FEATURE ‌ Boffo Box Office 

Spoleto aims for a fifth year of record receipts with its '07 program

Recently I was chatting with one of the admins at Spoleto Festival USA about the 2007 festival program, which the George Street gang announced on Dec. 31. Apparently, at a Spoleto board meeting late last year, when it was revealed that Dublin's Gate Theatre will be returning for a sixth appearance at the festival with W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 comedy of manners The Constant Wife, the room erupted in cheers and the moneyed hoi polloi were practically wiping tears of joy from their nipped, tucked eyes. It's no wonder. The Gate may very well be the most reliably bankable name on Nigel Redden's speed dial. The only way the festival could more thoroughly guarantee a sold-out run of 19 performances at the Dock Street this May would be to stack it with a celebrity like, I dunno, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Spoleto talks a big game about pushing the envelope and bringing the crazy -- and they do, regularly -- but they've also busted box office records wide open four years running. That doesn't happen without being trés savvy to what's going to sell. And sales for The Constant Wife, you can rest assured, will be as hot as Dutch love come May 25.

It's going to be in good company, from the looks of things. With a few notable exceptions, the 2007 program has record box office written all over it. Take contemporary composer Philip Glass' big American premiere of a new concert work, The Book of Longing, for example. Few potential ticket buyers are going to be impressed (or even aware) that Glass is one of the pioneers of minimalism and the composer of such operatic oddities as Einstein on the Beach and The CIVIL warS. But the Hollywood hook's bound to bring 'em in -- he's scored dozens of blockbuster films, including Kundun, The Hours, The Illusionist, Notes on a Scandal, and even Candyman (hey, he's got rent to pay just like all of us).

The festival is also trotting out a full three operas again this year, which has happened only a few times, last in 2005. None of the three is a Roméo et Juliette or Flying Dutchman -- in fact, Spoleto's studiously avoiding the acoustically-challenged Gaillard Auditorium for anything but the four dance programs and the big symphonic concerts that need all those seats -- but what the three operas lack in ostentation, they make up for in quirkiness.

Christoph Gluck's lighthearted Baroque fantasy L'ile de Merlin (Merlin's Island) looks to hit a similar note as 2004's La Bella Dormente, but without all the puppets. Another American premiere, Pascal Dusapin's riff on the well-trod Faust tale, Faustus, The Last Night, is a contemporary take on the bedeviled protagonist that reaches back 500 years to Christopher Marlowe's stage version for inspiration. Fittingly, Music In Time series director John Kennedy will conduct at the Sottile Theatre.

The dark horse of the three is the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill collaboration The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. Brecht was a postmodernist down to his political-satirical toes, but he also believed that theatre's chief purpose was to entertain, and Mahoganny's purportedly a perfect example. Consider that The Doors' Jim Morrison lifted his band's classic "Alabama Song" from this opera.

After The Constant Wife, Spoleto's theatre program is rounded out by a handful of promising curiosities -- the Dutch group Dood Paard's offers up a minimalist postmodern staging of that age-old laff riot Medea, wherein they spell it medEia, and New York's Foundry Theatre goes all Kubrickian with Major Bang, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb, a darkly comic take on modern global (in)security. Personally, that one had this critic at hello.

At the Emmett Robinson, the Frenchies of Aurélia Thierrée bring us what's billed as a "circus theater spectacle" in Aurélia's Oratorio -- combining physical theatre, comedy, magic, and dance. We'll miss the idiosyncratic Solo Turns series this year, but there's enough intrigue going on in the rest of the program that we're not planning on noticing its absence too much.

Both the dance and jazz cups in the '07 festival runneth over mightily. The footwork department presents four big ups -- including the return of prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and her new State Ballet of Georgia with a stab at Swan Lake -- as well as an encore from '03's Shen Wei Dance Arts and a first-time visit from contemporary Israeli group Batsheva Dance Company and their entourage of security goons. The Wachovia Jazz Series has gathered no fewer than seven acts, highlighted by legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and the return of '04 fave Renato Braz. A total of four concerts in the Cistern should keep the al fresco enthusiasts happy.

After wringing all the use it can out of Memminger Auditorium for five straight years, Spoleto's giving the dusty room a reprieve this year, presumably because it will have begun the building's $6 million renovation. Both of the big festival concerts will therefore take place at the Gaillard. More's the pity. Even so,Emmanuel Villaume will surely squeeze everything he can out of the Spoleto Symphony Orchestra for both Mahler's and Brahms' fourth symphonies there, and Joseph Flummerfelt can be counted on to flog his Westminster Choir's college-kid sensibilities into terror and submission when they tackle Verdi's Messa da requiem.

There's more, of course: Kennedy's Music in Time series promises its usual stable of eccentric contemporary delights; Courtenay Budd returns to the Chamber Music series after a break, and hottie harpist Catrin Finch will submit to another round of "plucking" puns from host Charles Wadsworth; the Intermezzi series this year moves from longtime home Grace Episcopal Church to St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on Upper King for reasons unnamed.

Will Spoleto finally crack the $3 million mark with its box office take this spring? Considering the friendly artistic program -- and the fact that they're less than $26,000 away from that magic number -- the tea leaves are reading awfully good.


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