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What not to miss this season at Wisconsin Union Theater and Overture Center
Max Raabe and Palast Orchester of Berlin

Here comes the 2008-2009 performing arts season at the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Overture Center, the city's top venues - and I'm totally glued to the electoral soap opera. Can I skip the latest exploits of Sarah Barracuda for New Orleans funk or modern dance? Could I even afford to go? My habits of grocery shopping and driving a car are taking a bite out of my theater funds this year.

But when it comes to culture I'm a pitbull with lipstick. I'll penny-pinch and turn off the tube to get my annual fix of dance, music and more. And when Nov. 4 has come and gone we'll all be up for the glamorous relief of a night or two at the theater. As usual, there's too much to choose from. Despite election year jitters and the economic slump, our performing arts palaces are serving up full slates. Picking theater tickets is like voting - there's no disputing over taste, my grandmother used to say. But for the record, here's my annual, opinionated guide.

The Wisconsin Union Theater's 89th season isn't perfect - it's a little poppier than usual, and half of the acts on the world stage are repeats. But there's no lack of excellence in its 30-event lineup. The Guarneri String Quartet (Oct. 23) returns to the concert stage this year. The renowned chamber group made its Madison debut in '67. Many Union Theater performances later, this is its farewell tour. The event has an added emotional component - it's dedicated to Union Theater's emeritus director Fan Taylor (1946-1966) who died last spring at 94.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan (Dec. 13) are fast-rising young stars in the chamber music world. Barnatan's known for impeccable training, but Weilerstein's the star of this duet - she plays classical music with the soul of a die-hard rocker, says the Toronto Star, and that's true. Check her out on YouTube.

I'm the rock 'n roll daughter of an opera singer, so I'm fascinated by glamorous young opera star Danielle de Niese (Feb. 19), who's singing Handel, Bizet and Poulenc - she has a look and a repertory mom would have loved.

The thriller on this year's world stage has to be di Madre en Figlia - "from mother to daughter" (Sept. 26) - a project that joins hip young Milanese electronic folk quartet Fiamma Fumana with the Novi Rice Weeders Choir. The Rice Weeders were women from the Italian resistance who sang freedom songs while they worked the rice fields of the Po Valley during World War II. The "singing grannies" on this tour are their daughters.

For Lura (Oct. 16), bring your dancin' shoes. Born in Portugal to expat Cape Verdean parents, Lura takes off where Cape Verde's first lady of song Cesaria Evora leaves off. Evora's plaintive mornas have more Portuguese than African heritage. Lura explores percussion-driven African styles from her father's home island of Santiago, like batuku (a women's dance) and funaná, which swings in the range of merengue and lambada.

Portugese fado singer Mariza (April 8), who brought down the house at her Union Theater debut in '04, returns. So does Afropop queen Angelique Kidjo (Nov. 6), who won the contemporary world music Grammy this year and played here last in 2005. I wouldn't miss either one for the world, but this time I might skip rising Afropop goddess Dobet Gnahore, from Ivory Coast via Paris (May 1) - it's her fourth Mad City show since her U.S. debut with Acoustic Africa in the fall of 2006.

The Isthmus jazz series takes a new tack this year, kicking off with sounds from New Orleans, not New York - 22-year old fast-rising star of Big Easy funk Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews (Oct. 2). If you don't dig this show you got a hole in your soul, but yes, it's a poppy pick. Trombone Shorty can swing in any style, but with his new-generation band Orleans Avenue, which accompanies him on this tour, expect more rock than jazz.

One show you can't afford to miss this year is master jazz vocalist/pianist/ arranger Andy Bey (Feb. 13), who once shared the spotlight with luminaries like Sarah Vaughn and sang with hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. After a 20-year absence from the public eye, Bey's 1993 album Ballads, Blues and Bey launched a spectacular comeback. Today he's a jazz icon, and there aren't many like him left.

Grammy-winning Afro-Latin saxman David Sanchez (June 6), the ticketed headliner for the free Isthmus Jazz Festival that signals the start of summer, rounds out the jazz season with brilliant latter-day post-bop/Cubop.

You get a chance to dance at the Union Theater's Mardi Gras party in Great Hall with accordion king Buckwheat Zydeco (Feb. 18). Beads will be thrown, says the buzz on the street. But in the realm of dance performance, there's no contemporary ballet or 20th-century modern masters this year. Maybe the Union Theater is starting a new, more mainstream tradition with the Bellydance Superstars (March 26) and the Cirque-ish, L.A.-based Diavolo (Feb. 27).

Even the astounding Savion Glover (Nov. 8) is a commercial choice, but I'll take it. I can't wait to see him tap his way across the Union Theater stage with his brand-new Bare Soundz tour, billed as a jazz improv/Afro-Caribbean extravaganza - right on time for the big post-election celebration or hangover cure. But don't wait for the results - get your tickets now, 'cuz Glover's gonna sell out.

The Union Theater's creep toward the middle may be an election year fluke, but Overture Presents - Overture Center's own program (as distinct from its local resident groups) - is always aimed at the broadest spectrum of local taste. There's the usual mix of commercial schmaltz and edgier art in this season's 62 shows. There's bound to be disagreement over what's best on a bill this big, plus the inevitable clunker or two, but overall it looks much better this year than last.

