Hard times don’t mean necessarily mean that you can’t have a good time. That’s the feeling of movers and shakers in the Detroit arts scene, who are trumpeting a number of high-profile shows and exhibits as a welcome escape.
Detroit’s venerable Fisher Theatre opens the season on Nov. 5 with the 2004 Tony Award-winning musical comedy Avenue Q, which Executive Director Alan Lichtenstein calls your classic boy-meets-girl New York show that’s “off-color and hip — but not for kids.”
This season, the scene at the Fisher is about more than just the action on stage. Over the last six months, the theater has been undergoing $1.5 million in patron-friendly renovations, although the auditorium and seats are not being changed. There will be a new private party room available to patrons before shows and during intermissions, Lichtenstein says, plus the lobby area has new handicap access and the concession stand and coat check have been given a once-over. The lobby bar also has been gussied up and will serve wine and other alcoholic beverages for the first time.
While still Detroit’s grande dame of live theater, the Fisher looks a lot different from its debut as a movie and vaudeville house in 1928. Back then, the theater featured Mexican-Indian art, banana trees, a goldfish pond, and wandering macaws that audience members fed by hand. Remodeled as a live theater in 1961, the Fisher is adorned with marble, Indian rosewood, and walnut paneling, as well as crystal and bronze decorative work. The original 3,500 seats were cut to 2,089 for more intimacy and better sightlines.
Starting on Nov. 25, Chazz Palminteri stars in A Bronx Tale, a one-man show about growing up in the 1960s in the Bronx. Then in January, the Fisher rolls out A Chorus Line, the ever-popular tale of Broadway hoofers. In all, the Fisher will present 13 shows in 2008-09, including Sweeney Todd, Grease, Rent, Monty Python’s Spamalot and (there wont be a dry eye in the house) Fiddler on the Roof.
“There’s no bad economy when it comes to shows — just bad shows,” Lichtenstein says. “People still want to be entertained.”
Downtown, the Fox Theatre kicks off its fall season on Sept. 13 with Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, the cool, hip, soulful (feel free to add your own adjectives) R&B band. Then comic Kathy Griffin comes in on Oct. 18 with her take-no-prisoners brand of humor and the wickedest tongue in showbiz.
If Christmas means a long line of leggy ladies kicking in unison, you’re in luck — Joe Louis Arena is bringing back the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” with the Rockettes. But the show will run only Nov. 21-23.
The big holiday splash this year will be Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Nov. 19-Dec. 28. It’s the story of two showbiz pals putting on a show at a Vermont inn and finding love along the way. And it features some of the greatest Christmas songs ever written.
The Detroit Institute of Arts has no blockbuster exhibit like Degas lined up this fall, but director Graham Beal sings the praises of Monet to Dali: Modern Masters from the Cleveland Museum of Art, which runs Oct. 12-Jan. 18.
The 70 paintings and sculptures will offer a “different profile of modern art,” illustrating decades of creative experimentation, Beal says. Besides Monet and Dali, artists represented include Renoir and Degas, van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian.
“We expect the show to draw a large audience,” Beal says, adding that DIA attendance has been defying all predictions since the museum completed its major renovation project last fall.
At the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the fall excitement can be summed up in two words: Leonard Slatkin. Although the new musical director was with the orchestra at Meadow Brook over the summer, his official DSO debut is Dec. 11, when he will conduct Carmina Burana.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Slatkin says, talking via telephone from Washington, D.C., where he was packing up to leave after serving as musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra since 1996.
Slatkin says he was attracted to Detroit, where he has conducted before, because “it’s a great orchestra to start with, plus the hall is fantastic.”
He admits that he’s concerned about the “ultimate impact on the orchestra” of the local economy, but concludes that Detroit’s “artistic climate is conducive to growth.”
Two other big DSO performances will be the return of the vivacious Chinese pianist Lang Lang on Sept. 14, and folksy storyteller Garrison Keillor on Dec. 16.
And for lovers of chamber music, the Chamber Music Society of Detroit will feature hot Canadian violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong on Sept. 20, in celebration of the organization’s 65th anniversary. It’s a subscriber event only.
The Michigan Opera Theatre’s big show this fall is the return of Margaret Garner, a story inspired by a slave family’s quest for freedom before the Civil War, which had its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House in 2005.
“We have no world premieres this year,” says general manager David DiChiera. “All of us are challenged by the economy, but the arts scene in Detroit is one of the strongest. In times of stress like this, we provide things to celebrate and enrich our lives.”
The Music Hall Center downtown has a wide variety of acts lined up for its Jazz Café and Main Stage, says manager Vince Paul, who stresses the experimental and unusual. “We call our stuff cutting edge or bleeding edge,” he says, “stuff you’ve never heard of.”
You can catch the Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company, which Paul calls “the 21st century state of dance,” at the Music Hall Sept. 25-29.
Looking to attract high rollers from across the border, Caesars Windsor Casino is bringing in major Vegas names this fall. Bill Cosby will headline on Oct. 18, and Natalie Cole on Oct. 23. And in Dearborn, at the Ford Performing Arts Center, John Tesh will play his quirky New Age keyboard compositions on Oct. 24.
Other arts highlights this fall: The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History highlights Women of a New Tribe, an exhibition of fine-art photographs celebrating the physical and spiritual beauty of African-American women, shot and curated by Jerry Taliaferro, Sept. 12-April 6; The University Musical Society of Ann Arbor presents the Complicite Theatre Company’s production of A Disappearing Number, Sept. 10-14, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter appears with Camerata Salzburg, Oct. 19; the Gem Theatre has Say Goodnight Gracie, a funny take on George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sept. 9-Nov. 16; Meadow Brook Theatre presents Murder by Poe, by Jeffrey Hatcher, Oct. 8-Nov. 2; the Plowshares Theatre Company stages A Summer in Sanctuary, Oct. 2-26; Detroit Repertory Theatre offers Defiance, by John Patrick Shanley, Nov. 13-Dec. 31; and the Hilberry Theatre stages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, Nov. 14-March 14.
A quick glance at some of the entertainment highlights that will be gracing area stages this season
Sept. 9-Nov. 16
Say Goodnight Gracie, gemtheatre.com
University Musical Society, Ann Arbor (various venues)
Complicite Theatre Company, A Disappearing Number, ums.org
Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Beverly Hills (Seligman Performing Arts Center)
Violinist James Ehnes, comehearcmsd.org
Music Hall Center,
Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company, musichall.org
Plowshares Theatre Company,
A Summer in Sanctuary, plowshares.org
Oct. 8-Nov. 2
Meadow Brook Theatre, Rochester
Murder by Poe, by Jeffrey Hatcher, mbtheatre.com
Oct. 12-Jan. 18
Detroit Institute of Arts,
Monet to Dali: Modern Masters from the Cleveland Museum of Art, dia.org
Caesars (Casino), Windsor
Bill Cosby, Harrahs.com/casinos/casino-windsor
Kathy Griffin, olympiaentertainment.com
Michigan Opera Theatre — Detroit Opera House, downtown Detroit
Margaret Garner, motopera.org
New Center, Detroit
Avenue Q, nederlanderdetroit.com
Nov. 6-Dec. 28
Defiance, by John Patrick Shanley, detroitreptheatre.com
Nov. 14-March 14
Hilberry Theatre, Midtown Detroit (WSU campus)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, hilberry.com
Orchestra, Midtown Detroit
Leonard Slatkin’s debut as music director, detroitsymphony.com