Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019


Fall Guide Part 1: Arts

By Jennifer Leigh

Fall tends to feel like a season of new beginnings—a new school semester, a change in the weather (fingers crossed) and, here in Pensacola, the opening season of five culturally-rich nonprofit organizations.

Some cities count themselves lucky to have a theatre company—we have that and more. While most locals were on vacation or lounging at the beach, hundreds of talented people were working to plan their upcoming season of performances that run the gamut from traditional operas to a ballet based on the music and life of Elton John.

In our Fall Arts preview, we give you a rundown on what to expect this season. It’s impossible to catch every show, but we encourage you to check out the schedules and try something new to enjoy and support the talent in your city. You won’t regret it.

—Ballet Pensacola—
When heading into a new season at Ballet Pensacola, Artistic Director Richard Steinert says he thinks about what he wants to say and who he wants to reach.

“I want the shows to meet as many kinds of people as possible. I want the season to be diverse,” he said. “I’m kind of like a rebel, but a rebel with a cause.”

Steinert said he can dream wildly, but with a nonprofit budget, it takes a team of people to take his wildest dreams and make them reality.

“Sometimes it comes down to what can we do financially and can we sell tickets,” he said. “That’s the much less creative end of the job.”

Choosing shows can be a formulaic process, Steinert said. There’s typically a Halloween-centered show to kick off the season. This current season begins with “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” which brings the Tim Burton classic to the stage.

“It’s always been a huge success,” Steinert said. “Unfortunately, we really can’t afford to keep all of the sets in the warehouse, so each year, we often look to see what we want to kill. We’ll probably retire this show after this year, and then it will go back in the vault.”

Another regular success story for Ballet Pensacola is “The Nutcracker.”

With its broad appeal and seasonal relevance, it’s “a given,” Steinert said.

“Across the board for most (ballet) companies, ‘The Nutcracker’ is responsible for 40 to 45% of annual ticket sales,” he said. “And that’s true for us. Part of that is because we have a bigger venue (at Saenger Theatre).”

Part of any arts organization’s mission is to get more supporters and introduce art to a wide range of people. Steinert has found a way to do that with music. In the past several years, the company has had success with shows like “DIVAS, We Will Rock You” and “Thunderstruck” that use contemporary music and choreography. This year, the ballet will present “Rocketman,” celebrating the music of Elton John.

“I always try to see how dance can pique someone’s interest,” said Steinert. “If you loved the movie ‘Rocketman,’ you’ll love this.”

For fans who still love a classical ballet, the first half of the show will be “Paquita,” a romantic ballet dating back to 1846.

“It’s a good, old-school ballet with classical tutus,” Steinert said. “The night will be a good mix of classical and contemporary.”

Closing the season will be “Mary Poppins,” and yes, she does fly, thanks to technological advances.

During the “sort of off-season,” as Steinert calls it, the nonprofit is focused on training and developing young talent with the Ballet Academy.

From the academy, new faces emerge with the Ballet Pensacola company. This year, five graduated students have been hired on to join the season.

“Our dedication to developing young talent is our biggest impact on the community,” Steinert said. “And not only do we train them; we hire them. We want to teach young people, and the community, that you can pursue your dream. You can do it.”

For Steinert, working in a culturally-rich area like Pensacola adds a greater responsibility to his job as artistic director, he said. That means being mindful of the productions around you to not try and compete, especially when it comes to Pensacola Little Theatre, where most Ballet Pensacola performances are help.

“You want to be mutually supportive,” he said. “For instance, we wouldn’t do our ‘Mary Poppins’ ballet the same year PLT was doing the play.”

Steinert’s first experience with Pensacola was 15 years ago as a guest artist for Ballet Pensacola. Now, he’s entering into his 13th season as artistic director. Still, he looks to each year as a “wide-eyed optimist.”

“I’m 61. I started in this business 40 years ago, and it just keeps getting better,” he said. “It excites me—and it terrifies me, too. But it’s not hard for me to find the joy in it.”

Ballet Pensacola Performances
Performed at Pensacola Cultural Center unless noted

A Nightmare Before Christmas
Oct. 18-27
Ballet Pensacola returns to Tim Burton’s Halloweentown for a perfectly seasonal kickoff show.

The Nutcracker
Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
Dec. 20-22
The holiday classic shares the story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince as they embark on a whimsical adventure.

