Who are we, seven years into the 21st century? Is Madison still Dairyland's cultural core, or has our level of sophistication risen with population growth and the crime rate? Ticket sales at the city's two main performing arts venues this year should contain clues to our current identity.
The 88-year-old Wisconsin Union Theater's an art-deco bastion of deep, edgy art. But can the cultural arm of the university, long reliant on institutional support, maintain its intellectual stance in this sound-bite, megacorp era? The Overture Center's fourth season - "Overture Presents," as distinct from its local resident troupes - follows the trend set from day one, financing a handful of wilder works with profits from more popular programming. Will this strategy still succeed?
The answers depend on you. Here's my biased assessment of the Overture and Union Theater seasons. Pick your own tickets, and remember what my grandma used to say - there's no disputing over taste.
It's Overture's first full year under new president Tom Carto, who says about one-third of this season's programming is left over from the former administration. Not a lot has changed. Overture's still presenting stuff I call schlock, like the Nylons (March 21, Capitol Theater), Four Bitchin' Babes (April 5, Overture Hall) and the Glenn Miller Orchestra (Oct. 11, Overture Hall).
"We do these shows for a reason," says communications director Jonathan Zarov. "A lot of folks still want to see them, so it makes financial sense to bring them back. But we know some people are annoyed with us over these acts, so we've grouped 'em as 'Favorites,' on a single page."
Like "Favorites," warmed-over Broadway touring shows are cash cows in an old cow town - hence dry old cuds like Gypsy (Sept. 22-23, Overture Hall) and Annie (Nov. 1-3, Overture Hall). But Monty Python's Spamalot (May 13-18, Overture Hall), directed by Mike Nichols and winner of the '05 Tony for Best Musical, should be a hoot. The other newish production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (April 18-20, Overture Hall), which also just copped a Tony, looks fluffy, but it's getting lots of buzz.
The Wisconsin Union Theater offers only two choices in the drama department, both heady. There's American Players Theatre's Merchant of Venice (Nov. 3), for an indoor wintertime treat. Olympia Dukakis' sharp-as-hell one-woman show, Rose (Feb. 2), the story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor in New York, should appeal to my ancestral sistas and to shiksas, too.
When it comes to classical music, both theaters picked hip younger players over revered elders. This year, the Overture Center leaves most of its classical music programming to its residents (Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Madison Opera and Madison Ballet). The sole exception's an interesting choice, the 5 Browns (April 4, Overture Hall), a handful of Juilliard-trained 20-something sibs playing Steinways simultaneously.
Under Ralph Russo's savvy direction, the Wisconsin Union Theater's hallowed classical concert series - it's as old as the theater - is thriving. Russo aims to plug younger audiences in without losing the series' long-term supporters. For the veteran audience, the Academy of Ancient Music (Feb. 8) plays Handel and Bach on period instruments. Making Madison debuts are harp superstar Yolanda Kondonassis with the sexy Rossetti String Quartet (Dec. 8), 27-year-old violinist Hillary Hahn with Ukrainian piano starlet Valentina Lisitsa (Nov. 4) and alt/classical pianist Christopher O'Riley (March 8), who plays loud and flashy like Vladimir Horowitz, ranging eclectically from Rachmaninoff to Radiohead.
Striking a different chord in the classical series this year, Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall (Oct. 10) play bass and mandolin with classical artistry and world/bluegrass inflections. The Anonymous Four (April 10) serve up American gloryland classical folk.
If you love piano, or want to learn how to listen to classical music, you'll enjoy Jeffrey Siegel's reliable Keyboard Conversations in UW Mills Hall (Sept. 25, Dec. 11, Jan. 29, May 6).
The Overture Center lists six dance concerts this season, to Wisconsin Union Theater's two. From Overture's set I'm looking forward to Momix (Oct. 13, Overture Hall). The troupe's recent works, like Opus Cactus, performed here in '04, are on the cirque-y side of dance, but this time we're getting a "Best Of" show featuring some of artistic director Moses Pendelton's foxiest early pieces.
One of Carto's favorites, Cirque-Work's Birdhouse Factory (Jan. 30-31, Overture Hall), is a dance-tainment version of Momix. I can usually do without this kind of show, but any work that's inspired by Diego Rivera, Rube Goldberg and Charlie Chaplin, as Cirque-Work's website puts it, piques my fancy.
I'm tired of Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance (May 1, Overture Hall) and touring Russian ballet troupes, eternally on Overture's bill. I might skip Hubbard this time, but this town's been pretty dry when it comes to ballet. The St. Petersburg Ballet (Jan. 22, Overture Hall), yet another toured-out Russian pickup company (interestingly, they're doing Romeo and Juliet), gets my bucks in the end, for the possible thrill of finding a beautifully trained dancer or two in the package.
