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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Even though Mitch Gershenfeld has been booking shows at the McCallum Theatre for 18 years now, he admits he gets nervous whenever subscriptions for a new season go on sale—as they did on Tuesday, April 4, for the theater’s 30th anniversary 2017-2018 season.

“I get this pain in the pit of my stomach, thinking: What if nobody buys tickets?” he told me on Tuesday as we talked in his office. Of course, he had nothing to worry about—there were dozens of people at the box office snapping up season subscriptions.

Yet another reason Gershenfeld had no reason to worry: Every year, the McCallum is one of the busiest theaters in the world. Despite being dark for almost half of the year, and having a modest 1,100-seat capacity, industry publication Pollstar ranked the McCallum as the No. 58 theater in the world in terms of 2016 ticket sales.

Finally, there is one more reason Gershenfeld has no reason to worry: Seeing as he’s been booking shows at the McCallum now for 60 percent of the time its doors have been open, Gershenfeld knows what shows work, and what shows don’t work at the Palm Desert theater. As a result, about 86 percent of the seats available during 2016-2017 season were sold, he said.

As for the upcoming season, Gershenfeld said he’s happy with how it turned out, adding that he thinks the Broadway-show lineup is one of the theater’s strongest ever.

“Three shows we’re bringing in have been on Broadway within the last 12 months,” he said: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Nov. 24-28), Motown the Musical (Jan. 16-21, 2018) and Kinky Boots (Feb. 2-4).

Gershenfeld expressed excitement about another Broadway show, Circus 1903 (March 27-April 1). You may have seen a performance from the show recently on The Late Show With Steven Colbert. (Scroll down to see a clip.) The show is exactly what the title says: It’s a circus-style show from 1903—except the elephants are products of puppetry, not real animals … although they sure do look realistic.

Other Broadway shows include the legendary A Chorus Line (Jan. 26-28), Dirty Dancing (Feb. 16-18), MAESTRO: The Art of Leonard Bernstein (March 20-21, in conjunction with the Leonard Bernstein centennial) and a concert performance of the music from West Side Story (March 9-11).

“I think it’s the best musical ever written,” Gershenfeld said about West Side Story, adding that a 40-piece orchestra, assembled by conductor Richard Kauffman, will join Broadway-level cast members as assembled by the McCallum’s own Chad Hilligus, himself a former member of the Ten Tenors.

The 30th anniversary season kicks off with a bang on Oct. 7, when acting and comedy legend Bill Murray will take the stage in a show called New Worlds … with a bunch of musicians?

“Bill Murray is one of those guys you just want to meet, and hope he’s cool,” Gershenfeld said.

Yeah, of course. But … with a bunch of musicians?

“The show is the result of a friendship with (cellist) Jan Vogler,” Gershenfeld explained. “They got together to do the show as a one-off in Germany … as a corporate thing.”

Turns out New Worlds features Murray reading from the works of Hemingway, Capote, Twain and other American literary icons, while Vogler, violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez perform classical music. The goal is to showcase American values in literature and music. Oh, and Murray is going to dance a tango, too.

Speaking of American values: In these … uh, deeply interesting political times, the Capitol Steps—a long-touring humor group consisting of former and current congressional staffers—will perform an afternoon show at the McCallum on Sunday, Jan. 14.

“I thought that if there were ever a time to have fun with politics, on both sides of the aisle, now is the time to do it,” Gershenfeld said.

About a month or so later, the McCallum will become the week-long home of classical/jazz/everything-else-you-can-imagine band Pink Martini, for eight shows from Feb. 9-15. The group, featuring singers China Forbes and Storm Large, was here for five shows last year—all-sellouts. What makes this band such a Palm Desert favorite?

“They’re very unpredictable and very diverse in what they do,” Gershenfeld said. “They do songs in eight different languages. … (Bandleader) Thomas Lauderdale is brilliant at finding these great songs from all over the world.”

All of the series for which the McCallum is known—including Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum, curated by desert radio icon Jim Fitzgerald, and Keyboard Conversations With Jeffrey Siegel—are back, as are Mitch’s Picks, a series of shows by performers who may not be well-known, but who have earned the endorsement of the McCallum president and CEO. Mitch’s Picks are now in their fourth year, and Gershenfeld said the series has allowed him to book great acts that he may have hesitated to book before.

“We’re saying, ‘You know, if you trust me to make good decisions, try these,’” he said. “Fortunately, it’s worked.”

This year’s Mitch’s Picks include All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a play/concert about a moment when Allied and German soldiers in World War I stopped fighting to celebrate the holiday together (Dec. 3).

