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2007: Another great year for the arts

The Big Apple it ain't. But the Rogue Valley manages to offer up a fairly lively menu of arts and entertainment year after year. The past year was no different.

It may be in part because among the people who have moved to Southern Oregon from big cities for the quality of life are numerous artists, musicians and performers. It may be in part because our position on the Interstate 5 corridor gets name artists and performers en route to and from the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland and Seattle.

And it's certainly due in part to the presence of two of the premier festivals on the Left Coast, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Britt Festivals in Jacksonville, which between them sell nearly a half-million tickets each year.

Add to that a couple of relative newcomers in the past decade — the classy Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford and the up-and-coming Ashland Independent Film Festival — and you have some kind of artistic critical mass. Then there's Southern Oregon University's Schneider Museum of Art, the Rogue Valley Symphony, the "off-Bardway" scene of little theaters, the county's new Lithia Motors Amphitheater and a host of smaller artistic venues and companies.

The OSF kicked off its 2007 season with Shakespeare's "As You Like It." The opening plays included OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel's affecting, penultimate production, Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Appel's last play at the OSF helm, Shakespeare's "The Tempest," debuted June 5.

Other OSF highlights were the premiere of "Tracy's Tiger," a new musical based on the novella by William Saroyan, and Lisa Loomer's "Distracted," which pinpointed the zeitgeist of our times in a frequently diagnosed behavioral problem. The OSF season posted ticket sales for the year of 404,730, or 90 percent of capacity, and ticket revenues of more than $15 million.

New Artistic Director Bill Rauch checked in with a snappy "Romeo and Juliet." The 2008 season will be Rauch's. Appel, who calls herself a classicist, says to look for more edgy work under Rauch.

Michael Franti and Spearhead rocked Britt to open the season June 8, with the singer proving to be one of those artists who forges a special connection with his audience. Veterans such as Gregg Allman, Indigo Girls, Toto and Herbie Hancock turned in strong shows, and relative newcomer Madeleine Peyroux showed what the buzz was about with a show that mixed original material with classics a la Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline.

Bernadette Peters sold out the Craterian in February, and the theater presented several of the touring Broadway musicals that are so popular, including a run of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Urban Cowboy" and "Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida" in a single month last March, and "The Producers" in December.

On a sad note, the valley saw the demise of the award-winning One World series of shows from around the planet. Guitarist Leo Kottke performed the series' last concert ever in March at SOU's Music Recital Hall. The series was popular in the community but no longer generated enough support among SOU students to keep the plug from being pulled.

In another sour note, grousing began to be heard as people wondered why the new 5,900-seat Lithia Motors Amphitheater at the Jackson County Expo seems to spend all its time sitting empty. The venue is too big for lesser-known bands and not big enough for the top touring acts. It lacks dressing rooms and protection from rain.

"It hasn't been that successful," Expo Director Chris Borovansky said. "We all thought there would be more shows out there."

Off-Bardway, a fine production of "The Elephant Man" at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland showed there is an audience for difficult plays, even if it's smaller than for the likes of OSW's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Camelot Theatre likewise found an audience for drama with a terrific go at "The Dresser," although it's probably not as numerous as that for, say, "Steel Magnolias," another Camelot entry.

Lacking a permanent home, Ashland Community Theatre found some success presenting plays in the downtown Ashland Elks building. SOU's theater department got its 2007-08 season off to a fascinating start with a canny, all-woman adaptation of two Euripides plays called "Women of War" and a brave go at Tom Stoppard's daunting "Arcadia."

Even on the fringes there was good stuff in 2007. Johnny B's, 35 S. Bartlett St., Medford, brought lesser-known touring bands to the valley again and again, not to mention hosting the likes of a February showing of "Dead Girls," an ultra-lowbudget horror/exploitation film made in Medford for almost nothing by indie producer Dan McCloy.

While the Rogue Valley may not be the Big Apple, when it comes to arts and entertainment, it ain't small potatoes either.

“The Producers' was one of the musicals presented in 2007 at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater.