Familiar names and new stars provide variety for Van Wezel season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
The Choir of Man, a pub-style concert of pop, classic rock, folk, Broadway and more, makes its Sarasota debut at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

After the most challenging year and a half of her career, Mary Bensel is hoping that she is not alone in looking forward to people returning to shows at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

She expects the season to be one of rejuvenation.

“I’m really looking forward to celebrating coming back to the theater, the thrill of having a Broadway musical on our stage again, and comedians and jazz music, and illusionists, Christmas shows,” said Bensel, executive director of Van Wezel, which is owned by the City of Sarasota. “And I hope everyone else is, too.”

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Bensel said she can only hope that by the time the season launches in late October that the current surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant will have subsided and audiences will feel more confident in gathering together. The hall has upgraded its air handling and filtration systems and taken other safety measures. Safety protocols and a reopening guide are available on the hall’s website, vanwezel.org

After months of few live performance opportunities, Bensel believes audiences will eagerly embrace the return of such Broadway hits as “Jersey Boys,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “South Pacific” and “Beautiful,” which she compared to “wrapping yourself in a comfortable old blanket. We miss that feeling.”

Several months after announcing a Broadway and classical music lineup that includes extended runs of the Broadway musicals “Come From Away” and “Anastasia,” as well as opera singer Renee Fleming and violinist Itzhak Perlman, among others, Bensel is now revealing the variety show schedule that features a large number of familiar names amid some local premieres that will keep the hall busy from October through May.

Singer Sarah Brightman performs “A Christmas Symphony” at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hal..

Newcomers to the Sarasota venue include singer/songwriter/composer Bruce Hornsby (Nov. 11), George Thorogood and the Destroyers (Dec. 7), Jefferson Starship on New Year’s Eve and singer Sarah Brightman, the original star of “The Phantom of the Opera,” performing “A Christmas Symphony” on Dec. 14.

One of the season’s earliest shows is the Nov. 3 presentation of “Disney Princess – The Concert,” a new touring version of the Broadway Princess Party nightclub shows featuring stars of Disney musicals and other stage performers. They include Susan Egan (who originated the role of Belle in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast”) and Courtney Reed (who originated the role in the Broadway version of “Aladdin”), along with Christy Altomare, who starred in “Anastasia” on Broadway.

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Altomare replaces two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, who helped launch the Princess Party format with music director Benjamin Rauhala and is best known locally for starring in “Bonnie & Clyde” in 2010 at Asolo Rep and a winter outdoor concert earlier this year at the theater.

Osnes garnered a lot of social media attention earlier this month after she dropped out of a benefit concert on Long Island rather than get a COVID-19 vaccine. According to deadline.com, Disney Concerts will require cast and touring crew to be vaccinated for the Princess concert.

The international singing group Il Divo makes its Sarasota debut at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Bensel is also excited to finally be able to present the international singing quartet Il Divo, which was originally booked for the hall’s 50th anniversary program last year, but had to cancel because of an illness to one of its members. The new concert date is Jan. 6. The season also includes “The Ten Tenors: Love is in the Air” on March 10 and “The Four Phantoms in Concert,” featuring four past stars of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, on Feb. 14.

Ventriloquist Terry Fator, who won the second season of “America’s Got Talent” and went on to become a mainstay in Las Vegas, will visit the Van Wezel for the first time April 10.  And audiences will have a chance to “come on down” during “The Price is Right Live” on March 29.

Ventriloquist Terry Fator, a champion on “America’s Got Talent” and a star in Las Vegas, makes his Sarasota debut at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Among the most familiar and perennial stars are Paul Anka (Feb. 22), Engelbert Humperdinck (Feb. 28) and Johnny Mathis on his “The Voice of Romance Tour” April 12.

“Johnny Mathis’ voice is still unbelievable,” Bensel said. “And I think Paul Anka has only improved with age.” Such singers thrive on stage, she said. “It keeps them young.”

Comedian Jay Leno, who gave his first show after leaving “The Tonight Show” at the Van Wezel in 2014, returns for an evening of laughs on Jan. 15.

Singer and actor Harry Connick Jr. is the headliner of the Van Wezel Foundation’s Inspiration Gala.

Jazz star and actor Harry Connick Jr. who was booked to perform in March 2020, returns to Sarasota to headline the annual Van Wezel Foundation Inspiration Gala on Jan. 27. It’s the first time in several seasons that Bensel has been able to announce the event star along with the rest of the season.

“He’s been here before and he’s one of the most personable people we’ve had on stage,” she said. “He agreed to do an outreach educational program with students and it’s important to him that this gala is about arts education.”

America marks its 50th anniversary with a touring concert on Nov. 21; the classic rock band Kansas heads out on its “Point of No Return” tour with a stop on Jan. 28; the Temptations and the Four Tops join together once again Dec. 2, Martina McBride offers one of a number of holiday-themed concerts on Dec. 4. The Righteous Brothers, with original Brother Bill Medley joined by Bucky Heard, return Jan. 16.

There also are numerous tribute programs, including Proud Tina: The Ultimate Tribute to Tina Turner on Jan. 13; “A Tribute to Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul” on Feb. 9; The Simon & Garfunkel Story on Feb. 12; “Stayin’ Alive” recalling the music of the Bee Gees on Feb. 24; “The Sweet Caroline Tour” offering the sounds of Neil Diamond; the return of “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles” on March 6; ABBA The Concert on March 27 and One Night of Queen starring Gary Mullen and the Works, which closes the season on May 7.

Fans of Broadway theater will be able to see multi-Tony winners Bernadette Peters (Jan. 23) and Audra McDonald (Feb. 11). 

Sheléa will perform twice during the 2021-22 season at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, in concert with hitmaker David Foster and in her own solo show

David Foster, who had to cancel his scheduled performance last year due to illness, has been rescheduled for Dec. 6 to present his “An Intimate Evening with David Foster: Hitman Tour.” Among the singers joining him is Sheléa, who will return March 16 in her own concert “Natural Woman, A Night of Soul.”

She has performed with a wide range of performers from Stevie Wonder to Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. “She can sing anything and she is just unbelievable on stage. I think people are going to love her,” Bensel said.

She also looks forward to audiences discovering the debut of “Choir of Man,” which Bensel describes as “one of the most high energy, fun, action packed shows” of the season.

Many of the season’s shows were rescheduled after the pandemic began, and a large number of patrons opted to hold their tickets for the new dates.

Subscription series tickets are available now and single tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Sept. 11 at the box office, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, by phone at 941-263-6799 or online at vanwezel.org, where you can see the complete schedule. A digital version of the traditional brochure will be posted in the coming week and a print version will follow.

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