Wednesday, June 27, 2012

One of the Best New Musicals in Recent Years, Tony Winner “Billy Elliot” Comes to Louisville

Billy Elliot

A review by Keith Waits.
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Kylend Hetherington as Billy Elliot.
Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.

Billy Elliot is a hugely enjoyable musical that gleefully smashes conventional stereotypes of masculinity and exalts creativity. Staged with inventive abandon, it is a potent piece of commercial theatre.

Famously adapted from the original, non-musical film by the screenwriter, Lee Hall, and the director, Stephen Daldry, with music by Elton John, the story of the English working-class boy who finds a passion for ballet while his coal-mining community is destroyed by the year-long labor strike in the 1980s is given a most passionate reading in this translation. In a time when so many modern musicals struggle to overcome mediocre scores and predictable plotlines, Billy Elliot is emotionally engaging at an intimate level while also working on a broader canvas with a galvanizing dramatic urgency.

The first act features several numbers that leave a lasting impression. In “We’d Go Dancing,” Billy’s grandmother remembers the contrasting romance and brutality of her marriage in a surprisingly complex song of memory; and an even greater narrative challenge is met in the lengthy “Solidarity,” wherein Billy’s growth as a dancer in class alternates with scenes of the deepening labor crisis that is genuinely thrilling. In a particularly delirious passage, young ballet students in rehearsal togs swan around in partnership with adult coal miners.

Most strikingly, the title character expresses his rage and frustration in “Angry Dance,” a powerful featured dance that juxtaposes the slight figure against a phalanx of riot police armed with body-length plexi-glass shields. It is a vivid staging that carries a modern and stylish visceral punch.

But all the clever stagecraft is in service to themes of identity and loss and examinations of masculinity and gender that are bracingly delivered in a fashion both straightforward and joyous. When Billy’s gay friend Michael leads the exuberant ode to flamboyancy, “Expressing Yourself,” it is a rousing and crowd-pleasing spectacle that even the strictest social conservative might find difficult to resist.

And the social agenda in Billy Elliot is unmistakable. Political satire concerning Margaret Thatcher establishes the place and time (complete with a puppet that was reminiscent of the famous British television show, Spitting Image) and affords the opportunity for commentary that is unabashedly liberal, even if the passage of time has somewhat lessened the bite. Still, the pleas for tolerance and understanding from people who are enduring such difficulties is one of the elements that lifts Billy Elliot above your average, by-the-numbers musical.

Kylend Hetherington played Billy Elliot with a nice feeling for the grounded, working-class foundation of the character and danced with great skill. In the final moments he performs a magnificent solo that effectively merges the triumph of the performer with the triumph of the character. He was well matched by each member of the ensemble, but Cameron Clifford was certainly a standout as Michael. (Both roles are multi-cast and may be played by different cast members at other performances.) Rich Hebert as his dad also straddled the tricky gap of naturalism and humor that is an inevitable characteristic in a musical about such tough, real world topics. As the dance teacher who first inspires him, understudy Susan Haefner was equally fine, leaving no trace of disappointment that this audience had missed the assigned performer.

At the end, when the story quietly finishes and the curtain falls, the entire company takes the stage to execute a high-energy dance number that is shameful in its eager-to-please energy but entirely irresistible to an audience that was already on its feet in appreciation before the curtain call. It was certainly a good deal of fun, but Billy Elliot earns the audience’s loyalty in the meat of the show with well-timed moments of sublime theatricality and quality of performance that are all to rare in contemporary musical theatre. Watching such moments, it is no mystery that the show has enjoyed such success. Every Tony award and accolade is well deserved. Billy Elliot is a must-see.

Billy Elliot

June 26-July 1, 2012

PNC Broadway in Louisville
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dinner re)Works Serves Up a Colorful Medley of Handcrafted Ceramics

Ceramics by Steven Cheek. Photo by Mo McKnight Howe.

A Louisville Visual Art Association Exhibit at The University of Louisville’s Cressman Art Center

Reviewed by Emily Pike

Entire contents are copyright ©2012, Emily Pike.  All Rights reserved.

