Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Come visit Ashland for top theater and much more

The Ashland Springs Hotel holds center stage on Main Street.

    Writing by Christene Meyers
   Photos by Bruce Keller  

     One of my favorite William Holden movies is "Shangri-la."  It's set in a Utopian village in the Himalayas and director Frank Capra captures beautiful mountains, soothing forests and low-hanging clouds that seem to say "touch me, come in, enjoy." It is a magical place.
     Shangri-la lives!
The hotel's gracious lobby is artfully decorated
in the style of a European boutique hotel
     Not in Tibet, but in Ashland, Oregon.
     This charming mountain town in southern Oregon has worked its way into my heart for a half-century and has wooed hundreds of thousands of others from around the United States and the world.
     World class theater is its strong suit, but not its only enticement.
     For Ashland really has everything one needs for a varied, restful yet exciting escape.
     Its unique blend of sophistication and earthy appeal, of town and gown, city and country, soothing and exciting render it a jewel of America and the globe.
     Chief among its pleasures is the world renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded by an enterprising Scotsman who called the Rogue Valley home.
     In 1934, Angus Bowmer devised a way for the town's popular boxing matches to fund his deeper passion, the theater.
     He dreamed that Ashland could support live theater -- first rate productions.  He was right.
Even before the trees leaf out, Ashland is a picturesque place.
     From his ambitious idea grew the festival, which celebrates the dramatic arts annually with a roster of classic works by the Bard, much loved musicals always with a spin, and new, thought-provoking works by playwrights from around the world. Except for a couple of WWII  years, Ashland has offered a knock-out roster of intriguing work, acted by top performers and musicians with a annual following in the tens of thousands.
      Most people do what my family and friends have done for years: check into a good hotel, stroll to the festival box office to pick up tickets, make a reservation for dinner (a tough choice in delectable Ashland; more about that on Saturday!) and begin savoring this magnificent year-round destination, just 15 miles north of the California border.
      Ashland is fun for a long weekend but there's plenty to do for a full week or more.  We try to tie it in with a visit to either Portland or San Francisco (it is half-way between).  This trip we stayed six days, seeing all the fabulous works on the boards at OSF's trio of theaters and topping it off with an evening at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
"Five Guys Named Moe" one of the
hits at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
     Although the pear trees are soon to blossom and the hyacinth and primroses are in bloom, it's still "winter" here (all of that is relative  to this native Montanan!).  That means that the Elizabethan Stage is not yet offering plays since it is open-air.  It will be in its full glory in June, when OSF will offer "Cymbeline," "The Heart of Robin Hood" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  Several other productions, including "A Streetcar Named Desire" open at the Thomas and Bowmer making a total roster of 11. To see the entire February-October docket, one must visit Ashland twice!
Intermission at the evening show at OSF's Bowmer Theatre.
     That's the good news (and there is no bad!) "My Fair Lady" is one of the best productions of a musical I've seen anywhere (and that includes Broadway and London's West End.)  I've seen it a dozen times, from the Julie Andrews-Rex Harrison version, and can't praise this rendition enough.  Two pianos take center stage and the gifted musicians interact with the company, whose costumes hang around the set. What an intriguing and novel way to give a beloved old standard some new clothes!  This piano player loved, loved, loved it.
      "King Lear" is brilliantly acted in the smaller Thomas Theatre (formerly the New Theater, which replaced the cherished old Black Swan).  "Two Trains Running" pays tribute to August Wilson's insightful script with a talented cast and eye-catching set.  And "The Taming of the Shrew" is set on a Boardwalk with a Coney Island motif.  It's such fun and so sharply directed that you will want to see it more than once.  It's got a rock-and-roll sound, actors both supple and sly and a sense of fun that brought the audience to its feet. Three cheers to artistic director Bill Rauch and "Shrew" director David Ivers for putting a fresh spin on a glorious chestnut and OSF tradition.
     Ah, the delights. Besides the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland has dozens of other gems in its weighty crown. Here are three with the most sparkle:
Nick and Nora enjoy the dog friendly Ashland Springs Hotel.
     * The Ashland Springs Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel, reborn from decay and neglect.  The former Mark Anthony had grown tawdry but was lovingly resurrected to its 1925 glory.  The credit goes to an ambitious Ashland-and-history-loving couple who took pains with the 70 handsomely appointed guest rooms, elegant lobby and stunning public gathering places. Once the tallest building between Portland and San Diego, it is the proud dowager of downtown Ashland.  I've stayed here for years, back to its days as the Mark Anthony, but it was falling to tatters by the end of the last century.  The devoted benefactors, Doug and Becky Neuman, love antiques and incorporated many in their careful restoration.  Their love for Ashland Springs Hotel shines in every detail, from the gracious antiques and beautiful fabrics to the botanical and oceanic collections which are displayed throughout the hotel.  Our Yorkies, Nick and Nora, love the dog-friendly feature. In fact, much of Ashland is a dog-friendly place, reminiscent of Carmel.  Doggies are welcome many places and you'll find water bowls on Main Street.
     The Ashland Springs hotel has a talented concierge, Gigi, who can book your heart's desire at Waterstone Spa and Salon.  The front desk offers friendly desk attendants who know and love their town. Don't miss the gourmet restaurant, Larks.
Kymberli Colbourne
is a fine Cline.

       * The Oregon Cabaret Theatre, which offers top-drawer dinner theater across from the Ashland Springs and a block north of Main Street.  The onetime Baptist Church also found a loving benefactor and we sampled the Cabaret's 28th season with "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline."  Gladys Higgins deserves credit for saving this delightful building which literally sings with musicals and comedies to delight every taste.  Kymberli Colbourne's Patsy has heart, soul, swagger and the pipes to do justice to the legendary country singer. Cline perished in a plane crash in 1963 in the glory of her brief career.  We are Cabaret faithfuls because the offerings are always well done, the food is terrific and there's a show Monday night when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is dark!
Keller, Cookie, Nick and Nora enjoy Lithia Park.
     * Lithia Park is a natural wonder, with equal emphasis on both words.  Natural because it is 93 acres of forested woodland, and wonder because it stretches from the downtown plaza along Ashland Creek and up towards Mt. Ashland, the creek's headwaters.  Lush trails welcome the casual stroller or determined hiker and you'll see tall fir and oak trees, squirrels and many varieties of birds, bushes and butterflies. The landscape architect of this beloved Ashland landmark was John McLaren, whose name you might recognize as the designer of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
     For an overview of this "top 10 of small American cities" go to
                                                                                       Plan to visit this modern day Shangri-la.

     COMING SATURDAY:  Ashland's delights are too many for a single posting, especially when it comes to dining and imbibing.  Just days ago, we sampled the ninth annual Oregon Chocolate Festival. In our next piece, March 9, we take you to a deliciously decadent place where "seven days without chocolate makes one weak." The fest has ties to its host, the Ashland Springs Hotel.   Besides being based there, it is the brainstorm of the hotel's marketing director who is already planning the 10th fest for 2014. We also look at some of Ashland's great eateries and wine tastings. Sign up for automatic e-mail updates at and spread the word!

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