Whether you live in the Venice area part-time or year-round, you probably know there are a whole lot of artful and fun events packed mostly into the period from November through April, when local audiences flock to the plays, concerts, art exhibitions and more our cultural organizations present. Each season offers some familiar and beloved celebrations (such as those crowd-drawing holiday parades), but also some new and sometimes surprising pleasures (like, perhaps, a provocative play you’ve never seen before at Venice Theatre’s intimate Stage II).

Whatever your tastes—the classic or pop concerts courtesy of Venice Symphony or Venice Concert Band (frequently sellouts), family-friendly festivals that entertain with music, art and great food, or live theater at VT or Englewood’s cozy Lemon Bay Playhouse—it’s time to buy your tickets, make your plans and get ready for “season.” To help you plan your calendar, we’ve chosen some of the 2015-16 highlights; there’s lots more going on this season, so be sure to check organizations’ websites for a complete schedule of arts and entertainment.  

Hair

When auditions were announced for this Venice Theatre production (directed by Broadway, film and TV star Ben Vereen; see page XX), just about every singer, dancer and actor in town showed up, anxious to work with Vereen in this landmark rock musical from 1968. Ticket sales went through the roof early on, too (despite—or perhaps because of—warnings about onstage nudity!). It’s been a while since there’s been a production of the show locally, and it will be good to sing along to Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine and the title tune decked out in our blue jeans and love beads. Onstage Nov. 10 through Dec. 12, with music director Michelle Kasanofsky and choreographer Geena Ravella assisting Vereen. (941) 488-1115, venicestage.com

Venice Blues Festival

Even in beautiful, easygoing Venice, you can sometimes get the blues. Let them wash over you with the third annual Venice Blues Festival, set for Nov. 21 at Maxine Barritt Park. This year’s line-up includes blues/rock guitarist Larry McCray, the funky reggae and blues sounds of The Kinsey Report, soul band Deb and the Dynamics, harmonica man T.C. Carr, Southern rock ’n’ roller Betty Padgett and popular area band Kettle of Fish. Proceeds benefit Venice MainStreet. (941) 484-6722, veniceblues.com or sub-lime-events.co

Sweeney Todd

This Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical about that Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a favorite among local theater buffs, and it always makes for an eerie, compelling production. This time around, VT artistic director Murray Chase is taking in hand the tale of Todd, Mrs. Lovett and her pies, innocent Toby, and young lovers Anthony and Johanna in Victorian London. It’s being performed in the theater’s Stage II, which means intimate, simple staging, with strong lighting standing in for heavy scenery, and a smaller than usual cast doing their dark deeds right in front of your face. Does that cause a lump in your throat? Onstage Jan. 21 through Feb. 14; (941) 488-1115, venicestage.com

Ragtime

The last time Venice Theatre presented this Tony Award-winning hit based on the historical novel by the late E.L. Doctorow, in 2010, it was such a hit it’s no wonder they’re bringing it back, for a nearly month-long run on the mainstage (Feb. 16 through March 13). Brad Wages directs and choreographs a large cast in this panoramic musical interlocking the stories of both real people (showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw, anarchist Emma Goldman, magician Harry Houdini) and fictional ones, including a white middle-class New Rochelle family, a Jewish immigrant, and black musician Coalhouse Walker—played, as in VT’s earlier production, by the company’s director of diversity, Kristofer Geddie. (941) 488-1115, venicestage.com

Sarasota Chalk Festival

The move of this pavement art celebration from Sarasota to Venice was a big success last year, and the 2015 festival (slated for Nov. 9-16) promises more artists from around the world creating original works before your eyes, along with music, storytelling, food vendors and children’s art activities. This year’s theme is “Eat, Drink and Be Merry!,” and of course there will be another Guinness World Record attempt at the world’s largest 3-D anamorphic street painting, headed by artist Kurt Wenner. Events take place both downtown (including a chalk art-related exhibit at the Venice Art Center) and at the Venice Airport grounds. There’s no charge to attend the festival itself, but there are ticketed opening and closing parties, Nov. 12 and 15, along with a lawn party Nov. 14. (941) 954-5800, chalkfestival.org

Suncoast BBQ and Bluegrass Bash

Another event taking over the Venice Airport Festival Grounds this season is this very popular bash, which combines several of everybody’s favorite things—great food, great music, kids’ rides, and the spirit of competition driving both a barbecue and a chili contest. The former, with a $20,000 purse, nets the winner an invitation to the World Food Championships. The Afternoon of Bluegrass, April 16, welcomes performers Flatt Lonesome, The Grascals and the Boxcars and features an Appalachian Jam. It all gets started Thursday, April 14, with a Meet the Champions event, and continues through Friday and Saturday. (941) 809-5232, suncoastbbqbash.com

