Whether it’s Moses parting the Red Sea, a Na’vi youth soaring over the world of Pandora or three blue men making music with objects that were never intended to be instruments, theater brings art to life and transports audiences. Blue Man Group is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and Cirque du Soleil is closing in on its 40th original production, while Broadway expects the 2016-17 season to break last year’s record-setting season.
Here are some theater highlights that are lighting up stages around the country this year and beyond.
Never before has Hallmark — yes, the same Hallmark behind the greeting cards and family films — mounted a Broadway-style musical with a live orchestra. “Maxine’s Christmas Carol” will be Hallmark’s first theatrical production when it opens Nov. 1 at the Andy Williams Performing Arts Center. For more than three decades, Maxine has been Hallmark’s lovable curmudgeon, gracing products with her brassy, sassy sayings, and now the “crabby complainer” will have her own version of the Charles Dickens classic, said Lynn Berry, director of communications for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Sight and Sound Theatres, which is known for its visually stunning productions of Biblical stories, opened “Moses” in March, and most performances have been sell outs. The show will run through December and return in March 2017 for an eight-month run. The theater’s special effects “bring the Bible to life on stage,” Berry said. The audience will see the parting of the Red Sea, the River Nile, the burning bush and the pharaoh’s palace.
“This one is so powerful; it’s awe-inspiring, and I don’t say that about many shows,” she said.
“All Hands on Deck” at the Dutton Family Theater retells the story of the real-life Victory Caravan in 1942, and “Reza’s Edge of Illusion” brings Reza’s signature magic to the stage at the Starlite Theatre. One show that isn’t new but is “back by popular demand” is “Million Dollar Quartet,” running at Welk Resort Theatre through December. The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical tells the true story of the night Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins jammed together at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
New on Broadway
There’s been one word on Broadway lately: Hamilton.
“It’s ‘Hamilton’ mania,” said Stephanie Lee, president and co-owner of Broadway.com. “It’s cast such a broad net on Broadway, and we’re seeing a new audience because of it.”
Although “Hamilton” has been a boon for Broadway, which had a record-setting 2015-16 season, selling more than 13.3 million tickets, “we look to next season for even more” theatergoers and new hits, Lee said.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is already “teeing up as the next hot ticket,” she said. The show premiered in 2015 in Washington, D.C., and opened Off-Broadway in March to record-setting audiences. It was fast-tracked to Broadway and will premier in November at the Belasco Theatre. The original musical follows socially awkward teen Evan Hansen, played by Ben Platt of the “Pitch Perfect” movies, as he gets tangled up in a web of social mores and social media surrounding a tragedy.
“Come From Away” is slated to open on Broadway in spring 2017 at an undetermined theater. The musical is based on the true story of the 10,000-person town of Gander, Newfoundland, which found itself playing host to the world on Sept. 11, 2001, as 38 flights were diverted to Gander International Airport after the terrorist attacks in New York City.
“It’s about this small town that was basically turned into an international sleepover and how this community comes together to accommodate thousands of people from all over the world,” Lee said. “It’s a very heartfelt story about what grew out of a global tragedy.”
Producers are resurrecting three heavy-hitters this season, including “Cats,” opening on Broadway in August, and “Miss Saigon,” coming to Broadway in spring 2017. But perhaps the most anticipated is producer Scott Rudin’s revival of “Hello, Dolly!” headlined by Bette Midler. David Hyde Pierce will join the production, which is the first Broadway revival of the show since 1995 and is slated to start previews in March at the Shubert Theatre.
Blue Man Group
Phil Stanton, Chris Wink and Matt Goldman first debuted their Blue Man concept in 1991 on the streets of New York, but “it would be very kind to call them performances,” Stanton said. “They were more humorous happenings or human statements.” For example, they set up velvet ropes on the sidewalk across the street from the hottest and hardest to get into nightclub in town.
“We didn’t really know what the Blue Man would do at first,” he said.
Now, 25 years later, Stanton and his cofounders are amazed at what Blue Man Group has done: resident shows in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston and Orlando; a world tour that kicked off in March; a U.S. tour that’s wrapping up this summer after nearly six years on the road; its third studio album; and a book that will be on shelves in October.
When the show debuted at Astor Place Theatre in 1991, Stanton built a lot of props and instruments to be easily broken down and carried out because he figured they wouldn’t be there very long. (The show’s still there.) The group originally viewed itself sort of like a band with three members. But after Stanton injured his thumb and couldn’t perform, there was an “aha moment,” he said. Someone else had to go on, and Stanton said they realized it’s “not about us at all. The very nature of the Blue Man is that he’s an everyman; he’s egoless.” That realization led to expansion, which means up to 50 Blue Men are performing at any given time.
“Three,” which was released in April, features 14 instrumental tracks that blend EDM (electronic dance music) with Blue Man’s signature acoustic and tribal sound. The book “Blue Man World” is written from observers’ perspectives — some fictional, some not — to examine Blue Man Group’s process while mixing in truth, humor and plenty of “poking fun at ourselves,” Stanton said, along with tons of photos, artwork, illustrations and fun informational graphs. And there’s more to come.
“Even though we’re 25 years in, we’re still at the beginning of what this character can do,” Stanton said. “We feel like we’re at the first fifth of the story.”
Cirque du Soleil
Since its beginnings in 1984 as a troupe of performers on the streets of Quebec cities, Cirque du Soleil has mounted nearly 40 original productions that have toured around the globe.
“Paramour,” which opened at the Lyric Theatre in May, is Cirque’s first production created especially for Broadway and is essentially a “Cirque du Soleil musical.” The show doesn’t back away from the classic Cirque spectacle — it includes all the signature acrobatics and special effects — but also integrates songs, a linear storyline and actors performing in English, according to spokesman Aaron Meier. “Paramour” is set in the dazzling world of Golden Age Hollywood and follows a young actress as she struggles to choose between love and art.
In another first for Cirque du Soleil, “Toruk — The First Flight” is a “completely different show” for the company, said spokeswoman Laura Silverman. It’s the first time Cirque has created a show inspired by a film, in this case James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster “Avatar.” It’s also the first and only Cirque show with an English-speaking narrator. The rest of the cast speaks Na’vi, the tribal language created for the movie.
“Toruk” is a prequel to the film, so people need not have seen Avatar to appreciate the story. And the show delivers plenty of acrobatics and stunning visuals: projections of scenery that cover the arena floor, large-scale puppets and indoor kites. The show had its soft opening in November with an official world premier in December in Montreal. Cirque’s touring shows typically have a lifespan of four or five years, Silverman said, and “Toruk” will tour North America well into 2017, announcing new markets about six months in advance.
Cirque unveiled “Luzia” in April in Montreal, and the new touring production will open at the Port Lands in Toronto on July 28. The name comes from the fusing of two Spanish words — “luz” for light and “lluvia” for rain — and “Luzia,” set in an imaginary place in Mexico, is filled with both. Mexico’s rich culture and colorful influences serve as the backdrop for Cirque’s 38th original production, with a cast of 44 artists from 15 countries.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
The Queen of Country is at it again. Dolly Parton is expanding her entertainment empire with the opening of Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure, which will join her other Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, attractions: Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country waterpark and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner theater.
Parton was on hand for the lumberjack-theme dinner show’s grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony in May, saying, “I can promise you’ve never seen another show like this in town before.” The show includes acrobatics and aerial performances along with feats of skill and strength that show off lumberjacks’ logging abilities. Last year, World Choice Investments bought the Lumberjack Feud Dinner Show and reopened it as Lumberjack Adventure with new sets and state-of-the-art special effects.