Discover the breadth and quality of the performers that entertain Fox Cities audiences throughout
By Molly Rose Teuke
Like the river that gives the region its name, the Fox Cities’ performing arts scene defies easy categorization. Serene and graceful in some instances, it’s wild and energetic in others. Industrial-strength power is tempered with a playful nature around the next bend. And it defies expectation. The Lower Fox River—the stretch that flows from the north end of Lake Winnebago past Neenah, Menasha and Appleton and into the Bay of Green Bay—is one of the few rivers in North America to flow north. Fox Cities’ performing arts groups show equal strength of character in choosing their own paths.
With a population just over 200,000, the region vies with larger urban centers in the variety and sophistication of its performing arts. From the semiprofessional Fox Valley Symphony—which draws players from as far as Chicago—to afternoon concerts in the park to nighttime blues clubs, live entertainment to suit most any mood and budget springs from regional talent. And let’s not forget the traveling shows: Mannheim Steamroller, the Irish Rovers, Broadway’s “Movin’ Out,” even Disney’s “The Lion King,” and more are slated for this year.
THE CENTER OF THE GALAXY
When the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center opened in late 2002, it created a powerful and engaging presence in the heart of the Fox Cities. Situated in a burgeoning enclave of restaurants and clubs on Appleton’s College Avenue, it draws patrons from across the region and state. Thanks to its dynamic design, its appeal isn’t limited just to stage performances. A bank of windows in the dramatic four-level atrium captures street theater for those within and elegant pantomime for those on the outside looking in. Inside, each landing on the grand staircase adds a see-and-be-seen dimension to a night out. The intent was for the center to become a community gathering place, says spokesperson Maria Van Laanen, and the place deserves applause for living up to the mission. Even as a visitor, it’s hard not to feel at home here, where patrons are as comfortable in casual wear as evening attire, and where you can look out the window onto the restaurant where you had dinner or the club where you’ll wind down your evening with a nightcap or even a bit of dancing.
The Fox Cities Performing Art Center’s theaters, including the 2,072-seat Thrivent Financial Hall and the 350-seat Kimberly-Clark Theater, are both aesthetically pleasing and sophisticated in their versatility. The orchestra pit in the larger hall is constructed in three sections allowing a variety of configurations for what is one of the largest stages in Wisconsin. State-of-the-art acoustics and a spectacular 65-foot-long chandelier in the large oval dome make Thrivent Financial Hall an elegant venue, while the smaller black-box Kimberly-Clark Theater creates a more intimate, casual feel. The result is a performing arts center that can accommodate the largest touring productions and provide an appropriately scaled venue for smaller local arts ensembles.
The center’s Arts Alive! season offers modern dance, drama, comedy, classical and contemporary music and jazz. The M&I Bank Broadway Across America-Fox Cities season speaks for itself: A panoply of Broadway shows without the travel. This year’s most notable production is “The Lion King.” The Fox Cities run is its only Wisconsin appearance.
In a project linking the visual and performing arts, regional artists are spreading the ferocious joyfulness of “The Lion King” throughout the Fox Cities with their transformation of fiberglass lion and cub replicas into art both serious and fun. If you see one you just have to take home with you, you might get lucky. Selected lions are being auctioned throughout the summer to benefit the performing arts center.
The PAC has taken a larger stake in the Fox Cities’ performance art with a leading role in “Shakespeare on the Fox.” A collaboration be-tween the PAC and partners like the acclaimed American Players Theatre and Fox Valley Sym-phony, Shakespeare on the Fox offers up the bard like never before in unique and site-specific interpretations of Shakespeare’s works. This year, “Shakespeare on the Fox” brings a major British touring company, the AandBC Theatre Company of London, to the Fox Cities for a limited term residency with its touring production of “The Tempest.” The company will stage 10 performances in venues as varied as parks, museums, libraries, even streets, lending a Renaissance fair flavor to the Fox Cities with its presence.
ALL PLAYERS LARGE AND SMALL
The Fox Valley Symphony is the “grande dame” of Fox Cities’ performing arts. Celebrating its 40th season, the group has had a slow, steady climb in numbers, budget and sophistication. Today, its semiprofessional status is leagues beyond its beginnings as an amateur group. It takes training at a university level to even audition for the symphony. Players come from the Fox Cities, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, to perform under the direction of conductor and music director Brian Groner. Even those of us who don’t perform with the symphony experience Groner’s engaging and imaginative style when he greets the audience with his own informal program notes. His enthusiasm for the music he conducts is infectious.
In 2002 the Fox Valley Symphony took up residence in the new center. “We really blossomed at the moment we moved into a fully professional performing arts center,” says Marta Weldon, the symphony’s executive director. “When you’re in world class acoustics and suddenly you can hear each other, you immediately grow artistically.”
