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A TV chef trying to pull off a successful stage show? Frankly, it sounds like a terrible idea.

But then again, Alton Brown is not your average TV chef. The show for which he’s best known (outside of Iron Chef America, perhaps), Good Eats—which ran on the Food Network from 1999 to 2012—is unlike any other cooking show in that it combines science, potty humor, theatrics and silliness.

“Theatrics,” of course, is the key word there: Alton Brown is as much of an entertainer as he is a chef, and that’s why his “Alton Brown Live” show—aka the Edible Inevitable Tour—ultimately works. (This show was produced by the some of the same folks who created the successful “Mythbusters: Behind the Myths” tour; “Alton Brown Live” surpasses “Behind the Myths,” because Brown is a natural entertainer, whereas Jamie Hyneman, while a lovable cranky genius, is not.)

The show kicked off at Palm Desert’s McCallum Theatre on Friday, Oct. 18, and is slated to head to almost 50 cities between now and next March.

On one hand, getting to see the world premiere of a show is a treat: The audience gets to watch something that’s never been seen before by a full audience. On the other hand, first performances are always test cases, to an extent, so certain bits will be raw and unpolished. Fortunately for those of us in the McCallum audience, the only real seriously unpolished aspects of Friday show came regarding the music. (More on that later.)

The show kicked off before the 8 p.m. curtain with a Good Eats staple: the lovable, burping-and-farting sock puppets, which represent yeast. (Yeast, you see, gives off gas.) Brown explained at one point during the show that he originally wanted the puppets to appear live, but producers couldn’t get that sound just right, so the yeast puppets were exiled to humorous and increasingly elaborate hijinks on the video screen before the show, at intermission, and at the very end of the show.

“I wanted a preshow entirely built on farts,” Brown joked.

Brown noted that he built his road show “based on stuff that nobody would let me do on television,” including upping the fart-to-burp ratio with the yeast puppets—and singing an occasional song. This led into a song he said he’d written for his daughter: “Is Cooking Hard?” The ditty started with the premise that cooking is not all that hard if, as the chorus explained, “you can understand a few rules you could count on five hands.” The joke was that with each singing of the chorus, the number of rules and hands went up.

On that first song, it was just Alton and a guitar; for subsequent songs, he was joined by Good Eats regulars Jim Pace (who played many roles on the show, most notably Alton’s lawyer) on drums, and music composer Patrick Belden on guitar.

Those songs were, by far, the weakest part of the show. The songs themselves were charming enough—a tune about the dangers of airport shrimp cocktails, for example, was quite funny—but Alton is a much better jokester and chef than he is a singer. There were also serious glitches during two of the songs: His attempt at an angry hard-rock song/Spinal Tap parody, “Easy Bake,” suffered from sound issues and distortion, and his “TV Chef” song toward the end of the show included missed cues and a do-over. (Having the lyrics to the songs displayed on the screen above the stage was a big help—even if the display didn’t always match what Alton was singing.) These glitches will subside as the tour rolls on, but even though the songs are amusing and—in the case of “TV Chef”—provocative, they’ll never stand up to the parts of the show in which Alton is doing what he does best: discussing and demonstrating cooking.

His illustrated monologue on “10 Things I’m Pretty Sure I Am Sure About Food” was pure genius. (Rule No. 3 came from a notable Iron Chef America food debacle: “Trout doesn’t belong in ice cream.”) His ice-cream-making machine—which harnesses the power of a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher—was brilliant. And the highlight of the show came when he unveiled Mega Bake: an Easy Bake oven gone insane, harnessing the power of 54 thousand-watt lights that leads to interior temperatures approaching 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ice-cream-maker didn’t work exactly as planned—there was too much carbon dioxide and too little chocolate milk—and the Mega Bake pizza-making turned into a food fight when the audience volunteer accidentally hit Brown in the face with some cheese, but it was all in good fun, as was the audience Q&A portion, which included almost as many Doctor Who questions as food questions. (Brown is a big fan of the British show.)

“Alton Brown Live” is a fantastic night of entertainment. Let’s just hope it doesn’t inspire other TV chefs to pursue similar endeavors.

Published in Theater and Dance

When the McCallum Theatre announced its 2013-2014 season in the spring, the first show on the calendar was the Second Annual Family Fun Day, featuring the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, on Sunday, Oct. 13.

But as of today, Family Fun Day is the fourth show on the calendar.

“When you get offered Bill Maher, but he can only do a show in September, we’re going to do it,” says Jeffrey Norman, the McCallum’s director of communications and public affairs.

That Bill Maher performance—on Saturday, Sept. 28—is one of a dozen new shows that was announced by the McCallum today. Single tickets for some of those early-season shows—including the Maher show ($55 to $95)—will go on sale next Thursday, Aug. 1, with the rest of the single tickets available on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

Other new shows announced today include Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell (Wednesday, Oct. 9, $65 to $125; on sale Aug. 1), Graham Nash (Thursday, Nov. 21, $35 to $75; on sale Aug. 1), and the legendary Lily Tomlin (Friday, March 21, 2014, $55 to $95; on sale Sept. 17).

Tickets for four previously announced shows will also go on sale Aug. 1: the aforementioned Family Fun Day ($7 to $15); the premiere of Alton Brown Live! (Friday, Oct. 18, $25 to $75); Frida, the Musical (Friday, Oct. 25; $29 to $79); and Vince Gill (Saturday, Nov. 2, $45 to $75).

And the season, even now, is not yet complete: Norman says that up to a half-dozen shows, and maybe even a few more, could be added before all is said and done. He describes the process of putting together the season as a “big jigsaw puzzle”—a puzzle which is primarily completed by the McCallum’s president and CEO, Mitch Gershenfeld.

“What we try to do is put together a very strong season (early) so we can send out our subscription brochure around April or so,” explains Norman. That means first booking things like Broadway musicals, plays, dance performances and tribute shows that can be scheduled well in advance.

But many artists these days, Norman says, are booking tours and deciding on show dates at the last minute. “All of a sudden, we’ll get a call from a booker. They’ll say, ‘Bill Maher is interested in coming.’ We’re interested if we can find a date and pay the fee.”

Sometimes, that means starting the McCallum season well before snowbirds and tourists have returned. But these days, that’s less of a concern, Norman says.

“Last year, we had Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers on Aug. 29,” Norman says. “It was a little bit of a risk, but we sold out. We’re noticing that increasingly, there’s a significant year-round community here, and they want to be entertained as much as the snowbirds do.”

Norman says he’s really looking forward to Diana Krall’s appearance on Friday, April 11, 2014 ($75 to $125). He says he saw her perform a couple of times at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where he worked for two decades before moving to the McCallum at the start of this year.

“We had two theaters, and she’d played in the 2,800-seat theater. She then tried out a new show in our 500-seat theater,” he remembers. “It was a quirky show—just a beautiful night of her at the piano.”

He says he’s also looking forward to the performance by Maher.

“You just never know what he’s going to say,” Norman says.

For tickets and more information, including an up-to-date schedule, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

As an example of how all over the map the McCallum Theatre’s 2013-2014 season offerings are, look at the first four shows.

The season begins on Oct. 13 with the theater’s Second Annual Family Fun Day, featuring the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater and its performing pooches and kitties (yes, performing cats; who knew?). That’s followed five days later by the first-ever performance of Alton Brown Live, a show featuring the off-kilter-in-a-good-way Food Network host. One week later, Mexican theater hit Frida: The Musical—performed entirely in Spanish—is on the boards. Next, country-music star Vince Gill will take the stage.

So … you have pet theater, followed by a goofy but educational chef, followed by a serious Spanish-language musical, followed by country music. And by the way, that’s all followed by a series of dance events that McCallum president/CEO Mitch Gershenfeld hopes will set the stage, so to speak, for a true international dance festival to sprout in Palm Desert.

Got all that?

“We’re trying to present diverse-enough programming to attract every segment of the community,” Gershenfeld says. “We don’t want to be elitist. We want to have a presence in all of the relevant performing-arts genres.”

In all, the 2013-2014 McCallum season lineup—which was announced earlier this week, with season-series tickets going on sale next week—includes more than six dozen shows that range from separate performances by greats Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera and Patti LuPone, to plays like Driving Miss Daisy, The Addams Family and Hello, Dolly! (staring … Sally Struthers?!), to dance by Pilobolus and the Moscow Classical Ballet, to something called Cesar Millan Live!

Gershenfeld says he uses a “market-driven approach” while booking the McCallum. In other words, he won’t bring in any show that he knows won’t get butts in seats. However, he says he’ll take a risk if he thinks he can convince the public that a show is worthy.

“If I feel like I can market it and make it work, I’ll do it,” he says.

Gershenfeld is about to enter his second year as the president and CEO of the McCallum, following the retirement last year of longtime head Ted Giatas. Before Giatas’ departure, Gershenfeld handled operations and booking at the McCallum for a dozen years—and he’s kept the booking gig as CEO. In all, the former symphony musician—he’s a tuba player—and theater producer has been booking shows for three decades.

When asked what shows he’s excited about in the upcoming season, he instantly mentions Peter and the Starcatcher, a fresh-from-Broadway play that nabbed five Tony Awards last year. The show, which offers a back-story of sorts for Peter Pan, will arrive at the McCallum March 28-30, 2014.

This show falls in that if-I-can-market-it category for Gershenfeld, he says, clarifying that while traveling Broadway musicals tend to sell well, non-musical plays can struggle when they lose the big names that often star in the shows in New York.

“I am going to talk about this play every chance I get this year,” Gershenfeld says.

And as for that Alton Brown show: It’s being produced by the same people who created the Mythbusters: Behind the Myths tour, and the McCallum is actually letting the producers use the theater for a week or so to “get the show going” before it officially premieres on Oct. 18. As a hint to what the show will be like, Gershenfeld notes that attendees in the first few rows will be given ponchos to wear.

Gershenfeld also points to the Bahia Orchestra Project show on Feb. 16, 2014, as something special. The project was founded in Brazil in 2007, modeled after El Sistema in Venezuela; organizers go into poor areas and provide youngsters with musical instruments, and teach the kids how to play. These Brazilian kids-turned-musicians, with help from star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, will play at the McCallum as part of their first North American tour.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear great music played by these young people who have had a rough go in life,” Gershenfeld says.

Gershenfeld says his goal every season, of course, is to top the previous one, although he concedes that the now-concluding McCallum series—the theater’s 25th anniversary season—was “really good,” and the best-attended since 2007-2008 and the Great Recession.

“I hope people respond to this (upcoming) season as well as the last,” Gershenfeld says.

For more information on the season, or to buy season subscriptions (starting Monday, April 8), visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance