Madison celebrated its 150th birthday this year. And whatever you think about Madison's arts scene, you've got to admit: It's come a long way since 1856. Back then, there were about two dozen paintings in the town's one museum. Local citizens were so starved for entertainment that they'd arrive in droves to hear a fence painter whistle on the Capitol Square.
In 2006, we celebrated the completion of the Overture Center for the Arts ' the most expensive alternative to whistling ever seen in these parts. As impressive as the achievement was, reaction to Cesar Pelli's architecture was mixed. Isthmus critic Paul Kosidowski pointed out the 'nearly impossible contradiction between budget, site and program' ' that is, the attempt to wedge six performance spaces, a collection of small galleries, a museum and a lecture hall into a single building, parts of which were existing structures. On the other hand, Kosidowski praised the feeling of artistic cross-fertilization inside Overture's mazelike interior.
2006 saw several Madison artists and organizations making waves on the national scene. Children's author Kevin Henkes earned critical raves and months on the best-seller list for Lilly's Big Day. Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda's Chad Vader shorts became an Internet sensation. Short-story goddess Lorrie Moore continued her impressive run in The New Yorker. The University of Wisconsin Press won big-time attention for Angela Davis-Gardner's Plum Wine, Walter Rideout's Sherwood Anderson, Gillian Kendall's Mr. Ding's Chicken Feet and other high-quality books.
On the downside, after-hours violence marred the hip-hop events at Club Majestic. The debt-ridden CTM Madison Family Theatre Company canceled most of its season and laid off staff members. The Slipper Club and the Journey Music closed, as did three movie theaters: University Square Four, Hilldale and South Towne. Surrealist artist John Wilde died, with obituaries in national media.
Life goes on. But before it does, let's take one more look back at 2006's local highlights, courtesy of Isthmus' arts critics.
Jennifer A. Smith
This year, the final piece of the Overture Center puzzle fell into place as the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) reopened April 23 after a construction phase that lasted more than 18 months.
Although MMoCA still ran some programming while the museum was shuttered, it feels good to have this key part of the local visual arts scene fully up and running again. In just the eight months it's been open, it's hosted two shows by internationally renowned contemporary artists ' Chuck Close and Sol LeWitt ' as well as a show of Madison-related commissioned work.
Elsewhere in Overture, the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters completed its second year of reliably fine exhibitions of contemporary Wisconsin artists. A varied year ranged from church hats worn by members of Milwaukee's African American community to the unnerving, crystalline surrealism of Gina Litherland's paintings to the politically charged textiles of Madison fiber artist Diane Sheehan.
Anchoring the other end of State Street is the Chazen Museum of Art, with its own plans for expansion. The highlights of the Chazen Museum's year underscored its identity as a university art museum: 'Tandem Press Highlights: 1995-2005,' 'Metalsmiths and Mentors: Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty at the University of Wisconsin' and 'Things of Nature and the Nature of Things: John Wilde.'
The Wilde show unintentionally served as a memorial to the late, great surrealist, who died in March. Wilde's legacy lives on not only in his work and the remembrances of his friends but also through the countless students he taught over three decades at the UW.
Yet while Madison was home to many strong art exhibitions in 2006, I have to confess that my favorite show of the year was actually in Milwaukee: the Milwaukee Art Museum's 'Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity,' which runs through Jan. 1. It's a sumptuous treatment of mostly German decorative and fine arts from the early 19th century. And it's not too often that an exhibition leaves Milwaukee bound for Vienna, Berlin and Paris.
The theater calendar offered at least two performances I know I'll remember for years: David Adkins in the Madison Repertory Theatre's I Am My Own Wife and Angela Ianonne in University Theatre's Master Class. Both actors created magnetic, multilayered portraits of complex individuals: a German transsexual and legendary opera diva Maria Callas.
As for lighter theatrical fare, Madison Rep charmed with Muskie Love and Bad Dates, and American Players Theatre with The Matchmaker. While Bad Dates, written by Theresa Rebeck, is not deeply probing about life and love, it was hard not to root for Martie Sanders, an instantly likable Chicago actress, as single mom Haley in this one-woman show.
