Decade of solid advances in performing arts in Tampa Bay area

In the performing arts, the most important thing that happened in the Tampa Bay area in the past decade took place in June, when American Stage moved into its new space in downtown St. Petersburg with a production of Tuesdays with Morrie.

What? A sappy Hallmark card of a play by a sportswriter was the best the performing arts could come up with in the years bridged by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and a devastating recession?

No, no, not the play, which just happened to be on the schedule when the move could be made. The space itself — Raymond James Theatre, to use its proper name — instantly raised the bar for the quality of the performing arts in the bay area. As fondly remembered as the company's quirky old space was, any nostalgia was completely banished by the experience of enjoying theater in a top-flight facility, which was shrewdly designed to retain the intimacy audiences were used to.

American Stage, guided by producing artistic director Todd Olson, also understood that it had to up the ante in terms of the caliber and importance of what it put onstage. Thus, the launch of August Wilson's cycle of 10 plays chronicling African-American life in the 20th century, one play for each decade. The company started with Gem of the Ocean in 2007, followed by King Hedley II — a daring choice because of the play's difficulty — and Fences, which set an attendance record this past fall. It plans to include a Wilson work in every season until the cycle is complete.

In a city that had racial disturbances in the 1990s, the significance of American Stage finally digging into seminal black theater — it had never previously done any Wilson plays — cannot be overstated.

American Stage's new theater crystallized the identity of St. Petersburg as a burgeoning arts and culture center, potentially a sort of Monte Carlo for the Gulf Coast. To complement the city's museum and gallery scene, as well as the emergence of other lively arts organizations such as the Studio@620, the performing arts were energized by a deal in 2007, brokered by Mayor Rick Baker and other civic leaders. It put American Stage's theater and offices, the offices of the Florida Orchestra and the Palladium Theater all under the aegis of St. Petersburg College.

This partnership of academe and the arts promises to enhance both sides of the arrangement. Already, you can see a glimmer of what the future could hold by visiting the college building that houses the theater and orchestra facilities and Florida International Museum. The shared box office — tickets to the Palladium are also sold there — and marketing is a rare example of collaboration among arts organizations, and the view of the city through the glass wall of the American Stage lobby can be positively glamorous. Sure, Williams Park is still pretty raffish, but it's not hard to imagine its transformation into a vital town square someday.

All that's missing from the equation is a healthy Mahaffey Theater, the city-owned venue that occupies a prime location on the waterfront. Gorgeously renovated and reopened in 2006, it is the dead star of the St. Petersburg arts constellation. With the exception of orchestra concerts, which do well there, Mahaffey has been unable to fashion a niche for itself in the marketplace.

An eye on Broadway

Unlike St. Petersburg, where a variety of relatively small arts organizations bloom, Tampa is dominated by a single institution, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and renamed in November when Tampa financier David A. Straz Jr. gave a sizable donation to the center). It reached a defining moment just a few weeks ago with the premiere of Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure.

This Frank Wildhorn musical was geared to go to Broadway, and its specific fate will depend on the vagaries of the theater industry — and on the rewrite the show needs. But the greater achievement is that it was produced by the Straz and its Broadway-savvy chief executive, Judy Lisi. At a cost of $3.3 million, it was the largest single stage production ever mounted in the bay area. To forge ahead with it in the face of the recession was a bold gamble by Lisi, who is positioning the center to become a major tryout venue for Broadway shows.

Lisi is a true impresario. She has made Tampa's performing arts center one of the leading presenters of Broadway tours, but hasn't neglected less commercial fare. Almost single-handedly, she has been responsible for the success of Opera Tampa, which she formed as a part of the center. In 2001, it premiered Sacco & Vanzetti, a sprawling saga by Anton Coppola, the company's maestro who, remarkably, continues to conduct (usually sitting down these days) at 92 years old.

With the Straz and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, the Tampa Bay area is home to two of the country's most successful performing arts centers. Their programming is quite diverse in a variety-show kind of way, and they are mandated as nonprofit organizations to be community-minded, but each is driven by pure show business — Broadway at the Straz, pop and rock at Ruth Eckerd. How local arts organizations managed to negotiate around these large, bureaucratically managed centers was a perennial issue.

Orchestrating changes

And that leads to the Florida Orchestra, the one performing arts organization that has a major presence throughout the Tampa Bay area, with concert series at Mahaffey, Ruth Eckerd and Straz. Year in and year out, it must compete with the halls' own presentations for the dates that it wants for performances and rehearsals. This has been an especially tough problem at Straz, whose preferred Morsani Hall was frequently tied up with long runs of blockbusters like The Lion King, Wicked and Jersey Boys, leaving the orchestra (and disgruntled subscribers) to shift over to the center's smaller Ferguson Hall.

As if to symbolize the orchestra's waning profile at Straz, its main event outside the concert hall came two years ago when it moved its offices from a business park in Tampa to St. Petersburg's newfound arts hub. It initially planned to be headquartered at Mahaffey, but that fell through as the city chose to make Broadway a priority at the theater with a misbegotten series that crashed and burned in two years.

Artistically, the orchestra accomplished a coup when Stefan Sanderling became its music director in 2003, bringing with him a notable family pedigree (his father is the eminent German conductor Kurt Sanderling) and a patient approach to an organization that has always had to struggle to survive. Faced with the loss of several principal players, primarily because of the orchestra's low pay scale, the conductor has gradually rebuilt with some first-rate replacements, such as concertmaster Jeff Multer and principal flute Clay Ellerbroek.

Sanderling has been resourceful in fitting contemporary music (three works by Scottish composer James MacMillan, for example) into largely traditional programming, and his performance of the symphonies of Shostakovich, Mahler and Bruckner can be revelatory. The orchestra continues to be an invaluable showcase for soloists, with a rich crop of violinists in particular in recent years: Lara St. John, James Ehnes, Anne Akiko Meyers, Karen Gomyo, Jennifer Frautschi, Viviane Hagner.

Two years ago, Michael Pastreich was named president of the orchestra, bringing a musical pedigree of his own (his father, Peter Pastreich, was an industry leader as chief executive of the St. Louis and San Francisco symphony orchestras) and a tightly focused management style. Pastreich has raised an impressive amount of money, made some painful cuts and done a good job of steering the orchestra through the recession.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Defining moment: June 2009, when American Stage moved into its new theater in downtown St. Petersburg,

formalizing its association with St. Petersburg College.

Decade of solid advances in performing arts in Tampa Bay area 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 3:30am]

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