Orlando’s Art Season Preview: Welcome Back
With apologies to Orlando Shakes, we’d like to borrow their motto for the upcoming season, which they are calling “The Homecoming.” Welcome home one and all as we take a look at the highlights of the 2021-2022 arts and entertainment season as performing troupes and venues in Central Florida make a long-awaited comeback.
Home Again, Home Again
Orlando Shakes is billing its upcoming season as “The Homecoming.” That must make actor Davis Gaines the homecoming king.
When the Shakes had to shutter their performance space at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center last season because of the pandemic, the company gamely rebounded with two inspired, open-air shows at the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola—Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the skid-row, sci-fi spoof, Little Shop of Horrors. Both were ideally suited for an outdoor, urban setting. But there’s no place like home, as the company re-inhabits the Margeson Theater for a season that will welcome back Gaines, who was born and raised in Orlando. He’ll appear as El Gallo (The Narrator) in a February production of The Fantasticks.
Gaines is best known for performing the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,000 times on Broadway, and in Los Angeles and San Francisco productions. The California-based actor has returned to Orlando over the years for leading roles in multiple Shakes productions, most recently as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (seen at middle right).
The Fantasticks is a sparsely staged, early-1960s underdog hit about two fathers who dabble as matchmakers, using reverse psychology to pair up their respective children. The long-running show contributed one of Broadway’s most beloved melodies in “Try to Remember”—not to mention this poignant wisp of dialogue, uttered after a character reappears, looking bedraggled after a long absence, and is asked:
“What in the world happened to you?”
“The world happened to me,” he replies. orlandoshakes.org
Here, There Be Dragons
Don’t let the title throw you. This is no ordinary creature feature. Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures is a traveling exhibit developed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York that opens Oct. 2 at the Orange County Regional History Center for a four-month run as an entertaining and educational experience.
All the mythical creatures evoked in the 2,000 square-foot exhibit can be traced back to real ones. The kraken, a giant, multi-limbed sea monster with a taste for sailors, likely evolved into harrowing Scandinavian folklore accounts from real seagoing sightings of what were probably giant squids. The narwhal whale, with its long, single tusk, may have played a leading role in inspiring the unicorn myth. Dinosaur fossils could account for the griffin, a spare-parts assemblage with the body and tail of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. (Mixing and matching seems to be a theme among mythical creatures over the ages. It’s as if they all dressed in the dark.) The exhibit’s multimedia effects, models, and rare cultural objects comprise a kid-friendly, multifaceted educational experience in cultural narratives, geography, zoology and, for sure, creativity. thehistorycenter.org
Lose the Queen. Keep the Snow.
To say Frozen was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is like saying Elon Musk’s Starship was inspired by Sputnik. That’s how far afield the Walt Disney Studio’s animated 3D musical fantasy is from the 19th century fairy tale that inspired it. Same goes for the stage spinoff, which times out nicely as a winter offering. It opens Feb. 24 for an
11-day run as part of the “Broadway in Orlando” series at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Bundle up.
Walt himself had the first go at adapting The Snow Queen, with a late-1930s production he envisioned as a package deal, pairing an animated version with a documentary about its beloved author. The project was sidelined by WWII. Over the following decades, sporadic efforts to revive Andersen’s metaphorical tale about a girl who saves a playmate from the clutches of an icy, supernatural queen would flounder. Then a Disney creative team came up with a counter-intuitive strategy: Ditch the title character. Dump both the evil queen and the little boy in favor of two royal sisters, one of whom has deep-freeze superpowers that she must learn to use for good. The result was the most successful animated film in history, an equally successful sequel, and the Broadway production.
Some of the fringe characters have been eliminated from the stage version, but the Disney think tank wasn’t about to abandon a ready-made showstopper in “Let It Go.” Be prepared for a sing-along if you bring the little ones, and don’t try to shush them. Just chill. orlando.broadway.com
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was the name for a covert network of secret routes and safe houses, established by abolitionists to help thousands of slaves escape Southern plantations and flee for freedom, traveling mainly from the uppermost Southern states to as far away as Canada in the early- to mid-1800s.
Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales (shown below) grew up in Indiana near one of the route’s geographic milestones: the Ohio River, known as “the River Jordan” to the desperate souls for whom it represented the transition from slavery to salvation. “The route crossed through the backyards I played in as a child,” she remembers. “It fascinated me.”
It still does. In 2002, she embarked on a 14-year project to research the route, travel it herself and capture photographs of what remains of the rustic natural scenery and vestiges of way stations that still exist. Her efforts culminated in Through Darkness to Light, the name of both a book that includes historical accounts and a traveling exhibition of the photos that will be on display Nov. 19-Dec. 23 at the Mennello Museum of American Art.
Nearly all of the images were taken at night, the better to evoke the experience of travelers for whom the cover of darkness was essential, the North Star serving as their silent guide. For the northern route, she brought family members along to help her; for the southern locales, she hired off-duty police officers as escorts.
Between the moody, extended-exposure compositions and the titles she provides for the images—“Look for the gray barn out back,” “Follow the tracks to the first creek,” “Go to the house on the hill”—the effect of viewing the photos is of a ghostly rapport with the desperate souls whose footsteps she retraced.
“That’s how I want you to feel,” says Michna-Bales. “That’s how I felt.” mennellomuseum.org
Roll Over Beethoven
Two years ago, planners at the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra introduced Resonate, a once-a-year series of themed performances that combine a traditional concert with a chamber music experience at the Orlando Phil’s Plaza Live performance center.
Here’s how it works: A full orchestra concert at 7 p.m. is followed by a break for guests to mingle in the lobby for conversation and refreshments. Afterward, they have a choice: They can either call it a night or roll on over to the Palmer Room, next door to the main theater, for a second, more intimate, chamber-music soirée.
This season’s Resonate series, Feb. 3, 5 and 7, will showcase Beethoven—quite a lot of Beethoven—featuring five concertos and an overture over the course of those three nights in the concert hall segment of the evening. Then, each night, audience members who are up for a double-header can stick around for chamber music offerings that will include, over the course of the series, Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven’s Septet (a composition for three wind and four string instruments) and his “Ghost” piano trio for a piano and two string instruments—this particular composition is named for its uncharacteristically slow (at least for Beethoven) and somewhat eerie pace.
The chamber music portion of the series will highlight the Phil’s artist in residence, Stewart Goodyear (shown above), a 42-year-old, Canadian-born pianist and composer with an affection for calypso, rock and improvisation and a yeoman’s recording and performance history with Beethoven. Apart from recording the five piano concertos and all 32 of the solo sonatas, he once performed all of those sonatas in a single day, which works out to roughly 11 Iron Man hours on the keyboard bench. orlandophil.org
Sharing a Secret
Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had no children—not unless you count the two she imagined. You may be familiar with one of them. It’s likely you haven’t heard of the other.
Rawlings won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel about the first child, The Yearling, published in 1938. It’s about a young white boy named Jody, who lives in a cabin in the same hardscrabble, north-central Florida scrubland where Rawlings made her home. The second child is a young black girl named Calpurnia, who is the main character of a Rawlings children’s fantasy story called The Secret River. Like Rawlings, Calpurnia has a love of words, crafting poetry to entertain herself. Like Jody, she lives in deep woods as part of a family struggling through hard times and hard choices. With the help of a mysterious village elder, she discovers a magical river brimming with fish to feed them.
Rawlings died two years before the story was published in 1955. It would likely have come out sooner had it not been for the era’s racial divide: Publishers assumed a children’s book featuring a child of color as the main character would neither sell to the general public nor be adopted as reading material by school boards.