Paquita & Rocketman: The Music of Elton John
Feb. 21-23
It’s a night of classic vs. contemporary with the romantic ballet “Paquita” in the first half and a new ballet inspired by the life and music of Elton John in the second half.

Mary Poppins
April 17-26
The story of Mary Poppins is interpreted through dance and some stage magic.

WHERE: 400 S. Jefferson St.

—The Choral Society of Pensacola—
There are several choir groups in Pensacola but only one with an 84-year tradition of singing classical music.

“We love being part of such a lively arts scene and are proud that we play a distinctive role,” said Charlie Smoke, executive director of The Choral Society of Pensacola. “Even though the community boasts several choral groups, none duplicate what we do.”

In its 84th season, the Choral Society is not likely to break away from its classical repertoire, but there are some additions, including musical theatre, pop and jazz. Also, the choir will be doing something different this season by hosting “Choir! Choir! Choir!” during Foo Foo Festival.

“It will be a fun, high-energy event, led by two phenomenal guys from Toronto, who involve everyone who attends in the music-making,” Smoke explained. “The audience is the choir is the audience.”

What you can always look forward to with each season is Handel’s “Messiah.” The piece dates back to 1742 and is a reflection on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It’s also a significant piece for the organization. In 1935, the Music Study Club of Pensacola performed selections from “Messiah,” which led to the formation of The Choral Society of Pensacola.

The choir currently has a roster of 80 volunteer singers ranging in age from high school to retirees. You can try to join for the 85th season at the next audition Saturday, Jan. 4, at Pensacola State College.

Smoke recommends “Messiah” to any choir first-timers.

“It’s a signature piece that we perform every holiday season with soloists and orchestra,” he said. “This year, we’ll present the work in its entirety. It will be a longer evening than most of our concerts, but the emotional range of the music, I think, will keep everyone engaged. It’s a beautiful, powerful work.”

Another notable performance includes “My Favorite Things,” which brings a variety of music from different time periods. The show will also feature winners of Young Voices singing competition for high school and college students.

Artistic Director Xiaolun Chen selects each season’s programs keeping in mind previous programs, budget and the overall sound of the season, said Smoke. While Chen honors the tradition of classical music, he keeps his ears open for “fresh repertoire,” said Smoke.

“For instance, not long ago on YouTube, he discovered a version of Vavilov’s ‘Ave Maria’ by a young French composer/arranger,” Smoke said. “(Chen) tracked him down online, obtained his permission to perform the arrangement, had it shipped from France, and we’ll include it on our May concert with the Brahms ‘Requiem.’”

This season is a special one for Chen as it will be his last after 21 years with The Choral Society of Pensacola.

Smoke credits Chen for carrying on the tradition of previous directors while adding his own style.

“(His) passion is large-scale classical works for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and, through his tenure with the group, he has ensured that that area residents have had the opportunity to experience, as performers and as audience members, some of the great masterworks in concert,” said Smoke. “This season, he’s conducting ‘Messiah’ in its entirety for the first time in his career, and he’s conducting the Brahms ‘Requiem’ for the first time. His final season is also a season of firsts.”

The Choral Society of Pensacola Performances

Choir! Choir! Choir!
Rex Theatre, 18 N. Palafox
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6
This Foo Foo Festival event puts the audience in the show. With Toronto-based musicians Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman, each admission ticket is exchanged for a lyric sheet. No auditions necessary.

Handel’s “Messiah” Complete
Saenger Theater, 118 S. Palafox
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7
Enjoy a rare opportunity to hear Handel’s masterpiece in its entirety. Four soloists return to perform with the 60-voice community chorus accompanied by an orchestra.

‘Tis the Season to Sing Along
Generation Church, 18 N. Palafox
5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15
Join the choir for an hour of holiday songs followed by hot chocolate and cookies. Ugly sweaters are encouraged but not required. Admission is free, but attendees are encouraged to bring a nonperishable food item for Manna.

My Favorite Things
First United Methodist Church, 6 E. Wright St.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14
During his final season, Artistic Director Xiaolun Chen presents some of the music he has most enjoyed conducting during the past 21 seasons.

Brahms “Requiem”
Cokesbury Church, 5725 N. 9th Ave.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 2
The choir’s 84th season closes with the 150-year-old masterpiece. The show will also play homage to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

WHERE: 1000 College Blvd., Rm. 83

—Pensacola Little Theatre—
Many locals may be hard-pressed to think of Pensacola without the Pensacola Little Theatre. Dating back as far as 1926, it’s one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city (second only to Pensacola Symphony Orchestra). And each year, it continues to present new and exciting ways to bring that “little” theatre to life.

