A New Season and a New CEO, Society for the Performing Arts Remains Eclectic As All Get Out

Yes, it's Sponge Bob Square Pants in the flesh and fresh off its run on Broadway.
Yes, it's Sponge Bob Square Pants in the flesh and fresh off its run on Broadway. Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Looking at the upcoming season of the Society for the Performing Arts it's clear that SPA is remaining true to its roots of determined eclecticism. The high art of cellist Camille Thomas is followed six months later by Vicki Lawrence & Mama. And let's not forget the Peking Acrobats ( a show that Ed Sullivan would have booked every week if it had been available).

At the same time the SPA, while not a producing organization, has commissioned Kyle Abraham and his dance company A.I.M. (Abraham in Motion) to perform a world premiere of An Untitled Love done to the music of R&B artist D'Angelo. .

SPA will also be hosting the Houston premiere of The SpongeBob Musical, bringing the Nickelodeon characters to life on stage for eight performances.

Heading all this up will be Meg Booth, the new CEO at Society for the Performing Arts who had been at the Kennedy Center for 15 years before coming to SPA. "The position at SPA crossed my desk. I went home and told my husband. And he said: 'You'd really be a fool not to put your name in.' My husband is from Houston. We have been coming to Texas twice a year for the last 15 years."

Booth's main area of responsibility at the Kennedy Center involved working with dance programming, but it is a mistake, she says, to think that's all she knew about.  "My position at the Kennedy Center was one of working with programmers. These are my friends. We all talked about all of the themes and artists that were current in all of the disciplines all of the time. So that while I was the one moving dance forward, my network and conversations on a daily basis were all disciplines.

"I have been very fortunate to work for organizations that were multi-disciplinary. That's the world I come from," she says.

Booth, who has been here since December says she is still working to learn the audiences in Houston. "I'm delighted there is such an interest in percussive art like Drum Tao and STOMP for example." In terms of any changes to the historic approach, Booth says: "I do think that one of the things I'm looking forward to is maybe freshening up and bringing some new artists and introducing Houston to experiences they have not been aware of.

"But it's always a relationship between the art and the audience and I'm on a learning process," she says. "I've got a great team member in [SPA General Manager] Lee Strickland who's been here with SPA for over a decade and who is working with me on the programming." The 2019-20 season is not hers entirely — she arrived too late for that — but says that she did get to work quite a bit on it.

"He [Strickland] teed up a huge lineup and we worked together. I, of course, came down with a list of my own and was thrilled to see that we actually had quite a few things that were on both of our lists," Booth says.

Asked about where she sees SPA fitting its programming in with all the other Houston-based arts organizations, Booth says:

"We are finding some of the most distinguished artists on the national and international scale and bringing those artists to Houston.  Really what we should continue to do is complement what our partner organizations that are here in town are doing.

"I am very hopeful that looking forward that we will not duplicate what else has happened in town," she says. "We're thrilled for example to bring SpongeBob which only recently closed its Broadway run and it only closed its Broadway run because the theater had to go under renovation. It was widely awarded with some Tonys and it got great critical acclaim and it has not been in Houston before. I look forward to bringing more Houston debuts and fewer Broadway products that have been here before."

Asked to mention just a few other programs she is especially looking forward to in the common season, Booth says:

"First is Bon Iver, an indie music group who collaborated with TU Dance which is run by two former Ailey dancers and  and they have created an evening where two plus two really does equal five. It is only staring to tour right now.

click to enlarge Manual Cinema and Frankenstein - PHOTO BY MICHAEL BROSILOW
Manual Cinema and Frankenstein
Photo by Michael Brosilow
"Then Manual Cinema, which is difficult to explain. It's an ensemble of artists that includes cinematographers,  actors, puppeteers and musicians that are both creating a silent film, but not only do you get to watch the creation of the film but you get to watch the finished product immediately above their heads."

The perennial challenge for arts organization like SPA is how to get the word out beforehand to different audiences when often shows are only in town for a day or two, Booth says. "In one week in February we had Arlo Guthrie, which had one distinct audience; Beijing Dance theater, completely different audience and then Wizard of Oz, all in the same week . Totally different audiences. We are trying to appeal to a very broad and eclectic group of people. We definitely have work to do."

The SPA 2019-20 Season:

Friday, September 20, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

With an acting career spanning four decades and film credits including Jurassic Park and Independence Day, legendary actor Jeff Goldblum will bring a delightful evening of jazz standards to Jones Hall. Goldblum and his band, The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, released their first album in November 2018, which quickly became the number one selling jazz album on the Billboard charts. Jeff Goldblum and The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra will play hits, such as Straighten Up and Fly Right, Nostalgia in Times Square, Cantaloupe Island and more!

Saturday, October 12, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Performing works from their award-winning 2018 album Dreamers, Mexican-born songstress Magos Herrera and the omnivorous string quartet Brooklyn Rider join forces for an unforgettable musical journey, reinterpreting classic songs from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Spain, and celebrating texts by Octavio Paz, Federico García Lorca and Rubén Darío.
Magos Herrera, vocalist
Johnny Gandelsman, violin
Colin Jacobsen, violin
Nicholas Cords, viola
Michael Nicolas, cello

Photographer Jodi Cobb
Tuesday, October 15 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Join veteran National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb on a whirlwind retrospective of her distinguished career, spanning the social and cultural milestones of four decades of global history. Known for breaking through barriers and going undercover to reveal hidden societies, Cobb has captured fascinating glimpses of worlds such as Japan’s secret Geisha culture and the cloistered lives of Saudi Arabian women. Travel with this inspiring woman as she chronicles her public—and private—path from young photojournalist to world-renowned photographer.

Friday, October 18, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Martha Graham, the mother of American modern dance, single-handedly defined the genre with her groundbreaking style. The Martha Graham Dance Company has been an artistic world leader since its founding in 1926 and returns to Houston for the first time in 15 years. The company will perform works from The Eve Project including Chronicle which honors the centennial of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Wednesday, October 30, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Love, loss and creation merge in unexpected ways in this thrilling classic gothic tale conceived by Manual Cinema. Stories of Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein and his Monster expose how the forces of family, community, and education shape personhood - or destroy it by their absence. Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques and innovative sound and music to create an immersive visual retelling of Frankenstein for the stage and screen.
David Sedaris
Photo by Adam DeTour

NPR Humorist and Best-selling Author of Calypso
Friday, November 1, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

With sardonic wit and incisive social critiques, David Sedaris has become one of America’s pre-eminent humor writers. He is the master of satire and one of today’s most observant writers addressing the human condition. His latest book is a New York Times best-selling collection of his essays entitled Calypso, which will be the center of the discussion in the Wortham Center.

Saturday, November 2, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Throughout her illustrious career, Bernadette Peters has dazzled audiences and critics with her performances on stage, film and television, in concert and on recordings. Best known for her work on stage, Bernadette recently starred on Broadway as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the hit musical, Hello, Dolly! Her talent has garnered numerous accolades including three Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, three Emmy and four Grammy Award nominations and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hear Bernadette’s hits Let Me Entertain You, No One Is Alone, Fever and more!

Two Lost Souls
Friday, November 8, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Dynamic duo Jane Lynch and Kate Flannery will fill the Cullen Theater with music and laughter during their cabaret and comedy special, Two Lost Souls. Glee’s Jane Lynch and The Office’s Kate Flannery will entertain the audience with a combination of their comedic timing, singing chops and witty banter.

Accompanied on the piano by Julio Elizalde
Saturday, November 9, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Ray Chen is a violinist who redefines what it is to be a classical musician in the 21st Century. With a media presence reaching out to millions, Ray Chen’s remarkable musicianship transmits to a global audience that is reflected in his engagements with the foremost orchestras and concert halls around the world. Program includes works from Grieg, Saint-Saens, J.S. Bach, Debussy and Ravel.

Accompanied on the piano by Roman Rabinovich
Friday, November 22, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center

The first cellist signed by Deutsche Grammophon in over 40 years, Camille Thomas blends a brilliant command of her instrument with a rare musicality to offer truly memorable concerto and recital appearances. Whether she is playing Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Lalo, Haydn, Schumann or some neglected works that she champions, this award-winning cellist will deliver a passionate and compelling performance that will leave you awestruck with her talent. Program includes works from Brahms, Beethoven, Messiaen and Franck.

Friday, December 6, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Acclaimed TV late night show host, admired stand-up comedian, best-selling children’s book author, much-in-demand corporate speaker, lovable TV and movie voice-over artist, pioneering car builder and mechanic and philanthropist…it’s no wonder that Jay Leno is widely characterized as “the hardest working man in show business."

December 26-27, 2019 | 3 Shows | Jones Hall

The beloved TV classic RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER soars off the screen and onto the stage this holiday season. See all of your favorite characters as they come to life in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER: THE MUSICAL.

January 3-4, 2020 | 3 Shows | Jones Hall

THE COLOR PURPLE is the 2016 Tony Award® winner for Best Musical Revival! Hailed as “a direct hit to the heart” (The Hollywood Reporter), this joyous American classic about a young woman’s journey to love and triumph in the American South has conquered Broadway in an all-new “ravishingly reconceived production that is a glory to behold” (The New York Times).

