‘Beast,’ ‘Saigon’ fuel LA. legit

The commercial legit scene in the City of Angels heads into summer with companies of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Miss Saigon” packing upwards of 90% capacities into the 2,000-plus seat Shubert and Ahmanson theaters, respectively, while the national tour of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” starring Howard Hesseman, climbs to 70% at the 1,000-seat Doolittle in Hollywood.

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which landed the primo Shubert site in Century City after the American premiere of “Sunset Boulevard” decamped prematurely, is in the 11th week of an open-ended run, with original Broadway stars Terrence Mann, Susan Egan and Tom Bosley.

“Laughter,” part of a subscription series, is slated to end its 11-week run on July 9, and “Miss Saigon,” starring Jennifer C. Paz and Peter Lockyer, is halfway through an expected nine-month stand at the remodeled Ahmanson at the Music Center downtown. “Saigon” must vacate in October to make way for the regular Ahmanson subscription series, displaced to the Doolittle for six years by the marathon run of “The Phantom of the Opera,” plus renovation time.

The commercial venue situation here has long been a problem for producers trying to sandwich offerings between long runs at the Shubert and subscription seasons at the Ahmanson, with the Nederlander-owned Pantages in Hollywood the only other regular legit road house. Recent access to the Pantages has been encumbered by L.A. subway construction along Hollywood Boulevard.

“It’s a tight scene right now, it seems to me,” says Alan Wasser, general manager for producer Cameron Mackintosh’s “Miss Saigon.” With a top ticket of $65, the musical has been consistently grossing in the upper-$700,000 range since its January opening. “I think the show is strong enough that we’ll likely be coming back,” Wasser says, declining to be any more specific. “Since it was impossible for us to play Los Angeles on an open-ended basis as a sit-down company, nine months was an appropriate booking for us to take on.”

He maintains that L.A., along with Chicago, “remains one of the two strongest markets for us in the country after New York.”

“Beauty and the Beast,” Disney’s inaugural legit franchise, has been nearly as successful on its home turf as in New York, selling out some weekend performances and, with a top ticket of $65, regularly ringing up $800,000 weekly. (Shubert capacity of 2,129 is 385 more than the Palace in New York.)

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we’ll be here for awhile,” says Robert McTyre, senior vice president for theatrical productions at the Walt Disney Co. “It would be wonderful to have it run for years, but it’s very hard to say. Everything looks great right now.”

Disney plans to have six more companies of “Beauty and the Beast” open by the end of the year, in Melbourne, Toronto, Vienna, Tokyo, Osaka and Minneapolis. “To roll out seven companies in one year is we believe the fastest something like this has been done,” says McTyre. Like other producers, Disney had to budget more money in LA. than in Gotham for advertising because of both the higher costs of local TV spots and the need for more of them than Broadway productions require.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” Simon’s memoir of his Sid Caesar gag-writing days, is doing “good business” at 70% capacity, says Center Theater Group managing director Charles Dillingham. With a top ticket at $47.50, weekly grosses have been $200,000-plus out of a potential of $318,088. Center Theater Group is co-producer with show’s Broadway launchers, Emanuel Azenberg and Leonard Soloway.

“It has done consistently about an average of what the other Neil Simon shows have done there,” says Dillingham, “which is, of course, well above the average of other shows. So it’s doing very well.” The last Simon play at Doolittle was “Jake’s Women” two years ago.

Single ticket sales, apart from subscriptions, are on target to reach $1 million by the end of the run. “Laughter” is the last local show that will have to banner the confounding address “Ahmanson at the Doolittle.” Center Theater Group devised the name six years ago, when its familiar commercial sub series relocated across town because of the “Phantom” phenomenon.

Biggest news in smaller commercial venues has been the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s staging of neophyte playwright Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at the 499-seat Westwood Playhouse, where it has been running for 34 weeks. Play is a heady comedy by the former banjo-picking standup, about an imagined confab between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, set in the famed Montmartre cafe. It’s had previous, nonprofit tryouts in Chicago, Boston and Australia.

Reporting an overall 83% capacity performance, at a $35 top, “Picasso” producer Joan Stein says the play recouped its $350,000 investment in 12 weeks. Though attendance has slipped to 60% and 70% in recent weeks, she expects Martin’s legit debut to hang on, sans stars, until October, when it is slated to be remounted Off Broadway.

Stein, a legit arrival from New York who has also had successful commercial mid-size runs with “Love Letters” and “Forever Plaid,” says “Picasso” has exceeded expectations.

“Our initial feeling was that a six-month run was a possibility. So this has been very gratifying to see in a town that is set up to embrace a different industry.”

By contrast, the mid-size commercial scene in L.A. has always been spotty, with the occasional surprise like the Jackie Mason and Penn & Teller shows, whose legit hit campaigns both rolled out from L.A.’s Off Broadway-size stages in years past. Ditto Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.”

In the smaller Coronet Theater (272 seats), home on the road last year to Claudia Shear’s popular one-woman show “Blown Sideways Through Life,” a new satirical revue of the movie business, “Forbidden Hollywood,” created by Gerard Allesandrini, has been doing steady box office since March and looks to have legs. From the same musical spoofer who hatched “Forbidden Broadway,” “Forbidden Hollywood” has been blessed by local critics, and with a $39.50 top has packed 90% capacity regularly.

Now skedded through July 16, sponsors expect it to extend. As producer John Freedson says, “One just doesn’t know in Los Angeles.”

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