April 19 2017 03:33 PM

Wharton Center unveils pop culture-powered 35th season

Jessie Mueller stars as Jenna in the touring production of Broadway hit “Waitress,” written by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, which comes to the Wharton Center in January.
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Wharton Center lifted the lid on its 35th season at a donors/subscribers event Monday night, and it’s serving up a hefty platter of pop-fueled Broadway hits, genre-stretching jazz offerings, high profile speakers and much more.

The crux of the 2017-2018 season is a lineup of seven Broadway hits that’s driven by pop culture and film — and light on big-name revivals.

“Broadway has become quite a magnet, especially with the new megahits like ‘Hamilton’ that seem to come out every year. It’s becoming America’s art form,” said Mike Brand, Wharton Center’s executive director. “We see a lot of our songwriters, performers, choreographers and script writers are gravitating toward Broadway.”

One of those songwriters is Sara Bareilles, who wrote the lyrics and music for “Waitress,” which comes to the Wharton Center in January. Despite four nominations, the Broadway smash hit was blanked at the Tony awards, losing in most categories to a musical called “Hamilton.” (We’ll get to that a little later.)

Next season also features four musicals based on films: “An American in Paris,” based on the 1950 film built around the music of George and Ira Gershwin; “Finding Neverland,” based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name; Disney’s “The Lion King”; and “The Bodyguard,” based on the iconic 1992 Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston drama. Fueled by Whitney Houston’s soaring “I Will Always Love You,” the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard” is the bestselling soundtrack of all time and the 16th bestselling album in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America, selling over 17 million copies.

Rounding out the Broadway series is “Something Rotten,” a comedy that centered on two struggling playwrights in the 1590s trying to compete with William Shakespeare, and “On Your Feet!,” based on the careers of Latin-pop superstars Emilio and Gloria Estefan.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s six new shows, with only “The Lion King” making a return visit to the Wharton Center.

“We could have put a revival in, but we didn’t want to leave any of these out,” Brand said. “We just wanted six new shows.”

“That is feedback we get from our audience, particularly the Broadway audience, that they want something new,” added Dianne Willcox, Wharton Center’s director of marketing and communications. “Fresh and forward-looking for our 35th season.”

The ‘Hamilton’ hook
But perhaps the best piece of bait to lure Wharton Center 2017-2018 season subscribers doesn’t even appear on next season’s schedule. Earlier this year, it was announced that Broadway crossover phenomenon “Hamilton” will come to the Wharton Center as part of its 2018-2019 season. The hook? People who subscribe to five shows or more next season will be first in line when those coveted “Hamilton” tickets go on sale.

“I was in the parking lot at Eastwood the other day, and someone came up to my car — someone I’ve never met before — and knocked on my window and asked me, ‘When can I get ‘Hamilton’ tickets?’” said Bob Hoffman, Wharton Center public relations manager. “We feel an obligation to our subscribers, to reward them for their affiliation. We’re asking people to subscribe to our 2017-2018 season, for five shows or more, and then renew a subscription of five shows or more for the 2018-2019 season — and one of those can include ‘Hamilton.’”

Season subscriptions for the 2017-2018 season go on sale today at whartoncenter.com.

Classics and jazz (but not much classic jazz)
This season’s jazz lineup featured two quartets anchored by jazz heavyweights Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter, respectively, and a performance by throwback jazz group the Hot Sardines. (See p. 20 for our interview with Shorter.) Next season offers a less traditional jazz series that branches out into funk, soul, swing and rock.

“It’s very diverse,” said Ryonn Clute, Wharton Center senior marketing manager.

The 2018 season features “To Ray With Love,” a tribute to Ray Charles led by funk/ soul saxophonist Maceo Parker. Parker, who got his start playing in James Brown’s backing band, has also toured with Parliament- Funkadelic and Prince and has recorded collaborations with De La Soul, Jane’s Addiction and the Dave Matthews Band, to name just a few. He has included a Ray Charles cover on each of his 16 solo albums and recorded a tribute to Charles, “Roots and Grooves,” in 2007.

The series also offers Gyspy swing group Squirrel Nut Zippers, best known for its 1996 breakout single, “Hell.” The band is joined by blues group Davina & the Vagabonds for a night of genre-blending throwback jazz. Even the most straight-ahead jazz performance next season, the Birdland All-Stars with drummer Tommy Igoe, brings a show that’s heavy on re-arrangements of rock tunes by artists like David Bowie and the Police.

“Tommy’s one of the best drummers out there today,” Brand said. “When Tommy gets cooking, the whole place goes nuts.”

The Wharton Center’s classical music series is headlined by a power trio of big name soloists teaming up for a one-night engagement. Cellist Yo- Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos visit East Lansing in February, presenting a program that includes trios by Brahms and Schubert.

