Mary Bensel is always enthusiastic when she finally gets to announce the upcoming season at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota. She's Van Wezel executive director, and she and her staff work on the schedule all year long. They have to keep quiet about most of it until the late-August announcement, so Bensel's always thrilled to finally be able to talk about all the cool stuff the Van Wezel has in store for the coming year.
She's seems especially excited about the 2015-16 season, which has just been officially announced.
"My goal, after last year's season being so huge, was that we would do everything we could to equal it and even top it," Bensel said. "And I think we have. The first thing was to get 'Book of Mormon,' which is the biggest show on the road."
Bensel said she has been wanting to do more week-long presentations of touring Broadway shows, but a combination of logistical reasons makes that difficult. Landing "Mormon" (Feb. 9-14) after last year's "Jersey Boys" will make it easier for her to bring in more Broadway tours in the future.
But the season includes several other touring musicals, mostly stopping at Van Wezel for just one night: "The Producers" (Dec. 30), "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (March 3-4), "Million-Dollar Quartet" (March 26), and "Mamma Mia!" (April 29-300) are among the highlights.
"Mormon" and a few of the other high-profile shows on the new season schedule were announced earlier. John Cleese and Eric Idle open the season Oct. 1-2 with a show they are calling "an evening of sit-down comedy." The Oct. 2 show sold out so quickly that Cleese and Idle added an Oct. 1 show.
"I love comedians, because I love to make people happy," Bensel said.
Besides Cleese and Idle, the comedy lineup includes Lewis Black (Nov. 13), Craig Ferguson (Dec. 1), Carrot Top (Dec. 12), Lisa Lampinelli (Jan. 15), DL Hughley (Jan. 18) and Paula Poundstone (April 19).
Of the shows that hadn't been previously announced, one of the
biggest brings iconic actress Sophia Loren to Van Wezel for an evening of conversation, film clips and an audience Q&A.
The classical music highlight is undoubtedly Renee Fleming, appearing with the Sarasota Orchestra on Jan. 27. But the season also includes Joshua Bell (Jan, 30), The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (March 1) and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (March 9).
Two of the popular music standouts are on back-to-back nights in February. Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett will be at Van Wezel Feb. 26, and Kristin Chenowith Feb. 27. A couple of Bensel's favorite musicians -- Rick Springfield (Oct. 15) and Patti la Belle (Feb. 23) -- are on the schedule, as are Darryl Hall & John Oates (Dec.2), Kenny G (Dec.3) and The Beach Boys (Feb. 25), among many others.
There's not as much dance on tap as there is music, but some of the dance offering are worth getting excited about.
The "So You Think You Can Dance" tour kicks off the dance offerings on Oct. 29. "Dancing With the Stars: Live!" follows on Jan. 29. For ballet lovers, the highlight is unquestionably the Joffrey Ballet (March 10).
There are still some major acts that will be announced as the season goes on, and some even within the next couple of weeks, Bensel said.
But even as it stands, she said, the 2015-16 Van Wezel season offers the kind of artistic quality and entertainment diversity that she strives for every year.
For information, call Information: 941-953-3368 or go to vanwezel.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.