According to producer and promoter Barry Mendelson, this month could be one of the most significant times for theater in New Orleans' history. It marks the kickoff seasons for two legendary, restored downtown theaters, two of Mendelson's pet projects — the Joy Theater (1200 Canal St., 504-528-9569; www.thejoytheater.com) and the Saenger Theatre (1111 Canal St., 504-525-1052; www.saengernola.com).
"New Orleans never had a theater district before," says Mendelson, an impresario whose credits include managing the New Orleans Jazz and events in the Superdome, Madison Square Garden and UNO Lakefront Arena. "This could be a renaissance for this part of Canal Street."
It's the first time either venue has hosted performances in years: The Joy was last open as a cinema in 2003, and Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Saenger in 2005.
The Saenger is reopening after a $52 million restoration as a bigger, better version of itself, but the Joy is a relatively new venue. A $5 million renovation transformed the Joy from a 1946 movie theater to a state-of-the-art site for theatrical productions, concerts, comedy shows and private parties. While the 2,600-seat Saenger will host the blockbuster Broadway shows and A-list concerts for which it's always been known, the Joy seats 900 — an intimate setting for productions that play better in a smaller space.
"It's a complement to the larger productions we'll have (at the Saenger)," Mendelson says. "At the Joy, we're doing shows that fit snugly and nicely into the space. We'll have a one-woman play about Marilyn Monroe; we'll have (the one-man play) Kingfish.
"We don't have the same kind of stage size or loading capabilities (as the Saenger), nor should we," Mendelson says. "It's a jewel box — there's the orchestra, mezzanine and everything in there is very intimate. Here, you have a personal experience and people can relate to what's onstage. We have great sound, great lights and people will come away saying they not only enjoyed the play or concert, but they loved the venue, which is very important to me."
The Joy's fall roster includes Beatlemania Now, One Funny Mother: I'm Not Crazy!, Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, Valentine's Burlesque, and Lightwire: A Very Electric Christmas, performed by an innovative New Orleans-based theater group featuring eye-popping neon characters. Mendelson, who produces the troupe, calls it a perfect example of the creative, contemporary, distinctive shows for which the Joy will become known.
Mendelson's work with the Joy and Saenger is shaping up to be among his crowning achievements. "I'm 74, and I am more optimistic about this than anything else I've done," he says. "The target audience is not only people from New Orleans, but people from the entire region who will come to enjoy a weekend in New Orleans, like they used to ... and they're going to get hit between the eyes from one side of the street to the other."