Renovated Burbank Auditorium in Santa Rosa goes live at last with ‘Wedding Singer’
After two years of waiting, the Santa Rosa Junior College production of “The Wedding Singer” will finally make it to the altar.
The production, opening Friday, April 22, will be the first public theatrical performance on the main stage of the college’s Burbank Auditorium, originally built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1939, since an extensive renovation effort began more than four years ago.
Based on the 1998 Adam Sandler film of the same name, the SRJC show was in rehearsals during March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of public theater venues. (The musical version of film premiered on Broadway in 2006.)
Two junior college students, Max Bohlke-Slater, now 21, and Ileene Christianson-Torres, now 20, had been cast as the leads in the romantic musical comedy. Now, at last, they will play those roles on the stage of the newly renovated theater.
Bohlke-Slater plays Robbie Hart, a wedding singer in Ridgefield, New Jersey, in 1985, whose own wedding to his fiancée Linda is approaching. Christianson-Torres co-stars as Julia Sullivan, a new waitress at the reception hall where he works. When they meet, he promises to sing at her wedding. As fans of the movie know, the two new friends are destined for romance.
“We were a little more than halfway through the rehearsal process when we had to stop,” said Bohlke-Slater. “It was definitely hard. Everyone was disappointed, but there was nothing we could do.”
However, there was one good outcome from the situation.
“Max and I met and started dating during rehearsals, and we’re still together,” Christianson-Torres said.
While the leads from the original, long-postponed production are returning, the director is not. John Shillington, a longtime member of the faculty, has moved to Colorado.
Directing this production in his place is Reed Martin, a Sonoma native and co-founder of the internationally known Reduced Shakespeare Company, loved for its comically condensed stage versions of the classics. Martin has also directed several shows at the junior college.
“The whole cast is bringing energy to the show,” Martin said. “They’re excited to be back performing in person.”
The pandemic wasn’t the only challenge faced by cast, and especially by the two leads, he added.
“In two separate fires, Max and Ileene’s families lost their homes,” Martin said. “Now they’re back playing the parts they were originally cast in. We call them the ‘comeback kids.’”
Bohlke-Slater’s family home in Kenwood was destroyed by the Nuns fire in 2017.
“My parents had bought that house when I was a baby,” he said. “They decided not to rebuild.”
Christianson-Torres’ loss was more recent, when the 2020 Glass fire hit her family’s home.
“During the time since COVID started, my family had been living in St. Helena,” she said. She chalked up the hardships to “character development.”
“I feel like all this made me mature in ways I wouldn’t become any other way,” Bohlke-Slater said.
For the theater arts department at the college, the new show marks both a happy ending and a new beginning.
The sustained reopening of the remade Burbank Auditorium has been a long time in coming. Crews broke ground on the project in January 2018, but planning began two years earlier.
The whole process really began in 2014, when voters approved $410 million in bonds to finance not only the Burbank building renovation but a long list of other projects at the college, including revamped athletic facilities and construction of a new science, math and technology center.
The original target date for completion of construction, May 2019, was postponed when it was discovered that underground power lines and cables and storm drains had to be moved. That August, completion of the project was delayed again to allow additional time to make, deliver and install the ropes, pulleys and counterweights used to raise and lower curtains and support lighting equipment.
In early 2020, “The Wedding Singer” was to have been the first public theatrical production in the new facility when COVID-19 precautions forced an indefinite postponement.
The public did get a glimpse of the newly redone structure during an opening celebration March 6 that year, and a college production of the Irish play “The Cripple of Inishmaan” ran briefly in the building’s new 200-seat studio theater.
Now, the long-awaited debut of the renovated 400-seat main auditorium is finally at hand. The venue has been a popular destination for more than 80 years.
“There is really of lot of history within the walls of that building. It once held the entire student body,” said Laura Downing-Lee, interim chairwoman and artistic director of the theater and fashion department at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“Now the whole space is state of the art,” she said. “Our students will be able to get a valuable education and professional experience.”
In the shorter run, director Martin hopes for a great production of “The Wedding Singer.”
“This is a happy musical, and I think this is a perfect time for that,” he said, “as we’re beginning to crawl out of the rough experiences we’ve all had.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at email@example.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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