Mitch Gershenfeld has been booking shows at the McCallum Theatre for more than two decades now—and it’s a vast understatement to say he’s never experienced a season like this.
The longtime McCallum president and CEO retired—while keeping his booking duties—late last summer to make way for a new president and CEO, Terrence Dwyer. Three months later, Dwyer was let go, and Gershenfeld returned as the acting president.
Then came March 12—and the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were supposed to have Ricky Skaggs that night,” Gershenfeld said during a recent phone interview. “It was a sold-out show, but we shut everything down. The rest of the shows for the season were canceled.
“But we had a plan. We kept all of our full-time staff on, and we’re continuing to work from our homes. We’re using Zoom and having daily meetings. We’re working on all the various aspects of the business, and we’re working on ramping up to get the new season launched.”
Tickets for that 2020-2021 season went on sale earlier this week at www.mccallumtheatre.com. The season is slated to kick off on Oct. 10 with the Ninth Annual Family Fun Day, featuring a participatory performance of The Little Mermaid by The Panto Company USA. The season then kicks into high gear in November, starting with a Nov. 1 show by humorist Jeanne Robertson.
That is, of course, if theaters are allowed to operate by then.
“We’re certainly looking with optimism that by November, things may have returned to a point where people can gather again and go to the theater,” Gershenfeld said. “If that doesn’t happen, if shows get canceled, people will get their tickets refunded, as we refunded all the tickets for the shows that were canceled (in March and April). … But we feel optimistic, and that’s why we want to go ahead with the season. We certainly want to be there for people. We know that being in isolation is difficult for everyone. We know that human beings crave the human connection. They crave the live experience, and that’s what the McCallum is all about. We hope that we will see a day soon when we’re all able to gather again—and when that day comes, we want to be prepared to provide those kinds of performances.”
Gershenfeld said he’s proud of the 2020-2021 season that he and his team have assembled. In some ways, he said, it’s one of the McCallum’s best ever.
“I think it’s the best Broadway season we’ve had in 20 years. I really do,” he said. “We have Come From Away, which I think is an extraordinary musical.” The musical nabbed seven 2017 Tony Award nominations, earning a win for Best Direction of a Musical. It’s slated for eight performances Feb. 3-7, 2021.
“I think Come From Away actually is even more meaningful now,” Gershenfeld said. “It is the story of Sept. 11, when all the airplanes were suddenly unable to come to the United States. We closed our airspace, and they landed in this little town of Gander, in Canada. It’s a story of how people react in a crisis. It’s a story of how the people of this town took care of 7,000 people that were left in the dark. They didn’t know what was happening in the U.S. The airspace was closed; there was no communication, and it was a very, very trying time. To see how people can come together and take care of each other—given what’s going on now, this musical becomes even more meaningful.”
Other Broadway shows on the schedule include Blue Man Group (Nov. 27-29); Jersey Boys (Jan. 15-17); Summer: The Donna Summer Story (Jan. 19-20); Riverdance (Jan. 26-31); Hairspray (April 2-4); an encore of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (April 8-10); and Les Misérables (March 23-28)—returning to the McCallum for the first time since 1993.
“It’s got these beautiful new sets that they created a couple of years back with all these video screens and everything,” Gershenfeld said about the new Les Misérables. “When you see the death of Javert—well, I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s pretty amazing.”
The schedule features the divas (like Patti Lupone on Jan. 6), comedians (like Paula Poundstone on Nov. 20) and old-school favorites (like Neil Sedaka on Jan. 8 and 9) one would expect to see on the McCallum slate, as well as some true legends, like the great John Cleese, who is slated to return to the McCallum for two shows on Feb. 13.
“When I’m booking shows, what I’m thinking most about is: What will the McCallum audience enjoy? What will engage the McCallum audience?” Gershenfeld said. “With John Cleese, I just wanted to meet the guy. I’m a Monty Python fan; I’ve been for years, and I just wanted to see if he was a nice guy, or if he was kind of, sort of a curmudgeon. First of all, he’s a very nice guy. Second of all, his career has been phenomenal. It’s not just Monty Python; it’s Fawlty Towers, which was an amazing television series, and then movies like A Fish Called Wanda. … He talks about his career. He has film clips and images and things like that, and it’s a really fascinating presentation. It’s sort of a lecture and sort of a standup comedy set. He’s a fascinating, fascinating guy.”
The 2020-2021 season includes the return of series that McCallum audiences have come to love over the years, including Keyboard Confessions With Jeffrey Siegel, Mitch’s Picks—a slate of unheralded acts for which Gershenfeld personally vouches—and, for the third year, National Geographic Live!
“You’ve got these journalists and photographers from National Geographic, and they have these extraordinary images and videos that they go to all kinds of crazy lengths to get,” Gershenfeld said. “… They do a Q&A with the audience. This is a real family-oriented kind of program. It’s great for kids, and it’s always something interesting.”
All five performers in the Mitch’s Picks series are making their McCallum headlining debuts, starting with Harlem 100 Featuring Mwenso and The Shakes, a multi-media concert celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, on Nov. 21; and concluding with … something called Puddles Pity Party on March 5.
Puddles Pity Party?
“He’s this 7-foot clown who has this amazing voice and does this really wonderful theatrical presentation,” Gershenfeld said. “He’ll sing opera but will also sing Ozzy Osborne songs. He’s a silent clown except when he sings. He doesn’t speak, but like the great silent clowns of the past, like Emmett Kelly and those, he will make a story arc out of his show. It becomes like a theatrical presentation.”
Dammit, coronavirus, back off. Palm Desert needs Puddles Pity Party next year!
For the complete McCallum Theatre 2020-2021 schedule, or to buy tickets, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.