Arts & Entertainment: Season Preview

From an aerial dance performance to a participatory art installation to a celebration of the music of unheralded composers, here's our highlight reel of the most promising and imaginative offerings of Central Florida's upcoming cultural season.

There’s a dance troupe that performs on the side of a building, an actor who paddles a kayak to work, and an interactive artist who prefers the street corner to the stage. A new jazz band has materialized at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, while Rollins College has discovered three forgotten composers whose contribution to American music is immeasurable. We’ve got painters, puppets and a pirate in the house, along with Monet, Mozart and the Man of La Mancha.

With funding cutbacks looming, it’s a tough year for the arts. But you wouldn’t know it judging from the breadth and depth of our annual can’t-miss list for Central Florida’s upcoming cultural season. Imagination abounds. Creativity endures. The magic survives.

Happy Anniversary

The kitchen sink will be sitting out the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s 25th anniversary season. Pretty much everything else is in play, though, starting with the season opener that features a classical-music cornerstone composed by a deaf man with a legless piano: Beethoven’s only vocal symphony, his ninth, created while he sat on the floor by the instrument so he could feel its vibrations. From there it’s on to Mozart and Mendelssohn, Bernstein and The Beatles, Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, plus jugglers, acrobats and puppets. Yes, puppets. The orchestra will perform Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show, a “puppet opera” based on an episode of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Yes, jugglers and acrobats. Cirque de la Symphonie’s performers will share the Bob Carr stage with the orchestra as it plays a program of blockbuster movie scores. All this is prelude to a separately ticketed gala finale in May: world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma (above) will appear with the orchestra in a performance of Brahm’s Double Concerto in A minor, teaming up with two of his longtime collaborators, OPO Maestro Eric Jacobsen and his brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen. For a sense of their rapport and a glimpse of high-end musical joie de vivre, check out the YouTube video of the three of them in the studio recording Azul, a celestially themed album released this year, featuring the Jacobsen brothers’ New York-based chamber orchestra, The Knights.

Broadway Trifecta

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the touring production of Hamilton, whose award-winning blend of hip-hop and history will make it to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the 2018-19 season. Meantime, each of three new musicals on the Fairwinds Broadway in Orlando slate this season represents its own strategy for cross-pollinating Broadway and pop culture. With On Your Feet (above), it’s the jukebox musical format: Take the story of an established musical group and punctuate it with their hits, in this case the Miami-sound, Rhythm-Is-Gonna-Get-You success of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, with a narrative revolving around Gloria’s struggle to recover from a broken back in a 1990 tour bus crash. Then there’s the based-on-a-blockbuster strategy of School of Rock, The Musical, which couples an original score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a plotline based on the 2003 comedy about a substitute teacher who subs rock and roll for reading and writing. Finally, there’s the  recipe employed in Waitress, a romance about a woman with a poor choice in husbands but a gift for baking pies. American singer/songwriter and actress Sara Bareilles not only composed the score for the musical, based on a 2007 movie of the same name, but wound up starring in the Broadway production—and turning one of its songs, She Used to Be Mine, into a crossover hit for herself.

It Takes a Village

Turning your back on city life to seek inspiration in the country is a noble enterprise. It also doesn’t hurt if Paris is emanating inspirational je ne sais quoi vibes your way from just 40 miles away. That’s how a tiny village helped to spawn one of the world’s most influential and beloved schools of art: Impressionism, whose mid 19th-century French inventors broke away from the formalistic techniques of the day, choosing instead to channel their unfiltered impressions of the natural world into their paintings. Many of those artists congregated in Barbizon, a village of 300 souls on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest, with its idyllic array of woodland tableaus. Forty-five Impressionistic landscapes by the charter members of the en plein air scene will be on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Towards Impressionism: Landscape Painting from Corot to Monet. Arranged through Art Centre Basel and drawn from the permanent collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Reims, the exhibit, which opens in January, consists of works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Georges Michel, Jean-Francois Millet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste-Francois Ravier, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Théodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon and Félix Ziem.

