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Music, movement and Mandel: A 2018-19 CCA season preview Featured

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ORONO – The Collins Center for the Arts is heading into its 33rd season of exceptional arts programming on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono.

The CCA – formerly known as the Maine Center for the Arts – has been a vital hub for the performing arts in the region ever since the Bangor Symphony Orchestra christened its stage all the way back in 1986. The iconic building has played host to memorable acts large and small over the years, bringing a wonderful variety of arts and entertainment to our area.

The Collins Center has long been a foundational piece of the cultural community, offering high-quality programming year after year after year. This season is no exception, with a wonderful variety of music, theater and dance aimed at audiences of all ages. As per usual, the powers that be at the CCA have managed to ensure that there really is something for everyone.

Collins Center for the Arts Executive Director Danny Williams and Associate Director for Budgeting and Programming Brett Ziegler took the time to talk to The Maine Edge about what audiences can expect from the 2018-2019 CCA season.

“There's a lot of stuff going on and we have a busy season,” Williams said. “I think we’ve got a wonderful breadth of offerings, which is what we’re always shooting for. Our opening weekend is a great example of that, where we have Blackberry Smoke [on Sept. 14] followed by the Kingston Trio [on Sept. 15]; you couldn’t have two more different acts than those two, but it’s a great look at the variety we’re offering.”

Williams notes that the beginning of the season technically comes with the National Theatre Live broadcast of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” on Sept. 7, but it’s that following weekend when things really start humming.

“We’re looking at that back to back showing – which is reunion weekend – as our sort of official opening,” Williams continued. “And it’s great. They’re such wonderful and wonderfully different acts, which is really what we’re going for. And really, that’s how I think it goes with the season as a whole.”

Not long after that de facto opening weekend is the annual Collins Center for the Arts Gala. This year, the CCA celebrates on Sept. 29 with Melissa Etheridge and the 25th Anniversary “Yes I am” tour.

“Melissa Etheridge is coming; she’s never played the CCA before and we couldn’t be more excited,” said Williams.

(Note: This is where I reported that I had vague memories of Melissa Etheridge playing there once upon a time – memories that Williams and Ziegler quickly fact-checked and determined to be the wanderings on an aging mind. I won’t bother you with every instance of this sort of thing; just know that it happened at least two more times and Danny and Brett let me down gently every time.)

National tours of Broadway musicals have long been a cornerstone of the Collins Center’s seasons. This year is no different, with an eclectic quartet of offerings.

“Broadway is always an anchor point for us,” said Williams. “The big national tours are major parts of our season – this year, we’re looking at ‘Rock of Ages,’ ‘Something Rotten,’ ‘Spamalot’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’”

Each show brings something unique to the mix, according to Williams.

“You’ve got ‘Rock of Ages’ [Oct. 21], which is a jukebox musical; anybody who loves ‘80s music will absolutely love it,” he said. “And then we’ve got ‘Something Rotten’ [Nov. 28] which is maybe one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. Really amazing and people will love it.

“But if you’re looking for that really really goofy feeling, then of course, you want to check out ‘Spamalot’ [Feb. 20]. We had it here a while back and it did very well, so it felt like time for them to return. And you just can’t go wrong with ‘The Sound of Music’ [Feb. 28] which is just generally beloved – a classic.”

Obviously, Broadway tours are a major part of the CCA’s season, but there’s a lot more out there as well. And some of it may well surprise you – it certainly did me. For instance, there’s the touring show featuring a hologram of a music icon.

Yes, really.

“I would say a couple of the things that might not be on people's radar screens include the show that we just announced,” said Williams. “It’s a Roy Orbison hologram show.”

You read that right – on Nov. 7, the CCA will host a concert performance featuring a holographic version of music legend Roy Orbison. We live in the future.

“We previewed the show a year ago in New York and they kind of showed two segments,” said Williams. “There was the one with Roy Orbison and one with Maria Callas, the famous opera singer.”

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Ziegler added. “You have to be a little skeptical. But it was as if he were in the building.”

The show features other live performers, including backup dancers and a live orchestra (said orchestra in this case will consist of members of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra). And it really is something unique – this is the first touring show of its kind. We’ve seen hologram performances before, but this is an actual tour.

As you might expect, there are some logistical quirks to programming this show.

“We’ve got to close off about three hundred seats off to either side of the house,” Williams said. “The angles are too extreme and the effect won’t work. It’s different, but I think people are going to be interested.”

None of it matters if the music isn’t any good. But fear not, says Williams.

“The music was great,” he said. “You get lost in the fact that you’re not actually watching him.”

Another staple of the standard CCA season is standup comedy; there are a couple of awfully good shows on the docket this fall - one by a Maine mainstay on Oct. 20 and one by one of the most famous names in standup on the first day of November.

“We really do have a very good venue for comedy,” said Williams. “In general, it's a good room for standup and we’ve had very good luck with it, so we made a concerted effort. Bob Marley, of course, is an annual staple. He's just so excellent year after year after year after year.

“And we wanted to really go after someone big,” he continued. “So we landed Howie Mandel. He’s got such a high profile with ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but I remember him from HBO, I remember him pulling the rubber glove over his face and blowing it up. It’s his first time at the CCA; he’s still doing road dates, but his window is very limited due to television commitments.”

(There are plenty of people reading this who maybe only know Howie Mandel as the dude from “America’s Got Talent” or the host of “Deal or No Deal.” Maybe there’s some “Bobby’s World” stans thrown in there too. He was one of the biggest standups around during what was arguably Peak Standup back in the 1980s. Just saying – I want to go.)

