Valley theater companies ease back into live seasons

By Buddy Early

As far as essential workers go, theater professionals aren’t exactly at the top of the list. Nonetheless, theatergoers definitely have been in withdrawal since a pandemic forced a shutdown of almost everything we enjoy. With careful planning many Valley companies have returned, or will return soon, to staging shows for social-distanced audiences. And what better way to usher in the return of local theater than with a barrage of juke box musicals.

At least that seems to be what many companies – like Phoenix Theatre, Desert Stages, and Arizona Broadway Theater – are thinking. All three have one of these fun, toe-tapping musicals slated this month.

Ring of Fire has been staged a few times in recent years, and I saw a surprisingly good version at Fountain Hills Community Theater in 2018 (I say that because I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be so entertained by a musical featuring 38 Johnny Cash songs). A competent cast can make this material shine, and Phoenix Theatre has proven it can find talent. Be warned: there is no Johnny Cash character in Ring of Fire; get past that and you’re likely to enjoy the show.

The show runs March 10-April 4 in PT’s Outdoor Theater. For tickets visit

Desert Stages and Arizona Broadway Theater are both presenting musicals that pay homage to the girl groups of the 1950s and 60s. In The Marvelous Wondrettes, pop songs from the era are used as a vehicle for Springfield High “songleaders” Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy and Suzy, as they entertain their classmates in four-part harmony. Act One takes place at the prom, with the gals returning in Act Two for the 10-year reunion. Songs like “Lollipop,” “Dream Lover,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Lipstick on Your Collar” highlight this revue. The show runs March 12-28 at Desert Stages in Scottsdale.

For tickets visit

Over on the west side of town, ABT offers up a juke box musical with a bit more of an edge and soul – as far as musicals about girl groups go – with Shout! The Mod Musical, featuring hits from artists like Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. Big voices and big hairdos highlight this show that hints at a dawning female liberation movement … and not much else. But it’s live theater and songs we enjoy!

Shout! The Mod Musicalruns March 26-April 18 at the theater in Peoria. For tickets visit

Ron May returns to directing with Heddatron

One of the Valley’s favorite directors has returned to work for the first time in over a year; Stray Cat’s Ron May is helming Heddatron (virtually!) for Arizona State University.

Heddatron presents a tale as old as time: A pregnant housewife is abducted by robots and taken to the rainforest and forced to perform Hedda Gabler by her robot captors. Meanwhile, her family is back home in Michigan trying to find her, and Henrik Ibsen is in Norway attempting to write Hedda Gabler, as Strindberg taunts him.

Ron May

With Stray Cat still on hiatus until later in 2021, May says this return to rehearsals has been like oxygen for him, despite the fact that as of this writing he has yet to meet anyone else involved in the project. The cast rehearses independently and all meetings are virtual.

“I’ve had a year of watching virtual productions and seeing what works, what doesn’t, and coming up with ideas on how things might be done differently, says May. “So, where we’re landing I think is a pretty exciting place.”

It’s been nearly a decade since May and Stray Cat mounted Heddatron, and he says being able to tackle it in a new arena with a fresh set of artists has been exciting.

“Finding a visual language for the actors to appear to be interacting when they’re never in the same room has been challenging.”

According to May, what theatergoers will see will be live performances mixed and edited by their terrific tech crew each night. He says only one “money shot” scene – with real “live” robots – will be full-blown on stage with a handful of masked-up actors. (He stressed that the robots cannot spread COVID.) The remainder of the production will be actors in separate rooms pretending they’re not.

Said May of the “wicked-smart” literary farce: “This show is ultimately going to be 90 minutes of showing off what all technology can bring to the table when it comes to talking about what theater can do in a virtual space.”

Heddatron runs the weekend of March 19-21 and tickets are available at

Gammage Recovery Fund

ASU and Gammage Auditorium have tweaked their 2021-2022 season, and WOW! – it includes numerous Broadway smash hits: Hamilton, Mean Girls, The Band’s Visit, Tootsie, Hadestown and Come From Away. At this time plans for safety measures like mandatory masks and sanitizing protocols have been announced, but things could change by the time the season opens with Oklahoma! In August.

Meanwhile, Gammage is in the midst of a Recovery campaign to raise $1 million to support its reopening. ASU Gammage, which is self-sustaining, with 80 percent of its funding coming from the Broadway series. The Fund currently has surpassed 30% of its goal. For more information or to donate visit

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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