Late summer always triggers back-to-school feelings, even though, thankfully, I'm well past the age for stockpiling spiral notebooks. With adulthood comes a grown-up version of back to school: back to the arts, that glorious time of year when local venues unveil a new season of performances. Fresh neon highlighters come in handy for selecting concerts, musicals and other cultural goodies.
Here's a crib sheet of upcoming performances at two of Madison's key venues, the Overture Center for the Arts and Wisconsin Union Theater. Put this in your notes as well: The Union Theater is closed for renovations until fall of 2014, so its performances have been moved to several other UW-Madison venues. Find full schedules and late-breaking event announcements at overturecenter.com and uniontheater.wisc.edu.
Overture's lively survey of musicals and dance
Overture is Madison's home for splashy Broadway shows. This season commences with two shows that celebrate pop-music history. The Tony-winning Jersey Boys begins a two-and-a-half-week run Nov. 7. Filled with golden oldies such as "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry," the show recounts the formation of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.
Beginning Dec. 4, the sounds of a different era - the 1980s - come to life in Rock of Ages, a goofy paean to hair metal that recently spawned a Tom Cruise film. Its original Broadway run took place in 2009, and its score is jam-packed with songs by by Poison, Whitesnake and Night Ranger. Stephen Sondheim it ain't, but depending on your memories of spandex and the Reagan era (assuming you were alive then), it could become a guilty pleasure. After all, it doesn't take itself too seriously.
A true Sondheim gem, West Side Story, will open at Overture Feb. 12. This vibrant musical teems with famous tunes by Leonard Bernstein, including "Tonight," "Maria" and "I Feel Pretty." These timeless songs will appeal to musical-theater purists, and the story's combination of romance and violence is thrilling.
Families with kids can ride their umbrellas to Mary Poppins, which opens March 12. Penned by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes, this new musical gives the magical nanny a contemporary update. Though this production features songs from the 1964 Disney film of the same name, it debuts a collection of brand-new musical numbers. The script also draws from P.L. Travers' books, which inspired the beloved film.
The Broadway season closes with the return of Wicked, which wowed audiences in the fall of 2010 - and drew them to Overture in record numbers. This musical explores the backstories of familiar Wizard of Oz characters, especially the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. Opening May 22, it's a delight for brains and ears alike. Sly, funny commentary about coming of age pairs nicely with powerhouse singing in numbers such as "Defying Gravity." This time around, there will be lots of repeat viewers in the crowd.
Overture also has plenty of kid-friendly theater on tap, from Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of The Little Prince (Feb. 3) to a stage adaptation of the bunny-themed children's book Guess How Much I Love You (Feb. 16). Tiny tots will marvel at 3-Legged Tale, a wordless play about a camera that explores forest life with the help of a nimble tripod. Presented by Théatre de l'Oeil, an acclaimed puppet theater from Montreal, this show is a smart, visually compelling introduction to theater for elementary-schoolers.
Theater isn't Overture's only strength. Cabaret, jazz and world music will fill its halls with drama and humor this season. German singer Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester will re-create the smooth, witty cabaret vibe of Weimar Germany April 8. With his spotless tuxedo and slicked-back hair, Raabe is as much an actor as a singer. His brand of Teutonic cool is funny as well.
Jazz lovers should catch "Live at Birdland" featuring the Birdland Big Band Oct. 23. The group will travel to the opulent Capitol Theater from their storied digs in New York City. The cool Branford Marsalis Quartet will warm up Overture Hall Feb. 28. The sizzle continues March 1, when the Juan Siddi Flamenco Theatre Company melds passionate singing, dancing and guitar playing. Each stomp should be palpable as the group performs in the relatively intimate Capitol Theater. For another taste of traditional Latin culture, check out Ballet Folklorico de México's colorful spectacle in Overture Hall Oct. 9.
Fans of contemporary dance can savor a Feb. 1 appearance by Diavolo Dance Theater, a Los Angeles company that captures the imagination with surrealistic sets and hints of everyday life. Another dance standout is the Oct. 30 presentation of Moulin Rouge by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. This full-length story ballet places the grace and athleticism of classical dance in a decadent fin-de-siècle setting.
