Robin Eschner’s involvement with “A Song for Vanya” began on the telephone about six years ago.
“I got a phone call from these guys,” said Eschner, meaning John Shillington and Bret Martin. “They wanted my help with a song they were writing. ‘Mermaids,’ I think it was.”
During the initial conversation, she learned that Shillington had come up with the idea of making a musical out of “Uncle Vanya,” a classic play by Anton Chekhov.
“Most people, when they hear an idea like that, think it’s either fantastic or alarming,” Eschner said. “But I found their idea very fresh and fun.”
So after fleshing out that first song by adding a bridge and scoring the instrumentation for it, she quickly became a member of the team that created a new musical.
“Right off the bat we knew it was a collaboration that was meant to be,” said Eschner, a West High graduate who now lives in Forestville, a small town northwest of Santa Rosa. And what the talented trio ended up with was “A Song for Vanya,” which opens Friday at the Spotlight Theatre.
All three live in Sonoma County. Eschner, whose parents live in Bakersfield, is a composer as well an award-winning visual artist. Martin is a lyricist and recording artist; Shillington teaches at Santa Rosa Community College and is the director of Young Actors Conservatory at Sonoma County Repertory Theatre.
By weaving complex music into the fabric of “Vanya,” the collaborators have enhanced the flow of the dialogue in a way that underscores both the tragic and the comic elements of the drama that is much like a modern-day soap opera, even though it’s set in 19th century Russia.
“It deals with issues that are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, the common struggles of every person — longing, unrequited love — all the human drama of everyday life,” Eschner said. “It’s a drama but it has incredible humor too.”
The comedic aspects of the script, she said, are emphasized in such songs as “Scritch, Scratch, ScritchO.” It is sung by Vanya, the title character, played by Thomas Robinson.
Although some announcements have referred to the Bakersfield performance as a “debut,” or a “premiere,” the musical actually has had three previous performances, Eschner said. The first two were informal workshops; the third was a five-week run at the Sonoma County Repertory.
What’s definitely new about the Bakersfield production is Spotlight director Hal Friedman’s incorporation of dancers.
“I wanted to make it more theatrical by stretching the concept,” the director said. “Thematically, I’d like the audience to see how timely it is. I hope it will be a testament to what Robin and her partners have done.”
The eight dancers, using ballet and modern dance techniques, create a sub-text for the actors, one that increases the audience’s understanding of what’s going on.
“It’s a play that shows real emotion,” Friedman said. “We should remember that in the original production in 1898, Uncle Vanya was played by Stanislavsky, whose name today is associated with the The Method school of acting.”
As for any sacrilege in turning a classic play into a musical, Friedman reminds us that “My Fair Lady,” one of the all-time hits of musical theater, was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Each of the eight dancers in “A Song for Vanya” is clad in a black leotard and wisps of sheer chiffon that float around their bodies to create an ethereal effect. Marvin Raymond did the choreography.
Emily Thiroux designed the costumes for the show. Clothing for the actors is similar to styles of the 1890s, with modified leg-of-mutton sleeves for the females’ dresses of velvet and brocade; colorful cravats and white shirts with tab collars for the men.
A piano, cello and clarinet accompany the singers and provide background music for the dancers. Heard but unseen, the musicians play offstage. Adam Calvillo is musical director.
Like the original play, “A Song for Vanya” revolves around the tensions between a group of disillusioned people who yearn to be something other than what they are. Most are family members — related either by blood or marriage — living on an estate in 19th century Russia. Also part of the mix is Dr. Astrov, a conservationist concerned about saving the environment. (A three-dimensional tree is a central part of the set.)
Friedman portrays the physician, who also is involved in an ill-starred love triangle with two different women, played by Abby Chapin and Kate Jeffrey. Yet for him they are a minor distraction.
In the opening scene, the doctor sets the tone for the musical with the song, “In One Hundred Years.” One of its lines is, “100 years from now, our descendants, will they remember what we have done?”
Eschner said she finds it fascinating that Chekhov, writing more than a century ago, created a character who is passionate about protecting the forest and concerned about what will happen to all the animals if the trees are destroyed.
“And here we are, a hundred years later, still asking the same
“A Song for Vanya”
• 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
• Spotlight Theatre, 1622 19th St.
• Tickets $18, $15 for students and seniors, $7 for children under 11.