The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s latest production “Ana Isabelle & Friends in Concert: Stand Back, Sarasota” may go down in my theater-world annals as my favorite pandemic performance yet. For all of us who love live theater, it’s been painful thinking about what life must have been like for all the people we count on in the performing arts to bring beauty and magic into the world. COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on the reality of what lies beneath all of the things that normally hum along in our lives so smoothly. We can’t simply expect performers to remain in suspended animation until we are ready to go back to the theater.
So, what Michael Donald Edwards pulled off with this production was spectacular. I loved the fact that Ana Isabelle, who is known to Asolo audiences, simply as our Evita, was so raw about how she basically spent the last year singing in her shower, and her co-star Justin Gregory Lopez, who played Che, talked about eating ice cream in his underwear over the sink. He even joked that after their Broadway medley his larynx (which was conceivably out of practice) may end up on the floor in front of the audience. Isabelle said that Sarasota is her theatrical home and that when she got the phone call from Edwards to come to Sarasota to perform, she was absolutely delighted to come out of forced retirement and get back on stage.
And what a medley it was! Hearing Isabelle and Lopez belt out one Broadway hit after another was positively thrilling. Isabelle nailed Idina Menzel’s classics “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Defying Gravity” from Wicked so effortlessly, and Lopez put a real kick into one of my Adam Pascal favorites “One Song, Glory” from Rent. Probably the most exciting number was “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” which Isabelle started and ended the medley with together with Lopez, because COVID has surely rained on all of our parades so much this year. The lyrics, “Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter” felt like it could have been an anthem for our lost year spent isolated in our homes. The promise of the vaccine makes more special “ooh, life is juicy…I’ve gotta have my bite sir!” I could not have been happier to experience the juiciness of life again in a small crowd of people experiencing the power of two incredible singers performing some of the world’s best numbers under the stars in the beautiful Sarasota sky. Much as I cried a bit when I got my first vaccine, I got teary and gave my familiar standing ovation with pure joy hearing Isabelle and Lopez pouring their hearts out on stage once again.
Meanwhile, Isabelle’s friends, dancers Guadelupe Garcia and Junior Cervila have been busy on another project, a baby boy, on his way. Dancing during what was surely her eighth month, Garcia was aglow and Cervilla, her husband, flew her across the stage in what was one of the loveliest tributes to the wonders of motherhood. Gone are the days where pregnant women were expected to fade into the background until after they gave birth. Garcia soared and glided gloriously during her romantic tango with her husband, a serenade of “A Parent’s Prayer,” and throughout Isabelle’s incredible tribute to Latina singers who preceded and inspired her.
The Latin medley featuring music by Gloria Estefan and Selena was also phenomenal and concluded with a few songs from Evita before the 75 minute production came to a roaring conclusion. Next year, we will likely be back in the theater again; but I will miss the lovely Terrace Stage that enabled us to experience live performance during what was probably the most difficult season in the theater world. Thankfully, Asolo Rep beautifully weathered the storm in style and brought us so much joy in the process.