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Larry Barnett
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Larry Barnett

Sonoma, Super-Sized

Since its beginnings, Sonoma has been a small town. It once was the county seat, long ago, but that role fell to Santa Rosa and, well, thank goodness for that. From then on Sonoma's destiny seemed to be an indelible Bear Flag moment of history combined with an urban trajectory of modest, small-town scale and character.

That small-town character is under assault in 2017, and highly vulnerable. America's penchant for big, bigger and biggest has finally reached our shores, particularly the scenic and ever more popular Historic Plaza. The latest example of the super-sizing of Sonoma is a proposal to rebuild and expand the Sonoma Cheese Factory building on Spain Street (shown above), right across from the Plaza park's newly installed sculpture of General Vallejo.

In 2015, the owners of the Cheese Factory received approval from the Planning Commission for the reuse and renovation of the existing building, roughly 11,000-plus square feet in size, into a multi-vendor public market, sort of like a mini-Ox-Bow market in Napa. Apparently, this caught the attention of the owners of the Ox-Bow market itself, and they formed a new company with the developer who received approval in 2015. The result of that union is now an updated proposal to replace the building entirely, except for the historic 1945 facade, and by adding a basement level, enlarge it to 25,000 square feet. In their project narrative, they call this revision "modest." It includes no housing component, of course.

It certainly does not strike me as "modest." To the contrary, this proposal expands the capacity of the parcel nearly to its maximum potential. 132 indoor restaurant seats plus outdoor seating and the lure of "artisan" (meaning pricey) food and produce vendors is surely going to maximize the tourist-dollar potential of the property and further exacerbate the traffic and pedestrian challenges of the entire Plaza.

This trend towards super-sizing is also visible in the hotel proposal on West Napa Street. In order to accomplish that particular feat of magic, seven individual lots are being combined and aggregated into one "super-lot" which can accommodate the proposed 62-room hotel and 80-seat restaurant. "Super-sized" lots allow a scale of development far larger than any of the smaller, individual parcels could accommodate, and represents a disturbing and destabilizing trend that runs counter to Sonoma's small-town scale. The historic development patterns in Sonoma are largely the result of the existing lot sizes, and when those lots are allowed to be combined without limit, well, so much for small-scale.

Super-sizing Sonoma does nothing to address the existing infrastructure of streets, sidewalks and parking. The Plaza, a magnet for tourists and tourist-oriented businesses, is already traffic-snarled by cars and pedestrians; downtown is an open-air parking lot disguised as city streets. Super-sizing will simply lure more people, autos and tour busses into the limited confines of our National Historic Landmark.

What's allowing this to happen is the absence of updated planning. Rules allowing multiple parcels to be combined for development need to be changed, and the effects of cumulative impacts given far greater consideration. What is the carrying capacity of The Plaza? The answer requires evaluation of the historic district as a whole and if we don't provide that answer we won't know when Sonoma's soul is in danger of being super-sized into oblivion.

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Let them entertain you

 

‘Gypsy’ proves there’s nothing like a dame

 

Val Robichaud | Sonoma Valley Sun

 

Michael Ross sits in a theater surrounded by the focused confusion of rehearsals for “Gypsy.” Groups of actors huddle here and there, the lighting director is high on a ladder and the two-person cow costume needs a quick fix. When an actress wonders about costume accessories for the second act, Ross calmly pulls a G-string from a paper bag. “You think you sign on just to direct a show,” he says.

 

Growing up, Ross realized “theatre was my sport.” He was drawn to the teamwork of it, the discipline and camaraderie. “You watch out for each other,” he says, eyes on the stage. Weeks after rehearsals began and days before opening night, it’s all starting to come together.

 

“It’s beautiful thing to watch,” he said. “It’s family up there.”

 

To start the rehearsal, the actors are asked to sing a snippet from the first musical they appeared in. In football, you’d stretch your hammy. Here, you sing an obscure tune and the adults nod knowingly; for the kids, and there are many, the go-to might be Disney tune.

 

“At this point all the humans have disappeared,” Ross says. “All I see are characters.”

 

Ross knows the importance of keeping cool amid the chaos. He’s directed shows for

Spreckels, Sixth Street and Lucky Penny theater companies, and returns to Andrews Hall after last years’ Sonoma Arts Live production “Bad Dates.” This is his time at the helm of “Gypsy,” though he’s been involved with three prior productions of the show.

 

There’s nothing like a dame, especially in a Broadway musical. And there’s no musical quite like “Gypsy,” where Dani Innocenti Beem belts the roof off the joint as Mama Rose.

 

Consider that the songs, by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim circa 1959, and including

“Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Together Wherever We Go,” among many more, were written for Ethel Merman. There’s singing, there’s Broadway singing, and there’s a dame like Ethel Merman.

 

“It’s the iconic role for a Broadway diva,” Ross says. “A big voice and a commanding presence. Take the stage and take no prisoners.” Beem, he says, makes it look effortless.

 

The show is based in the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, whose mother, Mama Rose, was the stage mother supreme. It’s set in the 1920s, when vaudeville was dying out and burlesque was the next big thing. Rose – chiding, cajoling bullying all the while -- steers her daughter into that risqué new world.

 

“This show explores the world of two-bit show business with brass, humor, heart, and sophistication”, says Jaime Love, the company’s Executive Artistic Director.

 

Daughter Gypsy eventually becomes a star as an elegantly chaste stripper, but it’s Beem’s Mama Rose to whom all eyes are turned. She is a force. A fine comic actress, she breezes and blusters through the script’s surprisingly funny one-liners in steady stream-of-consciousness.

 

And the blockbuster voice – the headset microphone seems redundant – is often layered with nuance and emotion. Still, she could sing a candle out at 50 paces.

 

There’s also a bit of uneasy obsession. Mama Rose may have missed her shot at the big time, but like Norma Desmond, she’s still ready for her close-up.

 

The rest of the cast is strong. Tim Setzer plays Herbie, adding a light touch to the role of Rose’s longtime, and long suffering, beau. Amanda Pedersen is an effervescent Dainty June, and Danielle DeBow plays Louise, the daughter who finally blossoms, after the required of penance of being the second-favorite daughter, on the burlesque stage.

 

Notable is Jaime Love, and not just because she plays a stripper. Her Tessa -- more of a broad than a dame – is a wise-cracking delight. Her number, with Julia Holsworth Karen Pinomaki is a comic highlight.

 

“Gypsy” features musical direction by John Partridge, and choreography by Michella Snider.
Cover Story: Let them entertain you
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