But unusual legit show faces B.O. pickle

The selling power of Gotham’s legit critics is about to be tested. Again.

“Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam” opened Nov. 14 to upbeat reviews from the Associated Press, New York Post and Daily News as well as raves from Daily Variety, the New York Times, WOR, WNBC and NY1, which gave it the quote of the year: ” ‘A Chorus Line’ for the new millennium.”

Where does a well-received, multiethnic Broadway show, which is neither play nor musical, go from here?

With almost no advance and grossing only $81,581 the week (Nov. 4-10) before it opened, Simmons’ legit spinoff of his HBO poetry series closely parallels the B.O. status of “Topdog/Underdog” upon its Broadway debut March 26.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ African-American-themed drama took in a nearly identical $81,940 for its pre-opening-night sesh. Spurred by positive critical response, however, its box office shot up to $242,981 the following week, one of the most striking percentage gains of any show in recent Broadway history. (Unlike “Topdog,” “Def Poetry Jam” does not have the opportunity to win a Pulitzer Prize the day after it opened on Broadway. Also, there was a notable pan in the Wall Street Journal, warning its GOP readership to stay away from the rhyme fest.)

Is the overall positive critical response enough to push “Def Poetry Jam” into that weekly breakeven range of $150,000 to $175,000?

Before opening night in San Francisco this summer, the show had languished at the box office.

“But once the good reviews came in there, they started to sell out,” said Jim Russek of Rave!, the show’s marketing firm.

A half-page ad announcing “Def Poetry Jam” in the Sunday New York Times in early autumn sold a paltry 30 tix, Russek estimated. Rave! fought back by deeply discounting preview tickets, offering money-back guarantees and putting a huge 50% of the show’s ad budget into exposure on black radio stations. Now, with good reviews to trumpet, print and TV will consume 60% of that ad budget, in hopes of attracting the more traditional theatergoer.

Maybe those ads finally will attract Broadway’s traditional opening-nighters as well. Legit producers who generally overpopulate these events were notably absent, with few exceptions, from the “Def Poetry Jam” bow.

Making his Broadway producer debut, Simmons didn’t expect many to turn out.

“No Broadway producer put any money in,” he said of the show’s estimated $1.2 capitalization. “We had to go it alone. My wife (designer and former model Kimora Lee Simmons) put some of her money in. Mostly, it is my money.”

Agents especially might want to play catchup and take a look at the nine “DPJ” performers, especially after the recent crossover successes of Mos Def and Eminem. Critics like Newsday’s Linda Winer, who had reservations about the show, singled out at least one poet as having “the crossover potential of John Leguizamo.” As yet unsigned to any agency, the nine poets are with “Def Poetry Jam” for a reported six months.

“I hope they don’t leave right away,” Simmons said at the post-perf party at Bryant Park Grill. “But I want them to be stars. Eventually they will be.”

One way or another, “Def Poetry Jam” already looks to be a winner.

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