Things are taking a dramatic turn at the Carlsen Center.
For its 2014-15 season, the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College will present its usual wide-ranging musical performances, but the season promises extraordinary theater as well. Renowned actor Julian Sands will offer “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” and the Heart of American Shakespeare Festival will present its first indoor production.
This will be the fifth season programmed by Emily Behrmann, general manager of the series. Each year, she’s been adding diversity and taking on creative partnerships with local arts groups. Behrmann has done a masterful job keeping the Carlsen Center relevant while so much attention and energy has been focused on downtown Kansas City and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “What we’ve been trying to do is update our programming to attract a younger audience and to emphasize the variety that we offer out here in Johnson County,” Behrmann said. In March 2015, the Carlsen Center will present the Heartland Shakespeare Festival, which usually performs the Bard outdoors in the summertime in Kansas City’s Southmoreland Park.
The festival’s first indoor performances promise to have special resonance after the recent tragic shootings at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom senior living facility in Overland Park. In fact, the Jewish Community Center is co-producing the play, “The Merchant of Venice.”
Often condemned for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes and fostering anti-semitism, “The Merchant of Venice” is Shakespeare’s most problematic play. According to Behrmann, it hasn’t been performed by a professional company in Kansas City for 40 years, perhaps because of those very issues.
“I think it is a challenging topic,” Behrmann said. “The character of Shylock is perceived as quite stereotypical, and he is, but the play also allows us to talk about some of the harder issues.” The performances will be followed by talk-back sessions with the actors and the director.
“There are current themes in this play even though it’s a very old piece,” Behrmann said. “We hope to explore all of that and just put it out on the table and have some very healthy conversations.”
The other big theatrical piece on the 2014-15 season is Julian Sands’ “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” directed by John Malkovich. Pinter’s unique style, often known as “Comedy of Menace,” has a David Lynch-ian, surreal, disturbing quality. And like Lynch’s films, Pinter’s plays can be very funny.
“Julian Sands is someone I’ve always respected,” Behrmann said, “and this Harold Pinter program is a very personal opportunity for him to let us into the friendship and close relationship he had with Harold Pinter. Julian was asked to read some of Pinter’s poems at a Kennedy Center program, and after he had done it, Harold Pinter approached Julian and said, ‘When you read my poetry, it’s like I would read it. You put all of the emphasis in the right place and the cadences the way I want to hear it.’ So they decided to put together a play that would showcase Pinter’s unique kind of expression.”
For ballet lovers, the season will include New Dance Partners, for which the Carlsen Center was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Also, original works are being commissioned for the Kansas City Ballet, Owen/Cox Dance Group and Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance.
“The choreographers will come to town in early September to spend three weeks in Kansas City working with these dance companies, and then the works will be premiered on our stage,” Behrmann said. “It’s a wonderful way for us to interact and work with local arts organizations and support them artistically.”
Shows of note for families include Riders in the Sky, Julie Fowlis singing songs of the Scottish Isles, and Thodos Dance Chicago performing a ballet based on the life of Helen Keller. Ben Sollee will give a cello recital unlike any you’ve ever heard, with a rock backup band, and trumpeter Chris Botti will perform smooth jazz favorites. Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain returns to Yardley Hall after a memorable concert in 2012. “They’re British, they’re dry and they had everybody in the palm of their hands during that show,” Behrmann said. “People should bring their ukuleles, and we’ll probably have a ukulele jam in the lobby before the show.”
One of the highlights of the new season is a holiday concert by Kansas City legend Marilyn Maye. Maye, who recently turned 86, has had a remarkable career singing the Great American Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald called her “the greatest white female singer in the world,” and she held the record for the most appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. “I heard her in New York in January, where she was performing for three weeks at the Chelsea Hotel,” Behrmann said. “She’s probably doing more today than she was doing 20 years ago.”
Maye plans to perform with a six-piece band of local musicians.
“She said, ‘I’m going to choose my band for this show,’ ” Behrmann said. “It will be a holiday show, so it will be a great opportunity for people to celebrate the holidays with Marilyn in Yardley Hall.”
2014-15 Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College
Shows are at Yardley Hall unless noted otherwise. For tickets and more information, call 913-469-4445 or JCCC.edu/TheSeries.
• Kelley Hunt Band, Aug. 22, on the lawn of JCCC’s Nerman Museum of Contermporary Art.
• Buddy Guy and Quinn Sullivan, Sept. 6.
• New Dance Partners, Sept. 26-27.
• Clint Black, Oct. 5.
• Los Lobos, Oct. 17.
• Julie Fowlis: “Music of the Scottish Isles,” Oct. 18, Polsky Theatre.
• Riders in the Sky, Oct. 25.
• Ben Sollee, cello, Oct. 26, Polsky Theatre.
Imani Winds and Harlem Quartet: “Passion for Bach and Coltrane,” Nov. 1.
• Thodos Dance Chicago: “A Light in the Dark” (Helen Keller’s Story), Nov. 8.
• Terry Bradshaw: “America’s Favorite Dumb Blonde — My Life in Four Quartets,” Nov. 21.
• Chris Botti, Dec. 5.
• Julian Sands: “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” Dec. 5, Polsky Theatre.
• Marilyn Maye, Dec. 13.
• Tango Buenos Aires, Jan. 29, 2015.
• Voice: “If Music Be the Food of Love,” Feb. 14, Polsky Theatre.
• Cherish the Ladies, March 21.
• Heart of America Shakespeare Festival: “The Merchant of Venice,” March 26-29, Polsky Theatre.
• Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, April 12.