By  | 
By Ryan G. Van Cleave 
Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards’ vision and creativity brings world-class artisans and national acclaim to Asolo Rep.

We all know that Sarasota is an arts-loving community with a prominent theater presence. But Asolo Rep—now in its 59th season—is known for delivering productions worthy of Broadway, Chicago, or London’s West End. Part of that reputation comes from being the largest Equity house in Florida and the largest repertory theater in the Southeastern U.S., yet Asolo Rep’s renown mainly derives from the innovative work it produces.

The work is also what continues to attract the top actors, artists and designers working in theater each season. These aren’t national touring companies that zoom through. From conception to realization, the productions are home-grown. Asolo Rep’s world-class artisans bring the productions to life and create everything from top to bottom — sets, costumes, props, and more — right here in Sarasota. And it’s that kind of creative opportunity that has directors, designers, and actors yearning to be part of what’s happening at Asolo Rep.

That growing reputation for excellence also surely stems from the vision, energy, and creativity of Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards. His idea for the American Character Project, which concluded last season after five years, generated national attention and stimulated Asolo Rep patrons to make connections between the season’s plays, and reflected on what it means to be an American today. Subtitled “Our Lives on Stage,” the plays during the American Character Project’s five seasons addressed questions such as: What IS the American character? How did it emerge and what is its nature? Where is it going? Edwards explains, “The end goal of the Project was to deepen our collective understanding of America and what it means to be an American. No single answer is sufficient—there are as many worthwhile answers as there are creative artists working on our productions.”

“Loud and clear, front and center, love is going to win at Asolo Rep this season.”

Titled “Staging Our World,” the 2017-2018 season continues this exploration by widening the lens to encompass a view of the entire world and America’s unique place in it. “We’re living through an extraordinary time right now,” says Edwards. “We have the challenge and fortune—perhaps misfortune—to be living in this time. We can’t help but take note of, examine, and bounce off what is happening.”

The whole world is paying special attention to America right now—we’re a worldwide obsession of sorts, a kind of global reality TV show in action. So it makes sense to embrace a global view of America through musicals and plays that touch on relevant, provocative questions.

To this end, the season opens with Evita, which Edwards notes is “going to electrify people.” It’s the most technically demanding production that Asolo Rep has ever mounted and it’s going to launch the season in a thrilling way. We all know that though Evita is an extraordinary piece of musical theater, it simply doesn’t work unless you have a dynamite Evita, and the theater has found just the actress for the role. From the 1,000+ hopefuls who auditioned for the musical in Florida, New York, and Chicago, the one who blew them away was Ana Isabelle, an acclaimed Puerto Rican pop star and actress who won the hearts of more than 30 million viewers who voted for her to become the winner of Univision’s American Idol-esque reality show Viva el Sueño. Edwards assures: “This will be a big American debut for her. She’s going to excite Sarasota enormously.”

Evita is an interesting choice to set the tone for this season, having both a political and social dimension to it. In case you don’t know, Evita is the story of one of the most iconic female figures in the 20th century. Eva Perón, the second wife of Argentine president Juan Perón, came from nothing and rose to a level of fame similar to Princess Di or Grace Kelly—everyone knew her. And while she tried and tried to make life better for ordinary people, in many ways, she made it worse for them. “It’s an interesting yet complicated story about a celebrity who achieved great power,” Edwards says. “It can’t help but have great resonance now.”

The second production has Edwards equally enthusiastic: Shakespeare in Love, “a big, sprawling, wonderful, funny, gorgeous play,” will give the impression of a classical piece, but it’s going to have an entirely contemporary feel. “Our cast is going to remind you that art, poetry, love, and music—in spite of everything you may feel when you turn on the TV—are the most important things. Perhaps only after friendship,” Edwards says with a laugh.

Asolo Rep’s 2017-18 season will also feature a fresh version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book in a world premiere family-friendly production in June 2018. It’s another piece about love and family and the connection between people, which is right in line with the season’s theme. In this story, a young boy finds out that he has two families—one with the animal kingdom, and one with his genetic human family. Edwards notes that “the problem is he feels more connected to the animals, and he has the burden of trying to explain that to his human family. The idea of having love for everything in nature is a profound idea, and what a better place it’d be if this were true for everyone. From a very young age, kids naturally love animals. They love all living things. They understand that they’re connected to all other lives in a meaningful way. But then we teach that it’s not so.”

“Our job as artists, thinkers, and citizens,” Edwards adds, “is to lower the temperature of intolerance, and open the possibility of true empathy. That’s what we teach. We demand it, in fact.”

And that’s something we need now perhaps more than ever before.

TV and movies are a passive experience. Theater? It’s hot. It’s breathing the same air with 500 other people, laughing and crying together. Edwards says, “It’s the same primal experience that the Greeks had 3,000 years ago. It’s the same experience that the Masai had on the plains of the Serengeti. It speaks to the same part of the brain, the emotional muscle, to hear a story well told. It’s basic and necessary.”

And maybe Edwards puts it best when he says, “Loud and clear, front and center, love is going to win at Asolo Rep this season.”

For more information on the Asolo Rep’s Season, please visit
www.asolorep.org or call 941.351.8000.

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