Other treats this year included the always worthwhile, jam-packed-with-stuff Wisconsin Film Festival and Wisconsin Book Festival, which have now been around long enough that it's tempting to take them for granted. We shouldn't. Many events offer the bland promise of 'something for everyone,' but these events really deliver, from major films and writers to the most obscure niche offerings.
Despite America's near-pathological state of denial over the state of the world, in Madison the year kicked off auspiciously with a rainbow troupe of local high-schoolers speaking truth to power. I'm talking about the Youth Speaks Finals, sponsored by UW-Madison Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives and held at the Wisconsin Union Theater (Jan. 28). The smokin' poetry by the city's best young socially conscious hip-hop artists was a performance from the front lines of a new movement you'll hear more about next year.
The organizers of the Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 21-23) ' the Wisconsin Union Directorate and a coalition of university and community sponsors ' outdid themselves this year. Eminent traditionalists like Veracruz's Tlen Huicani and Zanzibar's Culture Musical Club shared the bill with edgy young world-fusion groups like Aza (Morocco/California Berber music) and Les Yeux Noirs (klezmer-Gypsy jazz from France). In the boisterous international festival crowd Jews and Muslims sang and danced together during this three-day coup of cultural diplomacy.
The Wisconsin Union Theater's World Stage keeps the beat year-round. Twenty-first-century Nightingale of the Nile Natacha Atlas (Sept. 19) unleashed her sultry, quarter-toney voice on luscious East/West fusion. Kosher soul brother Joshua Nelson and alt-klezmer kings the Klezmatics (Feb. 18) mixed Old Testament spirituals with shtetl party music while a chain of students and gray-haired ladies did the hora in the aisle and everybody in the house put out some ol' soul clappin'.
The McCoy Tyner trio turned the Union Theater into a high post-bop church (Oct. 6). The service was short (and badly miked) but inspirational.
On the soul roll, UW-Madison's hippest alum, Broadway star Andre de Shields, was back with 'Black by Popular Demand,' a boomers' paradise R&B revue at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater (May 20). Gypsy violin virtuoso Roby Lakatos and his accomplished ensemble whomped up an evening of Magyar soul at the Capitol Theater (Nov. 15).
On my dance beat were two major works billed as 'antiwar,' Bill T. Jones' Blind Date (Overture Hall, March 7) and the mostly-original-cast touring production of Movin' Out, Twyla Tharp's Broadway ballet based on Billy Joel's Vietnam-era songs (Overture Hall, May 30-June 4). Jones' muffled-in-abstractions message and Tharp's happy ending were as wimpy as congressional Democrats, but in both cases the dancing was extraordinary.
Other Terpsichorean treats included the guest principals in Madison Ballet's Evening of Romance (Overture Hall, Feb. 1), particularly Pacific Northwest Ballet's Patricia Barker, whose infinite, arcing lines made the Romeo and Juliet pas-de-deux memorable. For the Martha Graham Company's affectionate retrospective of the grande dame's oeuvre (Overture Hall, Oct. 17) I'd have picked different works, but 'Lamentation' (1930), danced to a T by soloist Elizabeth Auclair, looked absolutely contemporary after all these years.
Graham's local heirs at Kanopy Dance ' artistic directors Lisa Thurrell and Robert Cleary, with several company dancemakers ' get my local choreography award this year for their punky, post-apocalyptic dance opera 'Dark Nights' (March 2-5 in Overture's Promenade Hall). Another nod goes to local improv maven Jodi Cohen ' I was moved to tears by her monologue about her old dog in TapIt/New Works' Women's Work variety show (March 23-25, Promenade Hall).
On the saoco side, our own Tony CastaÃeda and his Latin jazz band played some red-hot mambos, especially at the dance party in the Memorial Union's Rathskeller after Latin jazz patriarch Eddie Palmieri's all-star septet brought down the house on Dec. 2. A week later (Dec. 8, in Overture Hall), Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano flaunted glorious voices and invited the audience to belt out the chorus on ranchera anthems 'Cielito Lindo' and 'Volver.' I'm still singing.
John W. Barker
The city's decision to pass over longtime local arts adminstrator Michael Goldberg as the Overture Center's next director stained 2006's memory. Otherwise, it was another strong year on Madison's classical scene.
