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LAS VEGAS -- Veering sharply from its tradition of over-the-top spectacle, this gambling capital is rolling the dice on intimate musical theater. On Saturday, Avenue Q, the 2004 best musical Tony winner, opens in previews for a multiyear gig at the Wynn Las Vegas resort.
The show is the start of a suddenly intense liaison between Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip. It's the first of a list of established Broadway hits -- including Hairspray, Phantom of the Opera and Spamalot -- about to take their places in the next 18 months alongside Cirque du Soleil and such headliners as Celine Dion and Elton John. The Billy Joel-scored show Movin' Out is also in talks to set up in Vegas by 2007.
In investing heavily in Broadway theater, Vegas hoteliers such as Steve Wynn, whose deal bars Avenue Q from touring in North America, are banking on the notion that at least some of the city's 40 million tourists a year will embrace entertainment with plots, characters and -- gasp! -- life lessons.
Wynn hopes the change of pace will mature the town and "add another dimension to the entertainment menu. This is that one thing we have not had in this city in great amounts. This is the beginning of a wonderful new chapter."
Actually, the chapter started in 2003 with Mamma Mia!, the ABBA-scored juggernaut that opened a production at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. Skeptics predicted failure for the show, which has several touring companies and runs longer than the typical Vegas show length of 90 minutes. Instead, the production hit its 1,000th performance this summer and continues to pack them in.
Serious issues, light touch
Yet if Mamma Mia! proved that tourists would go for a cute story stocked with already popular music, Avenue Q is still a significant departure. The tale about life's unpredictability is told in a lighthearted way through puppets and human characters who confront issues of racism and homophobia. Those are serious matters that tourists have rarely faced on Vegas stages.
The show hasn't been sanitized for Vegas audiences, producers say -- hasn't been altered at all save for replacing a mention of a subway card with a reference to a ticket stub from the Vegas male revue Thunder from Down Under.
Wynn is so convinced that audiences will love it that he promised to build a $40 million theater in exchange for exclusivity -- even though relatively few Americans are familiar with the music or characters.
"What seems to be true, without one single exception, is that entertainment considered great everywhere else is well received in Las Vegas."
He's not the only true believer, despite a spotty track record of Broadway-style musicals in Vegas. Over the decades, everything from Fiddler on the Roof to touring versions of Annie and 42nd Street have greeted underwhelming crowds, although Starlight Express ran for several years in the 1990s.
Avenue Q co-executive producer Kevin McCollum had a prior failure here himself, having brought a production of De la Guarda to the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in 2000 only to close it after nine troubled months. And We Will Rock You, a Queen-scored musical from London's West End, limps to its first anniversary next month at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. After opening at full length, the show was recently retooled down to 90 minutes.
"Vegas is still a question mark," says Brad Stone, producer of Wicked, who turned down Vegas overtures to take his Wizard of Oz prequel on tour but expects to eventually end up in Vegas. "We can't really know yet what Vegas is for us. I definitely think some of these shows may work, but I don't know that they all will."
Tony enough for Tony?
Wynn and others think Vegas has changed since the earlier failures, noting a surge in visitors that has led it to records the past three years. The city is now a top dining destination, having courted dozens of celebrated chefs to open eateries, which has in turn lured a more cultured clientele likely to enjoy
Tony-winning shows, says MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman. MGM Mirage owns Luxor Hotel & Casino, where Hairspray is coming in February with Tony winner Harvey Fierstein reprising his role as Edna Turnblad for at least the show's first three months.
McCollum didn't need much convincing from Wynn that Vegas is different now. Ensconcing his unusual show in a heavily hyped new resort such as Wynn's seemed like a better idea than taking it on the road and having to win over audiences in a different city every few weeks on tour, he says.
"Word of mouth is very important for a unique show like Avenue Q, and that's something that we can achieve in Las Vegas much easier than we would going into the roadhouses," McCollum says.
Room to grow theatrically
Vegas hoteliers can offer something else: custom-built theaters. Broadway's theaters are so old that most are protected by historic preservation laws barring physical overhauling, whereas the Vegas desert offers vast empty spaces and a business model in which shows are one part of a larger entertainment complex. Thus, the Venetian Hotel & Casino can justify building a $40 million showroom for Phantom that gives author Andrew Lloyd Webber the technological tricks he only dreamed of in 1989 when the show first opened.
Still, for some there's a trade-off. While Avenue Q and Mamma Mia! run full length, versions of Hairspray, Phantom and Spamalot are being shorn to 90 minutes.
Michael Gill, a producer of Hairspray and general manager for Mamma Mia! and Phantom in Las Vegas, acknowledges that's because the casinos prefer shorter productions that make it easier to schedule two shows a night. "Nobody is here pretending to present any great work of art," he says. "We're presenting fun. You can achieve that goal in a 90-minute version."
Stage actors are also enthusiastic about the growing new market for their wares, a far cry from the sneering view of Vegas heard in the late 1990s when Tommy Tune and Michael Crawford baffled Broadway by coming to the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino to star in the long-running spectacle EFX.
Indeed, if Vegas performing experience used to be frowned upon by casting agents in New York and Los Angeles, today there's a new respect. Hairspray, in fact, plans to cast major TV, stage and movie stars for its Vegas leads for three-month gigs, Gill says.
"I don't think that stigma, the 'Oh, you're going to go to Sin City to do a show in a casino,' is as strong as it once was," says Avenue Q star John Tartaglia, part of the original Broadway cast and a Tony nominee whose contract keeps him in the Vegas company at least through mid-December. "That barrier is being broken down very quickly. There's a lot of excitement in the New York theater community about Vegas."
Where there's less enthusiasm is among the directors of the bypassed roadhouses. Wynn signing Avenue Q and 2005 Tony winner Spamalot -- which will tour but not in California, Nevada or Arizona -- means that many performing-arts centers have lost a reliable subscription draw. The fact that Wynn snapped up two consecutive best musicals spooked many.
"A certain number of the roadhouses are dependant on already-produced shows from Broadway," says Michael Ritchie, creative director for the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. He would've taken Spamalot "in a heartbeat." Wynn's grab of Avenue Q "was a genius move, but we were all caught by surprise. Once I saw it, I said, 'The rules have changed.' It just means we have to be more creative."
Indeed, McCollum says the trend merely reflects the many opportunities now available to shows created in New York.
"Broadway is one aspect of the entire way in which theater makes itself happen," McCollum says. "It used to be Broadway was the only element. I don't see it that way anymore."
Steve Friess interviews the stars of Avenue Q tonight at 9 ET/6 PT at www.lvrocks.com/sm.html. The show becomes available for download as a podcast on Friday.
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