“It’s an amazing story, but it took place in such a terrible time,” Gershenfeld said. “I wasn’t going to book it, but I kept coming back to it.”

Australian diva Meow Meow will bring her combination of cabaret music and physical comedy to the McCallum on Jan. 31. On March 2, Davina and The Vagabonds will share the stage with swing-band greats the Squirrel Nut Zippers. On March 6, the fourth Mitch’s Picks show is Gobsmacked!, an all-a capella show featuring seven singers and beat boxers. Finally, on March 12, MozART Group, a string quartet that combines classical music and comedy, will make the trip to the McCallum from Poland.

While season-subscription sales have been brisk since Tuesday morning, putting Gershenfeld’s mind at ease, he expressed frustration about a growing number of ticket brokers and re-sellers that are gobbling up tickets and then re-selling them with high mark-ups—that is, if the tickets are real at all. Some of these re-sellers use deceptive names and URLs to make it appear that the tickets are being sold directly by the McCallum—so make sure you’re only getting tickets from mccallumtheatre.com.

Gershenfeld said he’s honored that so many people keep coming back to the McCallum year after year.

“Our subscriptions and series are one reason that people have been keeping the same seats for 30 years,” he said.

For more information, or to purchase season subscriptions, visit mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairytale movies—and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest live-action (non-animated) retelling of a Disney animated classic.

Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers. Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey); she’s one of the most charming actresses to ever occupy a Disney iconic role.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairytale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the queen of all stepmothers—played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.

Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material—but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t original. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.

There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco: This is a relatively straightforward treatment. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.

Blanchett and James are so good in their roles, in part because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia, in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person for whom you can root, as portrayed by James.

As for Blanchett, she’s completely cruel—a conniving, reptilian, selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms. She’s a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in is a good idea.

Adding to the charm is Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays the character as joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene in which the Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.

It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s fun to see Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own.

The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does sing one tune deep in the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the animated Disney original, which was never one of my favorites.

Live-action renditions of Disney animated classics seem to be a new trend, and Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (Huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.

Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. Branagh has proven here that remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.

A side note: Frozen lovers will have the pleasure of a cute, brand-new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.

Cinderella is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Annenberg Theater Events

CK Dance Presents: The Nutcracker takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 5; and 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6. $20 to $30. The Dance With Miss Lindsay Holiday Showcase, including dancers from age 3 to adult performing holiday classics, is at 2 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7. $15 to $20. At the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. 760-325-4490; www.psmuseum.org.

Cinderella—From Palm Canyon Theatre

The Rodgers and Hammerstein version of the classic fairytale takes place at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Dec. 5, through Sunday, Dec. 21. $32 to $36. At 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Happy Hour—a Staged Reading From CV Rep

This in-development play by George Eastman stars Michael Shaw and Gavin MacLeod, at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7. $20; a dessert reception follows both shows. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

Holiday on Broadway

The CV Rep cabaret show of holiday stage favorites stars Julie Garnyé and Ashley Fox Linton, with accompanist James May, at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12 and 13; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 14. $25. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

The Madcap Underground—From COD Theatre

The annual sketch-comedy offering from the College of the Desert Dramatic Arts Company returns with holiday bells, at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12 and 13. $15. At Theatre Too at College of the Desert, 43500 Monterey Ave., Palm Desert. 760-773-2565; collegeofthedesert.edu.

McCallum Theatre

Oh What a Night, a tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is performed in concert with the Desert Symphony at 8 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 11; $45 to $95. Colors of Christmas stars Peabo Bryson, Taylor Dayne, Jennifer Holliday and Ruben Studdard in an evening of pop hits and holiday favorites  backed by a 12-piece band and a choir, at 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 14; $55 to $95. Mariachi Sol de Mexico de Jóse Hernández presents Merri-Achi Christmas at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 20; $25 to $75. At the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Scrooge in Rouge—From Desert Rose Playhouse

The play has a cast of 20—but 17 of the actors get food poisoning. Of course, the show must go on, so the three remaining actors do the best they can; at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 21. $28 to $30. At 69260 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. 760-202-3000; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Shakespeare in Hollywood—From Theatre 29

It’s 1934, and famous Shakespeare fairies Oberon and Puck have suddenly materialized on the Warner Bros. set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a hilarious farce ensues, at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, Dec. 20, with 2:30 p.m., Sunday, matinees on Nov. 30 and Dec. 14. $12 regular; $10 seniors and military; $8 children and students. At 73637 Sullivan Road, Twentynine Palms. 760-361-4151; theatre29.org.

A Starry Christmas Concert

This benefit show for a Layne family star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars features 13 singers performing Christmas music, at 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7. $15. At the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance