Critic-proof ‘Caveman’ clobbers competish

Critic-proof is a term usually associated with Andrew Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh, but Rob Becker?

Defying naysaying scribes and Broadway prognosticators of all stripes, Becker’s one-man legit show beat the odds the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. Last spring, “Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman” seemed to have a snowball’s chance in a hot New York summer of lasting until Labor Day.

But last it did, and more so. The show has done what even most critically lauded productions don’t: It’s turning a profit. The $650,000 production recouped its capitalization last month, and plans call for the one-man show to run until New Year’s Eve, go on a month’s hiatus, and resume performances until next summer.

Becker’s show wasn’t the summer’s only underdog. Although opening to better-than- Becker reviews March 2, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” garnered only mixed notices from the New York Times, New York Newsday, Variety and several other important outlets. But repeating its word-of-mouth success from Los Angeles, the revue of Leiber and Stoller rock ‘ n’ roll songs found an audience as Broadway’s premier party show. (Producers of the show, currently involved in an arbitration dispute with a musical arranger, declined to comment on the show or its financial condition. The production, although playing weekly to near-capacity audiences, is not thought to have recouped its capitalization.)

As for Becker, his relative longevity marks a healthy, in-the-black run for a show that many of the most B.O.-significant critics dismissed as a wayward comedy-club gig.

There were a few positive notices, but none equaled the fervor that Becker’s audiences have developed over the summer. The one-man show opened March 26 at the Helen Hayes Theater, sandwiched between such publicity-getters as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Indiscretions.” The show limped through late spring and early summer, necessitating cash infusions from producer Robin Tate and his Contemporary Prods., as well as from Becker himself.

Summer swell

But by July, the number of vacant seats at the Hayes started shrinking. Attendance levels that had been below the 50% mark were steadily climbing toward the 85% level, and by the second week of August had hit 98%.

“It was around week 12 when things started turning around,” Tate says, “and we saw that we were going to be there for a while. By week 18 we were on fire.”

Becker’s against-the-odds trek to Broadway began four years ago in Dallas. The standup comedian was in the midst of a popular engagement at a comedy club, but he wanted to move up to a local legit theater for New Year’s Eve. He contacted Tate’s Contemporary Prods. outfit, a St. Louis-based promoter known for handling the personal appearances of such high-profile comedians as Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Brett Butler and Rosie O’Donnell. Tate booked the Majestic and the four planned shows quickly sold out.

Man with plan

“We developed a three-year plan,” Tate says. “He’d play Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Dallas in large venues, then go to Chicago and New York. We mapped out the plan, and we succeeded.” Contemporary Prods, became the sole producer and investor in “Defending the Caveman.” The road was not without its bumps, though. Club gigs in San Francisco and Dallas went unre-viewed and largely unnoticed: Theatergoers wouldn’t trek to the clubs, and comedy club habitues were put off by the theatrical reach.

“When we did the show in comedy clubs,” Becker says, “during the first few weeks we’d get a lot of walk-outs from people who didn’t want to see anything theatrical. People would call the club and ask if the show was theater or standup, we’d say half and half and they’d say, ‘See you another time.'” Without the standup fans, the show developed an audience among the theater crowd, and Becker’s path was clear.

While playing the Movement Theater in Philly or the Briar Street Theater in Chicago may have provided the comedian his audience, critics weren’t generally impressed. Becker and Tate built a populist success by marketing the show as the legit equivalent of a date movie, and couples responded.

Print ads trumpeted favorable opinions, and television commercials that began running mid-summer featured audience testimonials from couples. Becker began showing up on the morning chatshows and made an exhaustive sweep of the local radio talkers, where, he says, he was able to acquaint listeners with the material that so many critics had panned. He’d found his audience.

Road calls again

And there’s a good chance the audience will grow. If all goes as Becker plans, he’ll leave Broadway for the road next summer, tape the show for a cable special and then focus on the sitcom offers that have been coming his way with enviable regularity.

Becker himself isn’t above defending his “Caveman.”

“Arcadia’ and some of these other shows that the critics were falling all over are gone,” he says.

“When I walk around after the show and see people coming from other shows, I see that my audience is younger and more couples. I bet ‘Smokey Joe’ is getting an audience similar to mine: the ones who say, ‘We love ‘Smokey Joe’ and ‘Defending the Caveman,’ but don’t tell anybody – we’re supposed to like ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!'”

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