Mancha, Mancha Man

Davis Gaines is excited about his return to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater this season. Not just for the role. For the commute. Gaines, an Orlando native who lives in the Los Angeles area, stays with his parents when he performs at the Shakes, as he did most recently in lead roles for Spamalot and Les Misérables. Their Orlando home is on Lake Rowena, just across from the theater. “On matinees, I would literally kayak to work,” he says. “Who gets to do that?” Proud of his record-setting string of more than 2,000 appearances as the title character in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and in Los Angeles and San Francisco productions, Gaines is growing even more fond of the role he’ll be playing at the Shakes this month: that of Don Quixote, the windmill-tilting hero of Man of La Mancha. Over the past five years he’s performed the role in three productions in the Los Angeles area: “I don’t have to worry about my age anymore. This is a part I can do for the rest of my life. And it fits me like an old shoe.” Lately, he’s come to believe that it suits the times we are living in just as snugly. He’s noticed a change in how audiences respond to a character who clings to his dreams in spite of a world that seems dead set against them, and who proclaims, at one point: “Too much sanity may be madness—and maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” Says Gaines: “Sometimes, nowadays, when I deliver that line, people spontaneously applaud.”

Defying Gravity

Space is at a premium for the hundreds of performers who invade the streets of downtown Orlando every year for Immerse, the Creative City Project’s annual art fest. The dancers of BANDALOOP are above all that. The San Francisco-based company, which will make its first Orlando appearance at the late-October festival this year, stages entertainment that is, no offense, over your head. The dancers have traveled all over the world performing jetés, pirouettes and somersaults on the sides of office buildings and rocky cliffs.  Founded in San Francisco in 1991 by Amelia Rudolph, a choreographer who developed an interest in rock-climbing, BANDALOOP trains its performers to rappel as well as relevé, dancing perpendicular to their audiences while suspended by climbing ropes. When people call it “death-defying,” Rudolph suggests that the approach is, rather, “life-affirming.” She also likes to note a feminist-friendly angle: Since they’re performing horizontally rather than vertically, her female dancers needn’t rely on their male cohorts to lift them up, ballet-style. Nothing like dancing on the side of the building to put everyone on an equal footing. The hoped-for “stage floor” in Orlando: the side of the Chase Plaza Building.

State of Excellence

Four years ago, when he took over as Orlando Museum of Art’s new director, Glen Gentele began looking around for a source of progressive, contemporary artists who could help him bring fresh, challenging installations to the museum, and found what he was looking for on his doorstep. Florida abounds with cutting-edge artists representing a broad spectrum of styles, subject matter, cultural backgrounds and conceptual muscle, and the museum’s curator, Hansen Mulford, is adept at finding them. The annual Florida Prize in Contemporary Art exhibit is proof. The exhibit has consistently brought socially relevant art worth getting fired up about to the museum—like the creations of this year’s winner, multimedia artist William Cordova (above), who uses abstract creations inspired by ancient Andean textiles and a maze of raw lumber to explore racism and repression. In addition to the Florida Prize exhibit, which brings the works of up to 10 artists to the museum, the state’s collectors will also be recognized this season with State of Excellence: Treasures from Florida Private Collections, an exhibit of artworks from the 18th through the mid-20th century. Shown: can’t stop, won’t stop by William Cordova.

Bridge Players

If you have ever watched helplessly as a friend slowly self-destructs, you’re familiar with the psychological setting of A View from the Bridge, and what its narrator means when he says: “I could see every step coming, step after step, like a dark figure walking down a hall toward a certain door.” Arthur Miller’s 1955 drama, based on a true story he heard from a lawyer acquaintance, revolves around a brawny Italian-American dockworker whose obsession with his niece leads him down that narrowing hallway and toward its inevitable exit. Miller wrote the play not long after backing out, on philosophical grounds, from a film project that involved a similarly fatalistic plotline and Brooklyn dockworkers setting: On the Waterfront.  Miller’s even-darker doppelganger to that Marlon Brando classic has stirred up renewed interest in theatrical circles over the past two years, thanks to a shrewdly focused production by Belgian director Ivo van Hove that was staged in London, New York and Washington, D.C. The play is one of two vintage melodramas on the slate this season at Mad Cow Theatre, which will also present The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s ode to Southern-gothic greed. It, too, was recently revived, in a Manhattan Theatre Club production that starred Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon. The two actresses took turns playing the juicy role of the avaricious virago Regina, a part played by Tallulah Bankhead in the original 1939 stage production, and by Bette Davis—who else?—in the movie two years later.

