Commentary on “Mad Hatter The Musical” – Herberger Theater Center

Theater Commentary – May 9, 2024


“Mad Hatter The Musical”
Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix AZ

By Chris Curcio
Theater Critic

Nothing posted to Curtain Up Phoenix has received the number of comments as has the “Mad Hatter The Musical” review.  Many of the received comments requested that they not be posted to the site. The comments have been favorable about my negative reaction to the show but they have indicated further scuttlebutt about the world premiere production.  Why have the reactions been so prolific and so damning about the show? Let’s look at the musical and production for the answer.

World premiere plays and musicals are rare in the Phoenix theater community.  Premieres are expensive and require much fine tuning before their debut and during their local run.  Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) and The Phoenix Theatre Company (TPTC) have both premiered new works.  Both theaters have sent their best premieres off to successful runs in New York and at other regional theaters throughout the country.  Even Stray Cat Theatre has premiered several plays locally and, while Stray Cat doesn’t have the resources of either ATC or TPTC, some of their shows have been produced by other theaters.

The negative attention received by “Mad Hatter The Musical” begins with the show which lacks a good adaptation of the fairy tale and a sloppy production that fails to instill any fanciful fun into the story.  If you have a weak musical and a dry production, it is hard to make it into a success.

“Mad Hatter The Musical” has a derivative score that sounds like bits and pieces from far superior musicals and the songs lack any creative spark to make an interesting or unique musical sound.  When leaving most good or even average musicals, I have at least one song I hum for days.  Such was definitely not the case with “Mad Hatter The Musical.”

Based on a fairy tale, the bland stage setting of stark black stairs did not bring the story to a vibrant or colorful life.  The ragtag costumes possessed a bit of color but even these lacked the outlandish malarkey one would expect from such a show.

And there’s the cast of mediocrity.  The lead, Franklin, was to be played according to the program, by Travis Kent.  He was replaced just before the opening by Dwayne Washington who appeared to have stepped into the production while performing in another show.  The rest of the cast had no standout performances. The Stage Manager was to be Phoenix Jacob but he was replaced and the new Stage Manager was not mentioned on the program insert.

There were many additions to the printed program including an Associate Director and an Ensemble player who also understudied Franklin. These roles are important and should not be adjusted at the last minute.  A Co-Costume Designer was indicated as was an additional orchestrator.  Both positions should be in place early when crafting a new musical.

Many theaters have a few changes to the printed program because they must be produced early but rarely are there as many changes as “Mad Hatter The Musical.” With all the indicated changes, one wonders if there were not more unannounced alterations.

And, as my review indicates, the show itself is badly flawed and is probably not able to be fixed. Before the opening night curtain, Mark Mettes, President & CEO of the Herberger Theater Center, and someone else whose name I did not get announced that the audience was about to see a great production with plans for a Broadway and a London run.  Really?!?!

Telling theatergoers, they are about to see a great show is not advised.  Many local artistic directors speak before opening night curtains but they always solicit support for the theater and then, to quote Michael Barnard of The Phoenix Theatre Company “the actors and crew are ready to take you on tonight’s journey.”  The result is for the audience to decide; it is not dictated to them.

The opening three-show Herberger Theater Center season hasn’t started well.  The first two shows – “Islander” and “The Woman in Black” – were unusual and not like shows audiences at the Herberger have experienced with the former resident companies.  “The Woman in Black” was very British.  London theater, especially plays, often do not present well to American audiences. British musicals play better to audiences here.

I have no idea of specific attendance or financial returns for the premiere season but my spies tell me audiences were scarce at many performances.  The 24/25 Herberger Theater Center Stage season was rumored to be announced by now (“in the Spring,” I was told) but has yet to be revealed.

Perhaps the issue is Mark Mettes, the Herberger Theater Center President & CEO.  He’s been at the Herberger for years but as an Administrator who signs leases with resident companies like ATC who actually schedule and produce the shows.  Now Mettes must schedule and produce the attractions but the first season was shaky at best.  For the record, I requested comments from Herberger Theater Center management but did not receive any reply at press posting time.

The Herberger Theater Center is an important Phoenix theatrical venue but it must present interesting, well-produced, and vibrant theater that local audiences will flock to attend.  Phoenix has many diverse and viable theater companies including Arizona Theatre Company, The Phoenix Theatre Company, ASU Gammage, and Stray Cat Theatre among others that provide strong competition to Herberger Theater Center attractions.  Good luck with the new season but things must improve.

One Response to “Commentary on “Mad Hatter The Musical” – Herberger Theater Center”

  1. Brenda Foley said:

    May 14, 24 at 21:37

    Would love you to some see our shows sometime. We produce a lot of regional and world premieres and new work and compensate our creative teams (rare in the Valley – we have even had a few union contracts) which is why we don’t produce many shows per year. It would be great to get help getting the word out. We met with Mark Mettes last year thinking they may need a company to move in there (since Ralph Remington left TCA we have been a movable feast) but Mark basically gave us a tour and didn’t seem interested in nurturing a local company. Valley theatre needs help and it does not come in the form of bad shows from other places, IMO. Also, Gammage is a road house and presenter not a theatre company – I think these distinctions are important when folks are considering where to spend their money and who to support if they care about local artists (maybe they don’t – but if they do, it would be nice for them to have easier ways to understand the ecosystem). I would be happy to chat if you ever want to.

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