Dinner(re)Works, presented by the Louisville Visual Arts Association in partnership with the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute, is a five-week exhibition and fundraising sale of beautifully handcrafted ceramic dinnerware. Praised as “one of the nation’s top ceramic shows of the year,” this year’s presentation features work by 16 acclaimed ceramics artists from throughout North America, three of whom are Kentuckians, and includes a visually delicious 2D companion exhibit of oversized photographic works by Julius Friedman, offering a stunning backdrop to the featured ceramics. (There are also educational workshops, lectures and fundraising events associated with the exhibit. More information on these is available at

Dinner(re)Works at The Cressman Center.
Photo by Rick Sneed.
The Dinner Works series was a major LVAA fundraiser for over two decades before a brief hiatus beginning in 2010. For this year’s return of the event, curator Fong Choo has redefined the exhibit, changing the name to Dinner (re)Works and stepping back from the elaborate whole-table designs of years past to focus more clearly and simply on the art.

In most museums or exhibits, presentation of the artwork is so understated as to go nearly unnoticed. By contrast, the carefully executed gallery design of Dinner (re)Works instantly sets a delightfully crisp and contemporary tone, contributing substantially to the overall success of the show. Not an inch of the space is either underused or overcrowded; the creative arrangement of pieces fills the room with interest and allows for organic flow around the viewing area. Round display platforms have been suspended from the ceiling, hovering above the floor at various heights; and while each is still recognizable as a table set for dinner, this unexpected alternative to actual dining furniture creatively highlights each artist’s work, chicly elevating the pieces from samples of dishware to individual mini-collections of artwork. The differing heights and color patterns of the platforms, together with Friedman’s exquisitely vivid photographic prints arranged along the perimeter, create a vibrant space full of visual and textural treats. Much credit is due to Choo and project manager, Sarah Stalker, for bringing the exhibit so brilliantly to life.

Detail of Fong Choo PLates. Photo bu Mo McKnight Howe.
The work itself is a richly diverse assortment of shapes, colors, patterns and glazes. Each artist’s display platform contains four place settings of matching dishware, with additional platters, teapots and other containers dotting shelves along the walls or in corners.

Kentucky artist Steven Cheek displayed several pieces of particular interest. His hand-carved porcelain dinner place settings were engraved with dozens of leaves and coated in a glossy, soft green glaze. Two nearby containers were of the same gentle color but had a matte finish and were carved very differently – one with overlapping skulls, and the other with an assortment of toxic chemicals' molecular names. The two pieces were so similar in style, yet the choice of engravings distinguished them completely from one another. I would have loved to talk with the artist to learn more about what inspires his design choices.

Fong Choo Dinnerware. Photo by Mo McKnight Howe.
Curator Choo is another local artist with work in the show. His dinnerware pieces are sleek and colorful but not quite as masterfully crafted as his signature teapots, several of which are also featured. Choo has said of clay that "one must push the limits, test waters, search, prod and explore its many boundaries." The unique beauty of each of his teapots is testament to this attitude.

All work in the show is available for purchase, with proceeds going to benefit the Louisville Visual Arts Association, which identifies itself as “a catalyst for education and participation in the visual arts.” The association strives to support local artists through exhibition opportunities and artist advocacy services, such as micro-loan programs and marketing support; and it hosts extracurricular Children’s Fine Art Classes in an attempt to counterbalance cuts in public school arts education. It also sponsors Open Doors, a program that pairs local professional artists with at-risk communities, giving these underserved populations the opportunity to learn about art and collaborate in creating works of self-expression.

The final Dinner(re)Works event will take place June 29, 6-9 p.m. at The Cressman Center. Reservations are available by calling 502-896-2146 or by visiting

Through July 7
Wednesday – Friday, 11-6 p.m.
Saturday, 11-3 p.m.
Cressman Center Gallery
100 East Main Street
Phone: 502.852.0288

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pandora’s Wedding Is a “Hilariously Funny, Often Touching” Production - “A Perfect Night Out During PRIDE Month”

My Big Gay Italian Wedding

By Anthony J. Wilkinson
Directed by Lucas Adams

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley.  All rights reserved.

Pandora Productions has another jewel in their tiara with their latest production, the hilariously funny, often touching and surprisingly (dare I say it?) family-friendly My Big Gay Italian Wedding.

The show originally opened off-Broadway in 2003 and has been in production all over the world practically ever since. Pandora is using the revised script from 2009, keeping the story contemporary with many current references to Obama, Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives and others. It’s great fun from beginning to end, and a nice change of pace for Louisville’s only LGBTQ theater company.

The story involves a stereotypical Catholic, Italian-American New York family and the chaos that arises when their son Anthony announces he has gotten engaged to his boyfriend, Andrew. Anthony won’t get married, though, without his mother’s blessing, and she won’t give it without two conditions: her favorite priest must perform the ceremony, and Andrew’s estranged mother must be involved. When both conditions prove impossible to meet, the couple must resort to a convoluted mess of lies, schemes and cross-dressing. The only thing missing is slamming doors!

Director Lucas Adams keeps things moving at a feverish pace, and his cast is, for the most part, up to the challenge. Standouts include real-life married couple Rick and Barb O’Daniel-Munger as Anthony’s overbearing parents. Kristy Calman is a scream as husband-stealing Aunt Toniann; and Leah Roberts and Susan Crocker are hysterical as a broken-up lesbian couple who are so nasty to each other you can tell they are still in love.  Ben Gierhart, Patrick Vaughn and Corey Long are each larger-than-life as Anthony and Andrew’s friends; and Ted Lesley and Kate Holland have some great comedic moments as Father Rosalia and Anthony’s sister, respectively. Playing multiple roles, Laura Ellis gets to really shine in some truly memorable moments; and as the central couple, Amos Dreisbach and Phillip Rivera are so adorable and sweet you just want the world for them.

But the icing on the cake for this show is Neil Robertson’s performance as flamboyant (to say the absolute least!) wedding planner Maurizio. From the over-the-top skin-tight leather-and-fur costumes (by Donna Lawrence-Downs) to his flawless German accent and screeching hysterics, he steals every scene he’s in. He is an amazing performer and the Louisville theater community is really lucky to have him, and this may be one of his greatest creations. It has to be seen to be believed!

On the down side, some of the New York dialects did sound a bit forced, and I did notice some missed opportunities in the script itself. The man-in-drag subplot really has no big payoff or even very many laughs (although Patrick Vaughn is actually quite lovely in drag – who knew?). And the character of Gregorio, the ex-boyfriend of one of the characters, is so nasty and off-putting it feels out of place in such an otherwise farcical story; but actor Michael Mayes does make an impression in the role.

Those are very minor quibbles though in a show that kept me thoroughly entertained. Surprisingly for a Pandora production, this is a show I wouldn’t be afraid to bring kids to, as there really is very little that would be inappropriate for younger viewers. And other than an open shirt that reveals Mr. Mayes’ impressive six-pack, none of Pandora’s trademark nudity is on display here either.

A truly wonderful production of a very funny play, this makes for a perfect night out during Pride Month!

My Big Gay Italian Wedding

Starring Kristy Calman, Susan Crocker, Amos Dreisbach, Laura Ellis, Ben Gierhart, Kate Holland, Ted Lesley, Corey Long, Michael Mayes, Barb O’Daniel-Munger, Rick O’Daniel-Munger, Phillip Rivera, Leah Roberts, Neil Robertson and Patrick Vaughn.

June 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, & 24 at 7:30 p.m. with one matinee Saturday, June 23, at 2:30 p.m. Advance tickets are now on sale for $16, $18 day of show. 

Pandora Productions
Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre
315 West Main Street
Louisville, KY

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Something’s Up In Washington: The Bard’s Town Theatre Presents Misses Strata

L to R - Cara McHugh, Jennifer Levine, Any Steiger, Beth
Burrell and April Singer in Misses Strata. Photo by Doug Schutte.
Misses Strata

Written by Doug Schutte
Directed by Scot Atkinson

Reviewed by Emily Pike

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Emily Pike.  All rights reserved.