The major organizations flourished, generally successful in the tricky business of guest soloists. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra made a wonderful start with the dazzling young cellist Alisa Weilerstein ripping through Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. In April, it offered the venerable Philippe Entremont in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. And for the fall opener Garrick Ohlsson beautifully delineated two Mozart piano concertos in an all-Amadeus program. Along the way, maestro Andrew Sewell fleshed out programs with gems by Haydn, Gounod, Debussy and Elgar.
There were also some notable soloists for the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Overture Hall's resident organist, Samuel Hutchison, flexed his Klais for the Poulenc Organ Concerto (January). The beloved Vladimir Spivakov returned (March) as soloist in Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. Stephen Hough was magisterial in Saint-SaÃns' Fourth Piano Concerto (May). Horacio GutiÃrrez made a sensitive case for Chopin's First Piano Concerto (September), and Edgar Meyer showed what a double bass could do as a solo instrument (October). More celebrity than substance, however, marked Denyce Graves' singing of Ravel and Danielpour (November).
MSO music director John DeMain enterprisingly chose some unjustly underplayed works by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, along with popular classics by Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich. DeMain's all-Bernstein program (February) was more an act of homage than a consistent package; but his all-Mozart concert with chorus (April) matched honor with glory. Down to the moment, the orchestra has never sounded better.
The Madison Opera again justified its national-rank reputation. In the spring, an unevenly staged but splendidly sung Magic Flute showed Nicole Cabell and Megan Monaghan eclipsing celebrity Sumi Jo in the soprano roles. And in November, we were given a well-nigh ideal Rigoletto, with Monaghan back as Gilda and the up-and-coming tenor Stephen Costello a dazzling Duke.
Opera was noteworthy amid the innumerable offerings on the university campus. The UW Opera scored with a professional-level Marriage of Figaro (March), while its October concert performance of Ravel's 'L'enfant et les sortilÃges' brought off this gossamer work vividly even without staging. In between, Karlos Moser, retired founder-director of the opera program, joined by former students, showcased some of his own compositions.
Chamber music is more than ever an important part of Madison's musical life. The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society continued its spunky and sometimes provocative offerings, now in more programs and shifted to June. The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival pressed on with its varied fare, this year with a local premiere by director John Harbison. The Ancora String Quartet, developing in the last few years, revealed its growing maturity in a September program of Haydn, Brahms and Ravel. Of the two period-instrument groups, the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble continues its high-quality chamber programs, while Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians maintain their devotion mainly to the master's cantatas and concertos.
As summer activities continue to grow, the Madison Early Music Festival was notably successful with its 2006 theme of Renaissance Spanish music; while the Madison Savoyards offered the Gilbert and Sullivan Patience in a handsomely sung and beautifully staged production.
It was a challenge to squeeze through the good-natured crowd of first-nighters recently when three major holiday attractions opened at the Overture Center. So many sequined jackets, honest Lands' End sweaters and wide-eyed moppets in velvet, all on their way to the Capitol Theater (CTM's A Christmas Carol), Overture Hall (the Madison Symphony's Christmas Spectacular) or Playhouse (the Rep's Bad Dates). As a snapshot of the state of the arts in Madison, it was a rosy picture.
Standouts of the 2006 season included newcomer Four Seasons Theatre's extraordinary production of Sweeney Todd at the Wisconsin Union Theater with Rick Henslin and Lori Poulson in title roles. It was a short run that left me eager for more. University Theatre's The Beckett Project was a haunting, enigmatic set of four remarkable one-act plays by Samuel Beckett. Strollers Theatre's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme was a bitter, spectral drama by Frank McGuinness about the endless repetition of war. Strollers' decision to run this play on the third anniversary of our invasion of Iraq was no accident. Paul Milisch was particularly fine.
Devoted Jane Austen fans cheered when University Theatre presented an affectionately faithful production of Pride and Prejudice. L. Joe Dahl was perfection as Mr. Collins. Madison Theatre Guild cast Christopher Karbo in its engaging production of The Fantasticks. Karbo's a returning Madison native with great stage presence and a pleasing baritone.