But the symphony isn’t letting those great acoustics confine its season—or its sense of fun. A program called “Rock the Classics” takes the symphony to Waverly Beach, a casual venue on Lake Winnebago, in collaboration with Vic Ferrari Band, a 10-piece regional band that plays everything from blues to rock to country. “We want to reach out to a younger audience by being in a nontraditional venue with a rock band, where people are comfortable coming to hear us in jeans,” says Weldon.
“Obviously, our goal is to present world-class symphonic music,” she adds, “but when you look at some of the special projects we’re doing, you can see that we also want to be relevant and create broad interest.” Those special projects include inviting Garrison Keillor for an evening of his signature monologues and routines accompanied by the Fox Valley Symphony under the direction of guest conductor Philip Brunelle, familiar to listeners of Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” A significant programmatic highlight in 2007 is the world premiere of “Quiet Heroes,” a composition by internationally acclaimed composer Chris Brubeck. The music is subtitled “A Symphonic Salute to the Flag Raisers at Iwo Jima,” and pays musical tribute to the life of John Bradley, World War II veteran and Appleton resident, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima. A spring concert showcases the Fox Valley Symphony’s Youth Orchestras, and the symphony’s annual holiday pops concert consistently entertains holiday revelers with selections new and old, reverent and joyful.
One of the Fox Valley Symphony’s first homes was Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Though the symphony quickly outgrew the space, the Lawrence University campus continues to host many performing arts groups. Little wonder, since performance art is a key part of the university’s identity. The Lawrence Conservatory of Music was founded in 1847 and is the nation’s only conservatory of music within a nationally recognized undergraduate college of liberal arts and sciences. The Lawrence “Artist Series” and “Jazz Series” concerts present musical evenings in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. In addition to the chapel, the Music-Drama Center houses Stansbury Theatre, F. Theodore Cloak Theatre and William E. Harper Hall. Consider the eclectic mix of Lawrence University performance groups—Lawrence Sym-phony Orchestra, Concert Choir, Lawrence Chorale, Women’s Choir, Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Singers and Jazz Band. The campus rocks to one degree or another all year. Rounding out the calendar are faculty, guest and student recitals.
The Lawrence University Theatre Department also stages a variety of productions, including the Wild Space Dance Company’s “Various States of Undress,” Irish dramatist Lennox Robinson’s comedy “The White-headed Boy,” and Jeffrey Hatcher’s hilarious Smash, based on George Bernard Shaw’s “The Unsocial Socialist” this year. Other offerings range from operatic in the form of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and Gianni Schicci to literary in the form of a musical based on Studs Terkel’s “Working.” In the Cloak Theatre, Lawrence University Theatre of the Air presents the 6th annual live taping session of radio classics such as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and The Adventures of Sam Spade.
Down the river a short distance, the UW-Fox Valley offers up its own performance art in the UW Fox Theatre, a 220-seat flexible space theater used primarily for drama. A spring production of Ken Ludwig’s backstage farce “Moon Over Buffalo” brings fast-paced madcap hilarity to the stage, followed in autumn by the somber tone of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “How I Learned to Drive.”
The Fox Cities are home to a wide-ranging cast of performing arts ensembles. The Appleton Boychoir, which draws its 240 singers from a much larger geographic area than just the Fox Cities, has been entertaining audiences here and abroad for 28 years. The all-volunteer White Heron Chorale is yet another embodiment of fine vocal tradition, this one going on 30 years. Under the direction of conductor Rick Bjella, 75 men and women engage and delight audiences with a broad range of musical styles, from classical to Celtic to Christmas. Not to miss is the group’s “Isle Be Home” concert, honoring St. Patrick’s Day with music from not just Ireland but Scotland, Wales and other island nations.
The Fox Cities have a long tradition of community entertainment, as well. Appleton’s Attic Theatre, founded in 1950, provides stage opportunities for amateur thespians young and old. For more than half a century, the Appleton Fox Valleyaires—Packerland Division Champions—have performed snappy, sassy barbershop-style music, some of which you can take home on the group’s first CD, Volume I. Founded in 1941, Chaminade Women’s Chorus still offers vocal entertainment by women from all walks of life who love to sing. Founded even earlier, in 1934, the MacDowell Male Chorus entertains Appleton audiences and has performed in several cities in the United States and Canada.
If you like conversation and refreshment with your entertainment, the Fox Cities offer that, too. A concentration of hot spots along College Avenue near the performing arts center includes some classics like Mill Creek, a three-level bar with blues and rock and roll memorabilia reflecting its live music offerings. On the upscale side, Déjà Vu Martini Lounge just down the block serves up live jazz and 140 varieties of martinis. Great restaurants abound throughout the Fox Cities, but a swell of imaginative choices on College Avenue—Casablanca, Sirocco’s, Il Anglo and Fusion, to name a few—complement the performing arts center in making for a great evening from start to finish. Wherever you land in the Fox Cities, you’ll find the right mix of activities to make for a perfect night—or weekend—on the town.