Two months ago, I changed career paths and moved back home to Louisville after nearly eight years in New York City. There are many reasons I am thrilled to be back home, but one of the things I was sure I would miss about New York was the large volume of high-quality, small-venue, independent theatrical work. But after seeing Misses Strata – my second very positive experience at The Bard’s Town – I’ve come to believe that either I’ve gotten lucky in the plays I’ve seen so far, or Louisville’s theatre scene has enough quality work going on that I won’t miss NYC’s as much as I thought.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Greek comedy Lysistrata, on which Misses Strata is based, it was written by Aristophanes in 411 BC in Athens. Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to undertake a solemn vow with her to withhold all sexual privileges from husbands and lovers until the male leaders of government form a peace agreement to end the interminable Peloponnesian War.  A group of men attempts to burn them out of the Acropolis, which they have overtaken, but the women are able to put out the fire. Following a series of similar men-versus-women interactions, they are finally able to persuade the men into reaching a peace agreement. The play ends with dancing, merriment, and a feast in the Acropolis.

In Misses Strata, playwright Doug Schutte has tailored Aristophanes’ comedy to fit the modern era. The women of America are fed up with their politician husbands and gridlock in Washington. At the top of the play, ancient protagonist Lysistrata (Amy Steiger) can’t believe that she is still needed in 2012 A.D. to address the same issues she thought had been resolved over 2,500 years ago. But other characters readily observe that, despite women’s progress over the last century, the American power structure is still an old boys’ club. So, led by the newly-dubbed Misses Strata, the women undertake a sacred vow (over what appears to be a massive jug of Carlo Rossi) to close their legs until men can open their minds and start getting America back on track.

Playwright Schutte, director Scot Atkinson and the ensemble have done an excellent job in this production of drawing broad and hilarious caricatures of some major players from both sides of the aisle. Character Dick (Ryan Watson) lurks from entrance to exit in a hunting cap with rifle in hand like a perverse and cantankerous Elmer Fudd, ready to shoot anything that even reminds of him of the word “terrorist.” A predictably pant-suited Hillary (Jennifer Levine) shuffles seriously from one part of the stage to another, lacking the feminine “daintiness” required to comfortably walk in her own heels. Two brief appearances of the barely verbal Mitch (also Watson) have him carrying bags of cash and counting dollar bills while saying the only two phrases he knows – “money” and “free speech.”

The point-of-view the production takes is that today’s political inaction is everyone’s fault, and this position is supported from start to finish with plenty of equal-opportunity laughs. For example, when Senators Mitch and Boehner (J. P. Lebangood) attempt to burn the rebellious women out of the capitol building with flaming bags of tax money, one woman exclaims: “You wouldn’t expect Republicans to burn money; it’s all they care about! Democrats, I can understand…they burn through cash like its kindling!”

Schutte has also managed to incorporate some unexpected and relatable human qualities into characters whom another playwright might have treated more harshly. The result is a political commentary-versus-comedy dynamic that leans generously toward the side of comedy, letting the audience fully enjoy every joke and laugh without reserve. There is much horseplay and no self-aware discomfort; the show is sarcastic without being sardonic. For instance, in a different style of satire, our most recent former president might have been singled out for condemnation for his role in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the national debt. But here, he is depicted as the downright likable Georgie Boy (also Lebangood), a well-meaning dunce who, in his “lightly used” Air National Guard uniform, is reminiscent of lovable doofus Gomer Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show. The sweetness we encounter in interactions between him and wife Laura (Beth Burrell), even after he learns that she is a leader of the women’s cause, is adorable – as is her evident affection for him and concern for the well-being of their relationship. It is choices like this that make Miss Strata so easily enjoyable.

And, I have to say, I was mightily impressed by the sheer number of sexual innuendos the playwright was able to conjure up for two full hours of nonstop allusions, references, puns and wordplay. From Dick to Boehner to Bush to President Willie, Schutte certainly managed to mine the landscape of unfortunate American political names for all it was worth. This is not a play for anyone uncomfortable with bawdy humor.

The one true criticism I have is that the songs dragged. In a throwback to the chorus sections of the original Greek Lysistrata, Schutte has included a handful of songs set to familiar patriotic tunes and sung by various characters or groups of characters throughout the play. It appears that most of the actors are not singers, but that did not bother me when they remained committed to their lyrics and characters rather than trying to focus on singing well. The real problem was one of tempo. The musical numbers would have worked much better if some faster recordings could have been used. The closing number would especially benefit from the company being able to move through the lyrics at a quicker, more natural pace.

