Madison's cultural scene just keeps growing and getting better. So much so, in fact, that it's hard to keep up with it all. But we give it our best. Now it's time for retrospection. Five Isthmus critics look back on the year in theater, classical music, dance and comedy.
Under the direction of Jessica Lanius, Theatre LILA started off the year strong with a powerful and imaginative production of Nilaja Sun's No Child..., a one-woman show about a teaching artist working with one of the toughest classes in New York City's public schools. Creating more than a dozen distinct characters -- from the school's aged janitor to the overworked female principal to a young boy whose brother was just shot by gangbangers -- Marti Gobel's performance left audiences mesmerized.
American Players Theatre's offerings are consistently brilliant, bringing together some of the best actors, designers and directors from across the country to present classical work outdoors.
The productions that make me wistful for hot summer nights in Spring Green include APT's glorious Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Colleen Madden and David Daniel as the bickering lovers; a definitive, heartbreaking Romeo and Juliet. There is a reason this quaint Victorian comedy is produced so much -- its dialogue and plot are witty, its characters and their foibles are timeless, and the laughs are almost guaranteed. Under Bill Brown's direction, the production felt invigorated and brand new.
Overture Center celebrated its 10th anniversary with a dizzying amount of programming, including some top-notch touring companies of recent Broadway hits. The lyrical and enchanting music of Once and the stunning visual artistry of War Horse were the highlights of their season.
Another musical stand-out was Music Theatre of Madison's production of the Broadway failure Bonnie & Clyde. This version, directed by Meghan Randolph, was electric and surprisingly tuneful, capitalizing on the charisma of the main characters, played to perfection by Fiorella Fernandez and Brian Shutters.
I only saw one show from Four Seasons Theatre this year, but based on their production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, we should all plan on seeing many, many more in 2015 and beyond. Directed by Jessica Lanius, the story of misguided social misfits who channel their rage and disappointment into murdering presidents was as disturbing as it was musically and visually spectacular.
And finally, UW-Madison's theater department should be recognized for consistently pushing the envelope this year, with Christa Lewandowski's incredible costume designs for a kabuki Richard III, Heather Pickering's colorful and imaginative The Yellow Boat and Shannon Davis's intellectual and provocative Helen.
My year in theater was a mix of strange and sublime. Sometimes, I left a performance feeling jaded and confused. At other times, elated. There wasn't much middle ground. There was, however, one common thread: Many shows this year challenged me, in one way or another.
Strollers Theatre's The Baltimore Waltz was weirdly unforgettable, unfolding in a dreamscape where things rarely make sense. Made up of speedy and surreal vignettes, the show revolved around a brother and sister facing a fictitious illness, "acquired toilet disease" (a stand-in for AIDS), as they traipsed around Europe. A thought-provoking work with stand-out performances, the overall effect of The Baltimore Waltz left me scratching my head.
American Players Theatre's Alcestis had the potential to confuse audiences, but between poet Ted Hughes' translation and David Frank's directorial choices, this 2,500-year-old play was easy to follow and relevant. Hughes' translation was contemporary, and the themes of life, death and love were universal. I left moved, contemplating the existential.
Answers didn't come easy in APT's The Seagull. The hero figure in this tragic and complicated love story was hard to find -- and that's a good thing. This production got Chekov's very dark humor right, making for an especially engaging evening and a lively discussion on the ride home from Spring Green. And I don't think I've seen a more stunning ending to any play, ever -- The Seagull ended in silence, punctuated by a look of horror that was simultaneously gut-wrenching and beautiful.
Theatre LILA wowed me with the gorgeous The Suitcase Dreams. A mix of theater, poetry and dance, it absolutely blew me away. Composed of original vignettes, each involving a suitcase, this show challenged me the way good art should. A ridiculously talented cast was icing on the cake. The Suitcase Dreams left me inspired and feeling alive.
Theatre LILA is definitely a company to watch. Theater should challenge audiences in ways that engage and inspire. It's clear the folks at Theatre LILA understand that. I can't wait to see where they go in 2015.
--Amelia Cook Fontella
It was another great year for stand-up comedy in Madison. Here are some of the highlights of the national and local performers who graced our stages.