Preparation for a new season begins far in advance with PLT’s artistic committee spending a year reviewing works before making final recommendations, said Executive Director Sid Williams-Heath. A final list of shows is sent to the Board of Trustees for approval nine months before a season begins.

When it comes to final selection, Williams-Health said it’s about finding something to engage all audiences.

“I love the diversity of the season,” he said. “We all know ‘My Fair Lady’ and other timeless classics in our Mainstage series, but we also offer extremely thought-provoking (often downright dirty) content within our Studio 400 series. We target families and younger audiences through our Treehouse series (shameless plug to our upcoming performance of ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’), and truly stick by the “something for everyone” mentality when selecting our lineup.”

And part of that early planning means budgeting—it is a nonprofit, after all.

“Just like the art we put on stage, there’s an art to raising funds to keep the curtain rising,” Williams-Heath said.

One thing that helps to keep the curtain rising is volunteers.

“Other than a small staff to operate the theatre, everything done in this organization is by volunteers,” said Williams-Heath. “Nearly 1,000 volunteers come through the doors of the Cultural Center each year and with over 80,000 hours of volunteer service executed within a year. We know the power of community.”

PLT works to give back support in creative ways, from incorporating a winter jacket drive in conjunction with the production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” or hosting a Pensacola Humane Society pet adoption during the production of “CATS.”

Being a community theatre, Williams-Heath said the mission of PLT is not about finding the next Broadway star but giving people a creative outlet to step out of their comfort zone.

“We do what we do to help others garner self-confidence, public speaking abilities, sense of perspective, understanding of differing viewpoints and cultural development—and that’s why community theatre is so important,” said Williams-Heath.

You can travel to bigger cities or go to the Saenger Theatre and watch a traveling Broadway play, but you won’t get to meet the cast or playwright. At many PLT shows, you can meet the talented people behind the shows—in fact, you might already know them. Take, for instance, Dr. Stephen Lott. He’s a local child psychologist and one of the founders of PLT’s children’s theatre group, Treehouse Theatre.

“If you frequent PLT, then Dr. Stephen Lott needs no introduction as the brilliant director of ‘Shrek the Musical’ and ‘Mary Poppins,’” said Williams-Heath. “Dr. Lott will return to the stage as Van Helsing in ‘Dracula: A Real Pain in the Neck’ this October, his own true comedic studio romp through the myths and fantasy of Dracula.”

At the end of the day, the theatre stage gives “a voice to the voiceless,” said Williams-Heath. He’s proud of that. And he’s proud to be among the “big five” arts organizations in Pensacola.

“It’s so fascinating to me–—not only how many arts organizations Pensacola sustains but also the quality of those organizations,” he said. “Even from my time spent working with the Savannah College of Art and Design both domestically and abroad, I’ve never experienced so much bang for your artistic buck in a town this size.”

Pensacola Little Theatre Performances
Performed at Pensacola Cultural Center

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
Sept. 20-29
In Alan Ball’s comedy, five bridesmaids hide together in an upstairs bedroom, hoping to escape the wedding reception of a bride they don’t like.

Dracula (A Real Pain in the Neck)
Oct. 4-12
In this original piece from Dr. Stephen Lott, the story of  Dracula is reimagined as a comedy with lots of blood and puns.

The Savannah Sipping Society
Nov. 1-10
Four Southern women looking to escape their day-to-day routines are brought together by fate—and an impromptu happy hour.

Miracle on 34th Street
Dec. 13-22
Kris Kringle is an old man living in a retirement home who gets the chance to play Santa at Macy’s department store. When his goodwill is questioned and seen as delusional and dangerous, everyone’s belief in Santa Claus is questioned.

Schoolhouse Rock LIVE!
Jan. 24-Feb. 9
You know the songs from the Saturday morning cartoons. See them come to life in this play that is both educational and entertaining.

Short Attention Span Theatre
Feb. 14-Feb. 23
An annual favorite which features an evening of one-act plays.

Winnie The Pooh
March 20-29
The literary classic is brought to the PLT stage including all of Pooh’s friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Other Desert Cities
May 1-9
A woman visits home for the holidays and announces she is publishing a memoir about a tragic event in the family.

Rock of Ages
May 22-June 7
A story of fame, heartbreak and big hair. The Broadway musical is full of ‘80s hits from Night Ranger, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister and others.

Hand to God
June 12-20
After the death of his father, a young man finds an outlet for his anxiety at the Christian Puppet Ministry. His relationships are soon turned to upheaval when his puppet, Tyrone, takes on a personality all its own.

WHERE: 400 S. Jefferson St.

—Pensacola Opera—

Where would we be without some drama in our lives?

As one of Florida’s four professional opera companies (and the only one in North Florida), Pensacola Opera delivers all of the heartbreak, comedy and thrills you can handle featuring the talent of nationally-acclaimed opera singers and local performers.

When it comes to setting the stage for upcoming opera season, Executive Director Chandra McKern says it’s all about a mix of classic and contemporary. And this upcoming 37th season will be no different.

“Puccini and Verdi are always here to stay, as are other famous classics like ‘Carmen’ and ‘The Barber of Seville,’” she explained. “However, much of today’s programming also emphasizes new works and commissions, as well as occasional lesser-known masterpieces. It is important to have the balance of both and know what your audience wants to see.”

One performance McKern is looking forward to most is Verdi’s “Il trovatore,” As described on the Pensacola Opera website, it “puts the ‘grand’ in grand opera.”

McKern admits the love triangle story can be confusing at times, but the music is “captivating and exciting.” Nashville Opera’s John Hoomes will be directing.

“Pensacola Opera has not performed the work since 1996,” said McKern. “Verdi’s classic grand opera will be re-imagined by Hoomes, set in an apocalyptic setting with video and projections created by Barry Steele. If you are looking to step out of the box and into opera with an edge, this one is not to be missed.”

One of the most exciting parts of the season is undoubtedly opening night. There’s a lot of build-up to that moment from set design and rehearsals.

“There are few occasions to match the excitement of an opening night performance at the opera,” McKern said. “After all the stress and hard work your company has put into producing the show, hearing the audience’s excitement makes it all worth it. It’s an exciting experience that only comes once.”

If you’ve never seen Pensacola Opera—or any opera for that matter—it can be intimidating. Part of the nonprofit’s mission is to make opera accessible to everyone, said McKern. Alongside partnering with local charities, Pensacola Opera reaches out to the public through its community and education engagement programs. Last year, Pensacola Opera visited more than 47 schools. This season, they’ll also continue the Brown Bag Opera Series, which is a free lunch break performance by artists in residence.

“You bring the lunch. We bring the opera,” McKern said.

Seeing a Pensacola Opera performance also means engaging with other cultural nonprofits. It’s not uncommon for the opera to collaborate with Ballet Pensacola, Pensacola Symphony Orchestra or Pensacola Children’s Chorus. It takes a community to support them all.

“Few cities of Pensacola’s size can boast its diversity of arts, culture and entertainment,” said McKern. “For nonprofit organizations, local support is the most important, and we are very fortunate to live in a city that supports what we do and believes in our mission.”

A great performance can bring an audience to its feet, but real community support runs deeper. That’s why McKern says she wants to continue telling the story of Pensacola Opera and the impact it makes, which can sometimes be a challenge.

“In telling our story, we need to make sure our community partners know how important they are and the impact they’re making,” she said. “For nonprofits, the story doesn’t end here.  Once we have shared your story with our audience, what do we want them to do? Once you’ve captured their hearts and minds, it is our responsibility to give them a clear call to action to respond to—as a donor, volunteer or advocate.”

Pensacola Opera Performances
Performed at the Saenger Theatre unless noted

As One
Pensacola Little Theatre, 400 S. Jefferson St.
Nov. 1-3
In collaboration with Sunday’s Child, “As One” shares the story of a woman uncovering her true self. Performances will be preceded by a showing of Kimberly Reed’s autobiographical documentary “Prodigal Sons,” about her reintroducing herself to her small town as a transgender woman.

Don Giovanni
Jan. 24 & 26
Mozart’s masterpiece returns to the Saenger stage in a new production created by Papermoon Opera Productions and Stage Director Fenlon Lamb.

Easy to Love
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13
This special one-night performance features the songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein performed by Pensacola Opera artists in residence.

Il trovatore
March 20 & 22
Verdi’s thriller explores the love triangle and emphasizes the “grand” in grand opera.