Two famed companies join forces in "Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and LINES Ballet Unite," which visits Overture March 20. Neither outfit is a stranger to Madison. Dancers from both companies will pair up to share intriguing new expressions when presenting work by LINES artistic director Alonzo King.
This season's most challenging offering might be a performance by the Montreal circus-arts troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand). Opening April 20, this show will explore several varieties of psychological turmoil using acrobatics, trapezes and smoke machines.
Wisconsin Union Theater's world-music primer
The Union Theater has divided its offerings among campus venues such as Mills Hall, Union South and Mitchell Theater. Following tradition, the season begins with the free Madison World Music Festival. Highlights include Tunisia's MC Rai, who blends traditional Chaabi folk music with rock and hip-hop (Sept. 14), and Pakistan's Zeb and Haniya, a tuneful pop duo with a bluesy undercurrent (Sept. 15)
Later in the month, music fans can watch the chamber-music group Imani Winds infuse classical music with an unexpected world-music element (Sept. 28, Mills Hall). This quintet has distinguished itself by incorporating African and Latin influences and by regularly commissioning new work.
More global sounds will emanate from the university Nov. 2, when Grupo Fantasma visits the Sett at Union South, which has shaped up to be a prime spot for live music. To make hips swivel, these Grammy winners mix funk with mambo, merengue, cumbia and several other styles of Latin music.
Take a musical vacation to the Scottish Highlands with Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, a fiddle-and-cello duo who'll stop by Music Hall Nov. 15. Fraser hails from a tiny town in Scotland, and Haas is a young, Juilliard-trained American. Their energy and impeccable musicianship should make this show a real treat.
Scotophiles should also mark their calendars for April 18, when Julie Fowlis, a singer and multi-instrumentalist from the Outer Hebrides, will croon in Scottish Gaelic. Still in her early 30s, Fowlis is a rising international star who performed several tunes on the soundtrack to the Pixar film Brave.
Fans of Irish music can get their fix as well. Karan Casey and John Doyle, cofounders of the Irish supergroup Solas, will share some sounds from the Emerald Isle at the Sett March 2. As a vocal-and-guitar duo, they'll present a more spare - but no less powerful - take on their country's traditional folk sounds.
One of Africa's most important vocalists, South African Vusi Mahlasela, comes to the Sett Feb. 15. Known simply as "the Voice" in his homeland, Mahlasela shares a musical vision that is politically conscious, positive and full of hope. For more African vocal music, check out Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi April 12 at the Sett. He sings in several languages, including English, Shona and Ndebele.
Jazz and classical music also get their due. Tia Fuller, a jazz saxophonist and composer who has toured with Beyoncé, will wow audiences for free at the Sett Oct. 12. A graduate of Spelman College and the University of Colorado, she's a stylish performer steeped in jazz history.
Other jazz highlights include the Ninety Miles Project (Nov. 29), a trio whose name refers to the distance between the U.S. and Cuba. After hurdling lots of red tape, the vibist, trumpeter and sax player traveled to Havana to perform with Cuban colleagues and released a 2011 album that documents the results. Gerald Clayton and his trio come to town April 6, and the season concludes with the Isthmus Jazz Festival (May 31-June 1).
Classical-music offerings range from traditional to contemporary. Jeffrey Siegel and his Keyboard Conversations will dazzle with a "Spellbinding Bach" program Oct. 16, then return April 30 with "Listen to the Dance: Waltzes, Marches, Polkas and Tangos." Both shows take place in Mills Hall.
Baby-faced cellist Joshua Roman brings his versatile musicianship to the UW Symphony Orchestra for a guest performance in Mills Hall Nov. 10. Classical pianist Jeremy Denk returns April 11, and Canadian cellist Zoë Keating will fill a high-tech May 4 performance with rich layers of sound, which she creates via live sampling.
For a small city, we're lucky to represent every point on the performing-arts spectrum, from big-budget musicals to intimate jazz concerts. With a little bit of planning, you can tailor this season to your tastes, stitching together familiar favorites and novel acts you'll want to study for years.