Wharton Center for Performing Arts and Charlotte Performing Arts Center: a Friendly Cultural Rivalry
How a Regional Rivalry Stimulates mid-Michigan Culture
There is a cultural rivalry going on in mid-Michigan in 2019. It concerns two performing arts venues, each of which seeks to be the leading center for staged presentations in this area. The Wharton Center for Performing Arts on the Michigan State University campus is the more prominent of the two. The other, the Charlotte Performing Arts Center, has a bit of catching up to do, but its people are trying harder. Each is the aspirant to the title of top venue for the stage, whether it be Broadway touring performance, symphony orchestra or ballet company. How this drama is played out is at times as fascinating as the productions themselves, and this article seeks to illustrate how this rivalry actually stimulates the performing arts in mid-Michigan through a competitive spirit.
Wharton Center for Performing Arts
The Wharton Center for Performing Arts is the cultural epicenter of mid-Michigan for ballet, symphony orchestra concerts, and theatrical touring companies, among other functions. Like the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York or the Kennedy Center in Washington, it is the place everyone thinks of first when thinking about serious music or theatrical outings. It even gained national fame in 1992 as the site of a presidential debate between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot for the election that year. In any given season, it can be counted upon to pack its halls with entertainment on a truly grand scale. Typically, it attracts theatrical tours featuring the latest smashes from Broadway and London's West End. In recent years, these have included such hits as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and the phenomenally popular Hamilton. It also regularly hosts the Detroit and Lansing Symphony Orchestras with a full repertoire of classical music for those enthusiasts who prefer Bach or Schubert to popular tastes. In addition, it routinely draws more unusual groups such as Ballet Hispanico, with a rich inventory of Latin choreography. The season, which approximates the Michigan State academic calendar, thus offers an unparalleled opportunity to immerse oneself in the serious cultural arts. Before even entering the complex, the visitor is greeted by sculpture outside and then crosses a moat. Once inside, the adventure continues through the corridors with a variety of musical and theatrical motifs, as one approaches the Cobb Great Hall, the center of the building. If traveling between floors, one can ride in a high technology elevator that is a pleasure to use. The exterior façade is a sweeping curve of reflective glass that shimmers in sunlight or after dark. Clearly, no expense was spared to impress the visitor with an overwhelming experience.
Charlotte Performing Arts Center
The Charlotte Performing Arts Center, the younger of the two, dates only from October 2004, as opposed to Wharton Center for Performing Arts, which opened in1982. The 825 seat main hall serves as an instructional and performance venue. It hosts amateur and professional productions and also features much music. Physically, the Center has an orchestra pit, acoustical engineering and an electrical system that can project videos on a large screen. Nationally renowned productions such as Beauty and the Beast have been staged here, but the Center also can handle rental events, for example mounting graduation ceremonies for the Charlotte Public School District. It appears that while Wharton is a more traditional performing arts center, Charlotte has the edge in diversity of event staging and impromptu accommodations on a more informal basis.
Where the Rivalry Ends
Both of these two cultural venues have had impressive runs since their debuts in 1982 and 2004. While Wharton is undeniably the regional leader in world class productions, Charlotte is starting to come into its own as a showcase for talent too. At the present time, Wharton will continue to dominate the mid-Michigan cultural scene, but Charlotte will struggle to emerge out of its shadow as Eaton County declares its independence from the traditional overbearing influence exerted by the Lansing/East Lansing cultural nexus, which has controlled this area for too long. Thus, the rivalry will be a friendly one, but also with a bit of edge as they mark out their individual destinies. So whether listening to Dvorak's "New World Symphony", Stravinsky's "Firebird" or Copland's "Appalachian Spring", audiences can anticipate a mixed agenda of cultural delights at both venues in the years to come.