It's September already - time for my annual opinionated guide to the 2009-2010 performing arts schedules at the city's downtown culture palaces. So here's opinion number one. Overture Center is playing it safe, since a handful of edgier shows in the Capitol Theater last year took financial hits. The Wisconsin Union Theater's still taking risks, but the season's a pared-down version of its former self. If the lineup looks thin, don't blame the venues. It's gonna take Medicare for all and some major Keynesian stimulus to bring back the good old days.
Meanwhile I'm on spending lockdown, but nothing makes me feel opulent like starting the season with a few hot tickets stashed away. Two irresistible shows top my list. My number-one pick is Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, returning to Wisconsin Union Theater (Feb. 6) after a five-year absence. The company brings a repertory program that includes the revival of King's Signs and Wonders, originally choreographed in 1995 for Dance Theater of Harlem and recently honored as a National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpiece.
LINES dancers are dazzling, and King's a revolutionary choreographer. Here's a hint: "When you see classical ballet," he once told me, "you have to ask yourself why grown women with big strong minds are doing fairy variations. So you take the form and start again."
My second choice is the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour (Overture's Capitol Theater, April 29). On the bill are the Kenny Barron Trio, adventurous violinist Regina Carter, DownBeat mag's favorite male jazz singer Kurt Elling, and the versatile, blues-influenced jazz guitarist Russell Malone. Barron alone is worth the ticket price. The veteran post-bop pianist just received a much-deserved National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award. Plus, he's the catalyst for the sizzling chemistry I expect from this odd ensemble of all-star players.
Barron and Carter have worked together on and off since their eclectic 2001 duet album Freefall; Barron plies the keys on Malone's upbeat '98 CD Sweet Georgia Peach. Top-tier hardcore jazz like this belongs in nightclubs, not proscenium arch theaters, but at least now you can take your sippy cup cocktail to your seat.
Here's the best of the rest, with a few bumps and warts. Being a total Motown boomer I'll go for Gladys Knight (Overture Hall, March 26), whom I last saw more decades ago than I care to count at Chicago's long-gone Regal Theater. She's on her "farewell tour," though she doesn't seem ready to wrap it up. Her latest album, Before Me, is an overproduced set of (very classy) standards, and her husky, gospel-charged voice isn't quite the powerhouse it was 40 years ago, but she's still got boatloads of soul.
The Wisconsin Union Theater's Isthmus Jazz Series lacks its usual pizzazz. Big Apple post-bop and Latin jazz are conspicuously absent. Instead we get two smooth jazz/pop new-century chanteuses. Zaftig siren Jane Monheit (Oct. 23) favors Ella Fitzgerald, songbook standards, soft rock and bossa nova. Gary Giddins, in his 2004 jazz bible Weatherbird, called the then-20-something songstress "pedestrian." Five years later she's still no Ella, but her voice is supple, her stage presence impressive.
Luciana Souza (Feb. 12) can sing sincerely seductive bossa nova. Compared to that, her new album, Tide, inexplicably stocked with soppy, Joni Mitchell-ish pop, falls flat. Still, Souza appears with two Brazilian masters, bossa nova guitar boss Romero Lubambo and innovative world beat percussionist Cyro Baptista, so the show's got a shot at success.
The Union Theater's world music affairs look sturdier. Tiempo Libre (Nov. 5), seven young, conservatory-trained Havana timberos now living in Miami, tour their new CD, Bach in Havana. Imagine exquisitely conceived, played-to-perfection minuet guaguancó, with babes-and-booze lyrics. The band'll probably toss in some of its earlier hits, like "Manos Pa'rriba" - "muévelo, como no!" - off its '06 album Lo Que Esperabas. This is seriously good 21st-century Cuban music, full of life, orishas and alegría.
Majestic Senegalese Afropop icon Baaba Maal takes the Union Theater stage on April 8. He's followed his super acoustic roots recording Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), the base of his '02 tour - its Union Theater stop sold out - with Television, a peculiar album of polyglot folktronica. But live onstage, I betcha Maal will bring down the house.
When it comes to música mexicana I'd love to see Overture partner again with La Movida, Madison's 24/7 Spanish-language radio station, 1480 on your AM dial, to bring in some verdadera ranchera. Instead, look for Windy City conjunto Sones de Mexico (March 6, Capitol Theater). These topnotch players give gringos a good intro to south-of-the-border sounds, mixed with other genres that strike their fancy.
There are big bona fides if bluegrass is your bag. Grand Ole Opry mandolin god Bobby Osborne with the American Bluegrass Masters Tour (Overture's Capitol Theater, April 9) offers plenty of bang for your buck. To prime the pump, California mandolin picker Chris Thile, of band-on-hiatus Nickel Creek, hits the Union Theater stage with the Punch Brothers on March 4.
The Union Theater, in solidarity from the start with post-Katrina efforts to save Louisiana's arts, continues this generous tradition. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band dishes up its famous brand of Big Easy funk (Oct. 2). Red Stick Ramblers, a young spitfire of a Cajun dance band, plays UW's Music Hall (Feb. 6).