Overall, however, the cast and crew can be proud of a fine and funny show. I would easily recommend Misses Strata to anyone old enough to watch an R-rated movie.

Misses Strata

June 14, 15, 16, 17*, 20*, 21*, 22, 23. All performances at 7:30 p.m. (*Denotes value performances, with discounted seats available). Tickets $15 cash, $16 credit, and only $10 ($11 credit) for all value performances.

The Bard’s Town Theatre
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Louisville Playwrights Explore New Work at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference

Rachel White
David Clark
Brian Walker

Three local playwrights will be featured in the Play Lab at the 20th Annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference, taking place this week in Valdez, Alaska. The full-length Bananapocalypse by David Clark, FB: a ghost story by Brian Walker and Green River by Rachel White will each receive a developmental staged reading at the conference, which runs June 10-16.

The conference brings playwrights and participants from around the country to Valdez each summer to participate in developmental play readings, classes and panel discussions on the craft and business of playwriting, and evening performances from Alaskan theatre companies.

According to their mission statement, The Last Frontier Conference “strives to create an educational experience for playwrights, actors, directors, and theatre enthusiasts that enriches participants’ minds and inspires their souls.” Focusing on early and mid-career playwrights, the 2012 conference will produce readings of one-act and full-length works by 50 playwrights. All readings receive a cast, rehearsals and feedback from a panel of theatre professionals and the conference participants. Ten-minute plays and monologues were also solicited from the Play Lab participants, and plays by David Clark and Rachel White will be part of nine plays featured in the Ten-Minute Play Slam on the final afternoon of the conference.

The Louisville playwrights bring their own unique voices to the conference, including a satiric comedy on America’s economy and politics, an obsessive story of grieving in the digital age, and a dramatic struggle in a mining town in Western Kentucky.

Rachel White recently returned to Louisville, Ky., from New York City, where she graduated from the New School for Drama in 2009. Her full-length play Green River received a workshop production at the New School for Drama New Voices Festival and a reading at the Ensemble Studio Theater LA. New York City credits include Blank (Strawberry One-Act Festival Semi-Finalist), Broken Wing (Midtown International Theater Festival, Outstanding Production of a Short Subject) and Gravity (Turnip Theater Company 15-minute Play Festival, Winner Audience Favorite). LA credits include Blank (Moving Arts Productions One-Act Festival, Finalist). She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Playwrights Gallery. Her play Green River follows the struggles of Edith, a smart girl trapped in a small and defunct mining town. Charlie is a lonely drifter who senses Edith’s repressed ambition and aims to draw it out.

Ms. White, a contributor to Arts-Louisville says, “We are all very excited about the conference, and I will definitely be going.  It’s a week-long conference of readings and workshops.  Dawson Moore, the conference coordinator, was so amazed that he got so many great submissions from Kentucky writers that he asked me, 'What is going on in Kentucky?' I felt really proud of that. So I told him what a wonderful and blossoming arts and theater community we have here in Louisville and that there will be more to come.”

Brian Walker is the artistic director of Louisville, Kentucky-based Finnigan Productions. He has written and produced several full-length plays in the Louisville area, including: Smoke this Play, dirty sexy derby play, Great American Sex Play and my daddy’s name is Big Oil. Brian is the creator of Finnigan's Festival of Funky Fresh Fun, a 10-minute play festival celebrating Louisville theatre artists, now in its fifth year. Brian's plays have also been seen in Chicago, Ill., Albuquerque, N.M., Baton Rouge, La., Madison, Wis., Cleveland, Ohio, Detroit, Mich., Houston, Texas, Omaha, Neb., Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lewiston, Maine. Brian was awarded the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship Emerging Artist Award for playwriting by the Kentucky Arts Council in July 2010. He is a member of The Dramatists Guild, The Playwrights’ Center and The Kentucky Playwrights Workshop. FB: a ghost story is a play about grieving in the digital age, the power we give to people who aren't around anymore and the things we give power to by our adoration/obsession of them.

