Sunday, September 13, 2009

CenterStage's opening night

Richmond CenterStage, the much-debated and long-delayed downtown performing-arts center, finally opened to the public on Sept. 12 in a gala featuring artists from the nine “resident producing companies” that will perform regularly on its three stages. The largest among them, the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Opera and Richmond Ballet, will be the principal users of the center’s main hall, the 1,800-seat Carpenter Theatre. The Richmond Jazz Society, African American Repertory Theatre, Barksdale Theatre/Theater IV, the Elegba Folklore Society, Richmond Shakespeare and SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community) will use the complex’s smaller venues.

This gala, playing to a capacity crowd of more than 1,700, was devoted to musical-theatrical bits and pieces that were pretty clearly selected to engage the audience emotionally, to provide plenty of visual and aural stimulation, and to give the expanded technical capacities of the theater a workout. More than 200 performers, with simple but effective scenic elements, were efficiently hustled on and off the stage. Glitches, mainly in the amplification of voices, were minimal.

I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s golden age of television variety shows, but never acquired a taste for them. For those who like this sort of show, there was a lot to like. All the performers gave off appropriately good vibes; the African American Rep, Elegba and SPARC troupes made strongly positive impressions on many patrons experiencing them for the first time.

The symphony, conducted by Erin Freeman, opened the program brightly and energetically in the “Festive” Overture of Dmitri Shostakovich, and seemed to be in comparably sparkling form as it led off the second half in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture (“seemed to” because through most of the piece the houselights were still up and the audience was still returning to seats and chatting noisily). Sopranos Veronica Mitina and Elizabeth Andrews Roberts, tenor Derek Taylor and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, who will star in the Virginia Opera’s forthcoming production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” gave fine accounts, vocally and dramatically, of three of the opera’s big numbers. The symphony, conducted by Ron Matson, also sounded crisip and animated in Jonathan Romeo’s score for the finale of Stoner Winslett’s “Windows,” performed by the Richmond Ballet.

I was impressed by the African American Rep’s lead reciter of Langston Hughes’ verses and the singer of “Climb Every Mountain” from Theater IV’s forthcoming production of “The Sound of Music.” Their identities, alas, were buried in a program book that listed theatrical groups’ cast members but not their roles.

The program boasted personable emcees in Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid, and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s remarks could be a lesson in pertinence and brevity for politicians speaking at cultural events.

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When the Carpenter Theatre, originally opened in 1928 as a Loew’s movie palace, was converted to a performing-arts center in 1983, opening night was a highbrow affair, with the eminent soprano Leontyne Price accompanied by the symphony.
No stellar visitor took top billing in the debut of this second reincarnation of the hall; and the programming signaled the embracing of a broader definition of “the arts” by Richmond’s cultural, business and social establishments.

One couldn’t help but notice, though, that this was an embrace out of an older Richmond, almost entirely black and white.

Other than the appearance of two dancers from the Latin Ballet of Virginia in the Barksdale/Theater IV segment, there were no representations of Central Virginia’s growing and culturally vibrant communities of Latino and Asian descent, or of the region’s folk and folk-revival circles. Also absent were any performers from the contemporary/alternative arts community of young adults – an ironic omission, since they form the dominant indigenous culture of the neighborhood in which CenterStage lives.

It would have been impractical to cram more acts into a show whose juxtapositions – jazz scat-singing followed by verismo opera, African drums and dance segueing into Shakespeare sonnets – produced enough aesthetic whiplash as it was. Some presenters will diversify beyond their norm during the season – the symphony, for example, will feature a soloist playing the pipa (Chinese lute) in its November Masterworks program – and a few other gaps (bluegrass, gospel) will be filled in coming weeks.

Still, CenterStage has some way to go before it reflects the full range of cultures in Richmond today.

UPDATE: I'm reliably informed that Kara Charise Harman sang "Climb Every Mountain."