Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it was with great excitement that I made my way to Transcendence Theatre Company's first live production in well over a year, a revue entitled My Hero. TTC is best known for its productions at the Winery Ruins at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, a gorgeous setting in the Sonoma Valley wine country. My Hero is also being produced outdoors, but instead of the Winery Ruins, the venue (for the first of three weekends) is the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, a significant step down from the bucolic romance of Glen Ellen.
Since we're not quite out of the woods yet, pandemic-wise, TTC has created a drive-in theater on a flat expanse of weedy ground, allowing patrons to watch the proceedings from the safety of their vehicles. At one end of the field is a small stage, barely big enough for even this small cast of seven (four women, three men). Stage left is a large screen where all the onstage action is projected, and stage right is a six-piece band. When I arrived, my first thought was that the setup was rather dumpy and thrown together without a lot of thought put into it. But as I set up my little beach chair in front of the first row of cars, the ad hoc nature of the staging began to feel much more in keeping with the tenor of these times. We are, after all, just taking the first few tentative steps out of our locked-down world, so it makes sense that the first few productions would have a somewhat looser feel to them. It may not be as polished as what we'd gotten used to, but it's a heck of a lot better than streaming.
My Hero was designed to honor the first responders and health care teams that have been so important to all of us throughout the pandemic. Yet while there are many references to the pandemic's heroes (the show opens with a rousing "Holding Out For a Hero" and includes several other numbers appropriate to the fight we've all been in) and verbal appreciation shown for the same, this theme never really jells. In truth, the theme is more "Transcendence Radio," as a disk jockey style recording guides us through sections of the show marked by titles like "Carole King Station," "Golden Oldies Station," and "Broadway's Best Station," as though we were flipping through the Sirius XM dial. A segment of video clips from doctors and health care workers helps reinforce the hero message, but spreading these personal pandemic stories out over the course of the 80-minute show would have gone a long way toward establishing the broader theme.
While the band is terrific (music director Matt Smart's sextet can really swing), the song choices popular and appropriate, and director/choreographer (assisted by Amanda Lopez) Matthew Rossoff's choreography is imaginative and makes good use of the small space, many of the performers clearly have problems hearing themselves, at times wandering far afield from the melodies when singing solo, and often dis-harmonizing when singing as an ensemble. There is no question as to their sincerity or energy, and they are to be congratulated for their valiant attempts to involve the audience, 90% of whom are inside their cars, out of sight.
To that end, for upcoming performances of My Hero, TTC would be wise to actively encourage audience members to leave their cars and move down to the "lawn" (more accurately, a field of weeds mown down) to be closer to the stage. Though nights can be chilly, the performers would certainly appreciate being able to sing and dance for an audience they can actually see, and the audience would benefit from being to watch the show live instead of on the big screen. (This was suggested in emails touting the show, but a reminder on site could have made a big difference.)
I've been a fan of Transcendence Theatre Company, not merely for the quality of their performances (which have generally been much better than this one), but also for the professionalism of their productions and logistics. Although the warm welcome by TTC staff is still on full display, the organization of the eveninginvitations, signage, parking, food trucks, etc.is significantly less well-run than at their usual Jack London State Park venue. (The show will play its last two weekends at the B.R. Cohn Winery, which may be a much more inviting space.) There were a few technical issues as wellan error message appearing on screen, a wrinkled projection surface, too few lighting instruments to adequately illuminate the stagebut I'm hopeful that when August rolls around and their next show, Road Trip, opens, all these minor issues will feel as far in the past as we all hope the pandemic will soon seem.
My Hero runs through June 6, 2021, at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma, California, and June 11-13 and June 18-20 at the B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma Valley. The show begins at 8:30 p.m., with pre-show picnicking beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $54-$137 per carload, not per person. Tickets and additional information can be found at www.TranscendenceTheatre.org.