David Clark has also recently returned to Kentucky, having graduated from the M.F.A. in Playwriting program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale last spring. His play In Retrospect appeared in the 2007 Fusion Theatre play festival “The Seven” in Albuquerque, N.M., and was a finalist for the 2003 Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville. His plays gods Play and Laundry were produced at Southern Illinois University. Readings of his work appeared at the playwriting symposium and the Fringe Festival at the Mid America Theater Conference in 2010-2012. His play The Chocolate Girl premiered this past April in Finnigan’s Fifth Festival of Funky Fresh Fun in Louisville, Ky., and he is premiering his play Everything and Nothing (abbreviated title) at the 2012 Minnesota Fringe Festival in August. Bananapocalypse was a finalist for the Kentucky Theatre Association New Play Award (now the Roots of the Bluegrass New Play Award) in 2009.

Complete with congressional dance numbers, French-Canadian mad scientists, and a crumbling fourth wall, Bananapocalypse is a dark satiric comedy in which a scientist, trying to save the world, incites a global crisis over bananas when he is forced to trick the U.S. Government into funding his renewable energy project.

Joseph “Soars” in New Production from StageOne Family Theatre

Kyle Braun in Joseph and The Amazing
Technicolor Dreamcoat
. Photo courtesy of
StageOne Family Theatre.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Megan Bliss

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley.  All rights reserved.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s earliest and most popular musicals. It’s arguably the best of his collaborations with Tim Rice, and it’s definitely his most diverse score. A raucous mix of rock, country/western, calypso and various other styles, it is infectiously upbeat in its telling of a rather dark Biblical tale.

StageOne’s current production takes that upbeat vibe and soars with it, and it’s one of the best local theater productions I have seen all year. Everything about the show dazzles, from Shana Lincoln’s clever and colorful costume designs and Duper Berry’s impressive sets to lighting and sound designs by Theresa Bagan and Robert Dagit. Director/choreographer Megan Bliss keeps the extraordinarily talented cast moving at a brisk pace from one musical number to the next and has coaxed some really remarkable performances from the ensemble.

For the two or three of you who don’t know the story, Joseph tells of Jacob, founder of the Nation of Israel, and his twelve sons. His favorite son, Joseph, runs afoul of his brothers’ jealousy and winds up a slave in Egypt, climbing up the pecking order until he ends up second in command to the mighty Pharaoh. It’s actually a rather dark tale, full of characters that do some really horrible things; but you’d never know it from the consistently happy tone of the music.

Kyle Braun gives what may be his best performance yet in the title role, carrying the character from his rather doe-eyed and na├»ve beginnings through to his triumph as the second most powerful man in Egypt with a natural ease that keeps you rooting for him. As Pharaoh, Mason Stewart does a credible hip-twitching Elvis impersonation while still making the role his own. And John Trueblood, in the dual role of Jacob and Potiphar (Joseph’s Egyptian master), is quite good, even if it was difficult to separate the two characters in my head because he has such a distinctive voice and appearance.

My only real criticism of this production is that I would have liked to see Sarah Ann Koster given more to do in the role of the Narrator. She is quite lovely with a beautiful voice and she serves the role well; but I’ve seen other productions where the Narrator interacts a great deal with the other characters. Ms. Koster only gets to do that a few times here, and it just feels like a missed opportunity to me.

The cast is supplemented by four different children’s choruses on alternating nights, and there are far too many names to list here.  On the Saturday night performance I attended they sounded wonderful. Solid work all around by musical director Jason Seber.

This is, all and all, a fantastic production of one of my favorite musicals. Worth a look for fans of musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the Good Book!

Featuring Jordan Adams, Clayton Bliss, Tyler Bliss, Trevor Boley, Kyle Braun, Dallyn Brunck, T’Era Coleman, Denzel Edmondson, Debbie Hill, Dimetre Jackson, Billy Jenkins, Duane Johnson, Tyler Johnson-Campion, Rachel Hafell, Corey Hardin, Tricia Jackson, Sarah Ann Koster, Lamont O’Neal, Shelby Putlak, Adam Raque, Haylie Rebilas, Kevin Renn, Bailey Rose, LaRosa Shelton, Robbie Steinert, Mason Stewart, Kendrick Thielmeier, John Trueblood, Quinn Wise, Greg Wood, Cassaundra Young.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

June 8-10, 12-17 @ 7:00 p.m.
Matinees: June 10 & 16 @ 1:30 p.m.

