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In 2008, Madison's arts scene was, thanks to the crashing economy, in trouble.
In 2009, the bottom fell out.
Madison Repertory Theatre folded. There were layoffs at Overture Center. Madison Ballet canceled its 2008-2009 season. And the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra musicians' strike ground agonizingly on.
But there were some very bright spots in the performing calendar, as you'll read. And brighter days may well be ahead.
Meanwhile, it was a truly memorable year in Madison letters. UW creative writing professor Lorrie Moore emerged with the novel A Gate at the Stairs, her first book of new material in 11 years, to generally adoring national reviews. Local novelist Michelle Wildgen's book But Not For Long received good notices in The New York Times and elsewhere, children's author/illustrator Kevin Henkes got some very kind ink in The New Yorker, novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard came out with the novel No Time to Wave Goodbye (a sequel to her smash The Deep End of the Ocean), and UW biologist Sean Carroll's Remarkable Creatures was a National Book Award finalist. And last but not least, the University of Wisconsin Press continued its distinguished work with important new books by Lev Raphael, Matthew Rothschild, Dwight Allen, Agate Nesaule and others.
Here's the rest of the year that was.
In the first year-end roundup I wrote for Isthmus, all of my "bests" were imported acts. Madison's cultural adulthood, I thought, would come when local groups gained equal footing. I'm not sure we're there yet, though I gave homegrowns and big-burg productions equal ink once, in '03 - and in the midst of 2009's commercial turmoil, we've hit the mark again.
The Afro-Cuban All Stars, blasting past the political gap between Cuba and el Yuma, brought aché to Overture Center. Dr. John plus the Neville Brothers put their spell on our lazy bones at Overture's Mardi Gras bash.
Two repeats topped the Wisconsin Union Theater's World Stage. Kepa Junkera and his breathtaking Basque trikitixa technique ran away with the Madison World Music Festival. Dobet Gnahore ascended to Afropop's acme at her punchy, politically savvy show.
I was skeptical about Jane Monheit, a wannabe just a few years back. But her show turned out to be the standout in 2009's three-event Isthmus Jazz Series at the Union Theater. Monheit sang a tune I requested - Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" - and stole my admiration with her supple swing.
Imported dance offerings were notoriously thin. Step Afrika (Overture's Capitol Theater), a D.C.-based troupe dedicated to stepping, an African American Greek tradition, came close to my top cut for that tap solo toward the end. But Madison's own Kojo Drill Team, the opening act, deserves equal emphasis for its sublimely soulful, stripped-down show.
Among homies who beat the pants off most big-ticket affairs this year, Tony Castañeda and his Latin jazz group take the cake. Castañeda's sizzling Sunday night gigs at the beautifully refurbished Cardinal Bar bring Mad City nightlife to a radically new level. And take a bow, Ricardo Gonzalez, for bringing our beloved Cardinal back.
Finally, two local dance outfits turned in prime performances. Women Dancing, presented by Madison dancer/choreographer Li Chiao Ping in the Union Theater, was a postmodern milepost. Li, a consummate performer, finessed seven edgy solos made for her by a diverse set of artistic sisters.
Equally important was Madison Ballet's Evening of Romance, a casualty of last winter's economic collapse. The Valentine's Day performance, slated for Overture's Capitol Theater, didn't go on, but a small studio showing moved the audience to tears. Artistic director W. Earle Smith set three superb, Balanchiney suites on his small new professional company, just past its second Nutcracker. The program was danced to near perfection, though "Expressions," to a set by Madison jazz diva Jan Wheaton, merits special mention. Bryan Cunningham's spontaneous duet with Smith to "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and Jennifer Tierney's pitch-perfect "One Note Samba" are what ballet's all about. If you've never seen Smith's repertory works, mark your calendar now for Valentine's, 2011, when this show runs for real.
Some of my favorite performances this year were the result of partnerships - either on stage or behind the scenes.
University of Wisconsin graduate student Pete Rydberg teamed up with John-Stuart Fauquet to bring the quirky Revolt of the Beavers to University Theatre. Busy Rydberg also directed the taut and suspenseful Vin at Mercury Players Theatre's MercLab and forged a strong connection to Australian playwright Stephen House's work.
In Splash, the UW Dance Program's fall faculty concert, the faculty choreographers held their own on the bill with acclaimed New York choreographer Susan Marshall. I was satisfied by the evening of good dancing from the students, particularly Carlyn Pitterle and Mary Patterson, who were often paired and elevated each piece they were in.
I gave a mixed review to Madison Theatre Guild's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I was impressed by the relationship that developed between Joe Getty as Chief Bromden and Kamal Marayati as McMurphy.
Broom Street Theater's folk musical Minglewood Blues made me a little crazy, because it was a great idea bogged down by its length and scope. But it had several wonderful moments, including one of the sweetest and most tender scenes I saw this year. Frankie, played by Kay Dixon, was courted by her suitor Albert (Brendan Hartmann), and the only line she said over and over was "no, sir" - but we saw a range of emotions as an unwanted flirtation developed into mutual interest.
