By David Templeton
“You know the thing about the purple cow?” asks Brad Surosky—actor, singer and co-executive director of Sonoma’s fast-rising Transcendence Theatre Company.
Purple cow? As in, “I’d never want to be one?” I reply.
Um, no … not that purple cow. The other purple cow.
Surosky is searching for the best way to describe his company’s rapid rise from out-of-town upstarts to invested resident artists—singers and dancers and dreamers who, against all odds, have created a certified North Bay theatrical phenomenon. This weekend, Transcendence launches its fifth full season of summertime performances, having first established itself in 2012 with its popular musical-dance showcase, Broadway Under the Stars. Featuring enormous casts of performers from New York and Los Angeles, the splashy musical revues are staged outdoors in the old winery ruins at Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen.
Which brings us back to that cow.
“You’re driving down the street,” Surosky says, “and you see a cow, and you think, ‘Well, there’s a cow,’ and you keep driving. But if you see a purple cow, you’re going to stop, get out of the car and say, ‘Hey! That’s a purple cow!’ And then you’re going to take pictures and send them to all your friends.
“The goal we have had from the very beginning of Transcendence,” he goes on, “is to create a purple cow—something so special and unusual and different that people will have to notice it, and will want to come and see it, and tell people about it, and want to be part of the experience.”
The Transcendence team has demonstrated a remarkable ability to capture an audience’s attention, and do it again and again. Before they could be pegged as one-trick-ponies—or one-trick-purple-cows—Transcendence began adding other types of events to its popular Broadway Under the Stars series. They’ve produced one-night concerts at Jack London Park featuring such Broadway stars as Sutton Foster and Ben Vereen. They host casual monthly open mic get-togethers in wineries, calling the series “Skits Under the Stars,” and encouraging visitors to strut their own stuff. Last year, they added a massive Christmas show at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, and this year will be rolling out other projects, including an immersive “speakeasy” event where ticket buyers will learn the location 24 hours ahead, and a theatrical scavenger hunt planned for November.
“Along with the new stuff, we’re really trying to up the volume on the event side of the Broadway Under the Stars performances,” Surosky says. “That’s part of the challenge and the excitement of putting these shows together. We don’t want people to think they are coming to the same show over and over.”
That said, Surosky clearly knows that part of the appeal of the Transcendence experience is the “Gee whiz, aw shucks” joy the performers exude to an electrifying degree. For all of its Broadway razzle-dazzle, there is something innocent and infectiously sweet about what these performers bring to the stage.
“Our first show this year is called ‘This Magic Moment,’” Surosky says, “and the show will be an exploration of those magical moments that happen throughout life. Motherhood is one of those moments, right? Well, in the show, audiences will see two pregnant women—a month or so from giving birth—performing in the show. There will be songs about that, and songs about every other kind of magic moment we experience in life.”
All Broadway Under the Stars shows feature popular pop songs and Broadway tunes, performed by stellar voices and first-rate dancers. But Surosky says the goal, especially this year, is to do more than just present a series of favorites.
“The goal is to make this year very unique,” he says, “by taking songs people are used to hearing one way, and working them around and turning them upside down, so you hear them and feel them in a whole new way.”
Surosky himself will take the stage a time or two.
“I’m usually in there somewhere, for a little comic relief,” he says with a laugh.
Surosky adds that what he and the other Transcendence founders have created is as rewarding for the artists as it is for the audience.
“It’s passion, it’s hard work—and it’s luck,” he says. “We do work hard, and we do dream big, but we know we have been very lucky.”
‘This Magic Moment’ runs June 17–July 3. ‘Fantastical Family Night’ runs July 15 & 16. ‘Dance the Night Away’ runs August 5–21. Season closing gala shows Sept. 9-11. All performances at Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen. Doors open for picnicking at 5pm, show starts at 7:30pm; $42-$134; 877/424-1414; transcendencetheatre.org.