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It’s been a fine year for the McCallum Theatre.

“This is one of the best seasons we’ve had in terms of artists—and financially, as well,” said Mitch Gershenfeld, the president, CEO and longtime booker of the McCallum. “Ticket sales have been very, very strong this year, considerably stronger than last year.”

The McCallum is winding down its wildly successful 2014-2015 season this month with just a handful shows, most notably the theater’s popular Open Call local talent competition (Thursday through Saturday, April 14-16). But all this leads to a question: How can Gershenfeld and the McCallum raise the bar next season?

The answer came over the weekend, when the McCallum released the schedule for the 2015-2016 season. Tickets went on sale today, and to raise that figurative bar, Gershenfeld looked east—specifically, all the way to Broadway.

The McCallum’s new season features eight Broadway and Broadway-style shows, with musical comedy classic 42nd Street (Nov. 24-29) and newly revived hit Pippin (Jan. 12-17, 2016) leading the way, followed by the ever-popular Jersey Boys (Feb. 16-21) and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (March 25-27).

Joining those shows are shorter runs of the 20th anniversary tour of Riverdance (Jan. 23 and 24), one-man comedy show Steve Solomon’s Cannoli, Latkes and Guilt (Feb. 12), the now-legendary The Producers (Feb. 27 and 28), and a brand-new McCallum production, Tribute to the Follies (March 10-11).

“This one of the strongest Broadway seasons we’ve ever had,” Gershenfeld said.

In particular, Gershenfeld said he was proud to nab Pippin, on its first national tour after winning four Tony Awards—including Best Revival of a Musical—in 2013.

“The production is so brilliantly done,” he said.

As for that Tribute to the Follies: Gershenfeld said the folks at the McCallum wanted to pay tribute to—and not imitate—the legendary Palm Springs Follies. Therefore, they assembled a show honoring not only the Palm Springs Follies, but theatrical revues including the Folies Bergère and the Ziegfeld Follies. Performers from the Palm Springs Follies will play a big part in the show.

“We’re doing three performances,” Gershenfeld said. “If people like it, we’ll do more next year.”

For a second year, Gershenfeld is offering his series of “Mitch’s Picks.” These are his personal selections of shows featuring unfamiliar or under-the-radar artists. (For what it’s worth, several of his picks for the soon-to-conclude season ended up being wildly successful: Tickets for 2Cellos and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain sold out well before show time.)

In something of a contradiction, his first pick features a fairly familiar name: Jane Lynch, who will be taking the stage on Nov. 14. The Glee star, known best for being a comedic actor, will be bringing to the McCallum stage her new solo-concert show, “See Jane Sing!”

“She has a wonderful cabaret act,” Gershenfeld said. “People don’t know her as a cabaret performer.”

Mitch’s other picks: Rebel organist Cameron Carpenter (Feb. 3); the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, a long-performing ensemble that plays songs from the 1920s and 1930s (Feb. 10); The von Trapps (yes, those von Trapps; March 2); and comedy violin-and-piano duo Igudesman and Joo (March 18).

Gershenfeld compared Carpenter to 2Cellos, but in reverse: While the 2Cellos guys look traditional, and use traditional instruments to play non-traditional (read: rock) music, Carpenter looks non-traditional, and uses a (sort of) traditional instrument (a souped-up organ, in his case) to play traditional (read: classical) music.

“He is known for his technical brilliance,” Gershenfeld said. “He plays Bach on an organ—but he is kind of a rebel and a bad boy. He’s very flamboyant. He’s … developed an organ that has electric elements to it. It’s like an organ on steroids.”

All of the usual McCallum staples are back for another year, including five shows as part of Fitz’s Jazz Café (curated by Easy 103’s Jim Fitzgerald), four “Keyboard Conversations With Jeffrey Siegel,” and McCallum’s season-opener, the Fourth Annual Family Fun Day, starring lots of animals and ventriloquist Kevin Johnson, on Sunday, Oct. 18.

