Rubicon Goes Retro: Reimagined Jukebox Musicals Live at Fairgrounds

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 2, 2020
Rubicon Theatre Company’s Drive-In Concert Series features Jimmy Messina and Friends August 17-19, with special guests appearing each night

When the coronavirus caused shutdowns in California in mid-March, the married couple who run the Rubicon Theatre Company thought at first that maybe the Ventura outfit could just wait out the virus, postpone a couple of shows and get going again later in the spring. When it became clear that the Ventura venue wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon, producing artistic director Karyl Lynn Burns and her husband, co-founding artistic director James O’Neil, eventually, albeit belatedly, embraced the virtual world, finally in mid-May employing Zoom for such offerings as The Rubicon Experience, a podcast series where company members reflect on past shows with the artists that helped bring them to life; Crossing the Rubicon, a series of interviews with writers and directors about the process of creating and staging plays; and Rubicon Connections, an interview series delving into the often outside interests of the people who make up the extended Rubicon family.

But as the summer approached, and the awareness that theaters weren’t going to be able to join restaurants and other businesses in reopening, the couple decided that streaming and podcasts just weren’t going to cut it.

Safe-Distance Drive-In Theatre Concert Series

A hybrid between a drive-in movie, a live concert and a theatre experience, the series boasts five 75-minute concerts that patrons can enjoy from the safety and comfort of their cars (parked at least six feet apart, of course) in the parking lot of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which would normally be gearing up for its massive 11-day annual country fair. The roster of performers range from veterans of the Broadway stage, pop stars, show tune singers and classic rockers who will perform on an elevated stage on site, with hi-def video projected on four huge screens on all sides of the stage.

“Getting out and going somewhere and being with other people while watching a live performance in person, even if you have to stay in your car, just seemed like something that was important to do,” Burns said. “We’re so grateful we were able to find people who are so talented and live within drive-in distance who wanted to help.”

The series kicks off July 6-8 with Drive-In Hits, starring Tony Award-winner Christian Hoff, Travis Cloer, and friends who have logged zillions of performances of Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway and on the road. They’ll be offering their signature harmonies and smooth moves on selections from those shows as well as song cycles by Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Smokey Robinson, and Brian Wilson.

“Hearing those kinds of tight harmonies and a whole lot of songs that were a part of that era when the drive-in and hot cars and jukebox hits were at their height just seemed like a sweet way to start things off,” explained Burns, who conceived of, curated, or co-created each of the entries.

July 20-22 brings 2AM AT THE SANDS: Samonsky Sings Sinatra, which stars Broadway leading man Andrew Samonsky crooning not only smoky favorites from Ol’ Blue Eyes such as  “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” but also Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and other famed singers of the era when the Rat Pack ruled Las Vega, martinis were the drink du jour, and the early morning show at the Sands was the place to be. Samonsky – who will be backed by a nine-piece swing band performing arrangements created by the Quincy Jones – is a Ventura native who has starred on Broadway and on PBS in South Pacific, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and others, most recently a veteran of the National Tours of The Bridges of Madison County and Come From Away.

“We’re doing it as a kind of Vegas setup so you get to feel the ambiance of the era,” Burns said. “Some band members used to play with those singers, so it’s just really cool, and there are also a lot of great multimedia images so you really get the feel of Sinatra late night in Vegas, with his pals coming around to sit in with him.”

August 3-5’s offering is Forever Plaid: The 30th Anniversary Concert, featuring a one-again updated concert version of the perennially popular jukebox musical that finds its creator Stuart Ross responding to the moment. This special anniversary concert edition actually reunites some of the original performers, creating a double dose blast-from-the-past version of the show about four loveable nerds – friends from the high school A.V. Club in the ‘50s – who dreamed of becoming a guy group like their idols The Four Aces, but never made it to their big concert when a bus crash took their lives.  For this show, they’ve been somehow summoned from the afterlife to bring a little heavenly harmony to a discordant world and to make the album they never got to make in life with songs delivered in four-part harmony including “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” and “Rags to Riches.”

“Stuart has written some new timely dialogue where they’re coming back to Earth in a way that’s related to all the strife that’s happening in our world because we need a moment of harmony,” Burns said. “And it’s amazing, because these guys who were in the original show are now all kind of theater royalty, fantastic performers. For them to come back out there to do this thirty years later is super fun.”

Singer-songwriter fans should take note of the August 17-19 trio of concerts, when it might be worth booking space for all three nights, as the show, titled Jimmy Messina and Friends, features a different superstar guest joining Messina, a veteran whose career dates back to the 1960s with Buffalo Springfield, the 1970s band Poco, the smash hit duo Loggins & Messina and a long solo career. John McFee from the Doobie Brothers, Messina’s Santa Ynez Valley neighbor, drops in on August 17. Timothy B Schmit, the bassist and vocalist for Poco and, later, the Eagles, shares the stage with his former bandmate on August 18. And Kenny Loggins, Messina’s former neighbor in Montecito back in the 1980s and early 1990s, joins his former partner on August 19, echoing the “Sittin’ In” sessions that launched Loggins’ career and spurred the duo to great heights.

“That’ll be really a landmark thing to have those guys all together in situations we haven’t seen them for a while,” Burns said in an understatement.

The series closes out on September 7-9 with MUSIC OF THE KNIGHTS: The Songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, and Paul McCartney, pairing the trio of show and song superstars based on the fact that each has earned the British title of “Sir.” None other than Ted Neeley, the original star of Broadway Jesus Christ Superstar,will be among those to interpret the knights’ night of music, which spans such songs as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Your Song,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” and many more. Broadway stars Teri Bibb and David Gaines will be among the cast delivering the hits.

“We’re still signing up more singers,” Burns said, adding that they’re about to book a vocalist from The Lion King among others. “We want the cast to be something spectacular, so we’re customizing the songs for the final cast.”

Burns emphasized that safety came first in all of the production decisions, and all CDC guidelines will be observed for attendees, singers, and musicians. “There won’t be a backstage area, so the singers will also be waiting in their cars and they’ll be brought to the stage one at a time and kept six feet apart. We’ve got drum plexiglass between the performers so we can meet or exceed the state standards to be sure we would be taking care of people.”

Tickets for the events range from $15 to $99.50. Visit or call (805) 667-2900 for details, FAQs, reservations, and more information.


You might also be interested in...