SummerFest is the new event that feels like its been around for years.
That’s because it is the immediate successor to the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, and since there was not a radical change of form, the event is inevitably compared to previous Shakespeare festivals, just like you’d compare the entrees at a restaurant that is simply under new management.
Did the new chefs spice things up, deliver something more pleasing to the palate? Or are we left wishing the old guard was still in place?
This summer is one of the most overall satisfying servings offered up in the Arboretum over the past decade.
There weren’t any highs as dizzying as 2004’s Jesus Christ Superstar, but there also wasn’t anything as low as 1998’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. It was a very even affair, marked by its directors.
Directors will often tell you that 90 percent of the job is directing, and maybe 90 percent of artistic directing is selecting directors, and playing to their strengths.
That may be the biggest reason this year’s SummerFest was so satisfying.
Over the years, Joe Ferrell has been our most adept director at taking the sometimes foreign language of William Shakespeare and giving it immediacy and relevance. So, he led off the fest with a visceral Antony and Cleopatra.
Sullivan Canaday White has been ordained a terrific teaching director by no less than Actors Theatre of Louisville. SummerFest brought her back to direct the youth-driven production of Lord of the Flies.
And finally, Mike Thomas has musicals in his blood and a vision for pulling the stories out and putting them front and center while not skimping on the quality of the production numbers. He got Hair, which wasn’t quite the second coming of Christ, but it was a solid, insightful production.
You have to give the producers points for being a tad more daring than in some of the waning days of the Shakespeare Festival.
Early in the Arboretum days, after the Shakespeare Festival made the move there from Woodland Park, there was talk of developing a loyal audience that would trust the festival enough to come see anything it chose. But once audiences started hitting the thousands with productions such as To Kill a Mockingbird, that ambition seemed to be subverted by a desire to maximize the crowds.
This is not as unpalatable an ambition as some people would make it out to be. After all, ticket revenue is part of your income, so if your audience wanes, it causes problems. And every theater must determine its role. If yours is being a communal midsummer place, maybe you do stay with marquee material in traditional productions. That can also be a recipe for artistic stagnation, though, and there were times in the last few years of the LSF that stale taste was slipping in.
You could argue that all of this year’s titles were well-known commodities.
Lord of the Flies is a tough show to watch, though it still had an audience that averaged 700 a night, pretty much on par with Antony and Cleopatra. Producing Flies gave a talented group of young actors the opportunity to execute a demanding show in a major venue, and they made it an artistic success, and SummerFest spokeswoman Sheila Ferrell pointed out that it drew a young audience, which theaters are always looking for.
Yes, Hair, like Superstar, is a ’60s-era rock musical. But the R-rated material limited the younger demographic and maybe even some families that often populate the Arboretum amphitheater. It was a show directors said they wanted to do because of a perceived relevance to today and recognition of the show’s 40th anniversary. Despite those limitations, Hair still drew an average of 1,200 people a night and 2,000 for its July 26 performance.
Overall, the audience was up 25 percent over last year, said SummerFest organizers, and the festival finished in the black.
So after a good start last year, which included a production of The Crucible that ranks among the best-ever performances in the Arboretum, Summerfest seems to be on sure footing.
But it shouldn’t be satisfied. Here’s hoping for future seasons of rising professionalism and creative challenges for artists and audiences.