Show shutters early, as Toronto legit wavers

“The Producers” continues to be the big news on the Toronto theater scene, but the news isn’t good.

After surprising everyone on May 26 by announcing the show would close Sept. 5 — much earlier than planned — producer David Mirvish turned surprise to shock less than a month later when he revealed on June 18 that he was shuttering the Mel Brooks tuner July 4.

Mirvish had hoped his earlier announcement would spur sales and result in a packed few final months, allowing the show to break even.

The opposite seems to have been the case. The gross has plummeted by C$140,000 ($102,000) a week since news of the initial closing, with the show currently running at 62% paid capacity and some weeks in July showing only a 25% advance sale.

After an emergency meeting in New York on June 18, all involved with the Toronto production agreed to pull the plug. Reportedly, much of the initial capitalization had been paid back, but with the show dipping below break-even, no one wanted to risk throwing that advantage away.

However, Mirvish can feel more confident about the future of his other two shows. “Mamma Mia!” is still enjoying a healthy 91% paid capacity in the fifth year of its run. “Hairspray,” which opened May 5, is playing to 90%.

Other commercial projects around town are experiencing similarly mixed results.

The CanStage mounting of “Urinetown,” which opened May 27, is playing to 60% houses, but artistic producer Martin Bragg recently announced an extension to Labor Day, claiming the show was meeting its weekly nut and saying he wanted to give it time to build.

On the other hand, the TaurPro production of “Cookin’ at the Cookery,” a bio-tuner about Alberta Hunter, is calling it quits July 4 after opening April 20 and playing to audiences that averaged less than 50%. Perhaps the show exhausted its potential audience during its five-week sellout run for CanStage last fall.

Meanwhile, Canada’s two major legit fests are cautiously optimistic about their 2004 seasons after surviving a roller-coaster ride last year caused by the SARS outbreak.

Last year’s events left the Shaw Festival with a C$3 million deficit, while the Stratford Fest posted a modest C$330,000 surplus. Multimillion-dollar surpluses had been the norm for the past five seasons.

Both fests also suffered from spotty quality in their productions last year. Stratford at least featured enough populist choices (“The King and I,” “Gigi,” “Present Laughter”) to keep the crowds happy.

Shaw, on the other hand, under new artistic director Jackie Maxwell, went in for more adventurous programming (including ill-advised mainstage productions of “The Three Sisters” and “The Coronation Voyage”), which failed to meet box office expectations.

This year, things are looking slightly better all around, although any attempt at crystal ball-gazing about a final result for either organization would be premature. The seasons for both companies are in the early stages, and they stretch into the fall.

Shaw has one solid hit on its hands, a revival of the Rodgers & Hart tuner “Pal Joey,” which has sold out its entire run at the 328-seat Royal George Theater.

Productions of “Pygmalion” and “Ah, Wilderness!” have met with good to mixed reviews. Only revivals of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Three Men on a Horse” have come in for general critical disapproval.

In terms of hard dollars, Shaw is currently announcing sales of $5.87 million, an increase of about $366,600 from where they were last year at this time. Assuming that curve continues, it’s still uncertain whether the year will end once again in red ink.

At Stratford, two of the opening six shows could be safely classed as critical hits: a glossy revival of “Guys and Dolls” and a modern-dress staging of the seldom-done “Timon of Athens.”

The fest’s second musical, “Anything Goes,” earned generally upbeat reviews, with some reservations. Crix were divided on the merits of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth,” with only “The Count of Monte Cristo” coming in for near unanimous pans.

At the box office, they are currently running slightly less than $733,000 behind last year’s figure of $16.6 million at this date, but executive director Antoni Cimolino points to an upswing in sales since the reviews came out and remains hopeful they’ll hit their budgeted figures.

Producers across the board are finding that, as in New York in recent seasons, sales are no longer easy to predict, as advance buying has dropped off.

“People are being very selective about what they buy tickets for,” said John Karastamatis from Mirvish Prods., “and they’re making those choices at the last minute.”

All of which means producers here will have to bite their nails. That at least is an improvement over last year, when they wanted to cut their throats.

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