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UCF's downtown arts festival is worth celebrating

Matthew J. Palm
Contact ReporterOrlando Sentinel Arts Writer
UCF Celebrates the Arts is a festival worth celebrating

It's not called a festival, but in its second year UCF Celebrates the Arts showed itself to be a worthy part of Orlando's arts-festival season.

Have you noticed how springtime in Central Florida has turned into a feast of festivals? There's the Florida Film Festival, of course, and then the Orlando Cabaret Festival, which lead into the Orlando Fringe Festival. And now we have UCF Celebrates the Arts, which wrapped up nine days of performances, exhibits and other experiences on April 16.

The University of Central Florida puts on this grand showcase for the arts at the downtown Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. And while the university's students shine, there is also participation from major professional institutions that have ongoing partnerships with UCF, such as Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theatre and others. Did I mention every event is free?

Word is clearly getting out: About 9,500 people took in one of the free performances. That's way up from the roughly 5,200 patrons at the inaugural event.

"We are incredibly pleased with the turnout at this year's celebration," said Heather Gibson, marketing director for UCF's School of Performing Arts. "The attendees were as varied as the programming."

Gibson points out that an infant attended the Orlando Philharmonic's "Miracle of Music" concert, which examined the effect of music on brain development in children. Toddlers joined in the fun in a program called "We All Can Dance!" Pre-teens and teens explored issues of body image and societal pressure at the play "Eat (it's not about food)." And science fans of all ages packed a hybrid concert-lecture featuring "Interstellar" composer Hans Zimmer, visual artist Paul Franklin and physicist Kip Thorne.

As for me, I was drawn to four events in five days — an opera, a cabaret-style concert and two hybrid events that demonstrated the power of combining artistic genres.

The opera was a comical and cleverly staged version of Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." Among the fun touches: Setting the story at a golf club, and having the wacky "doctor" who peddles the magic potion perform on a Segway.

The cabaret, titled "Stephen (Cubed)," paid tribute to musical-theater giants Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and Stephen Flaherty. What fun to hear familiar songs, as well as tunes new to me — but now lodged in my memory.

The first genre-bending event was "The Soldier's Tale," involving orchestral music, acting and dance. It's a haunting story about choices in life and what truly has worth. And I couldn't help but think, as I watched the show on a Monday night, how lucky we are to have opportunities such as this. I mean, live Stravinsky on a Monday night!

Finally, I attended the "Music of Shakespeare" program. Talk about exclusive. UCF Celebrates the Arts was the first to present this show in the United States and only the second in the world. Composer Patrick Doyle introduced his music from such Shakespeare films as "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet," which was then played and sung by the UCF Orchestra and Chamber Singers. Members of the Prague Shakespeare Company in the Czech Republic joined U.S. actors to perform key scenes from the works. It was magnificent.

And those four events were just the tip of the iceberg. There were digital-media displays, gaming presentations, interactive art experiences and film programs. A popular stopping point in the lobby was a theatrical costume display, where festivalgoers could try on an extravagant hat or two (selfies encouraged).

If you missed out this year, take out your planner and make a note in mid-April of next year. This is a festival of fun you'll want on your schedule.

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