“This is very special for us and for the community, because they’re doing a very small number of shows as a trio,” Clute said. “They’re playing Carnegie Hall, then the Kennedy Center, then the Wharton Center.”

Last season featured a performance of “Swan Lake” from Russia’s Moscow Festival Ballet. Next season, the Russians are coming again, this time in greater numbers. Wharton Center’s dance series features the return of the Moscow Festival Ballet — this time performing “Cinderella.” Its classical music series brings the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Under the direction of longtime chief conductor Pavel Kogan, the group will perform Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Wagner’s “Rienzi” Overture and Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, with Narke Hakhnazaryan as soloist.

Funk/soul saxophonist Maceo Parker brings “To Ray with Love” to the Wharton Center April 2018. Backed by the Ray Charles Orchestra and the Raelettes, Parker pays tribute to Ray Charles, one of his musical heroes.
Photo by Ines Kaiser

“He’s one of the foremost conductors of our time,” Clute said of Kogan. “He’s been the musical director for 28 years. That’s quite a stretch.”

Shining a light
Wharton Center’s 2017-2018 season also includes a rebranding of its theater series. The series has been renamed Illuminate, based on a saying often used by Clifton Wharton, former MSU president and the performing arts center’s namesake, that “art provides a beautiful window through which to view humanity.”

“Rather than just calling it a theater series, we want to talk about what our objective is, in terms of programming these events,” Willcox explained. “What we’re trying to do is provide a new view of the world, to illuminate that window through which you see the world.”

The series features Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater performing “Matinee,” a new work co-commissioned by the Wharton Center, which is based on a New Yorker short story of the same name by Robert Coover.

“It’s essentially a film within a film within a dance piece. It has a real film noir feel to it,” Clute said. “The dancers are also actors, and they’re very good. You won’t see anything else like it.”

Also on the series is “Lungs,” a theater piece staged in the round in the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre.

“Lungs is a very intimate piece — only two people. It’s a bare set; it’s really just lights. And the audience will be partially seated on the Pasant stage,” Willcox said. “The couple is on their way to Ikea, and they’re talking about whether they want to have a child. They have a really in-depth conversation that affects the rest of their lives.”

Also hoping to illuminate Wharton Center audiences is the World View lecture series, which hits some of the hottest topics in the news today. Author and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius visits East Lansing in October to talk about foreign policy and the war on terrorism, and former EPA chief Gina McCarthy comes in December to discuss the Clean Water Act and other environmental issues. Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Lynn Nottage wraps up the series in April, discussing women of African descent and other overlooked voices in our society.

Sensory friendly
Part of the Wharton Center’s search for new audiences brings them into a community that often has difficulty attending and enjoying live performances: people with autism spectrum disorders.

“We have a really strong program for people with disabilities and mobility issues. We have ASL performances and open captions for the deaf and hard of hearing. We have audio description if you have vision issues,” Willcox said. “But we realized, looking at that menu, that we were leaving out people who are not neurotypical — people on the Autism spectrum, people with developmental disabilities, people with any kind of sensory input disorders.”

Three shows this year will offer a special sensory-friendly performance. At these performances, adjustments are made to lighting and sound, and theater etiquette is relaxed. Audience members can sit, stand, vocalize or even leave the hall if they need to.

“The events on stage are of the same quality you would experience at any other performance, but the sound might not be as loud, and the lights might not be as bright. Strobe light effects will not be used,” Willcox explained. “We’ll also provide sensory supports like sound-canceling headphones and comfort objects, and people are welcome to bring their own. We want them to come to the theater with whatever they need to focus or provide enough stimulation to have an enjoyable experience.”

The Wharton Center will also provide an activity room, as well as “quiet rooms” for audience members who feel over-stimulated.

The three shows offering sensory-friendly performances this year are “Dr. Suess’s The Cat in the Hat” (Oct. 29), “Clementine” (March 25) and “The Lion King” (July 21).

The Wharton Center dipped its toe into sensory-friendly performance last year with “Temple,” a play based on the life of Temple Grandin, an influential animal researcher and autism spokeswoman. The performance was well received, albeit not well attended.

“We put that together really quickly, so our audience was very small, but they really wanted us to pursue this,” Willcox said. “So it’s really important for us to reach out now and be talking to people as much as possible.”

Part of that outreach is an advisory group that includes the Mid-Michigan Autism Association and the Autism Alliance of Michigan. The Wharton Center is also actively recruiting volunteers and professionals to train its staff on interacting with patrons with sensory input disorders.

The Wharton Center hopes to offer at least two sensory-friendly performances each season.

“No one in the state is doing this at the level we hope to,” Willcox said. “We hope this year will create an infrastructure so that we can do this for years to come.”