The Saenger Theater has finally reopened. The opening gala took went off without a hitch over the weekend, with the facility receiving rave reviews. Public and private dollars funded the whopping $52 million renovation that has been in the making for eight years, so expectations were running high. Thankfully, the Saenger seems to have delivered.
Even cantankerous Times-Picayune theater critic (and sometimes theologian) Ted Mahne, whose scathing review of “Avenue-Q” is the stuff of legend, gushed that the Saenger was “magical.” Oh, and the sense of civic pride? It was “palpable.”
A pessimist could view the reopening of the Saenger as anticlimactic. It took too long and cost too much. The Joy, the Civic, and the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center all beat the Saenger to the punch, and “too little, too late,” has never been a recipe for success.
Although I do have a background of being a crank and a killjoy, this is not my perspective in this case. The reopening of the Saenger, though admittedly long in coming, is best viewed as the icing on the cake of a growing theater scene. It is another solid piece of proof that the “Broadway South” rhetoric we’ve been hearing is not just another bill of goods.
Just look at the progress that has been made – before Hurricane Katrina, major national acts were largely restricted to the Mahalia Jackson and the Saenger, with the Louisiana Philharmonic performing at the Orpheum. The Lowes State Palace was open, but only as shell of its former self. Other potential venues, including the Civic and the Joy, had been defunct for years.
With the reopening of the Saenger, we have now passed a threshold. Four major venue sites in the CBD and French Quarter are now not merely open, but fully renovated. Also, two other venues (the Orpheum and the Lowes State Palace) are both up currently for sale.
Even in Uptown New Orleans, we’ve been seeing the benefits of this growth. Mardi Gras World’s move from the West Bank has provided a magnificent outdoor concert venue along the riverfront.
We can expect more of this. Back in the CBD, both the Orpheum and the Lowes State Palace are ripe for renovation. The Orpheum only received about a foot of water during Katrina, and although it has remained vacant since then, previous owners have replaced the roof and plugged leaks to prevent additional damage. The Lowes State Palace was broken up into three theatres and may require more work, but its proximity on Canal Street to the newly restored Saenger may just provide the necessary push to get this historic theater back in commerce.
New Orleans is well-situated for a theater scene and as a draw for national acts. Not only are we a significant regional metropolitan area, but we are also a center for tourism. Accordingly, the “Broadway South” rhetoric, while at times grandiose and exaggerated, has always carried a sliver of truth. The potential was there, and it is finally being exploited.
Now, it certainly would have better if these projects had all been fully privately funded, but there is significant private capital involved and, hopefully, more to come. It’s a positive development and something we should all be getting behind.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.