The Cab Calloway Orchestra (Nov. 8, Capitol Theater), led by Cab's grandson Calloway Brooks, replaces the annual appearance of the Glenn Miller Orchestra with a snazzier show. If you need more jazz-age escapism to get you through, The Drowsy Chaperone (March 20-22), from the Broadway show series - a 21st century spoof of '20s musicals - looks like fluffy fun.

The kitschiest kick from the '20s and '30s is Max Raabe and Palast Orchester of Berlin (Oct 3, Capitol Theater). This sly Weimar Republic cabaret revival features the kinds of tunes Hitler suppressed for being "too Jewish" or "too black" - everything from Kurt Weill to Bing Crosby, Betty Boop to Benny Goodman, plus Raabe's own wry sendups of the style.

The cabaret spree continues with Overture's new Cabaret Dinner Theater series "in an elegant nightclub-like setting right on the Capitol Theatre stage," the brochure says. It's a far cry from the art form's radical, bohemian roots, but it looks like fun for the downtown condo crowd. The food's by Fresco; entertainment by Sally Mayes (Nov. 6), David Burnam (Feb. 19) and Justin Hayford (May 7).

Back on the Broadway bill, the hot ticket this year is the Tony-winning, still-running, young-in-New-York Avenue Q (Oct. 21-26, Overture Hall), with its high cute quotient of unauthorized Muppets and songs with titles like "The Internet is for Porn." I'm not a fan, though you might be. But I'm mystified by Jesus Christ Superstar (Feb. 13-14, Overture Hall), revived once again from the dustbins of 1971. Is there really an audience for a touring production of a dated counterculture musical based on the Bible?

For an off-Broadway offering there's Dixie's Tupperware Party (Oct. 21-Nov. 2, Promenade Hall). Reviewers call it hilarious, but I'm cowed by its capitalist vibe. It's QVC on steroids and in drag. Actor Kris Anderson's a bona fide Tupperware rep, and s/he's here to sell you the latest Modular Mates. But the East Village Opera Company (Jan. 29, Capitol Theater), a staple at Joe's Pub in New York's Greenwich Village, does rocked-up opera that's the opposite of schlock.

Dance on tap this year is all over the map. Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater (Nov. 20, Capitol Theater), a fast-rising, superbly trained company with a rich repertory by leading Latino choreographers, is at the top of my list. A great ticket pick, especially paired with Savion Glover, would be the Austin, Texasbased Tapestry Dance Company's "Souls of our Feet" (May 1, Capitol Theater), an ode to classic tap routines.

Lar Lubovitch (Oct. 14, Overture Hall), a major American choreographer who's made dances for everybody from American Ballet Theatre to Olympic ice skaters, creates lyrical works on his own company that fall somewhere between luscious and bland.

From the bottom of the dance pile Overture pulls out the Russian National Ballet Theater (Jan. 26, Overture Hall), yet another toured-out Moscow pick-up troupe, this time doing Don Quixote. Sometimes there's a fine dancer in the mix, but don't trick yourself into thinking you're buying Bolshoi tickets.

For kids, check out Overture's great lineup of age-appropriate events. Two that look great: Scotland's Visible Fictions brings Jason and the Argonauts (Nov. 2, Capitol Theater), a madcap two-man play about the quest for the Golden Fleece. Mexico's Marionetas de la Esquina serves up A Moon Over Two Houses (April 26, Capitol Theater), about two neighbors afraid of the dark. En Español (1 PM) and English (3 PM).

For the rest of us, there's more music. Best picks: Grammy collector, a cappella improviser and master of many styles Bobby McFerrin, doin' his famous thing (Jan. 22, Overture Hall); the Neville Brothers, tellin' it like it is on a double bill with barrelhouse piano man Dr. John (Feb. 11, Overture Hall); and the Assad brothers' delectable Brazil-inflected classical guitar duets (Feb. 2. Capitol Theater).

The Song and Dance Ensemble of West Africa (Oct. 30, Capitol Theater), one of those cultural ambassador companies that brings traditional arts to theater audiences around the world, swings through town on its first big US tour. This troupe's from Mali, the birthplace of many world-renowned Afropop superstars and Sahel bluesmen. There's not much press on this performance yet, but I'm psyched - if the video clip's any clue this is an utterly authentic show.

I saved the best for last. Juan de Marcos González and the Afro-Cuban Allstars bring aché back to town (March 13, Overture Hall). Aché means grace, blessings, virtue, word. It's the essence of Santería's orishas, and we're due for a dose. The AC Allstars wowed a sold-out Civic Center crowd with its son y rumba show in 2000. After Sept. 11, W, in his shrubby wisdom, put the kibosh on visas for musicians carrying Cuban passports (remember that when you go to vote). In the current Allstars configuration Marcos brings together players from the diaspora of recent expats, plus a repertory of new takes on traditional Cuban rhythms and old tunes you'll remember from before this unwarranted culture war.

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