In two nights in April at the Comedy Club on State, Maria Bamford showed why she's one of the strongest comedians working today. Her performances were dynamic, innovative and hilarious. Bamford is a study in balance — she confronts her own history with anxiety and depression without letting it overwhelm the jokes, and she uses her impressive voice acting abilities without ever losing herself. Perhaps most impressively, Bamford's show is so strong the audience never notices the balancing act that is taking place.
There's no way I could leave Dave Chappelle off the best-of list. By far the biggest Madison comedy show of 2014, he sold out six performances in the newly renovated Orpheum. After all the drama surrounding the end of Chappelle's show and his interactions with awful catchphrase-shouting audience members, it was delightful to see him get to just tell jokes on stage. Casual and confident, he looked like he was having fun as he went through bits about raising a family and ribbed our city for its plaid-heavy fashion trends.
Chappelle almost upended The Daily Show alum Wyatt Cenac's appearance at the Majestic, which was going to be the comedy event of the weekend, until Chappelle's shows were announced for that very same night. In an interview on Conan shortly before the showdown, Cenac gave an almost surreal detailed description of Madison's entertainment venues and our downtown's geography on national television. He had no need to be concerned; he still filled the Majestic and put on a great show. While always funny, Cenac has turned introspective and personal since leaving The Daily Show. It is worth watching to see what he does next.
Between the midterm elections and racially charged events in Ferguson, this fall wasn't a fun time for people committed to social justice. W. Kamau Bell did not solve any of the major problems facing society, but at least he let us laugh about them. He dissected issues large and small, a potent reminder that his FX talk show, Totally Biased, was taken off the air far too soon. (Full disclosure: I opened for Bell, and I must say I killed it.)
Madison's homegrown comedy took a big step forward with the Second Story Comedy Showcase, a monthly stand-up show at the Rigby produced by local comedian Toler Wolfe. While Monday might not seem like the best night for entertainment, the show draws regular crowds peppered with bartenders and servers (Monday night is their Saturday night). Wolfe is also a solid booker, bringing in comics from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. He's even managed to book a couple of bigger names like Michael Harrison. Hopefully, this local gem will continue to grow in 2015.
I was heartened this year to see how well local dance instructors are training the next generation of dancers in Madison -- whether it's students at the Madison Ballet and Kanopy schools or the UW-Madison dance department. Some of these young dancers will most likely leave the city for larger stages, and they will be well equipped to do so. Also exciting were the numerous and fruitful collaborations between local companies and visiting guest artists and celebrated choreographers.
Kanopy Dance is one of the leaders on this front, forging artistic partnerships with formidable guest artists. In Mime Body Spirit, the company collaborated with corporeal mime luminaries Steve Wasson and Corrine Soum (who also performed an evocative duet, "Resonance II").
Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez, always a strong performer, revealed new skills as the titular character in "A Strange Day for Mr. K." With his elastic face and quicksilver moves, he reminded me of playful and expressive modern clowns like Bill Irwin and David Shiner. The entire company showed aptitude for corporeal mime, having done an intensive program with Wasson and Soum's White Church Theatre Project in Spring Green this summer. The collaborative work made me realize that my negative preconceptions of mime were based on Shields and Yarnell '70s-style pantomime, not the type of mime championed by Wasson and Soum's mentor, Etienne Decroux, "the father of modern mime."
Kanopy co-artistic director Lisa Thurrell's "Lamentation Variation," a spare and elegant exploration of grief, performed by Thurrell, Deborah Goodman and Sandra Kaufmann, underscored how fortunate Madison audiences are that Kanopy draws major names from the modern dance world like Goodman, Kaufmann, Martin Løfsnes, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Donlin Foreman and Jenny Emerson Foreman.
Li Chiao-Ping Dance company's audacious and ambitious Rise Over Run: Off the Wall Dances was an evening of works performed in public and private spaces -- some of which are typically off limits -- in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery building. I didn't love every piece and sometimes had to jostle for a good spot to see the action, but I acknowledge the enormous logistical challenges the production conquered, and it was satisfying to see Li's innovative choreography and compelling performances from dancers like Liz Sexe and Rachel Krinsky.
