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Music, musicals and more at the Collins Center

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Previewing some of the 2017-18 CCA season’s many offerings

ORONO – The Collins Center for the Arts is launching into its 32nd season of bringing the performing arts to the campus of the University of Maine in Orono.

Ever since the Bangor Symphony Orchestra broke in the stage of what was then known as the Maine Center for the Arts back in 1986, this iconic building has been a hub for the arts. Over their three-plus decades, the MCA/CCA has played host to thousands of exceptional performers from across all genres; a wave of talent has been continually washing over the spot for the better part of two generations.

The Collins Center for the Arts is a foundational piece of the cultural bedrock of the region’s creative community. Their programming has always been exceptional; the upcoming season is no different. There are some remarkable touring shows, some fantastic musical acts and a whole lot more – it’s a slate that really embodies the notion of something for everyone.

CCA Executive Director Danny Williams spoke to this season’s wide-ranging collection of entertainments.

“Sometimes, a theme will emerge organically from what we book,” Williams said. “This season is more of a continuation of the idea that we can try to have something for everyone. It’s a broad slate of programming; a wide variety of acts of extremely high caliber.”

“It’s a strong season for musical theater,” added CCA Associate Director Karen Cole. “Everything is at a really high level.”

Cole is referring to the quartet of touring musicals – “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Kinky Boots,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Cabaret” - that serve as a kind of foundation upon which the rest of the CCA season is constructed.

“We’ve got two very current titles in ‘Kinky Boots’ and ‘Gentleman’s Guide,’” said Williams. “Then you’ve got ‘Cabaret,’ which is this legacy standard – a classic. And with ‘Million Dollar Quartet,’ you get a newish show telling an old story.”

“Million Dollar Quartet” is the first of the four, arriving on Sept. 26. In the winter of 1956, four music legends came together in a studio for the first and only time. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins – titans all. This jukebox musical tells the story of an imagined recording session the likes of which the listening public has never seen … er, heard.

“Kinky Boots” comes next. Inspired by true events, this raucous musical – with songs by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein – takes you on a journey from a shoe factory in Northampton to the exciting catwalks of Milan. The show won six Tony Awards – including Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Musical – and now it’s landing in Orono on Dec. 7.

April showers bring “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” The 2014 Tony winner for Best Musical is landing at the CCA on April 4. The premise is a simple one – an heir to a vast family fortune decides to take a few steps forward in the line of succession … by any means necessary. Monty Navarro’s got eight relatives standing in his way; can he finish them off by teatime?

And last but not least, “Cabaret.” One of the most important works in the history of musical theater arrives at the Collins Center on May 15. This show – heartwrenching and hilarious – is one of the best ever, and it’s got the hardware to prove it. This masterpiece from John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff has some of theater history’s most memorable songs; now’s your chance to hear them for yourself.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the CCA season than a handful of admittedly-impressive touring musicals. This year’s Gala, for instance, is a bit of a departure for the Collins Center, featuring a performance by the modern dance troupe Pilobolus.

“We’ve never done a dance gala,” said Williams. “We wanted something with high artistic value and this fits the bill wonderfully.”

Pilobolus will be bringing their performance piece “Shadowland” to the Collins Center stage. The Connecticut-based group has toured all over the world and appeared in some pretty prominent places – including a stint backing up Britney Spears at the MTV VMAs. There’s also a Maine connection; acclaimed dancer and choreographer Alison Chase – currently based here in the state – is one of the founding artistic directors of Pilobolus.

“They’re incredible,” Cole said. “The videos of their work are amazing to look at.”

“And they’re not as abstract as modern dance can sometimes be,” added Williams. “They’re marvelous storytellers; the work is more theatrical, more accessible than you sometimes get with dance. It’s all so very visually interesting.”

“Magical,” said Cole. “It’ll be magical. Just understanding that these images you’re seeing are people’s bodies, shifting so quickly, so precisely – it’s unlike anything else.”

Williams and Cole had plenty to say about the many musical acts coming to the CCA as well.

One of the performers they’re most excited about is a young man named Joey Alexander. At just 13, Alexander has become one of the most celebrated jazz pianists in the world. The Indonesian prodigy taught himself to play at age six, leading to a meteoric rise wherein he played at Lincoln Center at age 10 and released his first album – “My Favorite Things” at 11.

“It is beyond words, beyond description what he can do sitting at a piano,” Williams said. “And he’s just 13. But he’s not just good for a kid – he’s good period. He’s one of those transcendent talents with the ability to be truly extraordinary.

“We’re not talking about a piano recital here,” he continued. “This is sophisticated music played as well as I’ve ever heard it. [He is] the real deal. We’ve been trying to get him here for two years – he’s highly sought after – and now, we were finally able to get him.”

