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Arts and Entertainment Sunday, Mar. 29, 2020 4 months ago

As season recedes further, groups look to the future

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WBTT reschedules world premier of in-house original musical 'Ruby' for next season
by: Klint Lowry Arts + Entertainment Editor

Well, it’s official. There goes April.

While many performing arts groups canceled the remainder of  their spring seasons a couple weeks ago, a few prominent organizations held on to a glimmer of hope that maybe the COVID-19 pandemic would be short-lived and we could all go back to something close to normal.

But it was just a glimmer, and it flickered out quickly as The Asolo Repertory Theatre and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe pulled the plug on the remainders of their seasons and the Sarasota Orchestra extended its shutdown by another month, to April 26.

The affected orchestra performances and events include:

Blake Pouliot had been scheduled to be guest violinist at Sarasota Orchestra's "Masterworks 7: American Impressions" this weekend. (Photo courtesy Sarasota Orchestra)

April 2: Classical Conversations

April 3-5: Masterworks 7— “American Impressions”

April 17-18: Pops 3 — “American Playlist”

April 18: Sarasota Youth Orchestras’ Year-End Showcase Concerts

April 19: Chamber Soiree 8 —“Guiding Principals”

The orchestra has a standing committee that monitors the status of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its events are at most a few days rather than weeks or months as they are at other theaters, they needn’t cancel events far in advance, and cancellations aren't as far-reaching. The orchestra is maintaining a strategy based on bringing music back to the community as soon as possible.

So for now, Sarasota Orchestra events in May and June are officially still on.

The Asolo Rep and WBTT didn’t have that luxury. What was particularly painful for both was that the next show in each theater’s season was a world premier.

At the Asolo, that show was “Knoxville,” which was canceled along with the just-opened “The Great Leap,” as well as “Hood” and “Snow White.”   

Asolo Repertory Theatre stands quiet, as it will for some time after the cancellation of the remainder if its season, including the much-anticipated world premier of the musical "Knoxville." (Photo by Klint Lowry)

But “Knoxville,” which would have been making its debut this weekend, had to be an especially bitter pill to swallow. It had been anticipated for well over a year, ever since it was announced that director Frank Galati, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the trio behind the Tony-Award-winning “Ragtime,” had been reunited for the new musical.

No announcement had been made as to when “Knoxville” will be rescheduled.

Meanwhile, WBTT issued a press release announcing the cancellation of the final three weeks of “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God,” as well as the world premiere of the musical “Ruby” and the season’s closing production, “Flyin’ West.”

The same press release announcing the cancellations expressed optimism that WBTT’s April Fools Fete fundraiser, rescheduled for May 18, will come off, along with the theater’s Stage of Discovery musical theater camp in June.

Following the press release, WBTT Artistic Director Nate Jacobs is much the same way as he talks about the postponement of “Ruby,” an original WBTT production he had written. His perspective on the situation is a balance of disappointment and positivity.

"The history of the troupe is that we are resilient,” Jacobs says. “But for everyone's safety, we had to shut down.”

Of course, he and everyone affiliated with “Ruby” were disappointed with the change of plans so close to the show’s April 15 opening. "We had just gone into rehearsals, heading into the second week. And we were finalizing all of the different touches of opening a world premiere.”

To go from that kind of anticipation to that big a letdown is quite a drop. But even before the decision to shut down the season, Jacobs says, the possibility had been discussed of postponing “Ruby” to next season, “so that it's not upstaged by the coronavirus frenzy.”

Just before theaters started closing shows, WBTT had announced its 2020-21 season, which has since taken on added meaning as a reminder that there is a return to normalcy ahead.

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Artistic Director Nate Jacobs is taking the postponement of his musical "Ruby" to next season in stride. (Photo courtesy Sorcha Augustine)

That season’s lineup, which will begin Oct. 1 and run through June 6, 2021, was to include “Broadway in Black,” “Eubie!,” “Pipeline” and “Smokey Joe’s Café,” along with WBTT’s traditional biannual holiday offering, “Black Nativity.”

"Broadway in Black" is a revue-style show, also created by Jacobs, that made its debut at WBTT in 2017, and includes songs from “Purlie,” “Pippin,” Dreamgirls, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and others.

WBTT’s regular season will step aside for the holiday season and the return of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” Dec. 2-27. This celebration of the Nativity story includes gospel, blues, spiritual, and Christmas music, along with the Hughes’ poetry.

“Ruby” will replace “Eubie!” Jan. 6 through Feb. 21, “when we hope the global situation will have subsided,” Jacobs says. “Then we can really present it like it deserves.” He added that they considered opening the season with “Ruby,” but there was “overwhelming sponsor support for ‘Broadway in Black,’” so they decided to leave that were it is.

Set in 1952, "Ruby" addresses themes relevant to today's Me Too Movement. When a black woman is charged with the murder of a white doctor in a small Florida town, a reporter from the north comes to cover the story. Slowly, the secrets hidden behind the town's genteel exterior are exposed.

After "Ruby," the season will continue with “Pipeline,” March 3 through April 11. The play is about an inner-city teacher who is desperate to give her son the opportunity to get ahead, but doesn’t want to turn her back on her community. 

WBTT wraps up the season April 21 through June 6 with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Music of Lieber and Stoller,” celebrating the music of the songwriting team that gave us “On Broadway,” “Stand by Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”

Jacobs is taking a glass half full attitude toward the nearly nine-month delay for the premiere of "Ruby."

“While the current situation is obviously less than ideal, it gives us a little more time to workshop 'Ruby' on a very small scale, the music for the show in particular," Jacobs says. "I am continuing to workshop with some of the musicians. 

“And I think it makes our 2020-21 season a little more interesting, to be honest. The delay will cause even more anticipation I think the excitement and anticipation will be even more overwhelming."

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