A serene, empowering work about weathering hardships and the power of the imagination, The Secret River would quietly outlast a world that thought it had no room for it. The book won a prestigious Newbery Award for children’s fiction. Ten years ago, it was published in a second edition with a cover and illustrations that made the ethnicity of Calpurnia and her family obvious. And it will serve as the inspiration for an opera of the same name that will be presented Dec. 17-19 by Opera Orlando in the Alexis and Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center.
Funded in part by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s the ambitious young company’s first originally commissioned work, featuring a story by
Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell, a score written by noted composer and UCF professor Stella Sung, and a cast supplemented by MicheLee Puppets.
Opera Orlando had been searching for several years to find a Florida-based inspiration for a new work. The Secret River was suggested by Sung, who grew up in Gainesville and remembered her visits as a schoolgirl to Rawlings’ home, which is preserved, much as the author left it, as the centerpiece of a state park.
The home is not far from the St. Johns River, a lush, meandering Florida waterway that Rawlings often wrote about as a place where she found adventure, comfort and peace. We’ll never know if the author had a particular child in mind as a real-life inspiration for Calpurnia. But as for that magical river she discovers, there’s a pretty safe guess to be made. operaorlando.org
At OMA, A Knockout
The Orlando Museum of Art’s new executive director and CEO likes to characterize his lofty goals for the museum with a down-to-earth metaphor. “This place is going to start punching above its weight class,” says Aaron de Groft.
Good luck topping round one.
Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Venice Collection, Thaddeus Mumford Jr., kicks off OMA’s new season this month. The exhibition is the country’s first look at a trove of paintings created by a meteoric artist who died in 1988 at the age of 27, leaving behind works that have sold for millions. That includes what might be considered a recurring self-portrait—a multicolored, anguished, seemingly three-dimensional skull—one of which was auctioned four months ago for $93.1 million.
The OMA exhibit will feature 26 Basquiat paintings on corrugated cardboard, discovered in a repossessed storage unit several years after Basquiat sold them to Mumford, a writer/producer of 1970s television series including M*A*S*H and Roots: The Next Generations. De Groft has arranged for the museum to curate the collection for the OMA exhibit and then manage any national tours.
Basquiat (pronounced baw-ski-AH) grew up in Brooklyn, born to a Haitian businessman and a Puerto Rican mother. He spoke three languages and could read and write by the time he was four, but struggled in school. He left home at 17, crashing on friends’ couches and painting anything in sight, including postcards he created and sold to passersby for a dollar. In an era when Manhattan was overtaken nightly by a core of clubbing creatives, he soon attracted attention. He sold his first painting to Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry and dated Madonna Ciccone before she dropped her last name. His artwork was collected by David Bowie, and Basquiat became a virtual adopted son of Andy Warhol, whose pop artistry he soon eclipsed. Using oil sticks, crayons and spray paint, he began creating layered compositions, often working on several canvases at once. His artworks were crowded with his iconography: skulls and crowns, coded texts he intentionally blurred because “that makes people want to read them more,” and, yes, heroes and monsters.
Soon he was making millions. Just as rapid was his mother’s descent into mental illness, Warhol’s untimely death, and the cumulative, soul-sucking hollowness of being the glitterati’s token Black artist. He’d leave late-night clubs as a celebrity, but couldn’t get taxi drivers—leery of a young Black man in dreadlocks, Armani suit notwithstanding—to stop. Seeking to alleviate his depression with heroin, he died of an overdose as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists.
OMA’s other exhibits this season comprise a remarkable undercard, with landscape photography by Clyde Butcher; European masterworks from the Muscarelle Museum of Art at William & Mary College; Mexican photography from the Bank of America collection; a Bob Jones University collection of Baroque masterpieces, including Rubens and Rembrandt as well as the works of Paul Cézanne and a major painting by Georgia O’Keeffe; and The Comstock Pollock, an exhibition of a single work by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. omart.org
A Greater Gatsby
The first thing Jorden Morris did when he was commissioned to re-create The Great Gatsby as a ballet was to research the background of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical novel and the gilded raciness of flappers, bootleggers, shady tycoons and Jazz-Age posers it evoked.
