedy “Grand Horizons” by Bess Wohl, Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” the delayed world premiere of the new musical “Knoxville,” and “Hood,” a new musical inspired by the Robin Hood story that has its eye on Broadway. 

From left, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty and director and writer Frank Galati, who collaborated on “Ragtime,” are the creators of the new musical “Knoxville,” which will have its delayed world premiere in April 2022 at Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In addition to “Hair,” the 1967 musical about hippies, the Vietnam War and the peace movement, the other new addition is “Eureka Day,” a play by New College of Florida alumnus Jonathan Spector. 

Edwards described it as a timely comedy set at a progressive primary school in Berkeley, California, where a child gets the mumps and triggers debate among parents about vaccinations. “It looks at the degree to which this issue of vaccination is an emblem for all kinds of information problems we have in our culture,” he said.

“Hair,” by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot, will be directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, who previously staged “Evita,” “Guys and Dolls” and “The Sound of Music” at Asolo Rep.

Josh Rhodes, who directed "Guys and Dolls," "Evita" and “The Sound of Music” at Asolo Repertory Theatre, returns in the fall for a new production “Hair.”

Even though most of the titles are the same, Edwards said they will resonate in different ways in the wake of the pandemic and national calls for equity and greater diversity in the country and the American theater scene.

“It’s a tumultuous time we’ve gone through as a country because of the pandemic and the issues of racial and social justice that we can’t help that it be part of our thinking of what we’re doing in the theater,” Edwards said in an interview.

That is also true for the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, which revealed a four-show season for its second-year graduate acting students. Last year, after the George Floyd murder, Black students at the Conservatory issued a call to action, raising concerns about a lack of diversity in the program and accusations of systemic racism, among other issues.

Conservatory Director Greg Leaming said the student’s letter “caused us to pay attention and bring in BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) artists. It helped a great deal and we’ve made some big changes this year and we’re moving forward and embracing the challenges of the letter.”

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The Conservatory season will open with “Everybody” by Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins (author of “Gloria”), only the second Black playwright produced by the program in at least two decades. The play puts a new spin on a 15th century Dutch morality play called “Everyman.” Benny Sato Ambush, a veteran Black director and educator who was recently hired as artistic director of Venice Theatre, will stage Moliere’s comedy “The Learned Ladies.” The season also includes “Belleville” by Amy Herzog, author of the recent Asolo Rep play “4,000 Miles,” and a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” 

Even with his excitement about being able to return with live indoor performances, Edwards said approaching the new season “is a leap of faith. Just saying we’re going to open ‘Hair’ a week before Thanksgiving and my heart is in my mouth. It requires herd immunity and it requires so many of us being vaccinated, our company, our theater and most of all our audience, we hope will be.”

And if safety concerns require changes, “we’ll have to pivot once again, but it’s looking bright. Not as bright as it should be, but we’re optimistic,” he said.

Last fall, Asolo Rep built the outdoor Terrace Stage where it produced five concerts and musicals, becoming one of the few professional companies to win approval of theatrical unions, including Actors’ Equity Association.

If conditions require “Hair” to be presented outside “we could do that. It would be exciting. It would be different but very exciting,” Edwards said. “That’s in the back pocket but at the moment, we think that’s a remote possibility. We can’t really say no to anything.”

Edwards said Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town,” which looks at the every day routines and relationships of life, “is going to land in a powerfully new way because of what we’ve all gone through. We think differently about life, its fragility, friendship and love, is what it comes down to. Everything else is an illusion.” He originally planned to direct the play, which will now be staged by Desdemona Chiang, a Seattle-based director who works frequently at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“The Great Leap,” which was in technical rehearsals last year when theaters were forced to shut down, is about international and family relations when an American basketball team travels to Beijing in the 1980s. Edwards said it feels more urgent today in how it “unpacks the U.S. relationship with China, and the focus on this Chinese-American family feels very potent.”

“Grand Horizons,” which was originally announced last year just weeks after the play ended a two-month Broadway run starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell, is about a wife who seeks a divorce after 50 years of marriage and how their children try to intervene. It will be directed by Celine Rosenthal, the theater's associate artistic director.

“Knoxville” is the new musical written and directed by Tony Award winner Frank Galati based on James Agee’s novel “A Death in the Family,” with a score by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, the Tony-winning songwriters of “Ragtime” and “Once On This Island.”

A scene of the original production of "Hood," a musical inspired by the Robin Hood story that will have a revised staging at Asolo Repertory Theatre.

“Hood,” by Douglas Carter Beane and songwriter Lewis Flinn, has been revised since its initial production at the Dallas Theater Center in 2017. It is directed by Mark Brokaw.

In the fall, the third-year Conservatory students will tour schools across the state with a 45-minute adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” through its BardWired program.

Asolo Repertory Theatre

2021-22 Season

  • “Hair,” Nov. 17-Jan. 1
  • “Our Town,” Jan. 12-March 26
  • “Grand Horizons,” Jan. 19-April 1
  • “The Great Leap,” Feb. 9-April 2
  • “Knoxville,” April 15-May 11
  • “Eureka Day,” May 11-June 4 (Cook Theatre)
  • “Hood,” June 3-26

FSU/Asolo Conservatory

2021-22 season

  • “Everybody,” Nov. 2-21
  • “Belleville,” Jan. 4-23
  • “The Learned Ladies,” Feb. 22-March 13
  • “Twelfth Night,” April 5-23

For ticket information: 941-351-8000; asolorep.org

Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.