Remembering the shows of summer after a stint removing snow from my roof is almost cruel, but those warmer months brought such fun. University Theatre's Dames at Sea was kicky and fast-paced, and while the small cast was uniformly good, Meghan Deese as Ruby and Andy Talen as Dick stood out. The construction on Highway 14 almost prevented me from taking in American Players Theatre's The Winter's Tale, but somehow I got to Shakespeare's play in time to witness the searing chemistry of David Daniel as jealous King Leontes and Colleen Madden as his lovely queen Hermione.
My favorite production of the year was The Comedy of Errors, done by APT as a madcap 1940's screwball comedy (kudos to clever director William Brown). I loved this show and its stars and told anyone who would listen to see it. When my parents took my daughter, she said, "I didn't understand it all, but the fart jokes were funny." Indeed they were, especially with the hilarious Steve Haggard camping it up with Darragh Kennan and brothers Marcus and Andy Truschinski.
My reaction to the year in theater is ambivalent, but there were some interesting moments.
The bookends of my year were shows about love produced by two of Madison's institutions of higher education: Madison Area Technical College's production of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change in January and November's Blood Wedding by University Theatre. I Love You was funny and bright and boasted a cast that really knew how to sing - the musical numbers were the best part of the show. Ricci Fisher's powerful voice reached the rafters and wowed the crowd. Blood Wedding was riveting, capturing the poetry of García Lorca perfectly onstage. Santiago Sosa's Leonardo was especially memorable - menacing and sexy at the same time.
The most surreal shows of 2009 could be found at tiny Broom Street Theater. The folks at Broom Street are as full of heart as they are of wackiness, and September's Tales from the Dork Side was a prime example of their experimental approach: Conjoined twins and evil clowns thoroughly creeped me out. February's A Wake was a little more normal - for Broom Street, that is - but it too left me with some images that I just can't shake. A character with a rack of deer antlers permanently embedded in her chest? You can imagine the jokes about that one.
Offerings by Children's Theater of Madison delighted young audiences, if not always grownups. Little Women, a collaboration with Four Seasons Theatre, struggled to overcome a bad script and sappy songs. Still, the talented young actors who sang and danced as fairy-tale characters culled from Jo's stories were exceptional. The younger members of December's A Christmas Carol were equally charming, and American Players Theatre's James Ridge made a great Scrooge.
My favorite moment came in February. Madison Theatre Guild's Proof was full of precise and focused performances. I can still see Stuart Brooks, as Robert, shivering and scribbling at a picnic table - mental illness encroaching quickly on his genius. Proof shone as an example of what a great director can do with a talented team of actors and set a high standard for the rest of my year.
Jennifer A. Smith
Although the shuttering of Madison Repertory Theatre in the midst of its 40th anniversary season was dire news, there were still some bright spots in the theater scene. American Players Theatre successfully christened its second stage, the indoor, 200-seat Touchstone Theatre, and new companies were founded in Madison, most notably Forward Theater Company and the Bricks Theatre. Beginning Dec. 30, Forward will stage one of the first productions outside New York of playwright Christopher Durang's latest work, the acclaimed (and oddly named) Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.
American Players Theatre maintained its high artistic standards and held its own financially in a bleak climate. Harold Pinter's Old Times, in the indoor theater, was a welcome introduction to a new side of APT: leaner, edgier and more modern. More, please.
Up the hill, on APT's main stage, I felt a renewed appreciation for core company actor Tracy Michelle Arnold. Her role as Judith Bliss in Noël Coward's Hay Fever was a comic gem. She, along with the talented Jonathan Smoots and Carey Cannon, was also part of the three-member cast of Old Times.
University Theatre staged a steampunk version of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid that boasted a new translation by UW grad student Arrie Callahan. The show successfully took risks and managed to make 17th-century French theater accessible for a range of audiences. UT also delighted us with an avant-garde children's play, Falling Girls. With a jungle-gym-like set, on-stage percussion and fluid, dancelike movement, this Dutch play hooked me as much as it did the tots in the audience.
StageQ produced some excellent shows: Vamp (a co-production with Mercury Players) and The Stops. I enjoyed Bruce Wheeler in both (as a bathrobe-wearing Jesus and Southern bleach-blond, respectively), as well as a host of other local performers: Molly Vanderlin, Katy Conley and Kristin Forde of Vamp, and fellow Stops "gals" Bob Moore and Scott Albert Bennett.
Straddling the line between theater, dance and acrobatics was Cycropia Aerial Dance's performance at the Orton Park Festival. Sitting outside in a chilly drizzle was a small price to pay for something so magical.
In the realm of visual art, I loved the clever thematic approach of "Something Wicked This Way Comes," the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's show about evil in various guises. Elsewhere in the Overture Center, the James Watrous Gallery (part of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters) kept up its fine work with "High Honors," an outstanding show by artists who had won 2008 visual art fellowships from our state Arts Board. The show featured exceptional Wisconsin artists like Jim Rose, Natalie Settles, Charles Munch, Beth Lipman and others.
