Road report: Las Vegas

Sin City gives Broadway another roll

New York — Las Vegas is back in the legit picture.

Old-timers will remember back three years to 1999, when Mirage Resorts’ Steve Wynn held much ballyhooed negotiations with a slew of creatives — Jerry Herman, Hal Prince, Marvin Hamlisch, Frank Galati — to conceive new 90-minute stage musicals for his newest hotel, Bellagio, as well as others.

It was also the year of “Chicago,” which opened the new theater at the just-opened Mandalay Bay. Unlike the truncated “Starlight Express” or the limited run of “Rent” (both played the Las Vegas Hilton), the Kander & Ebb revival, starring Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen, happened to be the first sit-down production of a Broadway show in the town’s history.

Unfortunately, Wynn’s first 90-minute tuner, “Miss Spectacular,” by Herman, fell by the wayside when the MGM Grand acquired Mirage. And even more ominous, “Chicago” lasted but a year at the Mandalay Bay Theater, which soon went back to business as usual with its own very Vegas extravaganza, “Storm.”

Has this desert town learned not to gamble on theater?

Absolutely not.

“Las Vegas is giving legit another shot,” says Ben Sprecher, producer of such recent Gotham fare as “The Unexpected Man” and “Fortune’s Fool.” He and producer Kenneth D. Greenblatt (“Nine,” “La Cage aux Folles”) have picked up the sequined trains of “Miss Spectacular” to plan a fall 2003 debut at a Vegas venue to be announced. The two producers will be making their Vegas bow with the new Herman show about a Glitter Gulch showgirl.

All color, no critics

For now, Sprecher calls Vegas very hospitable, with its less restrictive unions and the virtual absence of critics, “which you don’t have to factor into the equation,” he says.

As for “Miss Spectacular,” “It’s not about the underbelly,” Sprecher says, comparing it to “Chicago.” “On the contrary, it’s hopeful, redemptive, colorful and bubbling.”

Except for the $15 million pricetag attached to “Miss Spectacular,” Sprecher could be talking about his major competition, “Mamma Mia!,” which will follow “Storm” into the Mandalay Bay Theater in February.

After the misfire of “Chicago,” Mandalay Resort Group prexy Glenn Schaeffer calls “Mama Mia!” the perfect Vegas show. Apparently, “Chicago” was not. “For a number of customers, it was dark,” he says. “Its theme is tongue-in-cheek, and people didn’t exactly leave the theater singing.”

No problem there with the Abba tuner, which will find most of its patrons singing the hit songs as they go into the theater.

While Broadway audiences continue to appreciate the elegantly spare “Chicago” production, Vegas theatergoers found it a little too reminiscent of an old movie.

“There’s no question it is done in black-and-white,” says Schaeffer. “It didn’t have the spectacle that people come to expect with Las Vegas.”

“Mamma Mia!,” with its gaudy disco fashion, could have been created with Vegas in mind, although it was not.

“Broadway has been the focus for such a very long time,” says Judy Craymer, lead producer on the Abba tuner. “Las Vegas was not in the strategic planning.”

Better by the Bay

In fact, Mandalay Bay approached Craymer & Co., not the other way around. And why should they be thinking Vegas, given the town’s history of rejecting 2½-hour book musicals with (where’s the craps table?) an intermission?

“Las Vegas doesn’t naturally take full-scale Broadway productions,” Craymer says with an edge of understatement. Surprisingly, no one ever considered an abridged version of the Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus show.

“You can’t edit ‘Mamma Mia!,'” Craymer insists. “If you do, it becomes an Abba concert, which is not allowed. It isn’t a tribute show.”

As for any possibility that “Mamma Mia!” will follow in the ill-conceived footsteps of “Chicago,” Craymer demurs. “I leave it to Mandalay Bay to know Las Vegas,” he says. “I only know ‘Mamma Mia!’ ”

With four “MM!” productions already playing in North America, another in Las Vegas may only assist the others. “Everything is about brand,” says Schaeffer. “The important thing is, we can’t give you almost ‘Mamma Mia!’ This is ‘Mamma Mia!’ ”

Craymer puts the capitalization in the $7 million range, slightly less than Broadway because, well, Gotham is just plain more expensive.

“Las Vegas is about production value,” Schaeffer says. “The facility is better, from the flies, the traps and the lighting.”

If “Blue Man Group” in Vegas is any precedent, “MM!” at Mandalay could end up looking even bigger than its Broadway incarnation.

Where such theatrical experiences as “Stomp” and “De La Guarda” had short runs in Vegas, “BMG” continues to sell out well into its third year at the Luxor Theater, also owned by Mandalay Resort Group. It’s an infinitely glitzier cousin to what plays at the tiny Astor Place Theater in the East Village. And so is the pricetag: $6 million.

For Vegas, the “BMG” creatives beefed up the special effects and lighting, added lots of video and doubled the three-member band to help fit the Luxor’s 1,200-seat theater, twice the size of any venue the show previously played. “They brought Las Vegas into the act,” says Schaeffer.

Which seems to be the key: If you can’t bring theater to Vegas, bring Vegas into the theaters.

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