It was a roller coaster of a year for local artists and arts organizations during year two of the global pandemic, one filled with fits and starts but plenty of joy and delight. While some groups cautiously introduced in-person events, others remained in the virtual realm and still others creatively managed to merge the two. Despite the challenges, artists adapted, flourished and even triumphed while finding new ways to reach and touch audiences. 

The Westerly Band returned with concerts in Wilcox Park and at the Westerly Armory, where Westminster Strings also performed an in-person "masked" concert. The Granite Theatre experimented with a bit of each and ended the year with a stellar in-person run of "A Christmas Carol."

In Stonington, the La Grua Center also offered a calendar full of both in-person and virtual events while the James Merrill House introduced its extraordinary poets and writers from around the world in virtual programs which were then posted on the Merrill Website.

In the summer months of 2021 — when sunshine and daylight where abundant — organizations known for outdoor events forged ahead, confident that audiences could safely mask up and/or socially distance.

Summer Pops

The biggest outdoor event of the year, one held in Wilcox Park, was the the much anticipated return of the Chorus of Westerly's beloved Summer Pops, which moved its usual June date to September. With plenty of protocols in place, the chorus successfully presented an outdoor concert to remember when the Knickerbocker All-Stars and vocalist Darcel Wilson joined chorus members during the second half of the show.

Because the concert took place on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and "during a time where we have lost so many to COVID-19," the program included a time, toward the end of the first half of the program, to "collectively, take a moment together to honor and remember this historic day and those whom we have lost."

After the chorus and Pops Festival Orchestra performed "The Armed Forces Salute," many of the chiefs of Westerly and Stonington’s public safety departments were invited to come to the stage, and after a few spoken words, a moment of silence was held and a special bell was rung 20 times by the chiefs.

Afterwards, a new arrangement of "Amazing Grace," set by Westerly native and composer John Tafone, was performed.

When "Amazing Grace," ended, Saunders wrote, the music "quietly moved into an abridged version of the 'Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to remind us of our shared humanity, the hope for the world, and the goodness found in each of us."

The concert was "quite successful and a warm moment of much needed hope for our community," Chorus Executive Director Ryan Saunders said in an email Thursday. "It also helped us pave the way for being able to offer our 'Messiah Sing' and 'Christmas Pops' in December, our first Kent Hall events since before the COVID crisis.

"We are just so very grateful to so many people for helping us chart new paths forward during this crisis," he added. "The year ahead will certainly present new challenges, but we are grateful to be in a town that supports, loves, and nurtures its artists and arts organizations in so many ways. All I can say is thank you."

Shakespeare's back

Also in Wilcox Park this summer, the Colonial Theatre resumed production of its Shakespeare in the Park productions with a successful, well-attended run of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)[revised]." The production was one for the record books, according to Nicholas Moore, vice president of the Colonial's board of directors, who said that despite the pernicious pandemic, the Colonial enjoyed an enormously successful 2021 season. The play was nominated in many categories for Broadway World awards, including Best Play, Best Direction (Marion Markham), Best Scenic Design (John Tedeschi, Westerly High School), Best Actor in a Virtual Production (Jamie Dufault) and Best Supporting Actor (Jeremiah Clapp).

Concerts at the beach

Westerly's "Tunes in the Dunes" concerts, held at Town Beach on Monday and Wednesday evenings in July and August, attracted enthusiastic crowds, as did the concerts on the green in Watch Hill. Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee made an appearance at one of the Monday concerts in Misquamicut when John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band performed on the beach while the concert with hip-hop violinist Kevin "Big Lux" Lowther drew hundreds to the shore.

Lowther, a musician, veteran, West Point and Westerly High School graduate, and member of the Westerly Antiracism Coalition, continued to use the power of his music to preach the gospel of veterans rights and inclusion and to protest injustice during 2021. One of the region's most notable artists, he joined coalition members on the steps of the downtown Westerly Post Office each Sunday and played shows from Westerly to Providence and beyond. In November, he participated in "Veteran Voices," part of Trinity Rep’s Green Light Ghost Project when he performed "Chasing Bombs," an original song he wrote, performed and recorded based on his time in Iraq searching for Improvised Explosive Devices. Earlier this month, Lowther was featured in a video called "Big Lux's Beautiful Resistance: A Veteran's Violin Sings Black Lives Matter," produced Jeneé Osterheldt, a Boston Globe staff member. Lowther spoke about the importance of "resiliency and creativity" and told Osterheldt that he found joy in "dancing, music and movement of all kind."

Music scene

Other local musicians made great strides this year, including Will Evans, the soft-spoken, thoughtful musician whose songs consistently deliver messages of family, love, hope and inclusion. Evans, who performed a new batch of music at a Thanksgiving concert held at the United Theatre, was joined by Glenn "Glenn Thomas" Kendzia and budding local musician Olivia Mortrude. Marc Douglas Berardo performed several times for Arts Café Mystic, which held several outdoor event this year at the Mystic Museum of Art along with its first indoor event in nearly two years.

Savoy Bookshop

Meanwhile, in the literary world, Savoy Bookshop and Café also tinkered with both live and virtual events.

"While we still hosted a good number of virtual events, particularly during the first half of the year, our favorite moments were certainly those events where we were able to gather in person," said Anastasia Soroko, the book store's events manager, in an email. "The Summer Author Series at the Ocean House returned in 2021 — the hotel is a perfect venue for author talks — and our biggest event this past year was a beach clean-up and talk with chef Brad Leone for his cookbook 'Field Notes on Food Adventure.' We had an almost full house at the United!"

United Theatre

The most notable occurrence in local arts news, however, came in July with the reopening of Westerly's United Theatre on Canal Street. The theatre, which was built in 1926 as a vaudeville house before becoming a movie theater, closed in 1986, was purchased by Westerly Land Trust in 2006 and had been in various stages of imagination and renovation ever since. When the doors officially opened on July 9, movie-lovers were treated to screenings of Marvel's "Black Widow" and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's documentary, "Summer of Soul." 

"It was pretty awesome," said United Executive Director Lisa Utman Randall as she recalled the official opening in a phone interview earlier this week. "I'll never forget the looks on people's faces as they walked into the lobby."

"Jaws were literally dropping," she said as she described the reaction of first-time visitors to the theater and a day full of mini-tours, complimentary popcorn and new faces. "People couldn't believe how it looked. They couldn't believe it was right here in Westerly, Rhode Island.

"It is pretty spectacular. I think it's a game-changer."

The official ribbon-cutting took place in front of the theater a few weeks later on July 30 when Canal Street was closed down and Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor delivered opening remarks to the gathered crowd and a row of seated guests and dignitaries. Among those gathered were Charles "Chuck" Royce, vice-chairman of the United's board and a major benefactor of the theater, and his wife, novelist Deborah Goodrich Royce, who both helped cut the ribbon.  

"It's really unbelievable how much has happened since," Randall continued, listing the various arts organizations the United has partnered with and the number of events that have taken place since the opening. "We have cemented relationships with Salt Marsh Opera, the Chorus of Westerly, Savoy Bookshop and of course, the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School."

Salt Marsh Opera brought one of the most famous operas in the world to the United in October with several performances of Georges Bizet "Carmen," while the chorus continues its "Speakeasy Series" at the theater and Community Music Program Director Tom Foley, oversees lessons and programs downstairs in the theater's music school.

Stressing that the vision for the theater is to "unite the community as a hub for arts in the region" and to serve as "a home for local, national and international artists to showcase their work," Randall again pointed out the number of successful community partnerships the theater has forged.

One of the busiest events so far this year, she said, was the Halloween celebration, which was not only "super fun" but united more than 30 downtown businesses and 600 trick-or-treaters with members of the police and fire departments for a scavenger hunt and children's raffle.

Opening the theater was "a huge feat," said Artistic Director Tony Nunes in an email Tuesday evening, especially during an era of "movie and music industry upheaval."

"But it's been amazing," Nunes said. "We've brought so many great films and concerts to Westerly in just a short time and we have so, so much more in the works for 2022."

Nunes said since opening in July, the United has screened "big films" like the new Bond movie "No Time To Die," and the Marvel hits like "Spider-Man" and "Black Widow," and smaller movies like "Pig," "Summer of Soul," and "The Green Knight."

His favorite film of 2021, he added, was the new "Dune" movie.

"No movie this year looked better or sounded better on the big screen," he said, "and it was the perfect movie for us to flex our amazing sound and projection systems here at the United."

Randall also pointed out that the opening of The Café — a cozy spot featuring work from the Royce's art collection, where "stars are treated like locals and locals are treated like stars" — next door to the United, completes the vision held by the Royce family for the theater and restaurant.

"I know it was  dream of Chuck's that some people would go into the café to wait while their kids were having music lessons, and other people would go in for dinner after or before shows at the United, and that's happening ... it's really kind of phenomenal."

"I went in the other day and I saw lots of local people in there," she added. "It's a gathering place but it's also a special occasion place."

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