Joey Alexander will perform at the CCA on Jan. 25.

From there, the discussion moved toward some of the Collins Center’s upcoming holiday offerings. On Dec. 5, wife and husband duo Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy will present their “A Celtic Family Christmas,” while on Dec. 19, country music legends the Oak Ridge Boys will being their “Christmas Celebration” tour to Orono.

“We’re excited to have Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy,” said Williams. “We’re really excited to have her back. Just a pair of fiddle players extraordinaire.”

As for the Oak Ridge Boys, Williams referred to their show as “legacy country.”

“We’re excited to have such a storied group,” he said. “Their show is essentially a greatest hits-type thing for the first half and then songs of the season in the second half.”

(At this point, Williams made a ridiculous joke involving one of the group’s most famous songs. After going back and forth, I decided that I would help him save face and keep this particular groaner to myself. Ah, who am I kidding? Of COURSE I’m running it. Sorry, Danny…)

“I’ve been telling people that the first half of the show is ‘Elvira’ and the second half is ‘Elf-vira,’” he said, clearly knowing even as he spoke just how dad of a dad joke it was.

This season also sees an interesting variety of a cappella music, with three different groups coming. There are the King’s Singers, a group celebrating their 50th anniversary with this tour. Their purview is classical a cappella, with a variety of traditional folk tunes and spirituals. There’s Cappella Pratensis, a group from the Netherlands focused on much older music. How old? Well, this particular tour is honoring the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so … pretty old. And then there’s Gobsmacked, a contemporary group in the realm of something like Pentatonix or the movie “Pitch Perfect” that focuses on arrangements of more current music.

Williams also spoke about the “digital dexterity” inherent to some of the groups – especially those appearing in the latter half of the season.

“We’ve got the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain coming back by popular demand,” he said.

The Ukelele Orchestra was formed in 1985 and have become a global phenomenon. The current ensemble has been together for more than two decades and are a bit of a national institution in their home country. Their April 13 performance will mark the group’s third appearance at the CCA.

“People kept asking us when they were coming back,” added Cole. “They were so popular that we had to bring them back.”

Also included in the dexterous assessment by Williams: the award-winning Celtic quintet Goitse, acclaimed performers of Irish traditional music, and the Steep Canyon Rangers, an American bluegrass band known best for their collaborative efforts with Steve Martin, but possessed of formidable credentials – including a Grammy – in their own right.

Perhaps the show to which I personally am most looking forward is “The Bible (Abridged),” presented by the brilliant weirdos of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. For those unfamiliar with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and other offerings from RSC, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Three actors are going to give you a short, sharp and satirical take on the Greatest Story Ever Told.

But really – there’s one of those shows for everyone in this upcoming CCA season. There are puppet shows both large (“Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo Live”) and small (“Cashore Marionettes”). There’s a phenomenal cirque performance (Cirque Eloize’s “Saloon”) and a top-notch illusionist (Jason Bishop).

Not to mention the exceptional chamber music series and the wonderful broadcast series from the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre.

“The chamber music series is carefully curated by a very dedicated committee,” Cole said. “They try to bring in the best groups they can and aim for the highest quality. The level of players we bring in is really quite remarkable. You’re not going to hear this music anywhere else around here.”

“The audiences for the Met series and the National Theatre series are growing,” she continued. “And a new screen is being installed to enhance the experience, something that will benefit both broadcast series.”

It’s a first-rate bill of fare – one that the folks at the CCA want to make sure is as readily available to the public as possible.

“We’ve got lots of student pricing this year,” said Cole. “Much more than in the past. One of the things that we want is to make these shows affordable for families. Many of these performances have reduced ticket prices for kids.”

“This place is about accessibility,” Williams added. “We’re all about lowering the barriers and allowing as many people as possible to see these kinds of performances.”

There’s a passion that informs the goings-on at the Collins Center. This is a group that recognizes the important role that the CCA has played in the cultural past of the region, as well as how it will continue to contribute going forward.

“We’re a cultural beacon,” Williams said. “We have been for 32 years. In many ways, we were an experiment – and I submit that it was an experiment that was wildly successful.

“Look at all that’s happened culturally in the region since we started,” he continued. “I think all of those roads lead in some way back to the MCA/CCA. It showed that there was a real appetite for live performance in the area. An argument could be made that it started the ball rolling for many of the things the region enjoys today.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: a rising tide raises all boats. And we’ve been raising boats for over 30 years.”

(For more information about the Collins Center for the Arts and the 2017-2018 season, visit their website at You can also call the box office at (207) 581-1755 or visit in person, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)


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