For fans of the cultural and performing arts in Wilmington, once you get past March, 2020 was an ugly year. Sure, there were a bunch of drive-in movies and concerts, a couple of musicals held on the steps outside of Thalian Hall, and a fair number of art exhibitions that were either socially distanced or held outdoors.
But for the most part, when it comes to the arts, the coronavirus pandemic took away everything most people regarded as normal. At present a return to “the way things were” seems uncertain at best.
At the time this story was written in November, a great deal remained unknown about what would, could, might and might not happen in 2021 in terms of arts and events. That said, we can’t help but hope.
And so, in the spirit of looking forward to a happier New Year, let’s take a look at some of the Wilmington festivals, performances and arts events we’re looking forward to in 2021.
Scheduled dates: April 7-11
The 73rd annual N.C. Azalea Festival suffered a double-dose of cancellations in 2020: in the spring, when the festival was postponed till the fall, and then again in the fall, when in-person festival events were called off for the year.
The festival did manage some online events, including a virtual garden party, and with two of the festival’s three concert headliners rescheduled for 2021, there’s a good chance music fans will get a taste of what they missed.
“We are committed to celebrating the azaleas and our city in 2021,” said festival president Alison Baringer.
North Carolina favorite sons The Avett Brothers are scheduled to play Saturday, April 10, and a concert featuring Michael Franti & Spearhead and Sublime with Rome is on the Azalea Festival docket for Friday, April 9. It’s possible another concert or two could be added as well.
A peek at the festival website reveals some warm-up events in January (Chefs’ Showcase and art unveiling Jan. 23) and March (scholarship pageant March 6, “Paws on Parade” March 13) before the festival in earnest — parade, queen’s coronation, street fair and all — is set to begin in April.
Notable shows:Rain (Beatles tribute) at CFCC Wilson Center Feb. 18; The Kingston Trio at Odell Williamson Auditorium March 3; The Coasters at Thalian Hall April 15; Stephen Marley at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater April 17
Speaking of concerts, in addition to the Azalea Festival shows dozens, if not hundreds, of live musical performances in Wilmington were canceled in 2020. That’s created quite an appetite for a lot of hungry live music fans. If all goes well, however, Wilmington could start seeing larger concerts return by the spring or summer.
A new, 6,700-seat amphitheater in Wilmington’s under-construction North Riverfront Park is still set to open in June of 2021. No specific dates or shows have been announced yet. But when the big names start rolling in, the 2021 concert season in Wilmington could be as epic as 2020 was disappointing.
Some live shows could start trickling in as early as February, including the Beatles tribute act Rain at Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center on Feb. 18. Country legend Trace Adkins (June 9) and pop-rock hitmaker Boz Skaggs are other notable names on the Wilson Center schedule, which should start to fill up soon.
Elsewhere, reggae royal Stephen Marley on April 17 is the first scheduled show of 2021 at Wilmington’s beloved Hugh Morton Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, followed by a number of rescheduled concerts that includes jam bands moe. (June 29) and Umphrey’s McGee (Aug. 5).
Historic Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington is set to welcome R&B legends The Coasters on April 15 and Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. of “America’s Got Talent” on May 1.
Scheduled dates: Spring 2022 TBA
There was some talk of moving UNCW’s annual festival of the arts — envisioned as a sort of mini-Spoleto when it began in 2017 — from summer to spring for 2020, but the festival was recently pushed back to spring 2022.
“There’s so much planning that goes into Lumina and there’s just too much uncertainly right now,” Fidias Reyes, UNCW’s director of arts engagement, said in mid-November. “We have a couple of events planned for March and April 2021, but even those are tentative right now.”
Notable shows: “Anything Goes,” Feb. 5-14 at Thalian Hall; Broadway tour of “Cats,” Aug. 10-12 at CFCC Wilson Center
Toward the the end of the year, Wilmington theater showed signs of awakening from its forced pandemic slumber. Opera House Theatre Co. did two well-received shows outside of Thalian Hall on the “portico” steps — “The Rocky Horror Show” and a “Piano Men” musical revue. College theater programs at UNCW and CFCC staged productions for audiences that were either limited (at UNCW) or outside (CFCC). The Thalian Association did productions with its youth company for small audiences (mostly performers’ families) that were also streamed online.
As for when indoor theater with full audiences will return, spring or summer seems like a possibility. As of November, there was no scheduled date for what would be the 10th annual StarNews Wilmington Theater Awards in 2021, and Opera House had not announced its 2021 season.
But Thalian Hall did have a number of theatrical productions on its schedule. Those included two main stage musicals from the Thalian Association (“Anything Goes” Feb. 5-14 and “All Shook Up” April 9-18) and an encore production of “Give’ Em Hell Harry!” March 13-14 starring former Wilmington actor Clifton Daniel in a one-man show as his grandfather, President Harry S. Truman. (Daniel did the show in Wilmington in 2017.)
UNCW and CFCC will continue staging shows in the spring semester, although what shape that will take isn’t yet clear.
For those looking forward to the return of Broadway touring shows, “Cats” is slated to come to CFCC’s Wilson Center in August, with late spring or summer seeming like the most likely time for that venue to start seeing other tours.
Scheduled dates: October 1-3
After going off annually without a hitch for 35 years since its founding in 1979, Wilmington’s biggest annual fall festival hit some rough waters in 2015 due to hurricanes and now the pandemic.
Heavy rains washed out the festival in 2015, and hurricanes blew Riverfest back to November in 2016 and 2018 before the pandemic canceled the festival yet again in 2020.
Fall of 2021 is looking like a good bet for Riverfest to start a new streak for many years to come.
“We are not discouraged, and know that our 2021 Riverfest will be bigger and better,” Riverfest president Roderick Bell wrote in an August Facebook post announcing the 2020 festival’s cancellation. “We will get through this together.”
Notable shows:Jen Kober March 27 at Thalian Hall
The area comedy scene has been as hard-hit as the pandemic as anybody. Dead Crow Comedy Club, the home for local open mics, improv and touring shows, closed its Front Street doors in March but plans to re-open in a new downtown location post-pandemic.
The Pineapple-Shaped Lamps troupe, which has been staging everything from sketch shows to musical/dramatic comedies for more than a decade, has been forced to move their offerings online.(Good thing they’re excellent at video.)
Right now, the only scheduled comedy performance is Jen Kober at Thalian Hall in March. Here’s to hoping Wilmington has a lot more laughs in its future, and soon.
More area festivals
One of the things that give Southeastern North Carolina its identity is the array of literally dozens of festivals that are (normally) held each other. The big names (Azalea Festival, Riverfest) are important, of course, but the smaller festivals add plenty of flavor each each year.
The North Carolina Fourth of July Festival in Southport draws crowds from all over the state and beyond each year for its longstanding celebration. A return July 3-5 in 2021 feels like a good bet.
Likewise for two food-centric fall festivals, the N.C. Oyster Festival in Ocean Isle Beach and Shallotte (Oct. 16-17) and the N.C. Spot Festival in Hampstead (no date as of mid-November). Both have good chances of going off in 2021.
The Pleasure Island Seafood, Blues & Jazz Festival April 24-25 feels iffier, but the festival could potentially move back to fall, when it was held for years, if it needs to. Stay tuned for headliners to be announced.
Scheduled dates: Nov. TBA
Unlike many other area festivals, the Cucalorus Festival of film and the arts was able to happen this year thanks to a half-dozen drive-in movie screening, a ton of online offerings and plenty of Zoom meet-ups. With the 27th Cucalorus still nearly a year away, a return to something like “normal” in 2021 seems likely, fingers crossed.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.