Best Arts Center 2011 | Tempe Center for the Arts | People & Places | Phoenix
This metallic Mont Saint-Michel, a neighborhood asset that doesn't even have a neighborhood, rises from the west end of Tempe Beach. Its parking, art gallery, and bar are primo, but the vibe, in particular, is unrivaled — from the waterfront patio, where the fountain seems to disappear into Town Lake, to the countless cozy conversation areas in the undulating lobby, lit by the outdoor fireplace's glass niches and candy-hot neon signs identifying each part of the building. If you haven't been lured in yet by a performance event, consider test-driving TCA as a classy hangout. You won't be the first.
We've seen a lot of nice plays and musical revues in this dark, compact space, once used exclusively for rehearsal by the likes of Arizona Theater Company and Actors Theatre. Its new renovation includes a Van Buren Street canopy that beckons passersby to drop in for weekday Lunch Time Theater, courtesy of drama doyenne Judy Rollings and a revolving cast of characters and playwrights. The marquee sign outside reminds us, late in the year, to reserve tickets for iTheatre Collaborative's magnificent holiday cabaret featuring Jeff Kennedy and a parade of local song-and-dance talent doing Yuletide tunes every December. Once inside, we feel like a member of the theater elite — or at least like we're enjoying entertainment in a more sophisticated city — while we sit in the dark mustiness of a rehearsal hall, watching our favorites emote and croon.
When you've been around as long as Phoenix Theatre (founded as Phoenix Little Theatre in 1920), you're bound to be haunted by something. In the case of the theater, that something is a cast of five distinct ghosts. The best-known is dubbed "Mr. Electric." He's described as an old man who sits on the pipes that hold up the theater's lights. Reportedly, there's also a spirit called "Tiny Dancer," said to be the specter of a little ballerina. She was first "sighted" during a 2005 production of A Chorus Line, dancing around the cast. Both of them seem relatively benign, unlike the "Prop Master," who's said to move things around in the prop room, as well as lock people out; "Light Board Lenny," a theater ghost who supposedly has locked people out of the lighting booth, where he's said to spend the majority of his time; and "Freddy," said to be the ghost of an actor who was killed in a bicycle accident on his way home from the theater after being fired from a production. Freddy's apparently still disgruntled, judging from the reports of him slamming doors and throwing things around in the upstairs rooms of the theater.
Shari Watts had big, dirty shoes to fill — and fill them she did. Her turn as Big Edie Beale in Tempe Live! Theater's Grey Gardens: The Musical last April was a stunner. The ability to truly enjoy this camp musical depends on one's knowledge of (and affection for) both of the women it portrays as well as the documentary on which it's based, and mostly on how well its leading ladies impersonate the famous recluses at the center of its story. Fortunately for the former Tempe Little Theatre (which scored a major coup by snagging this Arizona première), the show featured worthy impersonations of both Big Edie and Little Edie, the true stars of this show. But it's Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' aunt, Edith Bouvier, who's harder to capture in any production of this peculiar tuner. Still, Watts nailed it. Her flawless take on owl-eyed, bedridden Big Edie is still with us, half a year later.
D. Scott Withers did the unthinkable: He trumped Divine. In Phoenix Theatre's Hairspray: The Musical last December, he created an all-new take on the late cross-dressing actor who first played Edna Turnblad in John Waters' Hairspray, the movie on which this Tony winner is based. Withers' Edna was an entirely new creation, one that may not have eclipsed Harvey Fierstein's Edna on Broadway, but that was so delightful to watch, audiences hollered for more. The actor, trussed up in a giant housedress and what appeared to be a girdle full of galoshes, consumed a stage crammed with cool choreography and energetic performances with the conviction and good humor he brings to all his performances. In a popular musical satire about small-town wholesomeness under siege, his frumpy housewife was a stunning spectacle.
The improvisers who make up The Torch Theatre prove comedy isn't just about making you laugh — it's about making you think. The actors take a theatrical approach to their on-the-spot scenes, injecting emotion and strong characters into the humorous vignettes inspired by audience suggestions. They've been doing it for more than a decade, and now after four years as The Torch Theatre, the group opened up their very own theater in Central Phoenix, the first one dedicated to long-form improv in Arizona. The Torch's passion for the improv community goes beyond acting on the stage, as the actors' efforts in spreading improv throughout the Valley include putting on events such as the Phoenix Improv Festival, hosting tournaments, and offering classes, when they're not performing weekly shows. Now that's applause-worthy.
Ballet eludes us, and we don't think we really dig jazz or tap or interpretive dance, either. But we're feeling braver about checking into these and other forms of dance, because CONDER/Dance combines these traditional forms in such quirky, entertaining performances, and now our interest is piqued about dance in general. Most contemporary dance companies leave us confused (were we supposed to like what we just saw?) or like dunces (would we have enjoyed that more if we knew who Martha Graham is?), but we leave CONDER/Dance events nothing but entertained. In their spring show, The Comfort of Strangers, founder and choreographer Carley Conder fused rock 'n' roll performances by Elvis Presley with the music of Glenn Gould and folded this odd pairing with humorous, engaging routines involving powdered-wigged women dressed as Marie Antoinette. Cool! Our only complaint about CONDER/Dance is that they don't stage dance shows more often.
Somebody, quick, pinch us! We can't believe our dream (well, one of our dreams) has come true. Phoenix has its own indie movie theater. With a bar. And it's downtown, right off Roosevelt Row, making it one more piece of the puzzle in what may eventually come to be a real city instead of a few scattered outposts of cool. On a recent First Friday, the place was packed with folks drinking, chatting, and people-watching. You don't have to buy a movie ticket to come in the door, but trust us, you're going to want to — the line-up is pretty remarkable, everything from a documentary about Keith Haring (complete with presentation by local history buff Marshall Shore) to one called Automorphosis (about the art car movement), with plenty of indie dramas and comedies mixed in. This is the stuff real cities are made of. Thank you, Kelly Aubrey.
With the economy the way it's been for a while (read: lousy), we wondered aloud about the possible bad timing when this high-dollar movie joint opened at the Scottsdale Quarter. But we gave it a shot one night and got hooked. It's like being on a first-class flight, what with the comfy suede recliner seats, even a pillow and blanket if you wish. The food — we had chicken-salad wraps, Maytag blue cheese chips, and a couple of glasses of a good red wine as we awaited the start of the main feature. The service was impeccable, almost freakishly so, and we don't mind that for a sec. Endless boxes of fresh popcorn were there for the asking, part of the $25 fee for the evening's entertainment (that's for the most expensive seats). As for the movie that night? Don't have a clue what we saw. But we did have a heck of a time, and you will, too.
Admit it. You've said it; we've all said it: "Well, time to go back to the salt mines." But did you know there is an actual working salt mine here in metropolitan Phoenix? It's true: An enormous salt deposit — we're talking 15 to 30 cubic miles of salt — makes up the Luke Salt Body, which runs under the facility. Hundreds of years' worth of salt! Salt production began at the facility in 1969 by the Southwest Salt Company, but the joint has been owned and operated by Morton Salt since 1985. There is no blasting here; the facility produces solar salt using a solution mining method, in which salt is pumped out of the ground by injecting water through a series of pipes that dissolves the salt (creating brine) and brings it up to the surface and into a solar pond. Arizona's intense sun evaporates water from the brine, causing salt crystals to form. The almost-pure salt is stockpiled in impressive tall white peaks. But don't expect it to end up on your lunch. This is not your average "when it rains it pours" table salt — about two-thirds of the salt produced at the Glendale plant is used for water-softening products, distributed throughout Arizona and Southern California.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of