A Visionary Trio

If Julie Heffernan comes to Orlando from her home in New York City for the exhibit of her paintings at The Mennello Museum of American Art this season, somebody should take her to Disney World for a spin on the Flight of Passage ride at the new Pandora-The World of Avatar attraction. Not to cheapen the artistry, but at some level her magical-realism dreamscapes are kindred to Pandora’s back-to-Eden escapism. Heffernan blends the surreal with the serene in her bountiful, hyper-naturalistic creations. She calls them self-portraits, an understated clue that they reflect not just her mastery of classical techniques, but a personal preoccupation with an endangered Mother Earth. She is one of three women of distinctly varied styles whose creations will be featured in separate exhibitions at the Mennello this season. Korean-born multimedia artist Jiha Moon takes a tack of playful, cross-cultural irony to filter the world around her, with compositions that combine east with west, modern with traditional. Images of cell phone emojis compete for our attention with traditional Asian tigers in an exhibition cleverly titled Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here. The last, most historically influential artist in the series is the late Grace Hartigan, who earned a place for herself in the post-war Abstract Expressionism movement of the 1950s, striking up collegial, sometimes testy friendships with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—and if she never got the exposure they did, it wasn’t for lack of self-confidence. Of her decision to become a painter, she once said:

“I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius. ” Shown: Camp Bedlam
by Julie Hefferman


The first thing Orlando Ballet Artistic Director Robert Hill discovered about Arcadian Broad six years ago was what a good dancer he was. That alone would have been plenty, especially given that Broad was only 16, making him the youngest dancer ever to be hired by the company. But then came a bonus: Broad showed an interest in creating choreography. Hill gave him a chance, and when that went well, gave him another, this time for a much longer piece. “I told him to find some music and work up an idea, and he went off to work on it,” the company’s longtime director remembers. “And after a while, he came up to me and said, ‘I think it will be easier for me to compose the music myself.’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘Oh. Ha Ha. Really?’ ” Well, really. Hill agreed, the melodies Broad wound up composing were perfect, and the dance was yet another success, one of several since then by the dancer/choreographer/composer who is also, by the way, a gifted pianist. His contribution this season is a three-act, as-yet-untitled dance about what would happen to the Mad Hatter of Alice In Wonderland if he wound up on the real-world side of the looking glass. It will be featured May 4-6 in Contemporary Wonders (above), a program that also will include a dance that Hill is choreographing in partnership with singer/songwriter and Central Florida native Sisaundra Lewis, who worked with Céline Dion as backing vocalist, vocal director and choreographer. A return performance of Broad’s Beauty and the Beast is also part of the Ballet’s 2017-18 season.

Stepping Out at the Plaza

If you’ve lived here long enough, the phrase “rocking chair theater” may sound familiar. It’s the nickname that emerged for the Plaza theater when it opened on Bumby Avenue as a two-screen movie house, featuring seats that could spring back and forth like rockers. That was in 1963, a time when Orlando residents were apparently more easily entertained than they are today. Now the big news is Steinmetz Hall, the $240 million, state-of-the-art acoustic theater scheduled to be completed in three years in the final construction phase for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. But don’t overlook the Plaza, the humble tortoise to Dr. Phillips’ high-priced hare. Converted into a live venue several years ago, it’s now a permanent home for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, which stages both its Focus and Women in Song concerts at the Plaza on weekday evenings. No, the acoustics aren’t world class. Yes, the rocking chairs have been replaced, for the time being, by folding chairs. But what the place lacks in posh and polish it makes up for in intimacy and convenience. It’s in the laid-back Milk District. Parking is free. Tickets are a bargain. Performers often come into the lobby to chat and sign autographs after the show. Highlights this year: In the Focus Series, the guest appearance of a 20-year-old phenom, violinist Randall Goosby, along with his 16th-century Giovanni Paolo Maggini. In the Women in Song Series, the stirring duo of harpist Maeve Gilchrist and percussive dancer Nic Gareiss (above), who combine contemporary elements of music, dance, rhythm and improvisation.

Flapper Bohemians

There’s a new singing sheriff in town. Last year Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra announced it would stop producing operas, leaving the door open for Opera Orlando to handle the artistic and administrative demands of the belle canto scene, with the orchestra providing the accompaniment. In November, Opera Orlando will kick off its first full season as the bully of the baritone block with a season-opening production at the Dr. Phillips Center of La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s ode to mid 19th-century, Latin Quarter Parisian artists who are so stylishly poor they have to burn their own manuscripts to warm themselves. The Opera Orlando production, set in the Roaring ’20s, will star Metropolitan Opera roster artist Cecilia Violetta Lopez (above) as—spoiler alert—the doomed Mimi. Artistic Director Gabe Preisser will appear as Marcello, Nathan Stark as Colline and Brian James Myer as Schaunard.

