Death, dying, demise, call it what you will, mortality appears to be the central theme of this year’s Spoleto Festival. From the U.S. premiere of German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s opera, The Little Match Girl to one-man show The Gambler’s Guide to Dying, rigor mortis is but a curtain call away. And yet we’re more excited about this year’s season than we have been in a while. We spent one recent morning with Spoleto Director of Marketing and Public Relations Jennifer Scott to find out more. Here’s our Cliff’s Notes on this year’s season.
The Little Match Girl
Don’t get it twisted, this is not a simple musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s devastatingly sad tale. Composer Helmut Lachenmann’s opera is going to be an arena rock-level production complete with 106 members of the Spoleto orchestra on risers surrounding the audience at Memminger performing his no-libretto-necessary contemporary work. Oh yeah, and there’s a shadow puppet show in the midst of it all.
Porgy & Bess
We know you know Porgy & Bess is the big show of the season. That news got leaked back in October, three months before its planned announcement. But here’s something you might not know: Porgy & Bess stars real life diva, soprano Alyson Cambridge and baritone Lester Lynch, it’s three hours and 15 minutes long, and will only be performed six times. Just six times? Yes. Think of the operatic score as a vocal marathon and you might begin to understand why the demanding production is limited to such a short run. Best get tickets now. They start at $45.
La Double Coquette
We’ll be honest, the arrival of La Double Coquette has us more psyched for the costumes than the actual opera itself. The images of costume designer Annette Messager’s work makes this French love triangle pop off the Spoleto brochure pages, but Jennifer Scott promises the baroque production, with English supertitles, will be just as titillating as the outfits its cast dons.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Some chide Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden for continuing to bring Dublin’s Gate Theatre to the festival year after year. But to them we say, are you kidding? No one does drawing room farce — think My Cousin Rachel, Hay Fever, and 1` — like the Irish troupe. Seriously, tell me when you’ll get another chance to see Oscar Wilde done at this level in Charleston? What’s that? I can’t hear you? Oh that’s right, never. If The Importance of Being Earnest is anything like the plays in Gate’s past 10 appearances, you can bet it will be a smash.
Every Brilliant Thing
We promised you death and this one-man show has it. British comedian Jonny Donahoe argues all the reasons for living in this dark comedy about growing up with a suicidal mother. Sounds like a real downer, but it’s not according to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where Every Brilliant Thing won numerous accolades and left audiences elated. Anyone who can take that subject matter and make it uplifting has our money.
The Gambler’s Guide to Dying
Scottish writer and actor Gary McNair’s grandfather won big in 1966 when he chose the right team to win the World Cup. Looking to double his luck, when he was diagnosed with cancer he bet all his gambling winnings on living to see the year 2000. And that’s the story McNair tells in his one man show that’s received lots of love, including The Scotsman award, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Don’t let the name fool you. Returning theater company 1927 is performing a show called Golem not Gollum a la Lord of the Rings. Golem is about a 21st century Frankenstein and promises all the outrageous technical wizardry 1927 has become known for. Keep in mind, this is the same group who brought Spoleto huge hits The Animals and Children Took to the Streets and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
We tend to roll our eyes when we hear the words puppet theater. Punch and Judy are about as entertaining as a bad acid trip. That said, Chicago troupe Manual Cinema looks like it’ll exhibit the right kind of freak show in their Ada/Ava performance. Imagine a life-size shadow puppet play presented a la your high school math teacher via retro screen projectors and accompanied by a live musicians on stage. Then add to that a storyline about a bereaved elderly twin morning the loss of her sister and you have a spooky performance the New York Times called “phantasms to die for.”
Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party
If you have always wanted to watch a man play Fats Waller classics while wearing a giant papier-mâché mask of his likeness, well have I got a ticket for you. Jason Moran, the artistic director for the Kennedy Center, brings the jazz pianist back from the dead for this Cistern show. Expect to get up and dance as songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” get a new twist.
Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet
How many living jazz artists can say they collaborated on their seminal album with poet Langston Hughes? There is but one and that man is Randy Weston. The 89-year-old piano great will do a one-night only show at the Gaillard Center that promises to intertwine his jazz style with his African roots.
Rene Marie is a regular Spoleto performer. I saw her in 2014 and raved about her daredevil performance, being so bold as to rework the inflection on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and knock it out of the park. My only gripe was that I had to watch her in the uncomfortable TD Arena. Fortunately, with the opening of the Gaillard, Marie can return to a proper stage and will sing for one night only in the 1,800 seat theater this year.
Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Spoleto’s entire jazz lineup feels freshened up this year and that’s thanks to the inclusion of great acts like Arturo O’Farrill. The son of Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill, Arturo was born in Mexico and raised in New York. This year’s performance has special meaning with the reopening of Cuba and that will be acknowledged during a talk “The Conversation Continues: The US, Cuba, and Jazz” hosted by Wall Street Journal jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld on May 29.
Cecile McLorin Salvant
Grammy-nomiated jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant returns to Spoleto this year. She made her last appearance in 2012 and earned solid reviews from CP. Writer Ballard Lesseman said she “showed off an incredible range and a genuinely emotive style, plus she added a few touches of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald along the way.” More of the same is expected when she takes the stage for her June 3 Cistern performance.
In addition to Arturo O’Farrill, Bohemian Trio brings more Afro-Cuban rhythms to Spoleto. This threesome, including saxophonist Yosvany Terry, pianist Orlando Alonso, and cellist Yves Dharamraj, will perform a show described as “a polyphony of cultures.”
The Freddy Cole Quartet
Freddy Cole is the brother of the late, great Nat King Cole. That’s a pretty large shadow to overcome. Luckily Freddy has a sense of humor about it. He even wrote a great jazz song, “I’m not my brother, I’m me” that includes the line “see my brother made a whole lot of money and I sing the blues.” Check out the YouTube clip of it and we think you’ll be thoroughly convinced Freddy carries on the best of the Cole family talent in his own signature style.
Aakash Odedra Company
Spa music meets Thai Chi meets pilates in Aakash Odedra’s one of a kind dance performance, Rising. The British South Asian dancer combines traditional Indian dance with contemporary movement for a program that’s been called “a marvelously conceived and supremely well-executed show.” Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of Odedra’s visit is a master class he’ll give on June 4 to interested area dancers.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Because we always like to appeal to the lowest common denominator, know this: the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performance will include full frontal nudity. Now that we’ve got your attention, you should also know it will also include three dance pieces, one of which has won two New York Dance Bessie Awards.
L.A. Dance Project
Did you see Black Swan? Perhaps you’ll recall the fact that its star Natalie Portman met her husband, the film’s choreographer Benjamin Millepied, on set. Well Millepied is the founder of L.A. Dance Project, but he won’t be in town for the show.
Cuba makes a second appearance in the dance offerings at Spoleto this year, this time with Havana Rakatan. Think of it as a Zumba class on stage but with people wearing costumes instead of yoga pants. Mambo, salsa, bolero and cha-cha-cha will all make appearances during choreographer Nida Guerra’s Gaillard Center show.
Finally hip hop dance gets its due. Five Seattle-based B-Boys perform in Opposing Forces and will bring rap culture and contemporary dance to Memminger Auditorium. Would-be street dancers will also have the bonus opportunity to work with Opposing Forces in a master class on June 11.
Old Crow Medicine Show
What are your feelings on “Wagon Wheel”? If you’re in the “cool with it” camp, then Spoleto’s kick-off festival show at the Cistern is for you. Old Crow Medicine Show will perform two nights.
40th-Season Celebration Concert
Spoleto is throwing down for their 40th birthday with a blowout concert. The full Spoleto Fest orchestra, Westminister Choir, Bank of America musicians, and Wells Fargo jazz players will all perform together on May 28 at the Gaillard Center. You can expect some hat tips to fest founder Gian Carlo Menotti says Jennifer Scott, as well as some surprises.
Afram ou La Belle Swita
One of the coolest stories to come out of this season, Spoleto is showcasing the world premiere of Edmund Thornton Jenkins Afram ou La Belle Swita. Jenkins was the son of Rev. Daniel Jenkins who founded Charleston’s historic Jenkins Orphanage. He studied at London’s Royal Academy and lived in Paris where he wrote this work. Jenkins had hoped Harlem Renaissance star Florence Mills would star in it, alas he died at age 32 before the work could ever be performed.
Grace Notes: Reflections for Now
Spoleto would be remiss in not acknowledging the recent tragedy Charleston faced with the Mother Emanuel AME tragedy last June. With that in mind, visual artist Carrie Mae Weems has been enlisted to perform Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a performance inspired by Obama’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung during the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. Details on the actual performance are scant right now, but chances are it will be a moving experience.
Spoleto Festival Finale
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are the headliners this year for Spoleto’s finale. The Denver-based group will bring their soulful stylings to the Middleton Place fete.
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