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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Picture it: New York City, 1957. A romantic biracial tragedy begins to unfold in the streets—with warring factions everywhere. The issues surround two star-crossed lovers—poor Tony and Maria!—but “Somewhere,” there is a time and place for them.

It turns out that time is Friday, March 9, through Sunday, March 11, and that place is the McCallum Theatre, in Palm Desert. That’s when and where the theater is celebrating the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birthday with a concert version of the classic musical West Side Story.

Chad Hilligus is producing and directing West Side Story: In Concert. Currently the senior manager of sponsorship development at the McCallum, he’s a singer and actor who was one of the Ten Tenors—with a number of musicals to his credit.

“Because of my involvement in the world tour of West Side Story, this project was born,” Hilligus said. “… We wanted this production to focus on the whole score rather than the other elements, like the choreography. The music will be the star of the show. It’s also the only way we can produce it in-house, because of the time constraints with our limited season. Even with this production, we need four nights in a week to tech and rehearse the show. If you added in the choreography, it would possibly take half of our season to produce.”

Hilligus was not kidding when he said the music will be star of the show: A 40-piece orchestra on the stage will be conducted by Richard Kaufman.

“The cast is the premier cast for West Side Story,” Hilligus said. “Everyone from the cast has either been in the 2009 revival, the national tour, or the 50th anniversary world tour. Tony will be sung by Matthew Hydzik, who is the best Tony I have ever seen. Ali Ewoldt is the foremost and most-sought-after Maria: She played Maria on the world tour after doing the Broadway revival. She is currently staring on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera as Christine.

“Natalie Cortez is Anita. She well-known for all her Broadway work, too. If someone is doing a production of West Side Story, she is the one everyone wants for their Anita. She has been in three productions of West Side Story with Ali Ewoldt playing Maria. Their chemistry is great; they know how to work with each other.

Coming off School of Rock on Broadway is John Arthur Greene, who will play Riff. “Again, it’s a role he has played on Broadway and in the 50th anniversary world tour,” Hilligus said.

I asked Hilligus if all of this experience is important. “Yes—we only have two days to put this together, from the time the artists all arrive in Palm Desert until opening night. It was essential that not only has everyone done the role before; it was important most of them have performed together in a production of West Side Story. The chemistry and muscle memory is already there, so a lot of that will just come together.”

In some ways, Hilligus said, this symphony version will surpass a conventional production of West Side Story.

“You’re going to see a show that highlights and showcases the musical score,” he said. “You’re going to see a 40-piece orchestra with the best musicians from L.A., and some of the greatest orchestras in the country. This is onstage being conducted by the Grammy Award- and Emmy Award-winning Richard Kaufman. The audience will hear the full score as well as the dialogue from the cast. The only thing missing is the choreography; that’s really what makes it a concert version.”

West Side Story: In Concert will be performed at 8 p.m., Friday, March 9; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, March 10; and 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, March 11, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $47 to $107. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

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