Stop any Houstonian on the street and ask for a favorite summer memory and the answers are likely to include Miller Outdoor Theatre.
The Hermann Park venue, which opened in 1923, offers eight months of shows by arts groups large and small, from Houston and around the world -- and every show is free. Summer picnics on the hill before a performance of a Bollywood dance group, a TUTS musical, or New York City jazz ensemble are a rite of passion for H-Towners.
And now, Miller is turning 100. The centennial is a big deal and the organization is marking it in a big way. Throughout the year, audiences can look for special opportunities to connect with the theater, and get a deeper glimpse into what makes it so special for the city.
First up is a weekend of fun, kicking off Friday, March 17 with a performance byTrinity Irish Dance Company.
"With opening night being St. Patrick's Day, I couldn't pass up that opportunity," Cissy Segall, managing director of the Miller Theatre advisory board, tells CultureMap. "They are an exceptional, contemporary Irish dance troupe."
Segall says that when many people think about Irish dance, they think the spectacle offered by groups like Riverdance. In fact, the company's website notes that its founding is a precursor to that celebrated troupe.
Trinity Irish Dance Company has been lauded for bringing traditional Irish step dance into a whole new era, with vibrant energy and precision timing. The New York Times called the group's work "impossibly complex."
"They were last here in 2007," says Segall. "And they are so, so good! When I realized opening night for the centennial was St. Patrick's Day, I said we gotta have them. I booked them early last year."
Segall is expecting the energy from Trinity Irish Dance will overflow into Saturday, March 18's celebrations. Noting that the theater wanted to do "something different" for the 100th anniversary, audiences and Hermann Park goers can expect a host of activity on Miller's plaza from 6 pm to 8 pm. "We're going back in time," Segall says.
That means a salute to the Roaring '20s, complete with costumed entertainers, photo opps with a Model T Ford, opportunities to learn how to dance the Charleston, a dance synonymous with the era, and more. There's even a seven-foot-tall cake sculpture with stairs at its back where guests can climb up it and look like they're popping out of it. Segall says that will be around all year.
"I think people will have such a good time," she says enthusiastically. "We have a mural artist, Mark Deleon, who will be finishing a mural and people can see him work. And at 8 pm, The Hot Sardines are on stage."
The group is a New York-based band that offers jazzy stylings on Great American Songbook standards, giving a contemporary spin to classics by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and others, made into hits by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and generations of other artists. "They make these songs fun and relatable," says Segall.
This kickoff weekend is just the beginning.
Fans of the King of Pop can rock out at 8 pm Friday, March 24 to I Am King – The Michael Jackson Experience. Renowned Michael Jackson tribute artist Michael Firestone takes viewers through a musical and visual journey into the icon's world, along with an incredible cast of dancers and musicians. Expect powerful renditions of Jackson’s biggest hits including “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” “Man in the Mirror,” and more.
"We're inviting some of our favorites back," says Segall, meaning that the takeaway for audiences is a lineup of groups big and small, from Houston and beyond, with familiar faces and newcomers alike. It's a season that showcases the depth of what today's performing arts landscape looks like, and gives audiences a look at cultures and traditions from around the world.
"On March 25, we have the Latin American Philharmonic," says Segall. "They're from Houston, and they're fabulous! They were here for the first time last year, and it drew the biggest audience. People loved them!"
More global entertainment comes at 8 pm March 31 with Waking Up Free: India’s Journey produced by Silambam. The dazzling event celebrates India's 75th year of independence. The evening-length performance depicts India’s struggle for independence and weaves together classical Indian music and dance to tell the story of early independence battles to the promise of what present-day India can be for residents and the world.
Segall knows how much Houstonians love Miller, and she knows the venue is unique among the country's outdoor theaters. There's nowhere else that offers so much programming, free of charge. As the organization kicks off its centennial season, Segall is looking forward to Houstonians making more memories in Hermann Park.
"This is really a wonderful way to sample the best Houston has to offer in a location that is, to me, one of the best amenities the city has to offer."
Tickets to the covered seating area for every Miller Outdoor Theatre performance can be obtained online one day prior to a performance, from 10 am through noon on performance day.
A limited number of tickets are also available at the box office, which opens an hour before the show starts. Those requiring handicap accessible seating, can call the box office in advance at 832-487-7123.
Seating is always open on the hill, with spaces for lawn chairs, blankets and picnicking.
Importantly for hungry and thirsty fans, the theater also has a concession stand offering hot dogs, burgers, quesadillas, soft drinks, and beer and wine.
The complete season lineup is available online, along with information on livestream performances.