The last time soul crooners Boyz II Men gigged in the Twin Cities, the ’90s hitmakers appeared at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. When singer-songwriter Martin Sexton came through town two years ago, he played the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. And the activist/actor Jane Fonda? She headlined Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
But when these divergent acts come to the Twin Cities later this year, they’ll all play the same glittering venue: St. Paul’s Ordway Center.
The sprawling arts center has always hosted eclectic fare, mixing Broadway with world music and jazz concerts — not to mention dance shows and an annual children’s festival. For more than three decades, the picturesque venue on Rice Park also served as home to the Minnesota Opera, Schubert Club and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. All three classical music organizations presented works in what is now the 1,900-seat Ordway Music Theater long before the 1,100-seat Ordway Concert Hall opened four years ago.
But now, suddenly, the Ordway’s eclecticism appears to be on steroids. Actor Jim Belushi brought his comedy act there Wednesday, after playing Treasure Island Casino his last time through Minnesota. A Latin dance troupe from Los Angeles called Contra-Tiempo will perform at the Ordway next weekend. Irish-American supergroup Cherish the Ladies has appeared at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis in the past, but it’s booked for the Ordway Concert Hall on March 21.
“Glad somebody is noticing,” said Ordway President and CEO Jamie Grant, the driver behind this dizzying array of acts.
Grant has a simple explanation for what may look like a maddening, even confusing calendar to longtime patrons. “The Ordway is a community asset, and it should matter to more people,” he said.
“Instead of me trying to convince someone to come in and try it my way, we are doing a broader range of programming so that we can demystify the Ordway.”
‘Airport with multiple airlines’
In some ways, the Ordway’s expanded programming is just the latest phase for a regional performing arts house that means different things to different people.
The venue’s grand vision has certainly evolved since it opened on New Year’s Day 1985. Founder Sally Ordway Irvine dreamed of a home mostly for the high arts, from opera to orchestras and ballet. But her wish met a rough reality when the venue’s principal users were forced to compete for time with the Ordway itself, the venue’s landlord as well as a presenter of Broadway shows. The Ordway is one of just a handful of performing arts centers nationwide to present works and produce its own shows.
Likened to a cold war of the roses by the various factions, tensions waxed and waned for 30 years. By all accounts, the parties achieved peace in 2015 when the Ordway inaugurated the Tim Carl-designed concert hall, providing a permanent home base for the SPCO and Schubert Club. That left all kinds of breathing room for the respective parties, freeing up the Ordway to test programs appealing to an increasingly diverse metropolis.
The Ordway even filled out its staff to meet the opportunity. Vice President Shelley Quiala continues to run arts education. Dayna Martinez beefed up her music and dance bookings while continuing to oversee the Flint Hills Family Festival, held in and around the Ordway every spring. Andre Bennington joined the Ordway team two years ago to curate comedy and concerts.
And a year ago, the Ordway hired New York-based Rod Kaats, an acolyte of legendary Broadway director Harold Prince. Kaats serves as artistic director in charge of booking and producing Broadway and Broadway-caliber shows.
As he started the job, Kaats noticed a certain confusion about the Ordway’s mission. “One of the first things people said was that it has to make up its mind and figure out if it wants to be a producing house or a presenting house.”
But Kaats doesn’t buy that thinking. “We can be both,” he said.
Announced last Tuesday, the Ordway’s 2019-20 Broadway season includes three touring shows: Mike Birbiglia’s parenting comedy “The New One” plus hit musicals “Once on This Island” and “The Color Purple.” Then there are three more shows produced by the Ordway: “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” the holiday musical “Ever After” and the stage adaptation of the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.”
As even Kaats admits, the eclecticism is “sometimes hard to explain.” But the mix of offerings, and the mosaic of audiences they attract, are part of what makes the Ordway special, he said.
“People think of the Ordway like an airport with multiple airlines, but also one with in-house airlines.”
Mixing for magic
When country queen Dolly Parton came to the Ordway Concert Hall to workshop her “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol” in December, Minnesota Opera was in the Music Theater staging its 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner “Silent Night.”
Kaats remembered Parton walking through the venue’s lobby. “And the audience for the opera was out there, and it was special. There’s a kind of alchemy that happens when you have all these different types of people mixing here.”
CEO Grant extended the metaphor, calling these encounters “magical.” And there are more of them now that wildly different acts occupy the Ordway’s two separate stages.
As an example, Grant cited shock-rock icon Alice Cooper’s sold-out Ordway concert last summer. “People said that Alice Cooper is not somebody who would ever be associated with the Ordway.” In fact, Grant said, 70 percent of the 1,900 concertgoers hadn’t even been to the Ordway before — they must have been surprised to be greeted by a doorman in a top hat.
Grant was delighted when 1,200 of these metalheads bought tickets to see “Elf the Musical,” the Ordway’s holiday offering. “That’s the type of cross-pollination of audiences I’ve always dreamed of,” he said. “If we open a few doors and show people a safe way to discover the Ordway, they find other treasures.”