By David Templeton
I always look forward to June in Sonoma County. With June comes the Santa Rosa Junior College's Summer Repertory Theatre, the 38-year-old professional training program and perennial theater company, founded in 1972 by Frank Zwolinski.
Summer Repertory is one of those beloved local institutions—like the Napa Valley Wine Auction or Marin's Mill Valley Film Festival—for which communities demonstrate a wild degree of affection and public pride. The program brings over a hundred international participants to Sonoma County where, under the leadership of artistic director James Newman, they produce five plays in rotating repertory. That's more than 90 performances in a two-month period, a theatrical marathon that gives SRT participants a valuable full-immersion crash-course in putting on a show. And we get to watch.
This year's season opened last Wednesday with the musical comedy Forever Plaid, followed by Saturday's lift-off of J. M. Barrie's original Peter Pan. The rest of the season's shows will open over the next 10 days. As is often the case, these opening performances had their share of jitters, flubbed lines and overly cautious performances, but the pleasure of SRT has always been in watching the cast and crew evolve over the course of the summer.
In Forever Plaid, the 20-year-old chamber musical by Stuart Ross, there is almost no plot and next to no character development. Still, the show has achieved a remarkable following over the last two decades and serves primarily as an opportunity for four actor-singers to practice really tight harmonies. The Plaids are a 1960s-era singing group: Jinx (John Krause), Francis (Jason Moody), Sparky (Matt Bradley) and Smudge (Rob Rodems).
We learn that the Plaids were killed in 1964 on their way to a career-making performance. Through an unexplained space-time anomaly, the Plaids have been returned to earth to give the performance they were destined to give. Whether it's worth the effort or not will be entirely up to the group, if they can overcome their various personality quirks and fears long enough to complete the show.
Directed by Anne McAlexander, the slight story stays slight, avoiding the imposed dramatic arcs that some directors like to overlay onto the, um, action. On opening night, the cohesion of voices and characters was still in development, but the otherwise charming cast, with dazzling smiles and a delightfully giddy commitment to McAlexander's inspired comic choreography, provided plenty of reasons to enjoy the show.
Peter Pan, directed by Newman, will surely inspire a lot of post-show conversation. By boldly choosing to stage Barrie's original nonmusical script, and by electing to break the sacred rule that Peter must be played by a woman (here, he's played by Adam Burkholder), Newman has already set us up for a Peter Pan experience like no other. He then elevates to originality by casting Captain Hook (Claire Perry) and the other pirates as women, by creating a Mad Max-meets-Godspell Neverland that looks something like a paintball course on Mars, and by staging the cleverly gorgeous flying scenes as if they'd been conceived by Cirque du Soleil.
At opening, many of the performances seemed strangely flat and lacking in energy. As Peter Pan and Wendy, Burkholder and Skye Bronfenbrenner showed more youthful joy in the curtain call than they did romping through the story. Especially disappointing—though it is still early in the SRT process—is Perry's Hook. Male or female, Hook should always be scary, and even in battle, this Hook seems a little placid and unferocious.
There are many visual delights in Newman's somewhat chaotic production (love the dancing shadows!), so much so that it's frequently hard to tell what's going on or where to look. Hook's climactic demise seems almost off-hand, coming as it does in the midst of a stage-wide explosion of activity, with a gobbling crocodile that is almost impossible to see over the heads of the audience. And yet the haunting and jaw-droppingly lovely ending (wow!) is quite worth the price of admission.
After 39 years of rule-bending theater, SRT has never given us anything quite like it.
All shows, times and costs can be found at www.summerrep.com.