WHERE: 75 S. Tarragona
—Pensacola Symphony Orchestra—

Like any of the arts organizations, the summer season is hardly a break for the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.

“From writing grants to planning, editing the program book, selling and mailing tickets, raising support through sponsorships and individuals, the staff stay busy all summer,” said Executive Director Bret Barrow. “While we become more visible during performances, which we all love, we stay moving all year working towards the next project.”

With each new PSO season, there are the annual traditions to look forward to such as Beethoven & Blue Jeans and the New Year’s Eve Pops Concert. Each year, the symphony and Music Director Peter Rubardt also work to make classical music feel new and fresh.

“Our artistic imperative remains to create transformative concert experiences,” said Barrow. “We are always considering ideas and developing concepts and shortlists of pieces and artists.”

The key to that is collaboration and inspiration. In this upcoming season, PSO will perform Verdi’s “Requiem” with the University of Southern Mississippi’s choir—a collaboration that was several years in the making, Barrow said.

January’s Beethoven & Blue Jeans performance will feature electric violinist Tracey Silverman, who will share a piece called “The Dharma at Big Sur,” which was written for her to perform at the grand opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. After Rubardt heard and saw the piece for himself, he decided to bring it to Pensacola.

Sometimes inspiration can come from an internet playlist.

“We also take suggestions from our musicians, patrons and all sorts of places,” said Barrow. “One of Peter’s new places for inspiration is to listen to Spotify’s algorithmic suggestions while working out.”

For Barrow—who plays the trombone—choosing a favorite piece from the upcoming season is two-fold. There’s the piece he can’t wait to perform and the piece he can’t wait to hear. In April, Barrow said he’s looking forward to PSO’s season finale where the orchestra will play Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

“(It’s) one of the pieces that I listened to incessantly as a youngster,” he said. “It has one of the most magical conclusions of any piece in our repertoire. We also have as our special guest for the performance the composer Libby Larsen. It should be awesome to hear her thoughts on the orchestra and our interpretation as we present her composition ‘Water Music.’”

And in November, legendary piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson will join the orchestra for Ohlsson Plays Brahms.

“(For) this concert, I’ll be in the audience. I am thrilled to get this opportunity,” Barrow said.

What also keeps PSO busy throughout the year is their community engagement programming, Beyond the Stage. Musicians partner Escambia County middle and high school orchestras and band directors to provide one-on-one coaching, group instruction and mentorship, Barrow said. PSO also gives 6,000 fifth-grade students in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties the chance to attend free concerts at the Saenger Theatre. PSO also partners with Pensacola Community Music School bringing music to patients at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care and the Studer Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart.

“Throughout the season, we project that Beyond the Stage services will impact more than 15,000 community members,” Barrow said.

Behind the opening night excitement is the orchestra’s service to its mission, said Barrow.

“We exist to serve our community with music,” he explained. “We don’t force music upon the community. It has to be provided thoughtfully so that it can speak to us in unique ways. That’s different than existing to entertain or even to educate. We want to promote the wellbeing of our community through music—that’s the challenge that I want to meet.”

Pensacola Symphony Orchestra Performances
Performed at the Saenger Theatre unless noted

Opening Night!
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5
Bella Hristova returns to the Saenger stage to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Ohlsson Plays Brahms
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2
Legendary pianist Garrick Ohlsson joins PSO Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1.

Celebrate the New Year!
7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31
Say hello to a new year with an evening of classics like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Beethoven & Blue Jeans
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11
A variety of musical styles from Beethoven’s Egmont Overture to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with guest Tracy Silverman on electric violin.

Mozart Madness
First United Methodist Church, 6 E. Wright St.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1
An hour-long, intimate concert that features Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter.”

From Hollywood: John Williams and More
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8
A performance featuring legendary music from movies like “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.”

Russian Spectacular
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29
PSO’s annual celebration of Russian composers includes Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Guest Bion Tsang on cello will join the orchestra.

Verdi: Requiem
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 28
This performance is a special collaboration between PSO and more than 120 voices from The University of Southern Mississippi Chorus for Verdi’s Requiem Mass.

The Music of Triumph
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25
PSO’s 94th season comes to a close with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Sibelius’ majestic Symphony No. 2. Composer Libby Larsen will also discuss her own work, Symphony No. 1, Water Music, and composers that have inspired her.

WHERE: 205 E. Zaragoza St.