Venice Symphony: Vive la France

Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot built her impressive career during four decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but we’re proud to say that she’s now an area resident—one who shines in the spotlight for Venice Symphony’s concerts March 25 and 26 at the Venice Performing Arts Center. The all-French program features Hobson Pilot performing Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Debussy’s Sacred and Profane Dances. Also on the program: works by Offenbach and Bizet. (941) 207-8822, thevenicesymphony.org

Venice Symphony: Germanic Gems

From the veteran Hobson Pilot to a star well on the rise—violinist Tai Murray—the symphony welcomes some impressive talent this season. Murray, who divides her time largely between Berlin and New York (where The New York Times has described her playing as “superb”), will solo in concerts Nov. 20 and 21, performing Max Bruch’s beautiful Violin Concerto No. 1. The program also includes Mendelssohn’s orchestra masterpiece, Symphony No. 3 (The Scotch), and Franz von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture. At the Venice Performing Arts Center. (941) 207-8822, thevenicesymphony.org  

Design for Living:  John Nolen and the Renaissance of New Urbanism

This exhibition, on view at the Venice Museum and Archives through Feb. 24, 2016, is a great opportunity to appreciate the vision of the man who designed Venice’s walkable city master plan back in 1926. A collaboration between the museum and Dr. Bruce Stephenson, Director of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sustainable Urbanism at Rollins College, the show also sheds light on how Nolen’s plan continues to impact the New Urbanism movement throughout the United States. (941) 486-2487, venicegov.com/archives.asp

Venice Book Fair and Writers Festival

Approximately 50 authors are expected to attend this year’s fair, set for March 19 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Centennial Park. They’ll be signing and selling their new books; there will also be programs for writers new to the biz about both writing and publishing. Proceeds go to Venice Heritage Inc. to aid in the ongoing restoration of the Lord-Higel Pioneer House. (941) 486-2626 ext. 24005 or (941) 237-0478, venicebookfair.com

The Venice Chorale

This choral group, formerly known as Exsultate!, is in the midst of another transition as well, with a new artistic director who may be in place by the time you read this. But at least the first two concerts of the season—the holiday concert “With a Little Brass,” Dec. 6, and “Americana,” offering “vocal time capsules of America’s roots,” Feb. 21, are keeping to their themes. Both at the Venice Performing Arts Center; (941) 484-8491, exsultate.org

Happy Holidays

For thousands of Venice residents, the Venice Holiday Parade (Nov. 28) is the event of the year, and they start choosing their spots to enjoy the festivities downtown days ahead of time. Parade starts at 7 p.m.; pre-parade entertainment at 5 p.m. (941-488-8780, veniceholidayparade.com). Also downtown, of course, is the Christmas Walk, 5-8 p.m. Dec. 3, which lights up the streets and sidewalks with sparkling lights and welcomes Santa and the season (941-484-6722, venicemainstreet.com). Last but certainly not least, the Christmas Boat Parade sails along the Intracoastal Waterway starting from the Albee Road Bridge on Dec. 5 (941-809-8100, venicechristmasboatparade.com); boat owners definitely get creative with their decorations here.

 

Festival Fun

Venice loves its festivals, and there’s a spirited line-up this year, starting with the Sun Fiesta (Oct. 16-18, womenssertoma.com), which brings together arts and crafts, food, music and dancing at Centennial Park. The fests continue with Toast to Venice (live music, food from local chefs, and plenty of wine and beer tasting, March 19, 941-375-1120, toasttovenice.com), and Sharks Tooth Festival, April 8-10 at the Venice Airport Festival Grounds, offering more arts and crafts, kids’ activities, food and live entertainment (941-412-0402, sharkstoothfest.com).

Ben Is Back!

It wasn’t enough that Tony-winning singer, actor and dancer Ben Vereen performed in Venice to sellout crowds two years running with his Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen concert, or that he taught a master class and helped celebrate a host of international participants during the American Association of Community Theatre WorldFest at Venice Theatre in the summer of 2014. No, Vereen and Venice just seem to have an ongoing connection; Vereen is directing the company’s production of Hair in November and December—a show he appeared in on Broadway early in his storied career.

“I love Venice; it has a great love for the arts,” Vereen said in a recent telephone interview. “When I was there with my concerts, Murray [VT artistic director Murray Chase] asked me to come back during the theater festival, and I mentioned that I’d love to direct Hair at some point. He said, ‘We want to do Hair, too.’ For me, it was like, ‘You had me at hello.’”

Vereen, still full of show biz energy and charisma at the age of 69, has been busy lately not only in Venice but also making an appearance at last spring’s Sarasota Film Festival, starring with Richard Gere as homeless men in New York City in Time Out of Mind, which received wider release in September. He also appeared in the recent Chris Rock film Top Five, and has popped up on television in roles on Hot in Cleveland and How I Met Your Mother.

But the stage is Vereen’s first love. At 14, he enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and at 18 he made his debut off-off-Broadway in The Prodigal Son. A year later, he was performing in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity in Las Vegas, before returning to NYC to play the role of Claude in Hair.

The show was a revolutionary one for Broadway, with its rock score, hippie-ish characters and, yes, onstage nudity. It was also a big break for Vereen’s career. But he says he didn’t think of it that way. “What I remember about Hair is the atmosphere of love and peace,” he says. “I didn’t think, oh, it was a big show, or what it could do for my career, but about what the show was saying. This was about young people, on the street, saying, give peace and love a chance. Forty-five years later, we’re supposed to be further up the ladder toward peace and understanding. But we have shootings in churches, young men being shot on the street, a resurgence of negativity and disrespect that has got to stop. You and I have to say, ‘Make it stop; it ends here.’”

When it comes to VT’s Hair, Vereen isn’t giving away much about his approach to the show, or how to make it fresh and relevant more than 45 years after it debuted. “The show asks a lot of questions, in terms of what are we going to do about things like war and corruption,” he says. “I can’t answer those questions myself right now, but if I do my job right, maybe we’ll walk away with some answers. We’re set with our cast now—I may even have too many in the ensemble, but I wanted them to have the experience I had with the show. I like to keep working, and I love to teach. Someone’s got to pass it on. Someone passed it on to me, and now I’ve got to give it to people. It’s a gift to give away.”

On Stage in Sarasota

Our picks of shows that are worth the drive.

The Ringling International Arts Festival takes on an Asian air this season, presenting a wide range of dance, music and more at the theaters of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art/FSU Center campus, Oct. 15-18. Among the performers: the TAO Dance Theater of Beijing; Phare; The Cambodian Circus; dancer Ronnarong Khampha; vocalist Peni Candra Rini; singer-dancer Jen Shyu; puppeteer Tom Lee; and keroncong-playing (think ukuleles) musicians Orkes Sinten Remen. (941) 358-3180, ringling.org.

Surely one of the highlights of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall’s season: The Book of Mormon, the satire The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called “the best musical of this century.” This show from the creators of TV’s South Park sends a couple of young, naïve Mormon missionaries to a remote African village, where spreading the word of their religion isn’t quite what they—or the villagers—expected. Onstage Feb. 9-14, The Book of Mormon features explicit language and isn’t for everyone, but it is laugh-out-loud funny. (941) 953-3368, vanwezel.org

The Asolo Repertory Theatre commences its season with the musical West Side Story, which debuted in 1957 but is forever timely in its tale of star-crossed lovers from warring ethnic factions. Joey McKneely, who has worked with original choreographer Jerome Robbins and also choreographed this show in its 2009 Broadway revival, will direct and choreograph the Asolo Rep production, onstage Nov. 13 through Dec. 27. (941) 351-8000, asolorep.org

In a first for the Sarasota Opera, the company presents Verdi’s spectacular Aida, the story of a tragic love triangle in ancient Egypt. Bowing Jan. 30, with additional performances in February and March, it’s the largest production in Sarasota Opera history, and stars Michelle Johnson as Aida, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo as Amneris, and tenor Jonathan Burton as Radames. This production, along with the season’s The Battle of Legnano, completes the opera’s 28-year Verdi cycle. (941) 328-1300, sarasotaopera.org.

If you somehow missed the Sarasota Ballet’s inaugural production of John Ringling’s Circus Nutcracker a couple of seasons ago, don’t let it happen again. The company reprises this holiday production, perfect for families, Dec. 18 and 19 at the Van Wezel. The piece ties together the music of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffman’s original Nutcracker with the love story of circus king John Ringling and wife Mable, set during the 1920s and with a circus flair. (941) 359-0099, sarasotaballet.org

Plus, two annual events to remember: Circus Sarasota, performing under the Big Top at Nathan Benderson Park Feb. 12-28 (941-355-9335, circusarts.org) and the Sarasota Film Festival, bringing a host of new movies and celebrities

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