Highlights from the Wisconsin Union Theater's classical series include the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (Oct. 9), now under the baton of distinguished Dutch maestro Edo de Waart, playing Beethoven's best symphony, the Seventh, plus the Brahms Double Concerto. Grammy-grabbing all-male a cappella ensemble Chanticleer is back (May 6). I missed their sold-out '05 performance, but it gave Union Theater marketing director Esty Dinur goosebumps. And here's a tip - tickets are going fast.
Overture Presents leaves the classical oeuvre entirely to its resident orchestras this year, but pop jazz trumpeter Chris Botti with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (Jan. 14) is on the "Musical Headliners" list.
One of Overture's specialties that Union Theater doesn't do is kids' shows. Scottish Puppet Stage Theater Company's production of The Man Who Planted Trees (Promenade Hall, April 10) sounds like a best bet. Overture programming V.P. Susan Crofton calls this ecology-themed play, featuring two actors and a dog puppet, brilliant and hilariously funny. Little kids won't get the message, but they'll love the dog.
Overture's cash cow this season is the official touring production of Disney's The Lion King, running an astounding entire month (April 27-May 23) in the main hall. I'm usually a misanthrope when it comes to Broadway musicals, but if you haven't seen it - or even if you have - there's magic in this one. Sure, it's corny - it's based on an animated cartoon, for cripes sake. But director/designer Julie Taymor's incredible puppets and puppet-actor hybrids, the Elton John plus Tim Rice score, infused with South African singer/songwriter Lebo M's Soweto influence, and Jamaica-born modern dance master Garth Fagan's inspired choreography - oh, those leaping gazelles! - add up to a transcendental song and dance spectacular.
In its second year, Overture's Cabaret series - dinner (by Catering a Fresco) and song on the Capitol Theater stage - looks divine for the downtown condo crowd, a dress-up date or girls' night out. Three shows are on tap: Broadway/off-Broadway actor and songstress Elizabeth Ward Land's "Broadway Harvest," Nov. 5; Chicago cabaret maven Joan Curto's "Love Is a Simple Thing," on Valentine's Day; and Chicago crooner Paul Marinaro and his trio's "Tribute to the 1930s" (April 7-8, but the second show's already sold out).
The toured-out Russian ballet troups Overture brought in year after year have vanished from the annual dance panorama, but somehow those mediocre, mostly sold-out shows didn't send a message to the program committee. Instead of ignoring the need for classical dance, why not up the ante with a topnotch, Balanchine-based U.S. company - say, Miami City Ballet, which bagged an abundant audience of balletomanes for the old Oscar Mayer Theatre in 2003?
Even modern dance, once a mainstay, looks kaput in Mad City. Get ready for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's gazillionth Overture Hall performance (April 1), despite the growth of fresher troupes in nearby cities. And Pilobolus (Overture Hall, Feb. 9)? Please. The company's got chops, but it continues the dance-tainment trend we've seen in recent years. Madison's sophisticated dance audience is itching for more substance. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mark Morris or Bill T. Jones would fill that bill.
The lone cutting-edge option this season, besides LINES, occurs when Bay Area hip-hop theater honcho Marc Bamuthi Joseph returns to the Union Theater (April 24). Bamuthi Joseph, whose fall '08 UW Arts Institute residency kicked off the UW Office of Multicultural Arts' outstanding First Wave initiative, performs "the break/s," the dance performance/poetry piece he began working on here.
Mostly, this season favors world dance over unfettered art - a sign of the times with complex implications. Within the confines of traditional genres, though, the Union Theater's made two superb choices, starting with Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company (Oct. 14). The company's named for Kiev's late dancer/ballet master/choreographer Pavlo Virsky, who recast the folk dances of his homeland as stage spectacle, set on a company of highly trained classical dancers.
Equally intriguing is the Union Theater's Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble (March 6). The company's very contemporary take on Odissi, a classical, supremely sensuous style that was banned by the Brits and revived in the 1950s from ancient temple sculptures, looks luscious.
Overture's got Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana (Capitol Theater, Nov. 12), a popular New York company specializing in safe-but-sexy, made-for-theater alegrías and bulerías. An edgier choice is Step Afrika (Capitol Theater, Dec. 4), a D.C.-based, world-touring troupe dedicated to stepping, an intensely percussive, whole-body rhythmic dance form that originated in African American college sororities and fraternities. It's kin to tap, South African gumboot and all those funky Soul Train steps.
Overture's also bringing in Ballroom with a Twist (Overture Hall, Oct. 16), starring Olympic figure skater and Dancing with the Stars champ Kristi Yamaguchi. It's glitzy, its kitsch, it's TV-type hype - it's also dancing with passion, and I'm all for that.
Of course, there's more kitsch in Overture's kit. ABBAmania (Overture Hall, Oct. 28), The Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller (Overture Hall, Dec. 29) and that eternal Overture favorite, Four Bitchin' Babes, doing their menopause mania show "Diva Nation" (Overture Hall, March 27), aren't my personal cup of tea. But I've got a jones for animal ambassador/TV talk-show star Jungle Jack Hanna (Oct. 18, Capitol Theater) and his awesome menagerie. I'll be there, in my safari suit.