It didn’t take Morris long to reach a simple conclusion: “Those people had a lot of problems,” he says. Well, yes. But they looked fabulous having them. That would account for the dozen or so ballets that have been created over the years to evoke Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties portrait of an idealistic figure who stages lavish parties at his Long Island estate in the naïve hope that it will help him to reconnect with his lost love.
Morris, artist-in-residence for the second year running at Orlando Ballet, will set his Gatsby homage on the company’s dancers for an April 28-May 1 engagement at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. It’s a companion piece, of sorts, to another of his ballets, Moulin Rouge, a racy period piece in its own right which he staged for the company last season.
The Canadian choreographer took on a much more complex affair this time around, both in terms of the narrative and the multifaceted but doomed idealist at its heart. His won’t be the last tribute to Fitzgerald, who was desperate for literary recognition but who died, like Gatsby, without reaching his dream. Published in 1925, the novel, which was unpopular and critically dismissed in its day, is just four years from a 100th anniversary and a likely flurry of homages. A Broadway musical is already in the works, written by Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine and Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok. orlandoballet.org
The Florida Film Festival has no trouble attracting a crowd. Scores of filmmakers, hundreds of movie buffs and a broad range of celebrities migrate to Central Florida every spring for a two-week cinematic celebration featuring roughly 150 new independent and international films.
The 31-year-old festival has one of the prettiest movie houses in the world as its home base in the oak-encircled Enzian Theater. Aptly named after an alpine flower, the Central Florida treasure, near the shores of Lake Maitland, could be mistaken for a roadside farmhouse with a produce stand if it weren’t for the marquee out front. Well, that and the outdoor bar.
Unfortunately, it’s as cramped as it is charming. Three years ago, a $6.5 million plan to expand the single-screen, 200-seat, nonprofit art house, which had been proposed by its owners, the Tiedtke family, was turned down because of parking issues.
Then, this summer, a win-win solution materialized.
The City of Winter Park, contending with cost overruns with its new $41.7 million library and civic center, needed a donor to pay for a $750,000 amphitheater in the complex. They found one in the Tiedtkes, who picked up the cost of the amphitheater via their Florida Charities Foundation. In return, the Florida Film Festival and other Enzian events will be staged at the amphitheater and in the new library’s 100-seat theater, both of which are just a few minutes’ drive from Enzian.
If the building project stays on schedule, it will be open well in advance of the film festival’s scheduled run in April. Says Philip Tiedtke, the family member who is spearheading the partnership: “We’ll have to work out a lot of details, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.” Not to mention a lot more leg room. floridafilmfestival.com
A Singular Exhibit
Carmen Herrera found success and recognition late in life: The ethereal Cuban-American minimalist was 89 years old when she sold her first painting—and 101 when her first substantial solo exhibit was staged, to high acclaim, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016.
Romare Bearden studied Greek and trigonometry, absorbed cubism and surrealism, and rubbed shoulders with the literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance. But he was influenced just as significantly by the rustic patchwork quilts he remembered as a child growing up in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina—and the time he spent as a welfare worker in New York City.
Esphyr Slobodkina was a Russian immigrant who wrote and illustrated children’s storybooks to save herself from a life as the proverbial starving artist. When she died in 2002 at the age of 93, her obituary in the New York Times described her as “a prominent abstract artist better known for her down-to-earth children’s book Caps for Sale.” But she was far better known among her peers as a source of collegiality and inspiration, and a pioneer in her own right by blending everyday objects such as a typewriter and computer parts into compositions.
All three have works that are included in American Modernisms at the Rollins Museum of Art, which opens this month. Its emphasis on individuality and diversity is the reason guest curator Grant Hamming was careful to use the plural form of the art world’s monolithic uber-ism in the title: Instead of telling one story, the exhibit is designed to encompass and emphasize its multiplicity.
“Rather than one modernism that traces the development of avant-garde art from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, I am looking at a variety of intertwined, interconnected, and even oppositional stories,” says Hamming, who came to Rollins on a three-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to help the college reassess the collection of American art at its museum.
This will be the first exhibit at the museum under its new name, Rollins Museum of Art. It has been known as the Cornell Fine Arts Museum since opening its doors in 1978 in honor of late, longtime Rollins donors George and Harriet Cornell, who paid for its construction. The exhibit opens Sept.18 and runs through May 8. rollins.edu/cfam
Frontyard Festival at the Dr. Phillips Center. Conceived during the pandemic as a safe, outdoor performance space in the grassy plaza outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, this innovative concert venue with elevated box seats has been so popular that it has been extended through mid-December to feature entertainment by both local and touring performers. drphillipscenter.org
Global Peace Film Festival. Hard as it is to discover, there are many paths that lead to peace. The 19th annual Orlando Global Peace Film Festival offers documentaries and feature films focusing on peace, both personal and global. Screenings are Sept. 20-26 in area theaters and Sept. 27-Oct. 3 online. peacefilmfest.org
Timucua Arts Foundation Concerts. The concert series developed by Benoit Glazer and Elaine Corriveau and staged in their spacious home across from Boone High School continues this season with guest artists such as classical guitarist Thomas Flippin (Oct. 9), Cuban trumpeter Renoir Rodriguez and his Latin jazz combo (Oct. 15), and Dutch pianist/composer Frederic Voorn (Oct. 24). timucua.com
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Known for its world-class array of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s art deco creations, the Morse was recently gifted a substantial art collection, including works by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Fidelia Bridges and Thomas Eakins, by longtime art lovers Theodore and Susan Stebbins. An exhibit featuring those works, among others, opens Nov. 9 at the Winter Park museum. morsemuseum.org
Orlando Science Center. Flash forward into the future—and take the kids. Science Fiction, Science Future is a family friendly, hands-on exhibit opening in January for a five-month stay at Orlando Science Center. The futuristic showcase explores possible evolutions and inventions in teleportation, robotics, mind control, holograms and augmented reality. osc.org
Gladdening Light. The nonprofit initiative that brings spiritual and artistic speakers to Winter Park will feature Eugene Sutton, Episcopal Bishop of Maryland; James Finley, psychotherapist and teacher; and Lerita Coleman Brown, professor emerita of psychology at Agnes Scott College, at its annual symposium Feb. 3-6. gladdeninglight.org
87th Annual Bach Festival. Running Feb. 4-27, the granddaddy of all Central Florida festivals (shown above), headquartered at Rollins College, features a 160-voice choir and such noted soloists as organist Ken Cowan and violinist Lisa Shihoten, as well as the Mozart’s Requiem & Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Feb 25 & 26). bachfestivalflorida.org
Snap! Orlando. English photographer Nick Brandt is devoted to capturing on film the ongoing tragedy of our disappearing natural world. This Empty World, a heart-rending exhibit of some of his images, will be on display beginning Feb. 18 at the downtown art/photography gallery, Snap! snaporlando.com
National Young Composers Challenge. This April workshop/concert, founded and funded by local classical music lover Steve Goldman and sponsored by the University of Central Florida, is a free, fly-on-the-wall opportunity to listen in as winning compositions by six young composers from around the country are rehearsed and performed live. youngcomposerschallenge.org
Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. The raucous, grassroots-theater event we’ve come to know and love will be back in all its wild and wooly glory this year. We’re talking about Fringe, which brings dozens of unconventional productions to Loch Haven Park and nearby venues in May. orlandofringe.org
The Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. This annual exhibition from June through August at the Orlando Museum of Art takes advantage of a Sunshine State resource—its abundance of creative artists. The exhibit showcases the works of 10 Florida-based sculptors, painters and multi-media artists, one of whom is awarded a best-in-show prize of $20,000. omart.org