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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Light Rain
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What's cooking at Overture Center and Wisconsin Union Theater in their 2013-14 seasons
A smorgasbord of culture
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Changes are afoot for the 2013-14 season at Overture Center and Wisconsin Union Theater. Tim Sauers, Overture's new vice president of programming, has tweaked the venue's booking recipe by shifting the focus away from Broadway blockbusters to accommodate more new and exciting work. And renovations continue at WUT, forcing music and theater events to relocate to other UW buildings through September 2014. Despite this challenge, it has also filled its calendar with tantalizing events.

Fresh Overture offerings

Overture's upcoming season will have 30 or so performances of touring Broadway shows, about half as many as in seasons past. But these productions will be big-budget affairs that have drawn crowds year after year, in cities across the country: Chicago (Oct. 1-6), Sister Act (Jan. 14-19), Flashdance the Musical (Feb. 25-March 2), Million Dollar Quartet (May 13-18) and the nonmusical War Horse (June 10-15). All of these shows are new to Madison except for Chicago, which visited town in 1999.

Broadway tunes can also be found in Midtown Men (Oct. 12), a performance featuring four stars from the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys, and in Overture's cabaret series, which will bring in celebrated vocalists like Gregg Edelman (April 3) and Spider Saloff (May 8). You can even show off your own pipes at Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music (Jan. 4).

So which new shows are most likely to make audiences come on down to Overture? The Price Is Right Live! (Oct. 22) seems like a shoo-in. The enduring game show heads to Overture for an extravaganza of game-playing and wheel-spinning that includes an announcer, a host and the opportunity for audience members to win cash and other prizes.

With my love of blues music and all things macabre, I'm really looking forward to The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (Oct. 25), a musical collaboration between author Stephen King and musicians John Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett. Thirteen years in the making, this work is based on a ghost story Mellencamp told King about two brothers fatefully in love with the same girl. You can practically smell the Southern gothic already.

Theatergoers who enjoyed last season's Spank, a Fifty Shades of Grey parody are bound to gobble up tickets to The Hungry, Hungry Games (Nov. 1-2), an unauthorized Hunger Games parody created by the same company. Those seeking extra credit should check out Potted Potter (Oct. 18-20), a Harry Potter spoof that condenses all seven Potter books to a mere 70 minutes. Further magic: Two actors play all the roles, from Draco to Dobby. That's a lot of costume changes. The production is suitable for children ages 12 and older, and the grownups who loved the books.

If the King's your thing, you'll want to check out Elvis Lives (Jan. 10). Billed as the "ultimate Elvis tribute artist event," it uses three Elvis impersonators to tackle every epoch of the King's career, from the movie era to the concert age. The show employs a live band and background singers for a real rock 'n' roll feel. There's even an Ann-Margret "tribute artist" to further enhance the experience. Viva Las Vegas!

Speaking of Las Vegas, TAO: Phoenix Rising (March 12) blends the excitement and visual spectacle of the Strip with the mind-numbing throb of Stomp, with moves more akin to martial arts than dance. TAO is a Japanese performance troupe that originated in Aichi Prefecture in 1993. Using traditional Japanese instruments such as Taiko drums and a group of musicians trained as endurance athletes, the ensemble delivers a powerful experience that's almost shamanistic in nature.

Overture will also offer a set of dance-oriented performances in 2013-14. There are programs featuring the daring modern choreography of STREB: Forces (April 16), the technique of Complexions Contemporary Ballet (Feb. 19) and the Irish sean-nÃs dancing of Atlantic Steps (March 21).

Other visitors with energy to spare include Golden Dragon Acrobats (April 18); illusionist Mike Super (Sept. 20); Gary Mullen, the Freddie Mercury impersonator of One Night of Queen (March 22); and the motley crew of performers at a live taping of Tent Show Radio Live! (May 10), a big-top-style variety show featuring author-musician Michael Perry and the Blue Canvas Orchestra.

Overture's ongoing family series showcases works appropriate for the under-12 set. Presentations include Dinosaur Train Live! (Nov. 17), the one-man silent comedy Snowflake (Jan. 11) and an adaptation of Eric Carle's beloved children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Feb. 15). World music concerts by the African Children's Choir (Dec. 3), fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy (Nov. 5), Cuban jazz and son performers Tiempo Libre (Oct. 3) and youthful ukulele dynamo Jake Shimabukuro (Nov. 8) make good outings for music fans of all ages. Performed by members of the Jim Henson Company, Puppet Up! Uncensored (March 16) sounds a bit like a kid-friendly event, but it's actually an evening of Muppet-inspired improv that explores some very adult themes.

I always look forward to Overture's featured speakers and comedians, and this season's lineup is no exception. It includes two of my favorite people on the planet, comedian and "D-List actress" Kathy Griffin (Sept. 14) and New York Times bestselling writer and wit extraordinaire David Sedaris (Nov. 4), who'll visit just in time for my birthday. (This is a massive hint to friends and family.)

Overture's 2013-14 programming also includes screenings of classic black-and-white films like The Mark of Zorro (March 1) and multidisciplinary science and nature programs like Exploring Mars: Rovers of the Red Planet (April 29), which features NASA engineer Kobie Boykins.

As a bonus, proceeds from some of the season's larger productions help pay for Overture's student tickets and kid-focused programs like Kids in the Rotunda, a series of free performances by local and regional musicians, magicians, jugglers and more.

Wisconsin Union Theater's menu

In addition to renovating Wisconsin Union Theater itself, the UW is changing its approach to ticketing this season. Showgoers who purchase tickets in advance will pay less than those who wait until the last minute to book their seats. You really shouldn't dally given the popularity of some of the acts on this season's roster. WUT shows often sell out quickly.

A WUT classic, the Madison World Music Festival (Sept. 19-21), celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2013. The event began as an extension of the well-established Chicago and Lotus world music festivals, aiming to bring little-known artists to town and expose locals to emerging genres. Some must-sees at this year's fest include Baladino, an Israeli Mediterranean folk band that performs in Ladino, one of three Jewish languages, and blends sounds common to flamenco and klezmer; DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian "ethnic chaos" band; and Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato. (Celtic music is indigenous to countries besides Ireland. The Spanish version is called gaita.) The fest ends with a free show by Red Baraat, an Indian marching band that blends jazz, go-go and funk. This type of music is common at Indian weddings, where the bride and groom often march in with a band.

Aoife O'Donovan (Oct. 18) is a rising star of world folk music. She was invited to play at Yo-Yo Ma's Goat Rodeo sessions, where Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile pulled together preformers they considered to be at the top of their game. That's a pretty heady endorsement. At least one song from the sessions, "Here and Heaven," is credited to O'Donovan herself.

Rachel Barton Pine (Nov. 2) was a child violin prodigy whose career was quite literally derailed in 1995, when her violin got caught in the closing doors of a Chicago Metra train. She was dragged and run over by the train, gravely injuring both legs. After a two-year hiatus, Pine resumed her career. Now she's back at the height of her powers. She'll perform Baroque and medieval music with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

This season, WUT hoped to schedule a Malian musician. Unfortunately, musicians in Mali are not allowed to perform indigenous music due to the Islamic revolution. That's just one reason WUT was thrilled to find one of the country's best performers, Bassekou Kouyate (Jan. 24), an expert in a small stringed instrument called the ngoni. Kouyate will perform traditional and modern Malian tunes with a backing band.

Every year since Hurricane Katrina, WUT has brought a band from Louisiana to thrill Madison with a bit of the South. This year's selection, the Rebirth Brass Band (March 13), comes from New Orleans. Their style is jazzy and funky, and it promises a lot of dancing. It even includes some hip-hop.

Marco Calliari (April 3) is not your nonna's Italian musician. He's a Canadian heavy-metal singer that discovered his roots and branched off into Italian music while retaining a hard edge.

Brian Lynch (May 1) has performed locally with various Latin jazz bands. This season he'll be a guest soloist in a concert with the UW Jazz Orchestra. Johannes Wallmann, the new-ish director of the UW's jazz studies program, will conduct. Jazz fans should also be sure to catch Afro-Caribbean trombonist Papo Vazquez (Nov. 14), who'll perform as part of the Isthmus Jazz Series.

Those looking for something from the classical realm should check out pianist Inon Barnatan (April 18) and the Miró String Quartet (Feb. 21). WUT will also bring back Keyboard Conversations (Sept. 24, May 6), events where pianist Jeffrey Siegel speaks on a topic such as Beethoven and then plays the pieces discussed in their entirety.

Another returning event, this one in its 54th year, is the Travel Adventure Film Series (Sept. 30-Oct. 1, Nov. 18-19, Feb. 17-18, April 21-22). These films hark back to the time, pre-Flickr, when people actually gathered to show and narrate their vacation photos. Invited filmmakers stand on stage and give audiences the inside scoop on locations such as Montana, the Middle East and Newfoundland. Dinner is served beforehand. This year, pay special attention to Karin Muller's Cuba: The Inside Story , which aims to tell Cuba's "true story" outside the propaganda.

All in all, a whole lot of exciting shows are coming our way. From Cuba to Mali, Harry Potter to Elvis Presley, there's something for everyone this season at Overture and WUT.

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