Sarasota's premier performance site kicks off with Jimmy Buffett's "Escape to Margaritaville."
When Paul Anka takes the stage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in early 2022, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the singer who wrote his concert staple “I’m Coming Home” nearly 60 years ago.
“I’ve been away from you/ Such a long, long time/ Since I’ve been gone/ The sun won’t shine.”
Anka on March 11, 2020, was the last act to perform live at the Van Wezel before COVID-19 prompted broad closures of arts establishments, a shutdown that now is beginning to loosen.
“I know that our community longs for a full return to live entertainment, and we will do everything we can do to make it so,” Van Wezel Executive Director Mary Bensel said in a written statement.
Opening the 1,741-seat theater on Oct. 29, perhaps appropriately, is Jimmy Buffett’s 2017 musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” a Broadway production based on the singer’s forget-your-cares music.
The Van Wezel is one of nine Sarasota-area arts organizations that last week rolled out a series of indoor protocols for performers, staff and patrons. Asolo Repertory Theatre, Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, The Hermitage Artist Retreat, Sarasota Ballet, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Sarasota Orchestra are also participating in the #SafeArtsSarasota endeavor that requires masks and either a negative COVID-19 test or the voluntary showing of vaccine documentation for audience members.
Bensel said she hopes recent downward trends in COVID-19 positivity rates continue into the season and that audiences will again feel confident in gathering together. The hall has upgraded its air-handling and filtration systems and taken other safety measures, she said.
Following the Oct. 29 opener, Van Wezel has rounded Broadway productions, rock ‘n’ roll headliners, superstar vocalists, comedy shows and a dose of entertainment for kids.
- “The Allman Family Revival” was recently announced for a Dec. 3 show, featuring Devon Allman (son of Gregg Allman) who will be anchored by his group, The Allman Betts Band.
- One of the season’s earliest shows is “Disney Princess: The Concert,”on Nov. 3, a new touring version of the Broadway Princess Party nightclub shows featuring stars of Disney musicals and other stage performers.
- An impressive Broadway and classical music lineup includes timely extended runs of the Broadway musical “Come From Away” (Nov. 23-28), the story of 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
- Van Wezel will welcome the debut of newcomers to the stage including Bruce Hornsby (Nov. 11); George Thorogood and The Destroyers (Dec. 7); Sarah Brightman, known for being in the original cast of “The Phantom of the Opera,” (Dec. 14); and Jefferson Starship (Dec. 31).
- Il Divo, an international singing quartet that was originally booked for the hall’s 50th anniversary last year, takes the stage Jan. 6. The season also includes “The Four Phantoms in Concert,” featuring four past stars of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, on Feb. 14 and “The Ten Tenors: Love is in the Air” on March 10.
- Comedian Jay Leno returns Jan. 15. Engelbert Humperdinck (Feb. 28), Johnny Mathis on his “The Voice of Romance Tour” (April 12) and Anka (Feb. 20) will also perform. Ventriloquist and Last Vegas performer Terry Fator, who won the second season of “America’s Got Talent” will visit the Van Wezel for the first time April 10.
- Also on the slate are numerous tribute shows, 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 May 7.
“The magic of live theater is what brings us back — show after show, day after day. I want to hear the music soar through the air to fill our audience with joy,” Bensel wrote in an email.
“I want to hear laughter from our patrons when they come to see renowned comedians on our beloved stage. I want to hear our patrons singing on their way out after they’ve just seen one of their favorite artists perform, knowing that they’ll have some of their favorite tunes stuck in their head for a whole week after the concert.
“I want to see first dates, family outings, school time performances, anniversary outings, celebrations with friends and the special occasions that bring us together to celebrate life.”
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