For lovers of the performing arts who reside in the Coachella Valley, Christmas figuratively comes in April every year—because that’s when the McCallum Theatre announces what gifts it is bringing to town during the upcoming season.
To overextend this tortured metaphor … that makes Mitch Gershenfeld Santa Claus, sort of, as the McCallum president and CEO is the sleighmaster (OK, this metaphor is officially finished) who books the theater’s shows each season—a task he’s now accomplished for some 19 years.
“Every time I finish booking the season, I tell my wife, ‘I am afraid this is not going to be as good of a season as last year was,’” Gershenfeld said. “But, honestly, this is going to be a very good season.”
Tickets for the 2018-2019 will go on sale Monday, April 16, at 8 a.m. The 2018-2019 roster includes names both new and familiar to the McCallum: Singers from Jackie Evancho to Bernadette Peters to Willie Nelson, plus six performances by the Ten Tenors; traveling Broadway shows including Rent, Jersey Boys, Spamalot, Evita, The Wizard of Oz and Something Rotten; comedy greats like Lily Tomlin and Bob Newhart; and the tried-and-true McCallum series, including Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel, Fitz’s Jazz Cafe, and Gershenfeld’s own “Mitch’s Picks.”
When I asked Gershenfeld which shows excited him the most, he mentioned Savion Glover’s All FuNKD’ Up, scheduled to come to the McCallum on March 30, 2019.
“Savion is not only the greatest living tap dancer; he’s such an incredible artist,” Gershenfeld said. “He’s taken tap beyond what anyone else has done before.” All FuNKD’ Up will feature a six-piece band and a full company of dancers.
Gershenfeld said he’s also looking forward to a series coming to the McCallum for the first time: National Geographic Live will bring scientists, photographers and other great minds to the theater for Exploring Mars (Jan. 21); Coral Kingdoms and Empires of Ice (Feb. 18); and Capturing the Impossible (March 18). The Exploring Mars lecture, in particular, should be exciting, as it’ll feature Kobie Boykins, the NASA mechanical engineer who’s had a hand in numerous discoveries about the red planet—including the revelation that there was once water on Mars.
“This is a program that’s been around for many years, as a series in a lot of cities,” Gershenfeld said. “It works very well in a theater.”
For the fifth year in a row, Gershenfeld has highlighted five shows as “Mitch’s Picks”—concerts Gershenfeld personally recommends, even if the performers are not household names. They include Spanish guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas’ Americano (March 4); BRAVO Amici, a “popera” group featuring three tenors and two divas (March 11); Piaf! Le Spectacle, a show telling the singing great’s life story via music and heretofore unseen photos—entirely in French (March 26); and Asere!, a celebration of Cuban dance and music featuring the Havana Cuba All-Stars (April 3).
And then there’s Blokelahoma! (March 29) starring Toby Francis, a former member of the Ten Tenors who also starred in the Australian production of Kinky Boots. He became a friend of Gershenfeld during Francis’ time in the Ten Tenors—the most popular act ever to grace the McCallum stage. Gershenfeld said Francis told him about Blokelahoma!—Francis’ story about being a “good Austrian bloke” who grew up with a love of Broadway musicals—when they enjoyed dinner in Sydney last June.
“I basically said, you have to do this show at the McCallum,” Gershenfeld recalled.
Per usual, McCallum’s schedule is packed with an unimaginably wide variety of singers, humorists and performers, ranging from comedian and Orange Is the New Black star Lea DeLaria returning to her jazz roots (Nov. 8) to LeAnn Rimes doing a Christmas show (Dec. 15) to concerts by prolific songwriter Paul Anka (Jan. 31 and Feb. 1).
Traveling Broadway shows are a McCallum staple, and the 2018-2019 slate includes a lot of classics and old favorites. The one exception: Something Rotten! (April 5-7), which ended its initial Broadway run on Jan. 1, 2017.
“It’s such a fun story,” Gershenfeld said. “It takes place in Shakespeare’s time; he’s literally a rock star.”
The story centers on two brothers who are playwrights struggling to compete with the great Shakespeare. They visit a soothsayer named Nostradamus—the nephew of the famous one—and wind up inventing this new thing called a “musical.”
Gershenfeld said booking shows at the McCallum presents unique challenges in terms of timing—with rare exceptions, the theater goes dark out of necessity from May through September—and size; at 1,100 seats, the medium-sized venue is simply too small to meet the budgetary requirements of some grand productions, like Wicked.
“There will be no Hamilton here in my lifetime,” he said with a laugh.
Despite these challenges, the McCallum consistently makes Pollstar’s annual list of the Top 100 theaters in terms of ticket sales, because dark nights are rare in the spring—and because Gershenfeld books shows that he knows will sell well.
He’s hoping a change to the way the McCallum sells tickets may make sales even better. In past years, the McCallum only sold “subscriptions” for the upcoming year during the late spring and summer months. This year, tickets for all currently booked shows will go on sale at 8 a.m. on Monday, April 16.
Gershenfeld said he was looking forward to the 2018-2019 season, as the 2017-2018 season comes to an end.
“This has been a great season,” he said. “It’s been better than the last two years, and the shows have been well-attended. Philanthropically, people have been very generous, too. Ticket sales make up only 60 percent of our budget, and we’ve been making a lot of capital improvements to the theater; we’ve been spending about $500,000 a year in improvements and new equipment.”
Tickets for the McCallum Theatre’s 2018-2019 season go on sale at 8 a.m., Monday, April 16. For tickets or more information, including the complete schedule, show up at the box office at 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert; call 760-340-2787; or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.