i don't really do top 10 lists: How can you compare, say, a Mahler symphony with a play by August Wilson, and while you're at it, give each a ranking? But here are some highlights and a lowlight or two from the performing arts scene in 2011.
I have never had a problem finding relevance in classical music — a Shostakovich symphony tells me a lot of what I need to know about Russian history, for example — but I understand that it is remote from the experience of many people these days. The Florida Orchestra went a long way to break down barriers with two initiatives. At the box office, it lowered ticket prices significantly and simply, to $15, $30 and $45, and has been rewarded with fuller concert halls, including quite a few sellouts. And a wind quintet from the orchestra inaugurated a cultural exchange with Cuba, a project potentially rich with importance. On the downside, music director Stefan Sanderling announced he is leaving when his contract expires in 2014, and he left no doubt he is unhappy with the board and management, especially its approach to balancing the budget by cutting musicians' pay.
Down the rabbit hole
A group of 35 Tampa Bay investors who put $3.2 million into Wonderland, adapted from Alice in Wonderland and developed at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, got an expensive lesson in Broadway economics when the Frank Wildhorn musical flopped. Wildhorn had a second show open on Broadway a few months later. Bonnie & Clyde, which had a tryout at Asolo Repertory Theatre, flopped, too.
Lisa McMillan gave a spectacular, harrowing performance as the sharp-tongued, pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. The American Stage production — not at its own theater but at the Palladium Theater — was a darkly comic triumph.
Finally, the University of South Florida in Tampa has a fine concert hall in its new School of Music Building. And in Miami Beach, Frank Gehry designed a concert hall of the future — complete with live "Wallcasts" beamed on the front of the building — for the New World Symphony.
Who would have dreamed that a golden oldie like Man of La Mancha could break free of its past? Eric Davis' "immersive staging" for freeFall Theatre made The Impossible Dream and all the rest feel as fresh and contemporary as a new piece of musical theater.
Somehow Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) created a compelling, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a suburban housewife named Diana Goodman who suffers from bipolar disorder. Next to Normal, featuring Stacia Fernandez as Diana, was almost overwhelming in the intimacy of Florida Studio Theatre. (Next to Normal continues through Jan. 14.)
Elton John wrote a surprisingly modest score for Billy Elliot, which was the best road show to pass this way at the Straz Center. Instead of catchy pop tunes, John paid homage to the folk music of northeast England, and his hard-driving Solidarity propelled one of the best dance numbers you'll ever see, as little girls in tutus did arabesques and pirouettes amid surging lines of riot police and striking coal miners.
How do you solve a problem like Maria? You make a modern dance out of The Sound of Music. Choreographer Doug Elkins' Fraulein Maria was the hit of the Ringling International Arts Festival.
Stewart Goodyear kicked out the jams in his scintillating run through Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F with the Florida Orchestra. It takes a remarkable pianist to bring this sometimes ungainly work to pulsating life, and Goodyear did exactly that with his taut, percussive style.
American Stage has done an outstanding job of casting for its ongoing series of August Wilson plays, epitomized by the actors in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The easy, cynical banter of three studio musicians — played by Kim Sullivan, Alan Bomar Jones and Ron Bobb-Semple, all of whom were in previous Wilson productions at the theater — was a pleasure. The late playwright, who loved hanging out with musicians, would have approved.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.