StageOne Family Theatre
The Kentucky Center, Bomhard Theater
501 West Main St.
Louisville, KY

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Interview with Bob Bernhardt, Conductor

Interview by Scott Dowd.

As I write this, the Association of the Louisville Orchestra Musicians have just agreed to a new multi-year contract. Negotiations between the musicians and Louisville Orchestra management, aided by work of Metro Council President Jim King and Mayor Greg Fischer, have come to a close for the moment and planning is underway for Fanfara 2012. The impact of this announcement will be felt throughout the entire community, from Kentucky Opera to the University of Louisville School of Music. For some perspective on what is happening inside the organization and a look ahead to the 2012-2013 season, I turned to a longtime friend, Bob Bernhardt. It has been 30 seasons since Bob joined the Louisville Orchestra as assistant conductor. He now serves as LO’s Principal Pops Conductor and he is also Music Director Emeritus of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. 

Bob Bernhardt.  Photo by O'Neil Arnold.
SD: What led you to the decision to step down from the music director’s role in Tennessee?
BB: About five years ago I looked at my wife, Nora, and said, “They want me to stay and things are good. But it may be time for Chattanooga to have a new voice.” I talked with CSO management and we put together a two-year transition plan that included a search for new leadership. Because I suggested it and they didn’t ask me to leave, they asked me to stay. It’s like with athletes – you have to make the decision when it’s time to go. It has been such a wonderful ride here, but I thought I would try to shape my own future.
SD: Whom did they choose to succeed you?
BB: They had nine candidates in over the course of the two years. They finally selected Kayoko Dan. She is just finishing her first year as I’m completing my twentieth here in Chattanooga. It’s interesting because so many things are lining up at the same time. This was also my thirtieth year in Louisville – fifteen of those as Principal Pops Conductor. Due to the situation at the LO, it was somewhat of a bittersweet convergence.
SD: You spoke of shaping your future. What are some of the other orchestras you’re working with?
BB: I’m a frequent guest now with the Edmonton Symphony in Edmonton, Canada. I go there three or four times a year. I’ve recently conducted the Cincinnati Pops, the Baltimore Symphony, the orchestras in Dallas and Houston. And I am really happy to have a continuing relationship with the Boston Pops. I first went there in 1992 and I go back every other year on average.
SD: Is that all?
BB: Well, actually, I have started teaching.
SD: I was just kidding! Where are you teaching on top of all that?
BB: I’m an Artist-In-Residence at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Chattanooga. I conduct their orchestra and I’ve just started teaching conducting there.
SD: You obviously enjoy working.
BB: It’s been very rewarding. I began my career at the University of Alabama, and it feels really good to bring that circle around. I love working with the kids, and it feels like a natural and appropriate path. I hate it when people say it’s “giving back,” because they’re giving me as much as I’m giving them.
SD: Is it difficult to juggle all of your commitments and school?
BB: Fortunately, I am able to be on a restricted schedule at Lee so that I can teach and have my professional life, too.
SD: It must be gratifying for you to know that you’re contributing to the future of what I will call “serious music.” It makes me feel like there is a future for it.
BB: Both the musicians in the orchestra and the conducting students ask me about – pardon the trite phrasing – the “real” world of our profession. I’ve had more than 30 years now of ups and downs to be able to give them my realistic view.
SD: You have certainly been witness to the undulations of the Louisville Orchestra.
BB: My first week with the Louisville Orchestra was a strike week! I was there during the period that the orchestra transitioned from per-service (part-time) to full-time. The LO went to Mexico City and as soon as they returned, I was to start as Assistant Conductor. I wanted to go along to Mexico because my wife at the time, Jenny, was in the orchestra and that was her first gig with them. So I paid my own way, and when we got back home there was the labor dispute that culminated in the new model. Thirty-one years later, here we are.
SD: Is there anyone in the organization with more personal history than you at this point?
BB: There are some members of the Orchestra who have been here longer. But in the office there’s only Angela, the receptionist. She was the one who answered the phone when I called about my audition in 1981!
SD: As you look back, what are your overall thoughts about the Louisville Orchestra?