Something new this year: Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 in December, so the McCallum is celebrating the legend with several shows, including Frank Sinatra Jr. in “Sinatra Sings Sinatra” (Feb. 5 and 6), and Steve Lawrence paying tribute to his longtime friend on Feb. 14.

“More than any other singer alive today, Steve Lawrence is the personification of the Great American Songbook,” Gershenfeld said.

Of course, Gershenfeld is not done with the 2015-2016 schedule; in fact, he’d booked another show on the day we spoke to him, he said.

“I’ve pretty much filled the calendar,” he said. “There will probably be another six to 10 shows added to the season.”

In other words … stay tuned.

Tickets for the McCallum Theatre’s 2015-2016 season are now on sale. Visit www.mccallumtheatre.com for details.

Published in Local Fun

In Sacramento, Beauty and the Beast was a hit—especially the strapping young man who plays Gaston.

“Under the direction of Rob Roth, (Joe) Hager steals the show as the larger-than-life Gaston, always preening and flexing his muscles,” wrote Saunthy Nicolson-Singh in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. “The town’s womenfolk follow him around, pumping up his already inflated ego. You want to hate him, but his affectations reminiscent of Steve Martin and Jim Carrey are hilarious.”

Following that March 6-17 Sacramento run—as well as a two-day stop in San Luis Obispo—Hager and his Beauty and the Beast cast mates will stop at the McCallum Theatre for five shows this weekend (March 22-24).

The Independent spoke to Hager in the midst of the show’s Sacramento stop, and he said the cast was enjoying the ability to settle down a little bit following a stretch that saw them in 17 cities within 20 days.

“My biggest worry is remembering my hotel-room number,” he said, laughing, when asked about the frantic travel schedule.

Beauty and the Beast is one of the most successful musicals of all time. Following the 1991 Disney film that became the first animated movie to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the play opened on Broadway in 1994, and would continue its Broadway run for more than 13 years. Numerous international, domestic and traveling productions of the show have charmed millions over the years.

For the current national tour, the original Broadway design team reunited in an effort to inject a bit of new life into the play, which features music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and a book by Linda Woolverton.

Hager said the current production takes a “fresh approach” to the story of the beautiful Belle, the Beast, and the vain hunter/town hottie, Gaston.

“Because this is a tour, and the set’s scaled down a bit, it means the ensemble plays a very big role,” he said. “The presence onstage is very powerful.”

Joe Hager.Hager (pictured to the right), a Kansas native who is making is national-tour debut, said playing Gaston is actually a dream come true. He said he saw the show as a wee lad in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, and decided then and there that one day, he’d play either the Beast or Gaston. He later convinced his parents to enroll him in performing-arts camp, a move which helped him overcome shyness as he grew up; he then studied theater throughout high school.

“I was the Glee guy before Glee was Glee,” he said. “I’d do football in the fall, and theater in the spring.”

In college, he decided to focus on opera. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma City University, and moved on to earn his master’s degree from the University of Kansas. While he had some success in the opera world, after a while, he decided to move to New York City to “explore other boundaries.”

Soon after the move, he saw an audition notice for Beauty and the Beast. He decided to try out; he got the part of Gaston and joined the cast on Nov. 30; and after the McCallum shows, Hager and company will head to Los Angeles—where Hager will perform his dream role in the place where the dream came to be.

Of course, the dream won’t end there; Hager will remain with the cast into early June, before the play closes for a couple of months. Hager said he’d like to remain in the show when it resumes touring later in the year.

“It really does become a family after a while,” he said.

And beyond that? Hager said he’s open to whatever possibilities come his way.

“This experience so far has kind of woken me up and made me realize I don’t know my potential yet,” he said. “I want to try it all. If you throw enough darts, you’re eventually going to hit a bull’s-eye.”

Meanwhile, he’s having the time of his life playing Gaston.

“For me, at least, he’s the best part,” he said of Gaston. “He is the villain, but you can’t help but love him. He’s a charming oaf.”

Beauty and the Beast will be at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert, from Friday, March 22, through Sunday, March 24. Shows are at 8 p.m., Friday; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday. Tickets are $45 to $105. For tickets or more information, call 340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance