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And the Curtain Rises...

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Southwest Florida's arts season arrived with all the excitement of vanilla ice cream. Sure, there were concerts, art shows and plays, but most were limited in scope and bland in flavor. The population boom of the past decade, however, has brought an accompanying explosion of art and theater. Just glance back a dozen years to see how much Southwest Florida has grown up culturally. Twelve years ago, there was no Philharmonic Center for the Arts. The Naples Players were fretting about the group's deteriorating theater building. The Barbara B. Mann Center for the Performing Arts was battling budget deficits and unsure if it could survive, Theatre Conspiracy was only an idea, downtown Naples and Fort Myers were dying, and the art associations in Naples and Bonita were little more than struggling storefront operations.

What a difference the years have made. The Phil is now known far and wide as one of the finest small concert halls in the country. The Naples Players have a stunning new theater on Fifth Avenue South (a building that helped spark a downtown resurgence). The Mann brings in top-notch Broadway-bound and traveling companies. Theatre Conspiracy found a home-and an audience-for its innovative work, and its new playwriting competition has brought eight world premieres to the region. In addition, the Fort Myers downtown district throbs with nighttime rhythms, and both the Naples Art Association and the

Art League of Bonita Springs have snazzy new digs that are hosting an increasing number of outstanding exhibitions. And that list doesn't even include the new Naples Museum of Art at the Philharmonic Center, which proved so successful in its first year that the season was extended to run halfway through the summer. Moreover, local audiences have become ever more sophisticated, with a growing appetite for new and challenging works.

Which is not say we've reached the level of a New York or even a Miami. Our cities don't exactly rock until the wee hours, and censorship still casts an occasional shadow. Witness the howls of outrage-including those from a Naples city councilman-that erupted last summer over a painting at the von Liebig Center that showed Monica Lewinsky with her tongue stuck out.

But while our cultural calendar may favor the tried and true, it also promises some intriguing possibilities. The happy reality is that, as the region grows, our cultural options become ever more diverse and interesting. Here's a look at some of the highlights of the 2001-2002 arts season.

Taking to the stage

Perhaps the clearest evidence of how artistic tastes have matured in Southwest Florida can be found at its various theaters. Theatre Conspiracy, which performs at the Foulds Theatre/Lee County Alliance for the Arts, has to take the top honors in this respect, thanks to artistic director Bill Taylor's decision four years ago to mount a new play competition and produce the winners.

The first work to be produced, "Petia," about the life of Tchaikovsky, was so well received that Taylor's group has since produced eight world premieres-double what might have been expected for an annual contest. Taylor plans more premieres and a new play-reading series featuring controversial works from the 20th century. "We would look at not only how theater has changed over the years but how society in general has changed," explains Taylor.

Not to be outdone, Florida Rep-ertory Theatre, which makes its home at the Arcade in downtown Fort Myers, is promising two Southwest Florida premieres this season. Established by Robert Cacioppo, artistic director, and his wife, Carrie Lund (founder of the original Pirate Playhouse), Florida Rep has proved it can present high-quality theater in its three years of existence. This season, the Equity group's premieres will include "Over the Tavern," the tale of a 12-year-old who discovers there are more than 1,300 religions and decides to sample them all, and "Dr. Cook's Garden," a thriller about a seemingly kindly small-town doctor by Ira Levin, author of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Deathtrap."

On Sanibel Island, the J. Howard Wood Theatre (formerly the Pirate Playhouse), has a new general manager with big new plans. Cindy Lee Overton plans to broaden the company's offerings, including a December production of "The Lion in Winter," the story of the fierce battle between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine over which of their sons will succeed to the throne. Overton also plans to expand the theater's children's programming and its play reading series, with the possibility of producing the most popular of the new works. Both series will be offered by subscription this year.

Overton is also working with seven area theaters to organize a massive joint fundraiser in the spring. She envisions this to be a blockbuster event, showcasing the year's best theater moments from the entire county.

While the season at The Naples Players/Sugden Community Theatre is largely comprised of standards, the spring productions on both the main stage and in the Tobye Studio should appeal to those in search of meatier fare. "The Heiress," a psychological treatise based on Henry James' novel, "Washington Square," will be presented on the main stage in April. Immediately following, "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," a delicate interweaving of comedy and tragedy by Arthur Miller, will open in the studio. It's a new work by Miller, the first in ages, and it has played to great acclaim in New York City.

Hail, the halls!

Both the phil and the Mann also have theater too good to miss. Tops, for those who didn't see it at the Mann a few years ago, is "Rent," which plays the Phil this year. This four-time Tony award winner may well be as defining to the future of modern theater as "Jesus Christ Superstar" was in its day. Throbbing with the unlimited energy of youth, "Rent" is a modern "La Boheme" set to rock rhythms.

Happily, the Phil also continues its relationship with the Aquila Theatre Company of London, which this year will present Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Homer's "The Wrath of Achilles." If past productions are any indication, expect two riveting evenings of theater.

The Mann counters with "Burn the Floor," one of the most talked about dance/theater works of recent years. It features championship dance couples from 15 countries and styles from swing to samba to waltz. The Mann will also host what will undoubtedly be a wildly popular return of "Cats," Andrew Lloyd Weber's paean to T. S. Eliot and his feline companions.

