The Showstoppers

Wild West Opera: “La Fanciulla Del West” Mobile Opera

Beginning this season, Mobile Opera is offering what few companies have ever presented to their patrons – the chance to see each of Giacomo Puccini’s 10 operas over the course of 10 years.

“Puccini wrote some of the most recognizable music in the world, ” says Mobile Opera artistic director Andy Anderson. “It’s in car commercials, movie soundtracks, even elevators, because it’s so tuneful, so recognizable, so dramatic. It gets inside of you.”

The Opera recently presented two Puccini works, “Turandot” and “Tosca, ” and patrons were asking when the company might offer one of the less-often-performed works, according to Anderson. That question was the spark that ignited the plans for the 10-year cycle.

The Puccini Project kicks off in March with spur-jangling “La Fanciulla Del West, ” (“The Girl of the Golden West”). This show engages the audience with a happy ending storyline, soaring melodies and an unexpected setting against a backdrop of the California Gold Rush.

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“It is a simple story of boy meets girl, ” Anderson says. The heroine works in the saloon where the miners socialize and store their gold for safekeeping. The sheriff warns that there’s a bandit on the loose, and in walks the bandit – setting off a dramatic sequence of events that includes a game of poker with a life at stake.

“Fanciulla” is a great kickoff because it is so “big, ” Anderson says – grander than “Turandot, ” with amazing music, wonderful scenery, an orchestral treat and a chance to highlight the men of the opera chorus.

And it’s a pleasure for Anderson, who confides that he’d be a happy conductor if he could live on Puccini and Wagner, with a touch of Mozart and French opera. “Puccini is the music I wake up humming every day.”

TIP: Mobile Opera’s November performance of “Don Pasquale” will get you in the mood for the western theme.

The Return of a Master: “Yo-Yo Ma” Mobile Symphony

“I can’t tell you how excited the Mobile Symphony is to be working with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the second time, ” says artistic director Scott Speck. “He radiates infectious joy when he plays, always drawing everyone in. He is the most collaborative performer I know.

“Yo-Yo’s overwhelming passion, his commitment to the beating heart of each musical phrase, is what made him famous. He has said that when he plays, it is extremely important that he tell a compelling story. That’s what’s so entrancing to orchestra and audience alike.

“Of course, passion alone is not enough. It goes without saying that his technique is also among the very best in the world.”

“Yo-Yo changed us with his first visit in 2005, ” Speck says. “Not only did he inspire us all to raise the bar on our performances, but he also gave us a new idea of what the Mobile Symphony could be, and we have run with it.”

“It’s fair to say that now, seven years after Yo-Yo’s first performance with us, we are a much more mature group, with a better sense of ensemble, a stronger technique, a richer, more burnished sound, and a greater depth of feeling.  I am very eager to see how Yo-Yo reacts to the new Mobile Symphony.”

Ma will perform two pieces with the Mobile Symphony Oct. 24:  First, the soulful, virtuosic and quintessentially Romantic cello concerto of Robert Schumann. “It has three connected movements, each expressing a different facet of Schumann’s fiery, changeable personality, ” Speck says. As a bonus, after the 160-year-old masterpiece, “we get to perform a work hot off the press. John Williams wrote ‘Elegy’ expressly for Yo-Yo, on the occasion of Williams’ 80th birthday this year. We are proud to create one of the first presentations of the new piece.

“Yo-Yo’s performance is the big attraction, of course, ” Speck adds. “But the other two works are not to be missed. We open with the great overture by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, “La Forza del Destino” (“The Force of Destiny”). This short dramatic overture has it all: a powerful orchestral outburst with surging rhythms, a lyrical theme of utmost tenderness, a lighthearted, bouncy coda, and a wham-bang triumphant ending.

“To close the first half of the show, we perform the great ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ by Bela Bartok. Full of exciting dance-like rhythms and Hungarian soul, this is a workout and showpiece for every section of the Mobile Symphony. It was originally written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra – the hometown band of both Yo-Yo and myself!”

TIP: Season ticket holders get first dibs on the Yo-Yo Ma concert, so consider the investment. The season includes an evening of music and dance with stars of the Joffrey Ballet, as well as “Motown, ” the informal “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” concert, a holiday special, an evening of Gershwin, “Carnival of the Animals” and more.

Fairy Tale in a Fresh Setting: “Snow White” Mobile Ballet

You know the story. Lovely Snow White gets a mirror for her 16th birthday, and immediately the wicked queen’s own magic mirror tells her that she’s no longer the loveliest woman alive. With the help of friendly dwarves and despite a poisoned apple, Snow White not only survives but also wins the heart of the handsome prince.