And speaking of big names from back in the day, there’s a pretty exciting concert featuring a pair of legendary musical acts happening on March 14.

“It’s The Four Tops and The Temptations,” said Williams. “Over the years, we’ve had The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters … it was only a matter of time before we brought these groups to our stage.”

There’s also a legendary musician coming to play a kind of music that he’s not necessarily best known for. Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck will be returning to Orono on Nov. 18, joined by Indian tabla master Zakir Hussein and double bassist Edgar Meyer for a different kind of concert.

“Bela Fleck is coming with Zakir Hussein, who is one of the world’s greatest tabla players, and Edgar Mayer, who plays bass,” said Williams. “[Fleck] has been here before, but he’s coming back with something very different. When he comes here, he typically plays bluegrass and folk and other Americana-type stuff; this is going to be a departure from that and really be a more diverse type of offering.”

Music and musicals, comedy and concerts – there’s a lot going on at the CCA this season. But what about shows aimed at the younger crowd. Fear not, Williams and company have a fine selection of youth-oriented fare playing out over the year, including “Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium Adventure” on Feb. 2.

“The puppet group Erth had one of our most popular shows last year with their ‘Dinosaur Zoo,’” Williams said. “So we brought them back. This is a different show from the same group - last year was the dinosaurs, but this year features a prehistoric aquarium. Same idea, only now we get large scale undersea prehistoric creatures.”

Another fun children’s show is the stage version of the popular PBS series “Peg + Cat.” On March 8, local audiences will get to watch “Peg + Cat Live!” on the CCA stage.

“’Peg + Cat’ is all built on math,” Ziegler said. “It’s very much on the educational side of things; just about anyone with kids is probably familiar with this one.”

Kids will love “The Greatest Pirate Story (N)ever Told!” as well, a funny, partially improvised play with music about pirates and their hunt for their treasure set to his the CCA stage on Feb. 21.

“The hook with this one is that the pirates have to perform the greatest epic ever on stage, only half their script is missing,” said Williams.

(Note: Williams literally went to a shelf in his office and grabbed a pirate hook that he for some reason keeps in there and used it to illustrate his point when he said “The hook…” This has no bearing on the story whatsoever, but I felt compelled to share.)

“Their map is not complete and they need help from the audience,” he continued. “In a way, it’s sort of like a Mad Libs situation – improvisational at times. And there are some great songs.”

There’s all manner of other programming as well – some fantastic dance performances like Tap Dogs (Feb. 27) and the Russian National Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty” (March 20) and some phenomenal music like Canadian Brass (Dec. 22) and Mnozil Brass (Feb. 8) and Danu (March 10) the phenomenal Dreamers’ Circus (March 31). They’ve even got the New Chinese Acrobats (Nov. 14). And that’s not even mentioning the incredible broadcast series – National Theatre Live and the Metropolitan Opera – or the acclaimed chamber music series or the eight shows that make up the spectacular Bangor Symphony Orchestra season.

“Another full season,” said Williams. “And we’re really excited to get going.”

It’s an impressive season to be sure. But on the surface, it might not be easy to tell just how much work goes into making it happen.

“We’re kind of isolated up here in our corner of the country,” Williams said. “We’re not really on the way TO anywhere, so availability for some of these big shows can be pretty limited. We basically are left to take whatever date is offered to us or else not get it. Obviously, it has an impact on the sorts of acts we go after. Our attitude is ‘there’s always next year.’”

That manner of scheduling can lead to some issues, with some stretches packed full and others running a bit scarce.

“We never want to oversaturate,” said Williams. “People can only do so much. But we also know that if we don’t take a particular date, it isn’t going to happen. So we have to weigh that as best we can and try and make the right choice. Other times, dates change and we have to roll with it. We take the chance and hope for the best.”

It’s a complex process, to be sure, with more moving parts than you might have guessed.

“It's sort of trying to do a jigsaw puzzle,” Williams said with a chuckle. “And the shape of the piece is key, only sometimes that shape changes and you have to figure out how to make it work.”

“And sometimes the picture you’re trying to make changes as well,” added Ziegler. “There’s always a chance that something is going to be different and you’re going to have to work through it.”

“The biggest challenge is to try and pick shows that we think will appeal to our audience,” Williams said. “And we’re always surprised. There are times when we think a show is going to do really well and it underperforms and other times when a show we expect to do OK just goes off the charts. There are surprises on both ends.

“Choosing the season is part art and part science,” he continued. “Well … we like to think it's part science. Call it part art and part science and part luck.”

Part of the CCA’s mission going forward is to not only appeal to today’s audiences, but try and build tomorrow’s. And it’s not just about kid-friendly programming – they’re doing their best to make it as easy as possible for young people to attend these shows.

“We've expanded our kids’ pricing and our student pricing this year,” said Ziegler. “It’s really important to us to make it affordable for families.”

“You want to help cultivate the audience of tomorrow,” Williams added. “And the way you do that is to get them in early, to lower the barriers to entry. Our mission is not only to offer diverse programming and bring things to the greater Bangor area that otherwise wouldn't come. It does you no good to bring these incredible acts here if people can't afford to go. It’s a delicate balance.”

And it looks like a delicate balance that has been properly struck, at least as far as the 2018-2019 CCA season is concerned. Williams and Ziegler seem satisfied with what they’ve accomplished for this go-round.

“And lo and behold, after all of those things, you kind of put it in the shaker and give it a shake,” said Williams. “And if you’re lucky, it works as a program and – boom - you have a season.”

(For tickets or more information about the Collins Center for the Arts 2018-2019 season, you can check out their website at www.collinscenterforthearts.com.)

Last modified on Thursday, 09 August 2018 09:41

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