BB: It has certainly been eventful! But for me, it has been almost entirely a joy ride. My relationship with the musicians, many of whom are my longest held and dearest friends, is at the center. They taught me my job, and we have traveled this remarkable music-making journey together. Also, the LO was the first place I worked that allowed me to be myself. I don’t know how else to say it. It is such a privilege to be able to do what I do as a performer and not have to be anything other than who I am. It is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received and one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned. When you are able to work in such a job as I’m lucky to have and just be myself…it’s a huge boon. I’ve also had the privilege of working with boards, staff and volunteers all this time who have given so much, committing themselves to great music performed live with excellence.
SD: And audiences love you!
BB: I bribe them all.
SD: Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.
BB: I’ll tell you, that audition in 1981 turned into the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my career.
SD: So you’re changing the way things are done in Chattanooga?
BB: Right. I’ve actually become the Pops Conductor and I do a couple of specials.
SD: I’m told you will be changing things up here in Louisville, too.
BB: During this past year, we started Classical U, which is an extension of the work I’ve done for 25 years. I actually began this by teaching Elder Hostel classes, and I just loved teaching in my usual style. I always tell people, “Fifty percent of what I’m saying is true and it’s up to you to figure out which half.” We have fun with the music, the composers, the times in which they wrote and playing great music for people who love being there.
SD: How many of those events were there?
BB: I did six installments of Classical U at the Clifton Center. For these classes, I started with the Baroque and ended up in the post-Romantic period. It was a kind of an over-arching, light-hearted history of classical music. We created a Power Point presentation, so there was a visual aspect but, primarily, it was listening to great music and talking about the composers and their lives. The thought was to continue that and possibly have it become a part of NightLites somehow. By the time people are reading this, that plan may be more evolved.
SD: I know a lot of things are being talked about at this point as decisions for the future of the Louisville Orchestra are being made.
BB: Yes, the staff had a retreat and I’ve heard a number of the ideas – but nothing that is confirmed at this point. One of those was to add a concert or a rehearsal, perhaps, to the NightLites series that would allow us to get inside the music more. NightLites is designed to be entertaining and I do talk about the music we do – but I don’t get into the nuts and bolts of the pieces as much. The potential is for this to be Classical U with the musicians of the Louisville Orchestra instead of recordings. That would be enormous fun.
SD: I grew up with Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” series and I love that model.
BB: Me too. You know the thing that attracts me to my work in Louisville is that I am able to connect audiences to the music with a little humor. As long as it is not detrimental to the product, it is hopefully a way to help people enjoy the moment a little more.
SD: It is supposed to be entertainment, after all. Going to hear the orchestra isn’t supposed to be like going to a symposium.
BB: That has always been kind of my role with the Louisville Orchestra. I’ve done my share of subscription concerts – which I’ve adored – but mostly, I try to present concerts that I hope are exciting, musically excellent and also entertaining.
SD: You are also the Principal Pops Conductor. Can you say anything about that series yet?
BB: Plans at this point are for the Pops series to remain pretty much as it has been. We have some wonderful guest stars we are close to signing…will likely have signed by June.
SD: Will the other series be continuing?
BB: Yes. There may be a new series or a return of Strings Attached.
SD: That’s the series with the Indie bands.
BB: Right. Those are so much fun. My friends up at the Boston Pops recently had a concert that featured one of Louisville’s favorite Indie bands…My Morning Jacket!
SD: Has the WOW! series been discussed?
BB: That has been discussed. I even have some dates on my calendar, though I don’t think the artists have been confirmed yet. I think I can say that there has been talk of a Disney show that would include singers and film.
SD: That sounds like a fun evening.
BB: There are definitely many fun evenings ahead with our orchestra. As I mark 20 years since I began my relationship with the Boston Pops, 20 years in Chattanooga and 30 years with the Louisville Orchestra, everything right now is so hopeful – and I am so looking forward to a year of making music again in Louisville.

Magazine deadlines being what they are, it is difficult to know what the Louisville Orchestra will have announced by the time this interview reaches you. But I am assured that Fanfara is being planned and that the intention is to open the season this September as usual. Supporters, please watch your mailboxes for season announce ments! For more information about the Louisville Orchestra’s 2012-2013 season, go to or call 502.587.8681.