I'm excited to see Madison-based Ballet Folklorico Mexico de los Hermanos Avila (Feb. 16, Capitol Theater) as the ticketed kickoff to Overture's community-based International Festival (Feb. 16, free). The Avila company tours a lot, rarely performing at home. But it's a city gem, as good as any similarly named folk dance troupe from el D.F.
For a good dance gamble try Decadance (Feb. 14, Capitol Theater), which looks like a creative, socially conscious, all b-girl answer to Rennie Harris' Puremovement.
The Wisconsin Union Theater plunges into flashy waters with Tango Fire (Jan. 29), WUT communications manager and tanguera Esty Dinur's hot pick. Directed by Buenos Aires ballerina Carolina Soler, this company features tango house pros and spectacularly stylish choreography set to classics by Argentina's great tango composers.
The Union Theater's been courting contemporary ballet, bringing in Alonzo King's LINES Ballet two years ago. New York's Complexions (March 2) is on this year's bill. Directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, Alvin Ailey's star alums, set utterly contemporary post-Balanchine dances on a rainbow company of very fine dancers.
For kids, check out Overture's great-looking variety of age-appropriate events. Dying to be Thin (Nov. 5, Capitol Theater), an edgy play about bulimia by the Roseneath Theater Company of Ontario, should be shared by moms and teens. Dan Zanes (May 2, Overture Hall), of '80s indie alt/rock band the Del Fuegos, does cool tunes for tots.
In the broad realm of Overture's nonclassical, non-"favorites" musical productions, I'd rather have Elvis impersonators than Rain: The Beatles Experience (March 1, Overture Hall), "respectfully attempting to replicate a subset of the Beatles' music." But I can definitely dig the joyful appeal of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (Feb. 27, Overture Hall) or Bonerama (March 28, Capitol Theater), N.O. brass funk-rock.
Two additional sensible suggestions: the Solid Blues tour (Oct. 31, Overture Hall) with Chicago gospel queen Mavis Staples and Delta bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, and Sones de México (Nov. 30, Capitol Theater), a Chicago ensemble that mixes mostly traditional son from across Mexico with occasional departures into Bach, Led Zeppelin and Woody Guthrie.
If you like inventive drumming and cirque-y sets, Scrap Arts Music (Nov. 7, Capitol Theater), another Carto pick, looks like a spunky show. The company plays global beats on sculptures made from recycled materials.
For edgier options, Overture presents pop-tech performance queen Laurie Anderson (April 14, Overture Hall) with her latest work, Homeland, an acid take on post-Sept. 11 spying and security. And the Union Theater's got progressive folk rocker Andrew Bird (Sept. 20), a Windy City boy with Dadaesque sensibilities who writes and sings Dylanish songs about plane crashes and falling empires, accompanying himself on violin, guitar and glockenspiel.
The Union Theater's Isthmus Jazz Series brings two of the fastest-rising stars in American jazz: singer Gretchen Parlato and bassist Esperanza Spalding (Feb. 15), who honed their chops independently under the mentorship of luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Joe Lovano. This duo sizzles. So does legendary bebop/postbop drummer Roy Haynes (June 7), who headlines the Isthmus Jazz Festival.
Latin jazz is big again this year. Two of the world's leading expat Cuban hornmen, both original members of Chucho Valdés' breakaway Havana band Irakere in the '70s, bookend the holiday season. On pre-turkey Saturday (Nov. 17), the Union Theater's got Cubop's very swingin' heir Paquito D'Rivera and his quintet. Arturo Sandoval and his Mambo Mania Big Band play Overture Hall on New Year's weekend (Dec. 29).
Percussion freaks will go for Global Drum Project (Oct. 26, Overture Hall). But the real world-beat feast is at the Wisconsin Union Theater, with its cutting-edge World Music series and the Madison World Music Festival (see sidebar). This year's World Music whoppers are Senegalese mbalax master Youssou N'Dour (Dec. 6); Hugh Masekela (Jan. 31), the high priest of funky post-bop township jive; and Chicana-Mixteca alt/ranchera queen Lila Downs (April 11). Also on tap are two rising stars: Idan Raichel (Nov. 7), with his radically multicultural Israeli band, and Anoushka Shankar (Oct. 5), Ravi's daughter, hitting her own stride with musicians from her '05 Rise album.
Okay, I'm out of space. This overview isn't inclusive - see the websites for the Overture Center and Wisconsin Union Theater for the full list. Then exercise your right to vote on Mad City's cultural identity by buying the tickets you like.
There's no excuse not to go. Both theaters have great package deals for students. Overture, responding to its undeserved hoity-toity image, added a new low-price ticket tier this year. Both institutions offer free events galore. And the range of shows this season should satisfy anyone's taste.