All-That-Jazz Club

Call it a double feature. A one-night-only screening of La La Land at the Dr. Phillips Center’s Walt Disney Theater, with the soundtrack played by a live orchestra, immediately followed by a separately ticketed event—a concert of West Coast Swing music played by the newly formed Dr. Phillips Center Jazz Orchestra in the Center’s Pugh Theater, which will be decked out to resemble a jazz club that figures in the film. Though combining cinema and swing is still something of a novelty at the Dr. Phillips Center, it has historical roots. “Back before movies had sound, movie theaters across the country all had their own bands,” says the Dr. Phillips orchestra’s bandleader, Rodney Whitaker (above). A longtime double bass player who directs jazz studies at Michigan State University, Whitaker enlisted several area jazz vets along with “a few young cats” he turned up in order to form the band earlier this year. Whitaker, who has a smooth, mellow, rock-solid stage presence as a bandleader—it’s as if he’s absorbed the personality of his instrument over the years—played in the mid-1990s with trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis; it’s a connection that has already benefited the Dr. Phillips Center. Marsalis donated his personal arrangements to the Center to give its jazz program a boost. He also will perform a Big Band Holiday program with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Dr. Phillips in December. The Dr. Phillips jazz initiative is supported by local philanthropists and jazz lovers Judson and Joyce Green.

Sense in the City

Imagine walking down just another ordinary street past just another ordinary building with what looks, at first, like just another ordinary advertisement painted on one of its walls. It’s a collage with a lion in the background and a message in neat block letters in the foreground that reads, in part: We tell ourselves strange stories. Stories like I am not good enough or I will never be understood. We hear these words in the private chatter, the hum in our heads that tells us who we are. But sometimes we catch a glimpse of who we might become. Perhaps it’s a rogue thought in the shower. A shiver of déjà vu on the sidewalk. But for a moment our mental weather clears and the world makes some kind of sense. The message, which invites passersby to read and reflect on one of several contemplative parables also printed on the side of the building before they go on about their day, appeared on South Street in Philadelphia last year as one of hundreds of urban installations that have been created by Candy Chang, a New Orleans urban designer and interactive public art pioneer. She’ll be at Rollins College in January to discuss her work and create a participatory installation. Chang’s first interactive project, which has been reproduced in cities all over the world, was to paint the side of a vacant building near her home in black, provide a supply of chalk in a small box beneath it, and invite her neighbors to finish this sentence: “Before I die, I want to….” (This being New Orleans, one of the answers, scrawled across the wall by a colorfully dressed would-be swashbuckler, was: “Be arrested for piracy.”)  Says Chang: “Communication tools are just as important an infrastructure system as roads, electricity and sewer drains. If our public spaces were designed differently, we’d have more to say to each other than, ‘Have you seen my cat?’ ”

Symphonic Souls

Let’s say someone asks you to come up with a list of musical styles with African-American roots. Your answer is going to depend on your age, your ethnicity, what part of the country you come from and just how serious you are about keepin’ it real. One way or the other, your checklist will likely reflect some combination of gospel, ragtime, rhythm and blues, jazz, funk, reggae, scat, doo-wop, hip hop and be-bop. You’ll notice—no, more like you won’t notice—that chorale works and symphonies are not on that list, despite the fact that several pioneering, highly respected African-American artists going back to the early 1900s struggled for a place in those two genres—and had a significant impact, however unheralded, on all the others. Three such influential composers of color—William Grant Still, Nathaniel Dett and William Dawson—will be featured in a Bach Festival program at Rollins College this season. Still, who has been called “the Dean of African-American composers,” was part of the Harlem Renaissance and was the first black to conduct a major symphony orchestra. Dett, born in 1882, was a passionate pioneer who studied the folk music passed down by slaves and incorporated it into lyric and operatic works. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was first performed in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose conductor, Leopold Stokowski, recognized ‘’the ancient voice of Africa transferred to America’’ in the work. The concert, African-American Masterpieces: Symphonic Spirituals, is scheduled for April in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Numerous related speakers and events—including an appearance by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—will take place at Rollins throughout the month.

Categories: Events