CTM Madison Family Theatre Company returned with a satisfying, traditional adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Dickens' chestnut. The company hadn't been seen since Stuart Little, where Shannon Becker and Lee Waldhart's imaginative set successfully shifted the beloved children's book to the stage.
I hope you saw it: 'Miss Annie Mae's Hats: Church Hats From the Black Community,' an exhibition from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters that lit up Overture's James Watrous Gallery with a stunning collection of gorgeous, flamboyant hats worn to church by Annie Mae McClain. A show that made you forget it was winter outdoors.
A long talk with Anne Katz, energetic director of Arts Wisconsin, made me aware that arts organizations depend on more than ticket sales. Other lifelines include federal, state and local grants, plus donor generosity. Wisconsin's funding for the arts ranked 44th in the nation last year. Arrrgh! No word yet on our ranking this year, but Katz is optimistic (as always) about arts support from Gov. Jim Doyle and Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton.
2006 was a year of affirming identities for Madison theater companies. Local troupes turned out a theatrical season that reflected their respective strengths, objectives and inclinations.
At Broom Street Theater, the combination of old hands and first-time writers, directors and performers gave the year's productions a balance of energy and consistency. BST really hit its stride in September with the debut of writer-director Doug Reed's Just Sit Right Back and You'll Hear a Tale, a witty confusion of American myths and classic TV. Wrapping up with the ecstatic mayhem of Broom Street pillar Brian Wild's A Very Bitchy Christmas, BST's year went out with a bang. And keep filling those pre-show collection baskets, Broom Street supporters: According to inside sources, the troupe may be replacing its spine-deforming benches in the near future!
Mercury Players Theatre continued to carve its own avant-garde niche by showcasing dramatic power rather than broad comedy. While the company also delivered moments of razor-sharp humor (as seen in portions of May's Mercury Rising), it was a darker, more intense current that made Mercury's 2006 memorable. February's Never the Sinner featured some of the strongest performances to be seen in Madison all year. As the infamous killers Leopold and Loeb and defense attorney Clarence Darrow, respectively, Steven Van Haren, R. Peter Hunt and Carl Cawthorne formed an electrifying triad.
Leaning more toward the classic than the cutting edge, Strollers Theatre presented a year of time-tested favorites and modern standards. The September production of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia showed the company at the peak of its lighthearted comic powers, while this winter's reimagined Richard III was pulled off with dramatic prowess and panache. With beautiful cohesion of design and direction, Strollers' Richard ensured that this would not be a winter of discontent for Madison theatergoers.
It's too easy for me to stay home in front of my television with shows ranging from the impeccable ('The Wire') to the despicable ('My Super Sweet 16'). But I left the house more often this year to take in theater from flashy Broadway musicals at the Overture Center to smaller, more challenging productions at the cozy Bartell Theatre.
The polished casts from the national touring companies of Hairspray and Aida didn't disappoint in Overture Hall. But while Hairspray's intentionally campy romp was fun, Aida's accidental campiness was not.
I was smitten with West High School's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technical Dreamcoat, with witty direction and choreography from West alum turned faculty member Holly Walker. Aman Alem was a star with charisma, talent and good looks.
I couldn't wait to see Bob Newhart at the Overture Center, but I left feeling a bit disappointed that there weren't more laughs. On the other hand, Lisa Lampanelli's foul and nasty show at the Barrymore Theatre had no shortage of laughs (groans and cringes too). With Newhart I was embarrassed for not laughing more and with Lampanelli for laughing as much as I did.
Speaking of funny, StageQ's sex farce Dutch Love was chockablock with laughs, especially when Tim Spires was on stage delivering his lines with perfect timing and just a dash of venom.
University Theatre presented the bawdy Restoration comedy The Rover, which showcased the appealing and mature-beyond-their-years undergrads Liz Holtan and Peter Bissen. Their chemistry helped me get through the lengthy running time.
The young actresses playing campers in StageQ's Ugly Ducklings were the antithesis of hammy child performers with their natural turns in this drama exploring homophobia at a summer camp. Encore Studio for the Performing Arts gave us five one-act plays in Acts to Grind, and I was wowed by actresses Christie Stadele and Connie Alsum.
I dare you to take a break from your own television in 2007 to check out Madison's surprisingly good arts events.