LEWISTON – Richard Willing may have recently stepped down as its executive director, but his fingerprints remain all over the upcoming 2004-05 L/A Arts performance schedule.

The L/A Arts Cabaret Series kicks off Thursday, Dec. 16, with the Acadian music of Vishten.

The season features six cabaret shows, one remaining kids’ performance and four feature films.

Noticeably absent is the Mainstage Series that has anchored past calendars.

“We just weren’t getting the audiences that we were getting in the past,” said Cheri Donahue, the marketing/development director of L/A Arts.

The big-money productions sponsored by L/A Arts had trouble filling the 900-plus auditorium at Lewiston Middle School. In order to continue the program, Donahue said the organization would have had to significantly increase ticket prices, something it was unwilling to do.

The lack of the Mainstage Series means that the organization will not bring a modern dance, theatrical performance or big-name artist to the Twin Cities for this season. Last season, this series included Jay Geils in the Guitar Summit and the Grammy Award-winning group Riders in the Sky.

Instead, L/A Arts is concentrating its efforts and resources on the growing popularity of the Thursday night cabaret series, held monthly in the Ramada Inn ballroom. The new series features six performances – one more than last year. The musical genres include jazz, blues, folk, traditional and country.

The concerts are performed in an intimate, club-like setting, with the audience sitting at tables close to the stage. Attendance at the Thursday night shows has increased every year, said Donahue, so much so that L/A Arts added a fifth show last year and a sixth for this season.

Willing, who resigned in September after 14 years, booked this season’s program. The cabaret series was a particular favorite of his because it allowed him to bring some lesser-known artists who are among the most talented in their respective fields.

A prime example is the first show, Thursday, featuring Vishten. The Quebec-based group combines French, Irish and Scottish styles with the fiddling and step dancing that is popular in Cape Breton and Eastern Canada. With two sisters among the five members, Vishten reportedly stole the show last summer at the three-day National Folk Festival in Bangor.

Mark your calendars

The rest of the cabaret series features:

• Cheryl Wheeler, Jan. 20: This singer-songwriter is popular on the folk scene for her ability to tell stories with her poetry-like lyrics and her lively wit. Wheeler’s latest album is scheduled to be released in early February.

• Jay Leonhart, Feb. 17: The renowned jazz bassist will bring his one-man show filled with humor and wry commentary to the Twin Cities. Critics have called him a Spaulding Gray or a Victor Borge on the bass.

• Samite, March 17: Raised in Uganda, Samite learned to play the traditional flute as a youngster before discovering the western flute. Referred to as the “soul of Africa,” his traditional and contemporary African music includes instruments like the kalimba (finger piano), marimba (wooden xylophone) and litungu (Kenyan string instrument) in addition to his flutes.

• Oscar Brown, April 14: A native of Chicago, Brown has been playing blues for more than half a century. His huge body of work includes several hundred penned songs, many full-length theater pieces and a number of television shows. His work as a talent coordinator in Gary, Ind., in the late 1960s led to the discoveries of the Jackson Five and actor Avery Brooks.

• Rosie Flores, May 12: A native of Texas and raised in Los Angeles, Flores has been active since the 1970s mixing her Mexican-American heritage with rockabilly and blues. She recently released a live CD of a performance without her band.

For the kids

The series for kids continues to attract a loyal following. It started with the “Great Dinosaur Mystery” in October.

“Robin Hood: Thief of Hearts” is the remaining children’s show. Scheduled Friday, April 29, at Lewiston Middle School, the show will be presented in sign language as well as in words.

Back on the L/A Arts docket is the foreign film series. Shown at Kirk Hall at Central Maine Community College, the remaining movies include the animated “The Triplets of Belleville” (Jan. 5-6), “Happy Times” from China (Feb. 2-3), the Academy Award-nominated English documentary “My Architect” (March 2-3) and “To Be and To Have” from France (April 6-7).

Tickets may be purchased online at www.laarts.org or by phone at (800) 639-2919.

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