French Enchantment
Thursday, January 16, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center

Experience the grace, wit and charm of French music. The program begins and ends with early works by Saint-Saëns and Fauré that recreate the elegant atmosphere of 19th-century Parisian salons. In between, the Ravel sonata, written soon after World War I, uses just two string instruments to produce a composition of unique, austere beauty. These three inimitable works capture the essence of pure melody in its most delightfully fundamental form. Program includes work from Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Fauré.
Wu Han, piano
Paul Huang, violin
Matthew Lipman, viola
Clive Greensmith, cello

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim
Tuesday, January 21, 2019 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Spinosaurus was nearly lost to science before Nizar Ibrahim, a remarkable young paleontologist, discovered this prehistoric giant. With amazing video recreating the lost world of the Cretaceous-era Sahara, Ibrahim tells the story of Spinosaurus’ discovery, loss and rediscovery, and explain what—other than its size—makes this ancient monster unique.

click to enlarge STOMP will be back. - PHOTO BY STEVE MCNICHOLAS
STOMP will be back.
Photo by Steve McNicholas

January 23-25, 2020 | 4 Shows | Jones Hall

Celebrating 25 Years in NYC, STOMP is explosive, inventive, provocative, witty and utterly unique—an unforgettable experience for audiences of all ages. Year after year, audiences worldwide keep coming back for more of this pulse-pounding electrifying show. As the Boston Globe says, “If you haven’t seen STOMP, GO! If you have seen it, take someone and share the pleasure!” STOMP. See what all the noise is about.

2.0Activate Creature Power!
Sunday, January 26, 2020 | 1 p.m. | Jones Hall

It’s going to be WILD! Young fans and their families are in store for even more adventure on the creature trail when the world-famous Kratt Brothers hit the road with an all-new stage adventure! Wild Kratts® LIVE 2.0 – Activate Creature Power®!, the theatrical production starring Martin and Chris Kratt, based on the Emmy-nominated hit PBS KIDS series, will bring audiences along on a “wild” ride with a dynamic mix of live-action and animation.

January 30 – 31, 2020 | 2 Shows | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Mark Morris Dance Group’s unique tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, resounds with all the ingenuity, musicality, wit and humanity for which the company is known. Pepperland features an original score by Ethan Iverson performedlive that blends arrangements of songs from the groundbreaking album with new Pepper-inspired pieces.

With Music Director and Composer Damien Sneed
Sunday, February 9, 2020 | 4 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Inspired by the words and action of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Damien Sneed’s We Shall Overcome showcases repertoire from across the African American music traditions that electrified generations of civil rights activists and defenders with interwoven spoken word from Dr. King’s recorded speeches.

Come Through
February 20-21, 2020 | 2 Shows | Jones Hall

Electrifying” (City Pages) contemporary dance troupe TU Dance, known for navigating complex themes of social change “with variety and innovation” (Star Tribune) and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, whose “rustic chamber pop with an experimental edge” (Pitchfork) and “hyper-modern balladeering” (The Guardian) has garnered Grammy Awards and significant international acclaim, come together in an unprecedented collaboration of powerhouses. This evening-length program features new music from Vernon performed by Bon Iver as well as new choreography from TU Dance’s Uri Sands.

Saturday, February 22 | 2 Shows | Jones Hall

THE PEKING ACROBATS®, a troupe of China’s most gifted tumblers, contortionists, jugglers, cyclists and gymnasts complemented by live musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments will bring their 2,000 year-old tradition of acrobatics to Houston.

Saturday, February 29, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center

Hailed by BBC Radio 3 as “a real poet of the piano,” Andrew Tyson is emerging as a distinctive and important new musical voice. In Summer 2015, he was awarded First Prize at the Géza Anda Competition in Zürich, as well as the Mozart and Audience Prizes. Program includes works from Rameau, Rachmaninoff, Chaminade, Franck and Schumann.

Friday, March 6, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Iconic Grammy and Latin Grammy Award-winning singer Lila Downs is one of the world’s most singular and powerful voices, whose compelling stage presence and poignant storytelling transcend all language barriers. Raised in Minnesota and Oaxaca, this global music icon sings in Spanish, English and the languages of the Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Mahuati cultures. Her exquisite artistry bridges traditions from across the Americas, with influences ranging from the folk and ranchera music of Mexico and South America to North American folk, jazz, blues and hip-hop.

All New Show!

Friday, March 27, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall
Drum TAO, internationally-acclaimed percussion artists, return to Houston with another modern, high-energy performance that showcases the ancient art of Japanese drumming. Drum TAO has transfixed audiences across the globe with the combination of highly physical, large-scale drumming, contemporary costumes, precise choreography and innovative visuals that create an energetic and unforgettable production.

Tuesday, April 7 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Black Violin is led by classically trained string players Wil B. and Kev Marcus. Joining them onstage are DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes. The band uses their unique blend of classical and hip-hop music to overcome stereotypes while encouraging people of all ages, races and economic backgroundsto join together to break down cultural barriers.
Wil B., viola
Kev Marcus, violin
Nat Stokes, percussion

Kevin Hand, Planetary Scientist & Astrobiologist
Tuesday, April 21, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Astrobiologist Kevin Hand is searching for life beyond Earth. Working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, he designs instruments that will travel to Jupiter’s moon Europa to search for a possible subsurface ocean there that may support primitive forms of life. His work often takes him out of the lab to visit some of the world’s most forbidding environments—such as Antarctica and the deep sea—to investigate how microbes eke out a living under extreme conditions. Don’t miss this firsthand report on the search for real extraterrestrials.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
April 24-25, 2020 | 3 Shows | Jones Hall

Now more than ever, the world needs the power of dance to bring people together and connect us all by our common humanity. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues to push the art form into fascinating new territory while still honoring signature classics like Ailey’s masterpiece of hope and redemption, Revelations.

Friday, May 1, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Miller Outdoor Theatre

Daymé Arocena draws inspiration from the intertwining musical legacies of her native Cuba. A singer, composer and choir director, she’s a bright-shining performer carrying the flame for a new generation of Cuban musicians. Approaching jazz, soul and classical influences with an innate sense of rhythm, she released her second album Cubafonía in early 2017. With her home country’s rich musical traditions serving as the album’s springboard, she uses its different musical styles as the basis for each of Cubafonía’s tracks, finding outside influences from her tours of the world these past two years to build upon them.

Friday, May 8, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Jones Hall

Vicki Lawrence is a multi-talented actress, comedian and singer known for the many characters she originated on CBS’s The Carol Burnett Show. She has multiple Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations and won an Emmy Award in 1976. She approaches everything with her characteristic sense of humor, reminding us all that “Life is much too serious to be taken seriously!”

Friday, May 15, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Led by composer/pianist, JooWan Kim, hip hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN) creates new concert music based on the musical materials of hip-hop and by sampling compatible classical compositional techniques. Executed with MCs/lyricists Do D.A.T. and Sandman, a lyric soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, drums and bass, the music is rigorous, nuanced, accessible, and free from the dogmas of Western European concert music aesthetic. The result is seamless tête-à-tête with “textures swimming through the the world’s fastest ping-pong game” (Pitchfork) and is considered the “cutting edge of hip-hop” (Huffington Post).
Joowan Kim, composer and pianist
Do D.A.T., MC and lyricist
Sandman, MC and lyricist

Saturday, May 16, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Celebrate Dave Brubeck’s centennial birthday with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet! To celebrate his life and legacy, Dave’s sons, Chris and Dan Brubeck, who performed and recorded with their father since the 1970s, curated a multimedia show with their own Brubeck Brothers Quartet. Through stories told by his sons, video interviews with Dave and musicians he influenced and music performed by the quartet, the show invites audiences to travel along the timeline of Dave’s extraordinary life and career.

A.I.M (Abraham in Motion)
World Premiere & SPA Commission of Until the End of Time
June 4-5, 2020 | 2 Shows | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

With A.I.M’s mission to create an evocative interdisciplinary body of work, MacArthur “genius” Kyle Abraham brings his company in their Houston debut for the World Premiere of Until the End of All Time. This evening-length dance work is sonically rooted in R&B and soul music. Comprised of the catalogue of Grammy Award-winning R&B legend D’Angelo, this work serves as a creative exaltation, centered on the often overlooked love and unity that exists within the black community.

Salt Fat Acid Heat
Friday, June 12, 2020 | 8 p.m. | Cullen Theater, Wortham Center

Chef and food writer Samin Nosrat travels the world to explore four basic keys to wonderful cooking, serving up feasts and helpful tips along the way. Her award-winning book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, is a New York Times bestseller and has a documentary series based on the book that is now streaming on Netflix. In 2018, she was named the “Eater Chef of the Year” and is also one of five food columnists for The New York Times Magazine.

The SpongeBob Musical
June 23-28, 2020 | 8 Shows | Jones Hall
A legendary roster of Grammy® Award winners. A visionary director and a Tony Award®-winning design team. One of the world’s most beloved characters. Turn them loose on stage and what do you get? The musical The New York Times declares, “BRILLIANT!” Broadway’s best creative minds reimagine and bring to life the beloved Nickelodeon series with humor, heart and pure theatricality in “a party for the eyes and ears” (Daily Beast). Explore the depths of theatrical innovation in THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL, 2018 Best Musical winner of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, where the power of optimism really can save the world

For more information, call 713-227-4772 or visit
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing