Spoleto Festival USA raised eyebrows last fall when it decided to bump its 2006 program announcement from mid-November to January 1. Yet the six-week delay apparently had no effect at all on ticket sales for the festival’s 30th anniversary season, which begins in just six weeks, if you can believe it, on Thurs., May 25.

Whether by coincidence or design, the City Office of Cultural Affairs has also lingered over its program for an extra month this spring, though it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be as fortunate regarding ticket sales. There’s a press announcement later this week, but the Piccolo ’06 website has been live for more than a week, so I thought I’d mention some highlights here.

It’s first worth observing that Piccolo has passed over, for a second consecutive year, a reprise of the excellent Contemporary Charleston exhibit, which featured some of the city’s most noteworthy working contemporary artists at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in 2003 and ’04. That’s a shame, in my opinion. Many of those artists are still struggling to get exposure in a city where progressive artwork is sales poison — and a tent in Marion Square just ain’t the same.

One name you won’t see this year: Blair Tindall’s. Last year’s P&C’s Spoleto overview critic will be shopping a screenplay around in Tinseltown during the festival with new hubbie Bill Nye, she says.

Another name you won’t find in this year’s festival: Second City. To be honest, it’s just as well. They were beginning to seem superfluous in the shadow of Theatre 99’s ever-growing Fringe of big-name sketch and improv comedy imports. This year that Fringe is almost embarrassingly huge, completely dominating the theatre series with 13 separate acts in both the American Theater and the new Theatre 99. It’s packed with several Charleston Comedy Festival veterans (Rode Hard and Put Away Wet, Upright Citizens Brigade Tourco, Elephant Larry, Aziz Ansari), plus some previous Fringe warhorses: Charles Ross’ remarkable One Man Star Wars Trilogy, 52 Pick Up, and Matt Besser. There’s a Mary Kay Has a Posse reunion, an improvisational Shakespeare company, The Have Nots!’ extended family of improvisers, and a truckful more.

Other theatre offerings include encores of previous PURE Theatre successes Underneath the Lintel and A Number, plus a Village Playhouse encore of its ambitious A Little Night Music. Serenade producers Brad and Jennifer Moranz offer a George and Ira Gershwin tribute, Fascinating Rhythm, at Charleston Music Hall, where Sheri Grace Wenger is also planning to program a Lovell Sisters return, her very bankable Rock and Roll Heaven Show, a musical concert by actor Jeff Daniels (yeah, that one) and more. Also at PURE Theatre, a new Columbia-based group will present Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog (done right: amazing theatre; done wrong: epic, three-hour disaster).

The College of Charleston Department of Theatre kicks in an encore of its student-written original Wolfi, based on Mozart’s coming-of-age, as well as playwright Steven Dietz’s potty-mouthed Trust (with nudity, smoking, and kleptomania, thank goodness).

Also marking a return this spring is Charleston Ballet Theatre’s open-air Rite of Spring at the Angel Oak, with accompaniment from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The CSO will also accompany the classic 1925 Russian silent film Potemkin in Marion Square (the score’s by Shostakovitch), and they’ll reprise the always popular Sunset Serenade on the Custom House steps with Holst’s The Planets and Debussy’s La Mer, in addition to other sundry gigs.

Jazz at the defunct Bar 145 will become Jazz at the Cellar Club next door — and yes, Lady Chablis will be returning. Poet and National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia will be in town to read from his work. The Spotlight Concert Series includes the Chamber Music Society’s version of Mozart’s Gran Partita; the CSO and CSO Chamber Singers will perform Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespro Della Beata Vergine; and local envelope-pushers the New Music Collective will knock out some original works by local composers Philip White and Mariah Dodson, plus goodness from John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and inimitable minimalist Steve Reich.

Plus much more. Obviously. Like I said: these are just the highlights of the highlights. If you want the full 411, you’re gonna have to check out the website (www.piccolospoleto.com) or call someone at the Office of Cultural Affairs: 724-7305.

In the meantime, I’m busily fastening bells and whistles to my pimped-up Spoleto Blog for this year. More info coming soon…

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