Vibrant is the best way to describe St. Petersburg's performing arts scene. Some nights it is as if a current of culture is coursing through the city, lighting up stages and performance spaces with an array options. But as venues such as the Palladium Theater, American Stage and Studio@620 innovate and draw boutique audiences, the grande dame of venues in the city, the Mahaffey Theater, is failing.
This is not a new problem. The city-owned Mahaffey has been troubled to varying degrees for years. But that was supposed to change after the city invested $20 million in remaking the theater from an utilitarian box into an attractive waterfront performing arts destination. The grand reopening in 2006 also included new management. SMG, an international facilities management company, was hired to develop a winning strategy of entertaining cultural offerings and promotion.
It didn't work. The city is subsidizing Mahaffey operations at about $1 million a year. SMG may have a formula that has proven successful for some of the dozens of other theaters it manages, but not here, not with Mahaffey. Other than the Florida Orchestra's stellar performances, programming under SMG has been generally incoherent and underwhelming.
The theater can't compete with the larger Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for a decent Broadway series. Yet it continues to try, bringing in tired retreads for too many dates and too few patrons. The effort has been such a bust that Broadway Across America, a Broadway tour company, terminated its contract after only two seasons of a 10-year deal. Now the theater is promoting a "Broadway Plus!" series, offering a lineup that includes Kenny Rogers Christmas and Hits. Is this really Broadway?
Mahaffey's 2,030-seat theater is dark too many nights, and when something does fill the stage, too often people are not filling the seats. One of its Broadway series shows in 2007, the Ten Tenors, drew only 2,707 for eight shows. This kind of mishandling suggests that when the contract between the city and SMG is up for renewal in October 2010, the relationship should end unless there is a sudden reversal of fortunes.
The Mahaffey needs a unique identity that connects with theatergoers in the Tampa Bay region. Someone needs to take the helm who knows the community and the performing arts, and who has the instincts to create an identifiable niche. It can't come soon enough.
St. Petersburg enjoys the awakening of an energetic and eclectic performing arts district that draws patrons from a broad area. If only the Mahaffey were a bigger part of it.