Outdoor Concert Kicks Off the Zach Theatre Season

Music, moonlight, and Mickey Mouse thrills audience and performers alike

Front, l-r: Roderick Sanford and Kenny Williams; back, l-r: Leslie McDonel and Francene Bayola in Disney Through the Decades at ZACH Theatre (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

Break out your Mickey Mouse ears and dancing shoes. Zach Theatre is back with Songs Under the Stars, a series of family-friendly outdoor concerts performed by some of Zach's top actors bringing together the Austin community in the name of music, nostalgia, and earnest fun.

"You're sitting on a gorgeous evening or gorgeous afternoon with a bunch of people you may not know at the beginning, but you're all sitting there with this common thread, just bringing the sense of community back to what it once was," said actor and singer Roderick Sanford. "Theatre has the capability of doing that."

Because of the pandemic, Zach purchased an outdoor stage and transitioned entirely to outdoor performances in October 2020, and launched Songs Under the Stars with two shows – Disney Through the Decades and 80s Dance Party – in March 2021. Dave Steakley, Zach's producing artistic director and director of 80s Dance Party, said the shows provide jobs for artists and create meaningful and relatable productions without a traditional theatre space. He said, "[Songs Under the Stars] gave us this great opportunity to take our Zach artists and to not only give them work when things were shut down, but to help us keep a connection to our audience as well as our patrons. [Songs Under the Stars] allowed a different sense of expression, this sort of pop culture. It was wildly popular and kept a positive vibe going."

The shows ran across last Spring and Summer, with interruptions due to torrential downpours and the uptick in the COVID-19 Delta variant. Steakley said the current Songs Under the Stars program is a revival of last spring's concert season. "I felt like we were just beginning to hit our groove with the shows," he said. "So it'll be fun to reignite. I love all of this music. ... It's cycled back around in a way that makes us multigenerational again."

Sanford, who has been with the Zach since 1993, stars in Disney Through the Decades, singing Aladdin's "Friend Like Me," The Little Mermaid's "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea," 101 Dalmatians' "Cruella De Vil," and Toy Story's "You've Got a Friend in Me." He said repeating the show allows him to improve as an actor by revising aspects of his previous performances and that he looks forward to bringing back Disney classics that thrill the audience. "Every little kid that came to the matinees, they were dressed up in their favorite little Disney costumes," Sanford said. "One time, there were like five little Elsas. And they know all the words. 'Let It Go' is one of the big numbers at the very end of the show, and oh my gosh, the little girls and little boys just light up. It's gonna be great to be able to do that again."

Sanford explained that there's an intimacy to performing outdoors: Unlike in a dark theatre where everyone sits composed and dressed for the occasion, performers can lock eyes with audience members and encourage them to get up and dance. "I would always try to find an adult couple during 'Kiss the Girl,' so that I could point to the guy and say, 'Hey, you can do that,'" Sanford said. "That's one of the best parts about doing live theatre, that immediate reaction that you get from the audience. You get to see people singing along, and that feeds you because you know they're enjoying it or they're reliving some special moment. Unknowingly they're part of the show. And it's just a wonderful feeling. It really is a wonderful feeling."

“One time, there were like five little Elsas. And they know all the words.” – Roderick Sanford

"It does really feel like a family at Zach," said Leslie McDonel, who sings in both shows. "It's the top place in town, for sure, they're just doing the most Broadway-level theatre. And I've gotten to know and love everyone that works there." A veteran of the original Broadway cast and national tour of American Idiot and a self-described "rock chick," she said she particularly loves the Eighties spirit. "It's always fun when you see people who are drinking, having fun, letting loose, and just really dancing. ... They've had a locomotion train going through the entire crowd. They have their masks on, trying to still be safe around strangers, but everyone is just embracing the people around them. And just everyone becomes one big party. It's just that live energy that is shared that I think is unbeatable."

Compared to her prior theatre experience, McDonel said Songs Under the Stars feels completely refreshing and requires a new level of focused preparation. "The rehearsals are fast and furious," she said. "It's definitely the most music I've ever learned in my life. Because you don't go offstage, you're there the whole time. I mean, there's maybe two songs total out of the 26 songs that I won't sing at least backups on, if not lead."

Beyond this season's immediate shows, Steakley said Zach plans to use Songs Under the Stars as a means to workshop potential future performances. Since the pandemic, Steakley said Zach has been emphasizing family-friendly and music-heavy productions, such as the theatre's debut of The Rocky Horror Show, to bring light and joy during difficult times. "We want to invite people to experience a new musical, just in concert, to allow an opportunity for writing teams to get feedback and for us to see how material is flying in the early steps in the development of a work," Steakley said. "We're trying to find connections to the Austin vibe that also meets the talents of our artists."

As Zach heads into its new performance schedule, Sanford said he hopes Austinites will rejoin the live theatre scene at Songs Under the Stars. "We're asking you to come, have fun, be a part of the community, dance, and sing along," Sanford said. "It's just the greatest thing."

Zach Theatre presents 80s Dance Party March 3-5, 7:30pm; Disney Through the Decades, March 5-6, 2:30pm. Zach Theatre, 1510 Toomey. zachtheatre.org.

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Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Leslie McDonel, Songs Under the Stars, Disney, Disney Through the Decades, 80s Dance Party, Roderick Sanford

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