Sexe's solo in and around a featherbed nestled under trees in the WID atrium was noteworthy for her blend of gutsiness and tenderness. Krinsky moves with more strength and suppleness than most dancers half her age.
The UW's dance department is an incubator for talent as faculty members continue to create interesting new works and young dancers evolve during their time in the program. Nicolette Meunier first caught my eye in Li's -valence, which was on the faculty concert program (the piece was also included in the WID performance).
Meunier showed confidence and maturity as a technician and performer in works from other choreographers this year as well as her own solo at the recent Kloepper Concert, a night of student works. Sarah Schwab is a dancer who draws my attention with her purity of movement and quiet, but strong presence. Two young student choreographers who showed promise were Alexis Aguilar and Courtney Kuhn.
Madison Ballet's colorful Nutcracker production has been performed in Overture Hall for a decade, and three company dancers shined especially brightly in this year's production: Marguerite Luksik as the Sugarplum Fairy; Shannon Quirk as the Dewdrop Fairy (alternating roles with Luksik); and Rachelle Butler in the steamy Arabian pas de deux.
These three were also impressive in the company's spring offering, Repertory II, when they were partnered with former New York City Ballet star Charles Askegard in George Balanchine's breezy "Who Cares?" (It should be noted that it's a big deal for a small, regional ballet company to be granted permission to perform works from Balanchine's repertory.)
Luksik and Quirk were excellent as freewheeling hippie chicks in artistic director W. Earle Smith's 1960s-inspired "Groovy," and Butler was the best I've seen her in Smith's Tuscan frolic "La Luce d'Amore."
Classical music had a fine year in 2014. Soloist Yefim Bronfman provided one of the highlights when he joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra to play not one, but two Beethoven Piano Concertos. Guest conductor Julian Wachner drew a fine Mozart Requiem from the MSO Chorus, while maestro John DeMain showered his flair on Gershwin and Bernstein. The rich autumn offerings included the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony, the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony and the Nielsen Fourth, along with the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang.
Andrew Sewell continued his Bruckner exploration with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in a satisfying Second Symphony in January; in three other concerts he demonstrated his affinity for Haydn and Mozart symphonies. He also pulled off the mighty Beethoven Third, along with that fascinating hybrid, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. Best among the orchestra's soloists was the dazzling Rachel Barton Pine in an October concert.
Our community's "third orchestra," the Middleton Community Orchestra, upheld its honor with an eloquent Eighth Symphony by Dvorák in October.
The Madison Opera offered a delightful performance of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment in February, with a bubbly cast headed by locals Caitlin Cisler and Allisanne Apple, and a gripping presentation of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, with both the composer and the real-life heroine, Sister Helen Prejean, on hand. The company finished the year powerfully with Beethoven's only opera, the rarely staged Fidelio, in late November.
The UW Opera bid farewell to its director, William Farlow, with Berlioz's quirky but sparkling Béatrice et Bénédict in April. In October, the new acting director, David Ronis, debuted with an admirable presentation of Britten's comic rarity, Albert Herring.
The choral scene was lively, with two presentations of Rachmaninoff's sublime All-Night Vigil; Beverly Taylor's Choral Union was less than ideal but the Festival Choir gave a truly beautiful performance. Taylor was in good form when directing the UW Concert Choir in Bach's St. John Passion, and in a rousing program of Te Deum settings by Dvorák and Verdi and Vaughan Williams' Flos Campi.
Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians offered an inspiring period-style rendition of Bach's Mass in B minor in April, followed by a delicious program of Bach Cantatas and Concertos in October and a satisfying menu of unspoiled early Christmas music in December.
The UW's world-class Pro Arte Quartet offered the final programs in its commissions series in March and September. The Ancora Quartet, without its usual first violinist, managed a program of three piano quartets in May and then its first experiment with a guest violinist in September.
There was plenty to see and hear over the summer as well. The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society peaked in Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances with stunning performances by pianists Christopher Taylor and Jeffrey Sykes. The Token Creek Festival in August included a John Harrison premiere. In July, the Madison Early Music Festival delivered a week of Renaissance Italian music, and Madison Savoyards gave an unevenly sung but handsomely staged Princess Ida. And Mikko Utevsky's Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra performed miracles with Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony.
--John W. Barker