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In 1972, a musical that tells the story of a young prince from the Middle Ages named Pippin made its Broadway debut under the watchful eye of writer Stephen Schwartz and director Bob Fosse.

It would run for almost five years—the 33rd-longest run in Broadway history. A revival returned Pippin to Broadway from 2013 to 2015, and a national tour has now been going strong since September 2014. That touring production will arrive at the McCallum Theatre for eight performances Jan. 12-17.

During a recent phone interview, Brian Flores, who currently plays the lead role, said he grew up singing songs from the musical.

“I love Pippin as well as the songs that the lead role sings,” Flores said. “I consider myself more of a singer, and in my voice lessons, I would sing ‘Corner of the Sky’ and ‘With You,’ which are some of the first songs I ever sang.

“When the call went out and the agents got me the audition (for the touring show), I was really excited to go in for the role and sing the songs. That’s what really drew me to the character, and now that I’ve been playing it for the past three or four months, it’s been unreal to explore the character and what he really means to me.”

As Flores stepped into the starring role, he encountered some surprises along the way—including the need for a new skill he had never utilized before.

“This show is very interesting, and it’s a different take: It’s basically a circus, and there’s a ton of acrobatics and a lot of amazing spectacles in the show. I have to do some of those acrobatics,” he said. “I have to do a back flip and stand on a guy’s shoulders while he runs around onstage with me. It’s physically demanding, and it took a while for me to learn, but it’s a skill set that I never thought I’d have in my life—and now that I have it, I’m grateful for this show and the ability to do it. It was really hard, but the crew of acrobats playing in this show is consistent. The mantra of these acrobats is that they trust each other. … There’s no judgment, and they’re all supportive and took me under their wing.”

Being on the road can be both challenging and rewarding, Flores said.

“I personally haven’t done a long run of a show like this before, but I think it’d be much easier to do in one place,” he said. “We usually do eight shows a week, and our schedules are really difficult. … We have our Monday off, but we’re traveling in a dry and dirty airplane. It’s really difficult, and you have to focus on taking care of yourself. You have to be as careful as you can when you’re on the road and don’t do anything that can take you out. It’s much more difficult.

“Some people would argue differently, but I think touring is amazing in its own way, seeing all these different cities you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Another plus: A touring production ends up reaching people who are not able to make it to Broadway.

“People come and see these shows, and they have no idea that this is actually a thing that exists,” Flores said. “They leave the theater so happy that they came.”

While he’s focusing on the role of Pippin for now, Flores mentioned one specific musical he would love to perform in someday.

“I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I started playing guitar, I did a lot of children’s theater, and then in high school, I really got super serious about it taking voice lessons, and decided I wanted to go to college for it,” Flores said. “There are lots of roles that I’d love to do, but for something on Broadway right now, there are so many amazing new productions—but I love Jesus Christ Superstar. So either Jesus or Judas—that would be amazing. Or maybe both, and I can switch off every night.”

Pippin will be performed at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 12 through 16; 2 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 13; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 16 and 17, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $57 to $107. For tickets or more information, 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

Pippin. The very name suggests fun, music and lightness.

But there’s also a dark side to this season-closer musical at the Palm Canyon Theatre. It’s a show of contrasts.

It’s primarily a dance show. The bevy of “players” writhe, flip, shimmy, roll, strut, gyrate, leap, frolic, prance, hop, mince, stride, march, saunter, flit, spin, gallop, toddle, shuffle, glide, prowl and skim over every inch of the stage. The choreographer, Anthony Nannini, has adapted the dancing from the work of the immortal Bob Fosse. The dancers represent every possible body shape and type, but from the opening number—with the disembodied white-gloved hands illuminated by black light—it’s Fosse all the way. Sexy and suggestive moves combine with Peter Mins’ glitzy, dazzling costumes to maximize the effect.

As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of TV and movie thugs who say, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” I’m particularly reminded of a scene—I think it was in The Sopranos—in which some semi-literate oaf offers his analysis of a script: “Maybe it’s got a weak plot.” Or, as my father used to say about opera, “If you worry about the plot, you’ll go crazy.” One problem is the betrayal of the Pippin audience’s belief when someone who is killed is then brought back to life, because it isn’t convenient to have him gone. Humph!

The story is the search for life’s meaning, by a barefoot young prince, Pippin—our choreographer, Anthony Nannini. He happens to be the heir to the throne of the great King Charlemagne, colorfully portrayed by the delightful Peter Mins. Predictably, this is complicated by a scheming second wife (Elissa Landi, with her famous legs and attitude, although she was clearly out of her depth with her vocal solo), who wants the throne to go to her son Lewis, played by the perfectly cast Daryl J. Roth, with his amazing sculpted body, chiseled face and chin for which Dick Tracy would kill. A charming turn is taken by the seasoned Rosanne Hopkins, with her admirably crisp diction, as the grandmother.

The first act is largely dominated by the mob of dancers, while Act 2 belongs to Nannini. Here, he seizes the opportunity to cut loose and show us what he can do (and do not take your eyes off the ropes). It wasn’t difficult to find out why his cast notes bid farewell to the Palm Canyon Theatre, where he has been nurtured for several years: He’s bound for New York and the big time. Watch him in this show, and you’ll see why. He’s a quadruple threat: actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. And he’s terrific at all of it. He was born to play lead roles like this. In fact, when he went off-script and improvised some dialogue to explain one of those opening-night ooops! accidents, the audience rewarded him with an appreciative ovation.

The second act also introduces his love interest, the widow Catherine, played by pretty Sarah Noe, and her son, Theo, a very young and sweet Stephen Lee. Throughout the show, Hiram Johnson, the “Leading Player,” acts as a host/narrator/Greek chorus, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to simply watch him move. His grace, economy of gesture and body awareness seem natural and effortless. That said, it was unfortunate that his mushy verbalizations made him difficult for the audience to understand. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that his interpretation of the events was important to explaining the action. His singing voice was true, however.

Director Don Lillie, who hails from Missouri (“where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” he told me), certainly had his hands full with this cast of 19. Interestingly, his first-ever theater teacher was the venerable William Layne, founder of the theater and patriarch of the family that runs it. The cast wrestles pieces of the J.W. Layne set around the stage to change scenes and locations, in full view of the audience—always fascinating to see. The Mado Nunez hair and wigs worked well, but the makeup of some actors featured a huge distracting blotch on the right side of some faces. (A heart? A star? WTF?)

Once again, the “old pros”—Mins, Hopkins, Landi—made Lillie’s production, along with the youthful Nannini, and Roth, who seemed to be flawless. Of course, the show benefits greatly from the contributions of designer Nick Edwards, musical director Charlie Creasy, the book by Roger O. Hirson, and the music/lyrics of Stephen Schwartz—and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he composed Wicked and Godspell.

So, it’s a production of contrasts. And don’t worry about the plot.

Pippin is performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance