The shadows deepen, the sky shades into violet hues, the audience quiets down in expectant anticipation and finally an animated group storms the stage, filling the space within the ancient rock walls with song and dance that lift the soul. The aptly named Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) exceeded all expectations in their second summer of Broadway Under the Stars performances in the winery ruins at Jack London State Historic Park (JLSHP). They broke attendance records, contributed a significant amount of much-needed funding to the park and attracted world class guest performers to complement the strong talent of the core troupe. By all accounts the arrival of TTC is one of the best things to happen to Sonoma Valley.
Throughout the summer the changing performances and cast in three reviews, the Artist Series, children’s performance and end-of-season Gala Celebration kept the shows lively and fresh, each one unique, all celebrating different forms of song and dance. “Fly me to the Moon” kicked off the summer with a collection of lighthearted, joyful tunes and a very special song called “Valley of the Moon”, a poem by Glen Ellen resident Edna Poppe Cooper from the early 1900s that was arranged in musical form and sung sweetly by Leah Sprecher. The “Fantastical Family Night”, featuring the inaugural Kid’s Camp performers, as well as Mark Gendick, an atypical clown who was truly funny and not the least bit creepy, wove in many classics and even some animal actors. A local camel was pressed into service as a surprise thespian with Stephan Stubbins performing Arabian Nights (yes, he comes from a faraway place) while Toto and Dorothy (Nicole Mangi) performed a song from The Wizard of Oz (no, we’re not in Kansas anymore). In another show, “Dancing Through Life”, timeless musicals had feet tapping and hearts singing as dancers whirled across the stage and vocalists belted out crowd favorites. Stephanie Cadman, of the Stephanie Cadman Trio, has somehow perfected doing an Irish jig while fiddling, her feet barely touching the ground as the bow vigorously jabbed at the sky. The Artist Series was introduced this year featuring entertainers such as two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, who carried her own show.
The guest performers added depth and breadth but the core performers endeared themselves to those lucky enough to see the entire series as their personalities and quirks shined through. Leah Sprecher, Creative Coordinator and Director of the Kid’s Camp, has a sly sense of humor honed by her sketch/improv comedy experience while Amy Miller seems to be able to do everything at once—she sings, dances, juggles on stage, acts as the Artistic Director and defines the word passion. Her husband Brad Surosky, co-Executive Director, is often seen behind the scenes and in group numbers but delivered a stunning opening monologue full of humor and history as he debated the significance of the Etruscans in Italy in “Dancing Through Life”. Stephan Stubbins, with Broadway experience in Mary Poppins and other plays, brings his creative energy to the stage in solo and group numbers and is the other co-Executive Director. Robert Petrarca, with Oregon Shakespeare Festival chops, is a talented choreographer and performer.
Knowing the tenuous state of affairs, with JLSHP nearly shutting its doors just as TTC landed on its doorstep in 2012, it was with a great sense of relief to TTC, the park and the community when it was announced that an agreement was signed with the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA), who operates JLSHP, to perform through 2019. “It is an honor and a dream come true for our company to able to call Jack London State Park and Sonoma our home, now and for years to come,” said Artistic Director, Amy Miller.
TTC contributed $5 from each ticket sold to benefit JLSHP. In 2012 the inaugural season drew 7500 attendees and raised over $27,000 for the park. In 2013 those numbers grew to 11,000 people attending 14 performances and a whopping $40,000 donation for VMNHA.
While the top notch performances are professionally choreographed and produced performers are not hidden back-stage in an inaccessible green room. It’s all-hands-on-deck before and after the show with actors taking on roles setting up the stage, distributing brochures, coordinating volunteers, taking tickets and doing endless problem solving. Their radios crackle with every stort of last minute issue to deal with, but when the sun slides behind Sonoma Mountain and the lights go down they set down their clipboards and radios to don costumes and voila, they tap dance across the stage and as they sing their hearts out you forget that you were just chatting with them a few minutes before the show about the weather like they were a regular person. After the show they are positioned along the exits to greet theater goers and shake hands, becoming seamlessly integrated into the community with their spirit and determination to succeed.
Another distinctive way that TTC creates a sense of community is through the pre-show picnicking. Two hours before the show, when the warmth of the late afternoon invites al fresco dining, food trucks and beer and wine vendors set up in the large meadow near the winery ruins. The menu rotates with the schedule but usually there are a couple of choices for dinner from Drums and Crumbs, Awful Falafel or Chicago Style Hot Dogs, at least one truck serving something sweet, like ice cream from the Glen Ellen Star, and hot coffee from Café Mugshot. Families and friends can gather for a leisurely meal before claiming their seats for the show.
The outdoor venue means that the theater has an enchanting quality that adds a positive and dynamic element to the performances as the lighting and temperatures shift from sunset to starry nights and varying moons. It also means that audience members need to be prepared to manage their comfort. The temperatures in Sonoma can be quite warm during the afternoon but the cooling influence the relatively nearby marine environment means that the thermometer can drop significantly after sundown. Shorts and sandals can be comfortable when picnicking but, to be prepared, it’s recommended to pack long pants, a jacket and perhaps a blanket.
One issue that threatened the future of the venue was a 2008 engineer’s report that stated some concerns about the integrity of the walls of the winery ruins. This prompted the State Parks agency to consider moving the event to a different location, which many worried could reduce the intimate ambiance created by the historic structure. A private engineering report has allayed concerns for now so at this time it appears that the events can continue at the winery. TTC takes the concern seriously, assigning volunteers to monitor the walls during performances to protect the sensitive structures.
TTC could not launch their ambitious plans without the support of sponsors and donors, who have thankfully stepped up to lend financial assistance to the company. In particular, Benziger Family Winery (the Signature Wine Sponsor), Sonoma Index Tribune (the Season Media Sponsor) and many business, wine, beer, restaurant and pouring partners helped keep the performances going. In addition, a large cadre of 170 volunteers came out en masse to assist with transportation, parking, ticket taking, prep before the show and a variety of other tasks. If you are interested in volunteering, becoming a sponsor or making a donation see the TTC website.
The second season of Broadway Under the Stars was even more successful than the first, and with community support, generous sponsors, active volunteers and the incredible passion of the founding members we look forward to next year and beyond.
Jack London State Historic Park
2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Park hours: 9:30-5:00
Entry fees: $10 per vehicle; $5 to walk to bike in (waived during performances)
To reach Jack London State Historic Park from San Francisco by car (approximately 1 – 1.5 hours, depending on traffic and other conditions):
- Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and follow US 101 North
- Take exit #460A/Napa/Vallejo onto CA-37 East
- Bear left on CA-121 North (Arnold Drive) toward Sonoma
- Continue on 116 West (Arnold Drive)
- Continue on Arnold Drive to Glen Ellen
- Turn left on London Ranch Road until you reach JLSHP