The folks behind the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West would like it to be seen as the Herberger of the far East Valley, an entertainment destination known for its elegance, professionalism and consistently well-regarded productions.
Within its 44,000-square-foot space, the 120-member Broadway Palm team offers as much bang for your buck as you will find at any venue in the Valley. It has a full bar, and its chefs churn out 1,000 meals a day — good stuff like penne pasta primavera, lemon pepper tarragon chicken, gourmet pies and cakes — and the shows themselves employ the same level of cast and crew as the professional theaters in downtown Phoenix.
The Broadway Palm’s importance to Mesa can’t be overestimated either; the 505-seat venue is a perfect fit with Mesa’s push for recognition as a serious up-and-comer in the arts community and a legitimate possibility for other performing arts groups seeking a home.
It just has to overcome the people’s common perceptions of ‘‘dinner theater.’’
Will Prather owns Broadway Palm, which opens its third season this week with ‘‘West Side Story.’’ He is very aware of what many people’s first impressions of dinner theater usually are, and he accepts it is something his theater will have to contend with.
‘‘Certainly our bread-and-butter customers are the (age) 55-plus retirees who like good value for their money, but that’s not all we do,’’ says Prather, 34, whose family also operates dinner theaters in Fort Myers, Fla., and Lancaster, Pa. ‘‘We know the Valley has had its ups and downs with regard to dinner theater, and we know there is room here for someone willing to do it right.’’
Doing it right, says Prather, means putting equal emphasis on the food served and the performances staged. It also means tailoring its eight mainstage and three smaller productions per season to the audience it expects to entertain. October through May, that means winter visitors; in the summer, Broadway Palm targets families and those looking for something a little quirky.
‘‘We’re still getting a feel for what sells and what doesn’t,’’ says Prather, who lives in Florida but spends a couple of months in the East Valley every year and comes in for each show opening.
Since its launch in November 2001, the Broadway Palm has staged such classics as ‘‘Singing in the Rain,’’ ‘‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’’ and ‘‘Annie,’’ as well as more modern shows, including ‘‘Evita,’’ ‘‘Ragtime’’ and ‘‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe.’’ Each summer, a family show is staged — this year, it was ‘‘The Wizard of Oz’’ — as are three smaller family-oriented shows during the year as part of its $15 ‘‘lunch and a show’’ program.
Some productions have fared far better than others. Sellouts are common, but the late-summer offering ‘‘Honk!’’ — a fun, well-done familyfriendly adaptation of ‘‘The Ugly Duckling’’ — tanked.
It’s a bit of a Catch-22 then: How can you overcome a reputation as a hotspot for senior citizens if the seniors are the only ones who show up?
Prather sees this as a minor frustration. Sure, he wants baby boomers and Generation X to know about his theater. But so good are Broadway Palm’s ticket sales that he’s had to cap season subscriptions at 10,000, and the projection for attendees in 2004 is 210,000, up from 180,000 in 2003.
The Broadway Palm chain has racked up 3 million customers since 1987. As in Mesa, the other two locations are heavy on tourists and winter residents and remain committed to year-round productions even when the numbers slide a bit.
All in all, Prather says that the Mesa location ‘‘has exceeded all our expectations.’’ That’s ironic, considering that settling in Mesa was a last-minute decision.
Glendale was set to host Broadway Palm until, at the eleventh hour, the deal fell through. Prather says Mesa stepped in, and the picture that was painted of an artistically developing city convinced him that there was real opportunity to be had.
‘‘They’re doing so much in Mesa in terms of enhancing its place in the Valley,’’ he says. ‘‘With the new arts center and other related projects going on, we feel we’re in exactly the right place.’’
The expansion of the Loop 202 freeway has been a great boon to business, he says. In the past few months, the Broadway Palm has seen a slow but steady expansion of ‘‘ZIP code counts,’’ which map the home base of ticket buyers.
And even though he admits that every five years or so he gets ‘‘the itch’’ to open a new location, Prather says that for the time being he is content to focus on revenue growth at his three current theaters.
‘‘The slowdown in the economy is just now catching up with us in terms of higher output and slower sales (in Florida and Pennsylvania),’’ he says, ‘‘so in turn, we’re going to take it slow.’’
When pressed, Prather names the West Valley or perhaps the Tampa-St. Petersburg area for an eventual new Broadway Palm location. In the meantime, he just wants to keep filling seats in Mesa and getting the word out that there is a new theater company in town to be reckoned with.
‘‘There are 72 theater companies in the Valley, and we are all competing for that entertainment dollar,’’ he says.
‘‘I’m so confident in what we provide, so sure that we are unparalleled for what we have to offer.
"My hope is that people give us a shot and don’t just go ‘Oh, it’s just a dinner theater in Mesa.’ ’’
‘‘West Side Story’’ opens 2003-04 season
Tony, Maria and a bevy of assorted Jets and Sharks will converge in Mesa as the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West launches its third season on Friday.
Set in a simpler time, when gang members sang and danced and ‘‘rumbled’’ bloodlessly, the ageless story is based on Shakespeare’s ‘‘Romeo and Juliet’’ and centers on an ill-advised romance between a Puerto Rican beauty and an American-born guy from a rival neighborhood.
Broadway Palm’s 2003-04 season:
Oct. 2 to Nov. 8: "West Side Story"
Nov. 13 to Jan. 3: "Holidazzle"
Jan. 8 to Feb. 28: "Show Boat"
March 4 to April 17: "Annie Get Your Gun"
April 22 to June 12: "Cats"
June 17 to Aug. 7: "The Music Man"
Aug. 12 to Sept. 11: "Forever Plaid"