'Tis the season to eat latkes, spin the dreidel and reminisce about highlights from the last year. As I type these words, Jews around the world are lighting candles for the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, so I'm using this week's column to look back at eight of my favorite moments from covering Orlando's arts and pop culture in 2015.
Artegon, which replaced Festival Bay's zombie mall with a marketplace of local artisans, had a rocky few months after opening late last year. But the owners doubled down by reinvesting in upgraded aesthetics and improving the tenant mix with new shops like Gods & Monsters and International Hot Glass. Crafty consumers are starting to take notice; while not yet as busy as the big-box malls, Artegon is no longer a ghost town either. I recently took family from New York and Miami shopping there, and for once they were jealous of us Orlandoans.
Star Wars strikes back
Even if The Force Awakens turns out to be a Jar Jar Binks–level failure, I'll be forever grateful for the sense of wonder the new film's rollout has reawakened in me. From binge-watching the first six Star Wars films on the high seas during my September transatlantic cruise to getting to meet Chewbacca and Darth Vader in Hollywood Studios' new Launch Bay, Disney has restored my fervor for the franchise. And despite some reservations about the design concept, I'll be first in line to visit their new Star Wars Land in a few years.
As good as Mickey's meet-and-greets are, Universal one-upped them this year with the new Raptor Encounter in Islands of Adventure, which arrived around Jurassic World's record-smashing debut. The startlingly realistic dinosaur puppets – designed by The Lion King's Michael Curry and animated by enthusiastic actors – often send small children screaming away in terror, making this a far more entertaining attraction than any princess photo op.
Great shows from Gen Y
Last weekend I bumped into producer Aaron Safer in Manhattan at the Hamilton ticket lottery. We both lost, but I was reminded of how strong the Orlando shows he mounted with director Kenny Howard in 2015 were. Cabaret (starring Blue Star) outshone some Broadway productions I've seen, and The Flick was the best thing I've seen so far inside the Dr. Phillips Center. Even lesser fare like the Heathers and Bat Boy musicals were as polished as any off-Broadway production, with Kyla Swanberg's designs making her Orlando's top young costumer.
Disenchanted carries the banner for Orlando Fringe
Speaking of off-Broadway, Dennis Giacino and Fiely Matias took their princess parody Disenchanted all the way to New York, making for one of the best Cinderella stories in Orlando Fringe history. I was lucky enough to see the Westside Theater production last spring, shortly before its untimely end; the show folded despite well-deserved award nominations, but is still finding an audience through foreign language translations and licensing. As Orlando Fringe enters its 25th year, Disenchanted continues to symbolize how far success at the Fest can take you.
Art on every corner
While we're on the subject, Fringe may be the biggest performing arts event in Orlando, but it's no longer the only can't-miss outing on our cultural schedule. Arts festivals exploded in 2015, with Orlando Weekly's Artlando, Cole NeSmith's Creative City Project and Orlando's inaugural edition of Art in Odd Places leading the charge. Speaking of art in odd places, St. Matthew's Tavern takes the title of my new favorite unconventional entertainment venue; the worship hall-slash-watering hole proved the perfect environment for the revived, reinvigorated Joe's NYC Bar.
Jeremy Seghers returns
Director-producer Jeremy Seghers recently returned to Central Florida from NYC to stage some of the season's most exciting events. His environmental interpretation of A Clockwork Orange brought Burgess' book to life with visceral velocity, and he assembled an all-star cast for A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, elevating Lucas Hnath's overwrought and deeply dishonest script into an emotionally affecting elegy. Finally, Seghers' Krampus party at the Hammered Lamb led the burgeoning anti-Santa bandwagon with a sackful of satiric style.
The Amazing Acro-Cats FTW!
I've attended a number of excellent events at the Venue this year, from burlesque to magic shows to Beat poetry, but nothing came close to the sheer awesomeness of the Amazing Acro-Cats. This talented troupe of performing pussies, wrangled by trainer Samantha Martin, put a smile on my feline-loving face like nothing else in 2015. Cats on tightropes; cats on rolling barrels; cats on keyboards! And did I mention Cluck Norris, the cymbal-crashing chicken? Best. Show. Ever. 'Nuff said!