And that’s the story you’ll see come to life in dance when Mobile Ballet presents the premier of Winthrop Corey’s new “Snow White” March 9 and 10.

“It’s a beautiful love story, ” says artistic director Winthrop Corey. “I want all the 5-year-old little girls to come to the theater and be swept away — and their grandmothers, too.”

Mobile audiences got a sneak peek last season when members of the ballet performed the garden dance from the upcoming work as part of last season’s grand final performance.

Creating a new ballet is intense, says Corey, from studying the story to selecting the music to bring it to life — in this case music of Sir Arthur Sullivan paired with other classical works — to creating the original choreography.

While the ballet’s dancers have been off at summer camps and workshops around the country and Corey himself is away teaching, he is also designing and constructing costumes, Ron Barrett is creating the magnificent, jaw-dropping sets, and Carl Belk is editing a lovely, melodic soundtrack.

All of that hard work is well worth it, says Corey. “I really wanted to create the magic.” The magic is fitting as the company celebrates its 25th anniversary.

TIP: Mobile Ballet will also offer a reprise of the extremely popular Rasta Thomas’ “Bad Boys of Dance, ” as well as the it-wouldn’t-be-Christmas-without-it production of “The Nutcracker.” Be sure to get your tickets early.

Raise the Flag: “1776” Joe Jefferson Playhouse

It’s hot, the room is full of flies, the men are cranky, and John Adams wants to pontificate about life, liberty and the pursuit of the perfect government. The men of the Continental Congress have heard it all before, and “1776” opens with a rousing and unforgettable chorus as our nation’s founders boldly sing “Sit Down, John.”

The Tony Award-winning musical by composer Sherman Edwards and author Peter Stone will be staged at Joe Jefferson Playhouse beginning Sept. 16, directed by Eric Browne, who teaches drama at Baker High School.

It’s a theatrical masterpiece that never shies from big issues: Why wasn’t slavery outlawed to begin with? Why can’t the Continental Congress be bothered to respond to news from Gen. Washington?

But the history lesson is told with warmth and humor.

“The audience will be pleasantly surprised at how funny the show is – how touching, how heartwarming and how patriotic, ” Browne says.

We all know the story, and we sometimes forget that it’s a dangerous business, planning a revolution. But in the show’s awe-inspiring conclusion, as each man decides to sign his name to the world-changing document, we sense the courage that created our nation.

TIP:  Late spring of 2013 promises an equally endearing comedic performance, “Legally Blonde, The Musical.”

The Great Outdoors: “Alabama Plein Air” Eastern Shore Art Center

A firsthand view of the great outdoors – in this case the great Baldwin County outdoors – shown through the lens of the artist’s eye will be on display this October.

The 10 artists of the exhibit spent days working at five picturesque sites around Fairhope. Familiar scenery is documented in a myriad of creative ways.

TIP: The show follows quickly on the heels of a September exhibit, “Barns of Baldwin County.” These canvases celebrate the county’s rural heritage while also depicting the rapid disappearance of  local farms.

Edgy Americana: “Rent” Chickasaw Civic Theatre

Some attach the label “controversial” to the rock opera “Rent.” But Jeffrey Williamson, who will direct the show at Chickasaw Civic Theatre in January, says “‘Rent’ is ultimately a story of friendship and love.”

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme, ” Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is set on New York’s Lower East Side and peopled with impoverished young actors and musicians struggling in their artistic careers. Their world is plagued with difficulties, like drug addiction, HIV and sexual identity but, says Williamson, “Rent” shows “how friendship, hope and love can pull us through even the darkest times.”

The drama won a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best musical. This is the right time for an inaugural presentation of “Rent” in Mobile, says Williamson, and a chance to showcase some of the region’s developing young actors. Even if you don’t know the show now, you’ll walk out of the theater humming “Seasons of Love.”

TIP:  If you love the more traditional musical, come back for the noble vision of “Camelot” at Chickasaw Civic Theatre in May.

Seeing Ourselves as Children: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” Mobile Theatre Guild

The characters in this modern musical may be kids but adults take on the roles. The concept helps us see glimpses of our own younger years, says Mobile Theatre Guild board chairman Christina Watts.

The show is funny, irreverent and touching –“but it doesn’t make fun of kids, ” Watts says. “It takes that growing-up time to heart and recognizes that it’s something we all have to get through.”

“It’s a charming, charming show, ” she says, and she expects it to be even better because Eric Browne, who directed last season’s “Drowsy Chaperone, ” will be back in charge for this one.

A William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin show, “Spelling Bee” won a Tony Award for best book. It opens May 10.

TIP:  Mobile Theatre Guild has a busy season this year.  Be sure to check out their website.

Beauty and the Political Beast: “Tapestry of Art” Mobile Museum of Art

Contemporary imagery in a masterfully crafted, age-old art form caught the eye of Paul Richelson, chief curator of the Mobile Museum of Art. When he learned that tapestry artist Jon Eric Riis was from Atlanta, he knew he had to put together an exhibit of the artist’s work. That show opens Oct. 12.

Unfamiliar with tapestry as an art form? Richelson offers suggestions to help novices appreciate the work. “Technique per se doesn’t give you pleasure, ” he says. “Be aware of skill, but be drawn in by the artist’s vision.” And, appreciate the materials, says Richelson. Part of Riis’ tour de force, he says, is the use of unusual materials like freshwater pearls, crystal beads, silk and metallic threads. But also look for the message.

“Textiles have a very public side, ” he adds, “but Riis’ work is very personal, very issue driven.”

“Congressional Constraint” is a good example. Decorated with images of donkeys and elephants – even beasts that are half one and half the other moving in opposite directions – the work is designed as a straitjacket, reflecting Riis’ vision of Congress being “all tied up.”

With 25 pieces from museums around the country and Riis’ own collection, the show promises to be something special. Says Richelson, “It’s a mix of imagery so contemporary and technique so beautiful, it begged to be shown.”

TIP:  This fall, another must-see is the Mobile-centric photo exhibit from the book “Why We Are Here” by E.O. Wilson and Alex Harris. (Find a review in the October issue of Mobile Bay Magazine.)

Teen Fun: “Grease” South Baldwin Community Theatre

Turn your radio dial to 1959 – not the frequency but the year – and get set for “Grease, ” which opens Nov. 2 at South Baldwin Community Theatre in
Gulf Shores.

Sandy, Danny and the gang from Rydell High sing and dance their way through the school year in this Tony-nominated show by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, one of the longest running ever on Broadway.

The greasers and their Pink Ladies bring back the charming nostalgia of T-Birds, transistors and teen flings.

You’ll bee-bop home to songs like “Summer Lovin’” and “We Go Together.” In the words of Patty Simcox, “It’s totally the most, to say the least.”

TIP:  South Baldwin has a busy season scheduled this year. For audition and performance dates, visit

Haunting for Halloween: “All Because of Agatha” Theatre 98

When Duff and Joan buy their first home in Salem, Mass., they quickly learn that they are haunted by the ghost of Agatha, who was condemned and burned during the Salem witch trias 300 years earlier. Refusing to be scared off, “they embrace and celebrate the haunting, ” says Brenda Hedstrom, cochair of the Theatre 98 board.

They plan a party for the night of Agatha’s annual visit, inviting the local psychic, the obstetrician next door, the local reporter and more – all over-the-top characters – in this tried-and-true comedy by Jonathan Troy.

Lesley Roberts, familiar to local theater-goers from frequent appearances on stage, will make her directorial debut with “Agatha.” The show opens Oct. 18.

TIP:  “Agatha” closes the Theatre 98 season, which runs on a calendar year, but plans for next year should be announced during this show.

Child’s Play Outlets for Burgeoning Artists

The Port City has a knack for nurturing youth in the performing arts.

Playhouse in the Park
One of Mobile’s long-standing venues is planning a middle-school-and-up production of “Romeo and Juliet” for this spring, featuring period costumes and sets. On the way to the season finale, Playhouse will also present “The Conclusion of Edgar Allen Poe” and “Babes in Toyland, ” a theater favorite.

Sunny Side Theater
Director Chris Paragone has a thrilling season planned as it moves to its new location at 63 Midtown Park East. The Sunny Side team is especially looking forward to “Annie” in the spring, but also features “Dracula, ” “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and “Legally Blonde, The Musical.” This month the theater expands as Azalea City Center for the Arts, which will include music lessons and classes in drama, dance, voice, writing and photography, offered for both children and adults.

Mobile’s Singing Children
This program offers outstanding choral music oppor-tunities for local youth from grades second through 12th.

Mobile Symphony Youth Orchestra
Beginners learn in programs like Preludes and the string orchestra. All ages perform together in Bay Area Strings, but the Youth Orchestra is a concert caliber group with mostly high school age performers.

text by Nedra Bloom • illustration by Kelan Wright Mercer

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