The high point of imported stage delight, however, has to be the March program presented at the Phil by the Miami City Ballet. The company's artistic/founding director Edward Villella will debut the third in his four-part series of original dances based on different epochs, addictions and rhythms of the 20th century (all of which will eventually be gathered into the "Neighborhood Ballroom" ballet).

Last year's waltz segment was literally breathtaking. The previous year's mambo was no less impressive. This season Villella will celebrate the quick-step, and one can only eagerly anticipate how he frames and defines that dance. The same program also includes two company premieres: Balanchine's "Square Dance" and Stravinsky's "Violin Concerto."

Music of the season

The phil is known for bringing in exceptional music, and CEO Myra Daniels says they're raising the bar this season. "This is the most diverse and highest-quality collection of shows we have offered in a single season," she declares; and a look at the schedule shows that's not just public relations rhetoric. Consider the opera offerings: three productions by three of the world's best companies-San Francisco Western Opera Theater, London City Opera and Teatro Lirico D'Europa.

First up is the San Francisco Opera's November presentation of "Cosi fan tutte," considered one of Mozart's masterpieces. Next is London City's production of "The Merry Widow," a tongue-in-cheek commentary on amorous and political intrigue. Capping the season is Lirico's presentation of "Turandot," Puccini's final opera. Remember the aria "Nessun Dorma"? Even if you don't recognize the name, you know the music, and this is the work it came from. For the opera-starved, this menu is manna from heaven.

The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra just seems to grow stronger and more vital every year, and it will continue to satisfy local classical appetites this season. Best bet? Resident conductor Clotilde Otranto's new series, "Classical with a Kick," is a blend of classical favorites with some lesser-known works. Otranto won audiences over with her family series last year; her work is full of life and designed to share her unmistakable love of music with everyone. If you didn't catch the first two works in the series in October, be sure to attend the final presentation, "Echoes of Mozart," featuring not only works by the master but by those influenced by his work.

The Classic Chamber Concerts and the Philadelphia Piano Quartet will deliver more classical fare. April's "Rising Star" concert features Cape Coral's 16-year-old Sylvia Kim who started studying violin at age 2 and has already won an impressive number of awards and competitions.

Headlining the pop music schedule is Patti LaBelle, who was scored by the Mann for a February show. The Mann's general manager, Mary Bensel, describes La Belle, the original Ms. "Lady Marmalade," as a performer "who knocks your socks off and blows you out of the water." Over at the Phil, jazz lovers should be sure to catch Isaac Hayes and the Cyrus Chestnut Quartet in April. Hayes, a Grammy- and Academy Award-winning composer, became a household name with his soundtrack for the movie Shaft. But his talents run much deeper-and jazzier. He'll be backed by the dynamic keyboard of Cyrus Chestnut in an evening that promises a cathartic release for jazz lovers.

Seeing is believing

The big news on the visual art scene is threefold: Local organizations have bright new facilities and are exposing the public to the works of local and regional artists; the Phil's Naples Museum of Art, after its greatly successful first season, continues to bring in nationally respected traveling exhibits but isn't neglecting its in-house galleries; and local galleries are starting to realize the importance of hosting exhibitions and are having regular openings and shows instead of simply offering works by the same artists.

The season's standout may be "Alice Neel Duets" at the Naples Museum of Art (January-March). Neel's expressive portraits, as much social commentary as personal portraiture, should draw a sophisticated, height-of-the-season crowd. The Phil galleries feature another kind of portraiture, equally worth viewing. "Portraits from the Golden Age of Jazz," a compilation of photographs by William Gottlieb, features such musical icons as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. According to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Gottlieb's photos "transcend mere documentation. They provide a dramatic, mind-inducing setting. All that's missing is the music."

At the von Liebig Art Center (Naples Art Association) and the Art League of Bonita Springs Center for the Arts, the emphasis is on homegrown talent. In addition to the annual members' exhibitions, the von Liebig hosts the two-part "Made in Florida," featuring talent from throughout the state. The first showing focuses on photography, the second on landscapes. Bonita's mid-season "The Art of Collecting Art" will showcase works from some distinguished Southwest Florida collections. Both groups will also repeat their long-running national art festivals. These outdoor weekend shows are consistently popular and rated on "best" festival lists in the national media.

Visual art of a different and temporary kind is celebrated in March at the "Dig the Arts" festival. In its fourth year, this family-oriented event is sponsored by the United Arts Council of Collier County and features art crafted from the sand on the beach at Lowdermilk Park. Each year, the festival adds more activities and features. Last year it brought in a Washington installation artist who created an ice work to complement the sand sculptures. Look for this season's festival to be equally surprising.

An artful future

Perhaps the best news for local art lovers (especially those who live here year round) is that each year the season stretches a little longer. Last year, the Phil ran programs well into June and started again in September. It also kept its museum open till mid-July. The Naples and Bonita art groups offered exhibitions throughout the summer months, and just about all the local theaters had summer seasons. And the long-running SummerJazz series at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club brought in bigger names than ever. With audiences steadily building, the cultural future of Southwest Florida is undeniably bright-and far more fulfilling than mere vanilla.

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