At this time of year, I’m always struck by the sheer quantity of arts performances available to Madison audiences.
That abundance can be challenging for companies — schedule a matinee during a Packers game or a dance performance on graduation weekend, and audiences may be sparse. Even the organizations that enjoy longstanding support look for consistent sources of funding and new audiences.
Arts programmers like Meghan Randolph, founder of Music Theatre of Madison, have found creative ways to address this through social media, targeted previews, education and more.
“Attendance is down across the board, even for things that have instant name recognition,” Randolph wrote on her Arts Marketing Matters blog. Yet Randolph’s new year’s resolution is to “never stop learning ... don’t ever forget that we are creative people by nature, and that marketing is a truly creative endeavor.”
That creativity was on full display in a variety of the work I saw this year.
In January 2017, the Madison Symphony Orchestra brought back the educational program Beyond the Score with a performance of “Scheherazade.” (Beyond the Score will focus on Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” in a performance in March 2018.)
On a program with pianist Philippe Bianconi in April, Cap Times classical music critic Jess Courtier raved about the orchestra’s performance of Witold Lutosławski’s “Concerto for Orchestra.”
“The aesthetic draw of the piece lies in balancing opposing elements,” she wrote, “the beauty of fine textures in conversation with big, ensemble-wide sweeps. ... Sometimes one piece alone is worth the price of admission for an entire concert.”
In February, Madison Opera’s production of “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” staged in its Midwest premiere, showcased how 50-plus-year-old company has begun to embrace new work. In my review, I called the opera soulful and haunting, directed with a dancelike sensibility by Ron Daniels.
“Tall, slim Joshua Stewart plays Bird, the jazzman with a ‘monkey on his back,’” I wrote. “Stewart has an agile, warm tenor and an affecting physical presence, draping his long limbs over a chair or folding in on himself in the grip of another bender.”
American Players Theatre, another arts standard bearer in the area, opened the calendar year with its Winter Words reading series (opening again Jan. 29, 2018 with “Beau Brummel”). I particularly enjoyed “Slow Dance at the Killing Ground,” a shadowy 1960s drama about three strangers with dark secrets.
This summer, I saw two of the best productions at the Spring Green classical theater company on the same day.
First, Jim DeVita, Colleen Madden and Melisa Pereyra starred in Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” in a devastating performance in the Touchstone Theatre.
“Tim Ocel directs this skilled, tight-knit ensemble like a spool unraveling,” I wrote in the August review. “Eddie begins to flail and sink further into a warped sense of injustice.
“Ocel gives each shift in power, silent decision and moment of understanding the chance to breathe and ripple out like a wave.”
Later that night, I saw one of my favorite performances of the year: Eric Tucker’s production of “Pericles,” a wackadoodle Shakespeare play with bizarre tonal shifts and too many characters.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed that hard at APT. Tucker’s interpretation of the play included Scottish accents, sword fights and shipwrecks at sea staged with a staircase and a sheet of metal.
“Costume drama might be pretty, but Shakespeare doesn’t get much more fun than this,” I wrote in my review. “With the machinations of theater magic laid bare and lots of silliness ... Tucker’s aesthetic mashes up fairy tales, film sets and playing dress-up in the basement with clothes from the thrift store.
“The result is a grand, dreamlike story that never loses a sense of pell-mell glee.”
Overture Center’s Broadway series had some big hits this past year — I had forgotten how infectious that “Phantom of the Opera” title track is until I heard it again last January, and I confess I skipped a fourth viewing of “Jersey Boys,” though the audience seemed to love it.
Among the Broadway tours, arguably the strongest was a revival of the 1998 Roundabout Theatre production of “Cabaret.” The challenging Kander & Ebb classic had the lowest sales of the ’16-’17 Broadway season (just 54 percent of seats sold) but I loved it for its sinister tone and “palpable desperation” behind the Kit Kat’s grimy, grinding hips.
Also at Overture, I was consistently impressed by work from Capital City Theatre this year. Their productions of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” an intimate musical play starring Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday, and the boisterous William Finn favorite “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” had much to recommend them, namely the fantastic singing.
I was delighted to catch Four Seasons Theatre’s production of “The Spitfire Grill” this December, starring Eva Nimmer as the nervous but determined ex-con Percy Talbott. Her voice had a crystal clear resonance, and her funny rendition of “Out of the Frying Pan” while attempting to prepare breakfast made the cook in me actively anxious.
At the Bartell, two of my standout shows came in the spring. Madison Theatre Guild’s “The Whipping Man” boasted a strong ensemble cast performing a complex script set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War.
Director Dana Pellebon led Jalen Thomas and Tosumba Welch playing former slaves, with Whitney Derendinger as the son of their former master. “Whipping Man” was a difficult play to watch. It made me feel sad and angry and grateful for the performers’ work all at once.
That same month, Dave Pausch led another strong ensemble cast in “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ 2007 drama about a profoundly dysfunctional family.
Led by Peggy Rosin as a drug-addicted, toxic mother from hell and Miranda Hawk as her stubborn, damaged daughter Barbara, it was a roller coaster of a play and an extraordinary achievement for Mercury Players Theatre.
Out of town, I saw some excellent performances in Milwaukee, among them a moving spring production of “Jane Eyre” at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of “Luna Gale,” Rebecca Gliman’s story of a young, drug-addicted couple and the baby they’re struggling to raise.
Two of “Luna Gale’s” young stars, Marques Causey and April Paul, also appeared in Forward Theater’s “The Flick” in 2016. Their energy was perfectly matched here.
Jim Ridge, an APT company member, played the emotional center of Samuel D. Hunter’s play “The Few,” about long distance truckers and a lonely-hearts column in a failing newspaper. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s fine production cast Ridge as Bryan opposite Mary McDonald Kerr as his resentful, wary ex.
In his review for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, my colleague and friend Mike Fischer praised Ridge’s performance for showing “the obvious effort involved in being a jerk, suggesting a man afraid to feel rather than one who doesn’t. ... Even as Bryan slumps and drinks, averting eye contact and insisting he doesn’t care, Ridge betrays how much Bryan still does.”
Since 2009, I’ve worked with Overture Center’s not-for-profit program for Wisconsin high school musical theater (formerly the Tommy Awards, but hopefully soon to be renamed).
I see more than a dozen musicals every year as part of this program. This year that included some wonderful shows I’d never seen before — lesser known works like the poignant “Fly By Night,” a jazz-influenced contemporary musical at Oak Creek High School, and the sweet, goofy “Drowsy Chaperone,” performed in Verona by Madison Country Day School.
I got to shiver during summer at a ghostly Janesville School District production of “Sweeney Todd.” Some of the same Janesville students’ crisp, energetic tap dancing kicked off my holidays in a sweet performance of “White Christmas” at Parker. (An important note here: My appreciation of these high school shows is unconnected with which schools receive awards. I see only a fraction of eligible shows and am one of many reviewers.)
There are many shows I’m looking forward to in 2018. Theatre LILA’s “LINES” was commissioned from five female playwrights of color and premieres in April in Overture’s Promenade Hall. Madison Ballet’s “She,” a rep show celebrating female choreographers including Jacqueline Stewart and Stephanie Martinez, goes up in February at the Bartell Theatre.
I want to see what Forward Theater Company does with Ike Holter’s play “Exit Strategy,” opening Jan. 19 in the Playhouse. On bigger stages, I’m looking forward to the tour of “An American in Paris” in late February/ early March, Madison Opera’s first Spanish language opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” in April and the wonderful musical “Waitress” in July.
As they sing in “Rent” (Overture Hall, Jan. 2-7, 2018), “it’s gonna be a happy new year!”