Napa Valley College musical “All Together Now!” brings theater back on stage, and back to audiences | Local News

A musical production coming to Napa Valley College this weekend is a collection of hit tunes from Broadway musicals. For its 17 cast members, it will be something more — a homecoming.

The Performing Arts Center at NVC’s main campus in south Napa will play host to “All Together Now!”, a revue of 15 Broadway numbers that will mark the theater program’s return to indoor live performances before in—person audiences for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic first halted live performances, then relegated them to socially distanced internet video.

During final rehearsals at the community college earlier this week, some of the student and non-student actors appearing in “All Together Now!” expressed relief at regaining the long-delayed chance to reach out to fans in person, without the pandemic-created barriers that separated them from audiences for more than a year.

“I was a week away from being in ‘Sweeney Todd’ (a presentation by Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions) when the pandemic hit and closed everything down,” said Emma Sutherland on Tuesday night, a few rows from the stage where she had rehearsed the song “Astonishing” from the musical “Little Women.”

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“This is my entire life — I live and eat and breathe theater. To have something you love suddenly taken away from you, and you don’t know if it’ll really come back — it was so terrifying.”

NVC’s production will be a return it is sharing with numerous other school and community theater companies. Billed by its creator Music Theatre International as “a global event celebrating local theater,” “All Together Now!” is being presented in various versions, with different song lists, by more than 2,500 companies across the U.S. and over 40 nations, according to the company. Productions worldwide began Friday and are continuing through Monday.

Two shows will be performed on the Napa campus at 2277 Napa-Vallejo Highway (Highway 221), at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The performances also will be live-streamed on video, and both in-person and online tickets are being sold on a pay-as-you-can basis.

Napa Valley College has begun work on a trio of plays its theater director is confident can safely be enjoyed by live audiences — outdoors.

Like other colleges and schools across California, NVC and its buildings abruptly emptied when the state passed its first shelter-at-home restrictions in March 2020 and classroom teaching shifted online. Theater productions returned to Napa during the 2020-21 year with performances adapted to Zoom, and the school’s drama program took its first step back toward live theater this summer with the Shakespeare Summer Stroll, an open-air production at the di Rosa museum in Carneros featuring Shakespearean sonnets and scenes from six of the Bard’s plays.

The theater program began laying out a road back to live audiences earlier this year after Napa County’s COVID-19 infection rate eased from a spike in late 2020 and early 2021, but a shifting landscape forced instructors to adjust their plans — and their repertoire — along the way.

“We had planned to do ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ indoors, but that was before the Delta variant,” said Jennifer King, the college’s performing arts coordinator and artistic director. “Once it took hold, we knew we couldn’t do that play because it has too much audience participation,” she said, referring to the play’s device of picking audience members to join the actors playing the “contestants.”

The title the NVC program ultimately chose contained its own built-in hedge against the possibility of yet more viral spikes and public health emergencies. Despite being conceived as a celebration of live performance and of reunions with theater fans, the musical also lends itself equally to spectators sitting in theater seats or facing a computer screen at home.

“We chose ‘All Together Now!’ because we could either do it virtually, or we could do it live,” King said Wednesday of the musical, which entered rehearsals in September. “As we started to see the possibility of being indoors, we decided to go inside.”

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Another dose of celebration and normalcy returned to Napa on Saturday, in the form of copious barbecue and blues in the heart of downtown.

Only several weeks into the preparations for “All Together Now!” did cast member Vienna Spezza to become fully confident that audiences would be let in.

“It was, ‘We’re gonna do it in the theater, but things can always change,’ said Spezza, whose appearances will include numbers from “Junie B. Jones, the Musical” and “Mamma Mia!” “It was in the last two or three weeks that I was thinking: ‘OK, we’re gonna go on stage, the lights are coming in, and it’s really gonna happen,” she said.

The chance to finally perform a full-scale stage production could not come quickly enough for Andres Manzanero, whose roles will include a solo of “Tomorrow,” the signature song from the musical “Annie.” A previous appearance in a Vacaville staging of “Once on This Island” that was largely reduced to its songs “definitely felt like half a loaf, like that first piece you touch that nobody wants,” he quipped.

Although the NVC theater is not bound by California rules requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests to enter larger venues, safety measures will remain in place. Spectators will be required to wear masks under a school mandate covering all indoor spaces on campus, and in-person ticket sales will be capped at 250 for each performance, about half the theater’s capacity. (There will be no limit on ticket sales for internet viewing.)

NVC has announced two other productions for the coming months, but those musicals will take place outside the Performing Arts Center rather than within. “Elf the Musical Jr.,” which has sold out, and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will each receive four performances on Dec. 4-5 and 11-12, in a theater courtyard with 50 seats.

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The return of live theater to NVC is the latest milepost in Napa County’s gradual and sometimes uneven embrace of in-person entertainment, whether writ large or small, since the state’s economic reopening in June relaxed crowd-size restrictions imposed to slow COVID-19 transmission during the pandemic’s early months before the development of vaccines toward the end of 2020.

Big-ticket events like the BottleRock music festival and Oxbow RiverStage concert series have drawn audiences in the thousands since the late summer, and artists also have returned to indoor venues like the Uptown Theater and Blue Note Napa. On the other hand, Napa’s Porchfest community music crawl was canceled for a second straight year — as was a September concert intended as a one-year replacement for the festival — and the Lincoln Theater, on the grounds of the state-owned Yountville Veterans Home and its nursing center for military retirees, also has remained dark.

But for cast member Sutherland, this weekend’s NVC musical has left her, above all, with a deep gratefulness for being able to do — and share — what she loves.

“It’s a relief, but it’s also a feeling of coming home,” she said in a theater chair four-night before the opening curtain. “It hasn’t really settled in yet for me that there’ll be people sitting in these seats, cheering us. I might cry after the first number!”

This story has been modified since the original posting to state that Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions was preparing to mount the play “Sweeney Todd” when the coronavirus pandemic triggered cancellations of live entertainment in California in March 2020.

After a year away due to the pandemic, Blues, Brews & BBQ on Saturday brought live music, barbecue smoke, and beer and wine back to the heart of Napa.

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or [email protected]