I also enjoyed the Watrous Gallery's exhibition of work by children's book illustrators like Kevin Henkes, Renee Graef and Lois Ehlert. It was more than just fun and colorful; it illuminated the art-making process through preliminary sketches and other ancillary materials displayed with the finished illustrations.
While the Chazen Museum of Art's big show of underground comix wasn't quite my scene, man, I liked the museum's small exhibition of mezzotints, one of my favorite types of prints. The Chazen also ended the year on a strong note with an exhibition by Nicola López, focusing mostly on her large, mixed-media prints. López's show, "Urban Transformations," shows modern life as both thrilling and disturbing. Don't miss it, along with a show of Jim Gill's portraits of Wisconsin Vietnam vets; both remain up through Jan. 3.
John W. Barker
First off, I consider last April's period-style performance of Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion the highpoint of the classical music scene in 2009, a wonderful achievement for Trevor Stephenson and his Madison Bach Musicians. Second, the regular recitals given at Farley's House of Pianos are secret treasures of our musical life.
John DeMain led the Madison Symphony Orchestra in memorable performances: an all-Beethoven bash in February, Verdi's monumental "Requiem," and powerful renditions of such symphonic staples as Brahms' Second, Mahler's First, and Tchaikovsky's Fifth (in a program that included Respighi's gorgeous "Fountains of Rome"). The soloist roster was uneven: two admirable violinists (Henning Kraggerud, Julian Rachlin) but one clunker (Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg); a superb cellist (Ralph Kirschbaum), and two notable pianists (André Watts, Peter Serkin).
Soloists were only one problem for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Plagued by contract disputes, it managed a season finale in April and returned securely by autumn. Music director Andrew Sewell again showed flair for Haydn and Mozart symphonies, while polishing lovely novelties by Respighi and Stravinsky. Soloists included two young, thoughtful ones (pianist Pavaali Jumpannen, violinist Augustin Hadelich), then only celebrity glitz with flutist James Galway. The real solo find, however, was a dazzling local pianist, teenager Christina Naughton, in the Concerts on the Square opener - a promising talent to bring back!
Madison Opera concentrated on French blockbusters. Its Faust of Gounod had muddled staging values, while Bizet's Carmen worked more effectively; both were handsomely sung. But the real accomplishment was the modestly scaled Così fan tutte by Mozart, excellently sung and cleverly staged.
Even beyond the UW School of Music's steady flow of offerings, plus the Wisconsin Union Theater concert series, Madison's musical life continues to be rich, helped by many smaller companies and programs, especially in chamber music. Going from strength to strength, the Ancora Quartet gave three fine concerts this year. There was the annual set of June concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, its theme this year built around music of Haydn. At summer's end there is always John Harbison's Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, where I particularly relished a return visit by pianist Robert Levin, playing Mozart.
Between those, we had two contrasting but well-established July traditions. The Madison Savoyards offered another professional-level Gilbert-and-Sullivan production, this year of The Yeomen of the Guard. And the Madison Early Music Festival ran a lively week, focusing on the age of Galileo.
Meanwhile, for year-round period performance, there were the plucky Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble concerts.
Bruce G. Bradley
Subject, like everyone else, to the vagaries of the economic times, local theaters struggled in 2009 to keep their heads above water, but some strong swimmers emerged from the deluge.
The biggest headline was the demise of Madison Repertory Theatre. The Rep had been floundering for quite awhile thanks to a series of financial and artistic missteps; the end, though regrettable, was inevitable for the city's only professional company. The scramble to fill that empty spot at Overture Center brought a few pretenders out of the woodwork, but the laurels went to Forward Theater Company, whose inaugural show -- an old-time radio production of All About Eve -- immediately caused a stir. Dedicated to professional theater and with an intriguing lineup of edgy plays in its season, Forward promises to live up to its home state's namesake motto.
Another company that made a splash in 2009 was the Bricks Theatre, founded by Madison stage regulars with a decidedly irregular approach. Saying that it will be "performing at a bar or coffee shop near you," the company eschews traditional stages and prefers to take its productions to less conventional venues. Bricks is one of several new ventures that seek to expand the horizons of our exuberant local scene. OUT!Cast Theatre caters largely to the younger LGBT audience; Kathie Rasmussen Women's Theatre, founded in 2008, produces plays written and directed by women; and Kojo Productions was formed specifically to express an African American viewpoint on overlooked subjects in our nation's history, as in its much-lauded production of Buffalo Soldiers.
We should be grateful that many of our stalwarts are still plugging away, determined to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune 500 dysfunction. StageQ, Mercury Players, Broom Street Theatre, CTM, Strollers, Four Seasons Theatre and many more continue to provide us with top-quality productions on an almost daily basis. With a tremendous pool of talented actors and technicians in our midst (if only the same could be said of directors!), there's no shortage of reasons to celebrate Madison's theatrical status. Forward!