The Mesa Arts Center’s four theaters have been put through their paces since opening six months ago, offering everything from Shakespeare to smooth jazz.
Behind the scenes, organizers are getting an idea of what audiences want to see in the $98 million arts center — and it’s a pretty poppy picture:
One-person shows with goofy concepts. Musical acts somewhere between the highbrow and the county fair circuits. And the kinds of performing arts staples that fill seats in most midsize markets.
The MAC’s Randy Vogel says the center is working to accomplish something larger than selling out events.
“Mesa, I think we’re overcoming a lot of issues,” he says. “It was never just about putting entertainment onstage. It was a matter of changing perception of a community. And we’re doing that one step at a time.”
Meanwhile, Mesa’s performing arts groups are taking a step back, waiting while the city struggles with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall that could mean the end of vital grants — and, perhaps, the demise of some groups.
Which means, as the MAC’s theaters approach the half-year mark, there’s no telling what the future may hold.
Vogel planned the MAC’s first season of performing arts with the same strategy used for cooking pasta: Throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.
Charged with booking acts in the 7-acre center’s four theater spaces, he planned an eclectic season of pop acts (Seal, Trisha Yearwood, the Brian Setzer Orchestra), performing arts center staples (“MacHomer,” a one-man “Macbeth” using the voices of “Simpsons” characters) and a few legacy names like Liza Minnelli, Hal Holbrook and September’s inaugural performer in the 1,600-seat Ikeda Theater, “Phantom of the Opera” star Michael Crawford.
Just past the halfway point of the season, Vogel is still learning what works.
Popular music has been tricky. Yearwood and Setzer, along with smooth jazz saxman Dave Koz, sold out their shows. But Seal did only so-so.
Meanwhile, live theater has been either a disappointment (Tim Robbins’ The Actors Gang sent a two-person show called “The Guys” that flopped) or, in the case of the cheap-to-produce one-woman show “Around the World in a Bad Mood: Confessions of a Flight Attendant,” a wild success.
Holbrook’s solo Mark Twain show was a winner, but Minnelli — as well as an attempt to woo the children’s crowd with a live version of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” — sputtered.
“What I have seen work here have been the kinds of shows that are not necessarily commercial, but not what someone would necessarily call ‘high art,’ ” Vogel says.
If the season thus far has done well in Vogel’s eyes, he admits learning some lessons.
For one, he concedes debuting with a high-dollar Crawford concert — tickets topped out at $285 — and following with a $100-plus Liza Minnelli gig (which only drew a lackluster 60 percent audience in the Ikeda) established a misconception “that all tickets at the Mesa Arts Center are expensive,” Vogel says.
And in future seasons, perhaps he won’t announce so many events at the start of the season. Releasing a nearcomplete calendar of performing arts events last May might have been a case of too much too soon for a public deciding how to divvy up its entertainment dollars.
AFFILIATES WAIT AND SEE
Moving into the Mesa Arts Center last year was a considerable challenge for several of Mesa’s performing arts groups, many of whom spent years eking by in less spectacular, but less costly, venues.
But the eight so-called “affiliate” groups — from the popular Southwest Shakespeare Company and Mesa Symphony Orchestra to struggling community troupe Mesa Encore Theatre — largely have reported increased attendance (the Mesa Symphony and Metropolitan Youth Symphony both sold out debut concerts in the Ikeda).
But money concerns hover overhead. The city, facing a projected $25 million budget shortfall, is contemplating reducing or cutting outright its grants for arts groups — grants that arts organizations say are vital to surviving and paying the MAC’s rents — which, due to a fee structure that increases every year for affiliates, will grow harder to afford.
Some, like the Sonoran Desert Chorale, say the city’s budget decisions — hinging around a proposed sales tax increase or property tax, to be voted on May 16 — could mean the difference between playing at the MAC or not.
Meanwhile, Mesa Encore Theatre artistic director Caryol Gebhardt says the city’s budget decisions could affect whether her almost 70-year-old theater troupe, which gets roughly 17 percent of its seasonal budget from city grants, continues to operate at all.
So far, some of the biggest successes at the Mesa Arts Center have been Phoenixbased groups offering truncated seasons at the new venue.
Theater League, which has long brought post-Broadway theater to downtown Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre, offered the musical productions “Lord of the Dance” and “42nd Street” to a 2,000-member subscriber base at the MAC.
And Arizona Theatre Company, which took its play adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” from Tucson to Phoenix before settling down for two weeks in the MAC’s 550-seat Piper Repertory Theater, found its East Valley debut pulled in an audience that was 75 percent newcomers to the state’s largest theater company.
ATC’s second production in Mesa, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which closes today, also received boffo box-office attention.
“We knew it was going to do well,” says ATC’s Jennifer Spencer, “but we almost didn’t anticipate that there would be this much excitement.”
Events at the MAC
Today: Engelbert Humperdinck, $45-$70 Tuesday and Wednesday: Jim Brickman, $41-$63
Wednesday: Glenn Yarbrough, $35
Friday through Feb. 19: “Defending the Caveman,” $33.50-$39.50
Feb. 22-26: “MacHomer,” $27-$35
Feb. 25: The Black Watch/The Band of the Welsh Guard, $28-$58
March 1: Buddy Guy, $35-$55
March 2: George Jones, $49.50-$59.50
March 12: Chick Corea, $25-$55
March 15: Cesaria Evora, $23-$45
March 18: Utah Symphony Orchestra, $25-$90
April 13: Lila Downs, $25-$45
April 21: Mark Morris Dance Group, $34-$58
May 12: Ravi Shankar (with Anoushka Shankar), $32-$70