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Transcendence’s ‘Gala’ an evening of music, dance and hope

The director of this year’s Gala is Broadway veteran Chip Abbott, an in-demand choreographer and dancer.|

Planning to go?

What: The Gala, presented by Transcendence Theatre Co.

When: Fridays, Saturday and Sundays, Sept. 9 -18, 7:30 p.m. (gates open for picnicking at 5 p.m.)

Where: Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd, Glen Ellen.

Cost: $25 to $165 (VIP)

Information: Bestnightever.org or box office at 877-424-1414.

Ever since Transcendence Theatre Co. first set up shop in Sonoma County in 2011 — striking an instant chord with theater-lovers from Petaluma to Cloverdale and from Bodega to Sonoma — every summer season has ended with what the company has succinctly dubbed The Gala. For some, the no-holds-barred musical revue is the best of the company’s annual offerings of open-air shows in the winery ruins at Jack London State Historic Park.

The director of this year’s Gala is Broadway veteran Chip Abbott, an in-demand choreographer and dancer (“Working,” “Tootsie,” “On The Town,” "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular“), who lives in New York City, but says he is loving the opportunity to assist in staging this year’s final Transcendence show.

Argus-Courier Community Editor David Templeton spoke with Abbot before a rehearsal Sept. 2.

Petaluma Argus-Courier: This is not your first show working with Transcendence Theatre Company, is it?

Chip Abbott: This will be my second show for Transcendence. I was a contributing choreographer on “Those Dancin’ Feet” in 2019. So this is my first show with them as director, choreographer and co-conceiver.

PAC: So, how does this work, the process of planning a new Transcendence show? Do you come up with a concept and then pitch it to Executive Director Brad Surosky and Artistic Director Amy Miller? Or do they come to you and say, “We’d like you to develop a show, so please come up with something?”

Abbott: It’s so interesting. It’s very collaborative. Amy and Brad came to me and said, ‘Hey! Gala 2022 is going to be all about Broadway. We’re going to establish a conceiving team of three people. So I was put on a team including Billy Bustamante and Matt Smart, and we were told, ‘Go!’ For this one, It was really important to me that the actors have some ownership over what they’re singing, and that they are singing what they love. So early one I asked everyone what their favorite songs were, and asked them to name songs that they’ve always wanted to sing but never had the chance. From there, the co-conceiving team just went for it.

PAC: I know we don’t want to give away any big surprises, but based on the official show-flow I was given a chance to glance at, this looks like a very full show. After a full company rendition of “On Broadway,” you move through a massive lineup of songs from favorite musicals like “Hello Dolly,” “Godspell,” “Jersey Boys,” “Wicked,” and others, alternating with some very recognizable pop tunes and standards. As director, how do you engineer all of these different pieces into one fluid evening?

Abbott: Well, it’s called a “show flow for a reason. The show really does need to have a sense of flow and crafted momentum. The biggest goal is to give the evening a few peaks and valleys, with just enough up-tempo songs balancing out just the right number of ballads.

PAC: And with at least one big anthem, usually at the end of the show, it seems.

Abbott: Right. Though in this case we have quite a few of those big rousing showstopper moments. There are a lot of beautiful, beautiful moments in this show. There’s a moment where a singer and a dancer co-collaborate on “The Man Who Got Away” from Judy Garland’s “A Star is Born,” and a big production number of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and the vocals in this show are amazing. They are superb. And the dancing is awesome, too. Two of my favorite dancers on the planet are in the cast, so ... Can you tell I’m excited?

PAC: How is this Gala connected to Galas of the past, and if it is different from past Galas, how so?

Abbott: Each Gala has stood out in its own way, but for me, what stands out about this one is that, for me, it’s about hope. We’ve all been through a lot, which I know people are tired of hearing but it’s true. And the way it’s worked out, this show just has a lot of songs about hope, and about rebuilding, and strength and perseverance. As for other elements that set this show apart from others, this one has technical elements that we’ve never seen before out on the stage at Jack London. I’m a big believer in taking a big old risk, and there is a very high-concept moment that feels like a big leap for us, and all I’ll say is the risk has something to do with how we light the number, which is a song from the musical “Mean Girls.” We rehearsed this one recently, and it’s going to be spectacular. It’s a really beautiful and touching and powerful moment.

PAC: The Transcendence shows always try to maintain an element of surprise, so usually don’t like to give away too much about what audiences will see, but aside from the hints you’ve already given, what else can you reveal about this show?

Abbott: I can say this. It’s been very important to me that there be something for everyone in this show. Everyone from the age of 12 to 112 will have a special moment that seems designed just for them and will leave humming a tune. We have songs from “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” we have some Barbra Streisand in there, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat“ from ”Guys and Dolls,” and some very contemporary songs. We’re doing something from the musical “Six,” we’re doing a piece from “Hamilton,” and “Mean Girls,” and a song by Lady Gaga. There really will be something for everybody.

PAC: During 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement raised a lot of theater companies’ awareness of their responsibilities to expanding diversity, Transcendence made a very clear, very public statement that it was planning on learning from the moment and committing to putting more diversity on stage. How does this show reflect that commitment?

Abbott: I think that everyone has learned quite a bit over the last few years, and we’re still learning. But with this show, and with the whole season this summer, we were very focused on the idea that we need to see people on stage who represent the world around us. So with that, we have a very diverse cast, and within that there has been a constant conversation about point-of-view. “How do you feel about this moment in the show? What is something you want to do? How do you want to be represented?” I’ll be honest, sometimes those conversations can be uncomfortable, but I think it’s important to have them because that’s the way we progress. That’s the way we learn. And building an onstage community that celebrates everyone just makes for a better world, and better company and, quite frankly, a richer and better show.

That’s been a very large component in this Gala.

PAC: Do you have a favorite moment or moments in the show, or perhaps just moments that are personally special and powerful for you?

Abbott: So here’s the thing. I keep coming back to the idea of community, and supporting one another. I think that is one of the most important take-aways from the last few years, that we need to be here for each other. And really, truly be there for each other, and true to understand each other. So with that as my head-space, I think that, for me personally, the two moments I love the most — in a show full of moments I love — are “The Man Who Got Away,” for the reasons I mentioned, and “I See Stars,” the song from “Mean Girls.”

In that last one, the way we stage it becomes about isolation building into community. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re in the dark. It can feel like we’re alone. But until we can see other people and feel their energy, we can’t change. Other people’s energy, other people’s light, that’s ultimately what pulls us up and helps us overcome whatever we are going through.

PAC: That’s a lot for one evening of theater.

Abbott: But, of course, that’s exactly what theater and music and dance do so well.

Planning to go?

What: The Gala, presented by Transcendence Theatre Co.

When: Fridays, Saturday and Sundays, Sept. 9 -18, 7:30 p.m. (gates open for picnicking at 5 p.m.)

Where: Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd, Glen Ellen.

Cost: $25 to $165 (VIP)

Information: Bestnightever.org or box office at 877-424-1414.

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