Madison's two main performing-arts palaces, anchoring State Street's ends, are like apples and oranges. Overture Center, on the Capitol end, is controversial. Its 21st-century facilities are state-of-the-art, but is it a boon for our booming city or an expensive error? The 87-year-old art deco Wisconsin Union Theater, on the campus end, is Overture's opposite. It's comfortably funky - a hallowed hall, part of the megaversity so many of us have ties to. But both venues offer robust 2006-07 seasons that contribute a gigantic chunk to the city's cultural identity and compete for your theater-ticket dollars. Here's how they stack up.
Overture Presents - essentially, the center's nonresident, out-of-town, big-name lineup - aims for Madison's broad-spectrum mix. That's no easy task, given our rapidly enlarging city. On this year's bill (with performances in both Overture Hall and the Capitol Theater) everybody'll find shows to love and others to complain about.
The season's seven Broadway touring shows swing from local faves like the many-lived Cats (Jan. 5-7) and perky Mamma Mia! (May 29-Jun. 3) to the campier, four-Tony Aida (Nov. 9-11) from Lion King team Elton John, Tim Rice and Disney Productions. For a girls-night-out dinner and show, Menopause the Musical (March 6-18) might be fun.
Overture's pop roster looks lackluster - Gordon Lightfoot (Sept. 21), the Nylons (May 3), Steven March Tormé (Feb. 23) singing the tunes his father, Mel, made famous. The jazz and blues agenda is much spicier. A soulful evening's on tap with R&B boss Bo Diddley (Oct. 18) backed by rising blues messengers Ruthie Foster and Alvin Youngblood Hart. Gypsy fiddle virtuoso Roby Lakatos (Nov. 15) plays flaming classical/gypsy/jazz with a righteous ensemble of Magyar musicians.
Lakatos tickets would pair well with seats for superstar classical violinist Itzhak Perlman (Oct. 24). Also on the classical calendar, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (May 4) plays serious music, like Brahms' "German Requiem."
Overture's world season is sweet. I'll take mariachis any time, and Los Camperos de Nati Cano (Dec. 8) is chingón. You know what I mean. This glorious band from L.A. can make you dance and cry. The Soweto Gospel Choir, full of grace on Overture's stage in '05, returns (Mar. 9). Sitar guru Ravi Shankar's on the bill with his daughter and protégée, Anoushka (April 17).
The astute Tim Robbins directs his collaborators in the Actors' Gang, an L.A. experimental troupe Robbins helped found in the Reagan years, in a new stage adaptation of 1984 (April 20).
Overture's got a splendid dance season that starts with Martha Graham Dance Company (Oct. 17), revitalized when it won the rights to revive the grande dame's works last year. Rubberbandance Group (Nov. 10), a sizzling young company, is directed by Victor Quijada, a Chicano B-boy from L.A. who honed his chops dancing with Twyla Tharp and Montreal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.
Also on the bill: the brilliant Ronald K. Brown (Feb. 16), whose modern-dance choreography ranges from supremely funky to sublime. Even the return of Moscow Festival Ballet's tour-weary dancers doing creaky classics (Sleeping Beauty this time, on Jan. 23) is worth mentioning in ballet-starved Mad City.
The timeworn Wisconsin Union Theater's season is smaller and edgier. No tired pop, no schlock. Opening the theater's 87th Annual Concert Series this year is Russian pianist Olga Kern, the first woman to win the Van Cliburn award in 30 years, playing Mendelssohn, Chopin and Rachmaninoff in her Madison debut (Oct. 19).
Another Madison first-timer, presented in partnership with Madison Opera, is the Met's first-ever Sills Award star, Nathan Gunn (March 24), the punky young baritone you see on the cover of Opera News with his shirt off.
Piano and cello phenoms David Finckel and Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and husband and wife in real life, play sparkling duets (March 2). Jeffrey Siegel returns with four Keyboard Conversations (Sept. 26, Dec. 12, March 6, May 1) for his faithful followers in Mills Hall.
The Union Theater's become a national destination for world music since the inception of its World Stage Series and the annual Madison World Music Festival in 2004. The festival (Sept. 21-23), as always, comes stocked with surprises. Among my pick hits: Forró for All's gritty Brazilian accordion-based dance tunes and Aza's amazing Amazigh (Berber) music.
The World Stage kicks off with world-beat diva Natacha Atlas (Sept. 19), who looks like a latter-day Little Egypt and plays lush neo-electronic North African pop edged with reggae and hip-hop. Acoustic Africa (Nov. 5) brings three spellbinding singers from Putumayo's eponymous new anthology to the Union Theater stage - Malian guitarist Habib Koité and Vusi Mahlasela, "The Voice," from South Africa, plus rising young singer/percussionist Dobet Gnaore from the Ivory Coast.
Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca, the sexiest Spanish song-and-dance act on the planet these days, unleash spitfire alegrias, pulsing palos and farruca footwork (March 8). Technically part of the World Stage series, this show's also the WUT's season dance highlight. The season's only other dance concert is Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (Feb. 23), performing repertory works by the late master of multimedia, Alwin Nikolais. In a year of tributes to modern-dance masters I'm more psyched about the Graham Company (on Overture's program), but Nik had deep ties to the UW-Madison Dance Program, so alums will love this show.
If Overture trumps the Union Theater in dance this year, the reverse is true when it comes to jazz. The Isthmus Jazz Series at the Wisconsin Union Theater - a brand-new extension of this paper's Isthmus Jazz Festival " knocks my socks off. Great God a' mighty, what a lineup - hard bop piano potentate McCoy Tyner (Oct. 6); Latin jazz giant Eddie Palmieri (Dec. 2), fresh from his eighth Grammy win for Listen Here; sumptuous songstress Dianne Reeves (Feb. 15), who can wrap her buttery voice around three octaves, scale the heights of scat and bend blue notes like Superman bends steel.
If all that's not enough, the Union Theater features National Poetry Slam champ Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Feb. 24) with Youth Speaks Wisconsin, our own streetwise young spoken-word artists. Youth Speaks isn't mere poetry - it's a world-changing movement. All power to the people.
For complete info check www.uniontheater.wisc.edu and www.overturecenter.com. Both theaters have discount prices for certain groups, so look and see if you qualify. And don't go by my opinions - choose the tickets you like best. As my grandma always said, de gustibus non disputandum est. There's no disputing over taste.