Festival crowd only decent so far

Published 11:59 am Thursday, May 15, 2008

NATCHEZ — Now at its midway mark, the Natchez Festival of Music has experienced a decent turnout, event officials said on Wednesday.

“Ticket sales are good. I wouldn’t say they’re fabulous, but we’re holding our own,” said Paris Winn, president of the NFM Board of Directors.

Winn said rising gas prices may have kept some out-of-town festivalgoers at home this 18th season. Local ticket sales are faring well thanks to an extensive advertising campaign, Winn added. Exact figures won’t be available until the first week in June.

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NFM board member Liz Dantone said the festival’s economic and cultural impact on the community is undeniable. Over the last three years, approximately 49 percent of ticket sales are purchased by out-of-towners — 16 percent from other Mississippi locations and 33 percent from out-of-state locations, Dantone said.

In addition, draft estimates indicate NFM pumps $65,000 to $70,000 into the local economy annually due to the influx of performers who relocate to Natchez for the month and local discretionary spending.

“It’s a good figure, but it’s an underestimated figure,” Dantone said of the numbers.

Dantone went on to note the success of NFM’s educational outreach program, which introduces 17,000 schoolchildren throughout southwest Mississippi to opera, Broadway, jazz and theater — arts that are usually not part of the education curriculum.

Dantone said event officials are now gearing up for today’s free Brown Bag Concert in Memorial Park at noon and tonight’s premiere of the classic American Broadway musical “Oklahoma!” at the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center. The curtain goes up at 8 p.m.

“We’re really happy about having ‘Oklahoma!’ this weekend because it’s a very big draw,” Dantone said. “We’re just scrambling to make sure everybody’s where they need to be for the audiences.”

Sara Blackburn, NFM program coordinator, said orchestra seating for “Oklahoma!” is already filled. Tickets costs are $20, $25, $40 and $55.

“We’re delighted about that, but we still have tickets to sell,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn, who witnessed NFM orchestra rehearsals on Tuesday, said the audience is in for a treat. The festival hires individual symphony players from Baton Rouge to play in the orchestra.

“The music is absolutely marvelous. The orchestra came for the first time and it was just magnificent. It went without a hitch,” she said.

“Oklahoma!” stars Broadway performers Nat Chandler and Christine Marie Heath. Blackburn couldn’t help but brag about the cast’s talent.

“We have an outstanding cast,” she said. “(Chandler and Heath) just have a terrific chemistry on stage.”

For those who miss today’s “Oklahoma!” premiere, there’s no need to fear. A second performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at the door either night.