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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.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

Director Clint Eastwood continues creative slump with Jersey Boys, a drab adaptation of the Broadway musical.

Jersey Boys further proves something that Eastwood established 45 years ago with his appearance in Paint Your Wagon: Dirty Harry has no business being around a movie musical. Oh, sure, he’s musically inclined. He’s been composing scores for some of his movies, but I’d like to point out that those scores kind of suck, especially that stupid “Gran Torino” song. His musical taste travels toward the meandering and sleepy.

Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who performed the role on Broadway) and The Four Seasons, and how they went from being small-time hoods in New Jersey to being big-time rock stars. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, but I have to think its success means it was somewhat enjoyable and lively. Well, the movie version is neither of these things.

As in the musical, each member of the Four Seasons breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. It’s a gimmick that feels forced the way Eastwood stages it. Every time somebody faced the camera and started gabbing, I found myself getting annoyed.

Much of the film’s focus falls on Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), an early leader of the band and a bad influence on Frankie. Over the course of time, DeVito gets himself deep into debt—to the point where he has to be bailed out by a friend in the mob, represented here as Gyp DeCarlo and played by Christopher Walken in a thankless role.

The movie follows the band through its early session-musician days, and even includes a brief appearance by Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) before his Hollywood emergence. (Pesci apparently had a real-life role in getting the band together.)

The Four Seasons have some great songs, including “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like a Man” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night!).” Young gives it a good go, belting out the hits with a voice akin to Valli’s signature falsetto. It’s admirable that Eastwood and his performers opted to have the music performed live on set rather than lip-synching. However, something happened in the final mix that flattened the overall musical presentation. The songs, although competently performed, lack a certain spark. They just feel like pale copies of the originals. (Perhaps it was the sound in the theater I was in.)

The timing of this film’s release seems a bit odd. It arrived with little to no fanfare during a drab week within the summer movie season. It’s almost as if Warner Bros. knew it had a stinker on its hands, and tried to dump the movie during a week with little competition to give it a fighting chance. Clint Eastwood films usually get high-profile, awards-season releases, but this one was snuck out there for an unresponsive public.

This is the second Eastwood-directed movie in a row (with the terrible J. Edgar) to feature brutally bad makeup. As the movie travels from the 1960s into the ’70s, it becomes a parade of bad wigs and hilarious mustaches. By the time The Four Seasons reunite for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990, they look, well, silly. I concocted better old-man makeup on Halloween during the 1970s using flour and baby powder.

The movie does come alive during the closing credits, when all of the members of the cast gather for a triumphant musical-medley finale. It’s the only time when Jersey Boys feels like a legitimate, joyful movie musical.

It’s much too little, way too late.

Jersey Boys is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews