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Non-equity tours take shortcuts to fill skeds

In January, Los Angeles turned into the legit stix when a non-Equity tour of “Oklahoma!” rolled into the mighty Pantages Theater. There on the stage that recently hosted “The Producers” and “Hairspray” were thesps barely out of college.

Even more damaging, according to crix, was the tinny, underpopulated orchestra, which included 10 musicians and a Sinfonia, otherwise known as a virtual orchestra. Imagine a lush Richard Rodgers score sans strings.

Paying $65.50 a ducat, the Pantages audience preferred not to.

The grumbling started during the puny-sounding overture. Turned up to rock-concert level, the volume succeeded only in creating distortion throughout act one. At intermission, lines to the restrooms were short as theatergoers chose instead to relieve themselves by fleeing the Hollywood Boulevard theater.

An isolated bad night in the theater?

Also in January, the non-Equity “Oliver!” played the big Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette critic enjoyed seeing 40 actors onstage.

“That’s the advantage of a non-Equity tour: cheap labor,” wrote Christopher Rawson. But the adult actors, in his opinion, ranged from “capable downward.” As for the orchestra, it “sounded a little bland and flat, as though some of it were recorded.”

If big-city auds didn’t like what they saw on the Pantages and Benedum stages, they got plenty of free theater outside on the streets. The musicians union leafleted both shows in protest of the Sinfonia.

For the moment, Actors Equity has turned the other cheek on big venues booking “Oklahoma!” and “Oliver!”

Last summer, Equity signed off on the new Production Contract, which gives nonblockbuster tours the opportunity to employ union actors at lower wages but with pre- and post-profit participation.

“We cut rates and made deals with producers in recognition of the increasing proliferation of non-Equity tours,” says the union’s exec director Alan Eisenberg.

Regarding the “Oliver!” and “Oklahoma!” tours, “The 2004-05 season was set before we negotiated the new contract,” Eisenberg explains. It remains to be seen if that agreement returns non-Equity tours to the stix in 2005-06 and beyond.”

For the American Federation of Musicians, the two “O!”s aren’t fading fast enough. In protest of their use of virtual-orchestra technology, the union has attempted to replay the 2003 Broadway musicians’ strike in city after city. In fact, they’re still calling it “a tape recorder,” while producers claim it’s “a sophisticated synthesizer,” and its makers herald Sinfonia as “a new musical instrument.”

Among the “tape recorder” set, David Lennon, prexy of AFM’s Local 802 in Gotham, offers encouragement to his Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees affiliates.

“We have achieved over 20 agreements with producers and theater owners banning the use of this machine in New York,” says Lennon.

In Los Angeles, AFM’s local has taken the owners of the Pantages to arbitration. According to Local 47 prexy Hal Espinosa, the Nederlanders are in violation of its collective bargaining agreement.

“The agreement states that no tape or mechanical device can be used in the pit,” says Espinosa. “The virtual orchestra is a machine.”

The Nederlanders might call the Sinfonia a musical instrument, but they would not comment on the Pantages controversy. For future seasons, it’s a moot point how the four-year contract is interpreted: It expires in March, and new negotiations are expected to be tough in light of the current dispute.

Realtime Music Solutions produces the Sinfonia, and its CEO, Jeffrey Lazarus, defends it as a musical instrument. “It is played in real time and it requires extensive training and practice,” he says.

He says other alternatives to a full 25-piece orchestra, “which are accepted by the union, are inferior.”

Instead of a Sinfonia, some tours use click tracks, prerecorded audio and multiple synthesizers. “It’s just untrue that if the Sinfonia weren’t on tour, there would be more musicians in the pit,” Lazarus says.

The Sinfonia has a friend in Networks, which presents both “Oklahoma!” and “Oliver!” on the road. The company’s CEO, Ken Gentry, dismisses the controversy as nothing more than a union thing. “If we use the Sinfonia on a union show, we don’t get heat.”

The protests, however, have increased, Gentry admits. “It really started in the fall,” he says.

Lazarus notices an impact on Realtime’s biz. Since the 2003 Broadway strike, use of the Sinfonia has stabilized at about three or four tours a year.

“We’re expanding in other areas, in the U.K. and amateur use,” Lazarus says. “But it is not like we’re taking over the world.”

Like them or not, the non-Equity tour with virtual orchestras in the pit have invaded larger theaters for longer visits. It’s a dilemma: The AFM attempts to ban virtual-orchestra technology theater by theater. The effect of the new Equity contract won’t be felt until next season at the earliest.

Operators of the Pantages and the Benedum confront a dearth of road shows and have to book something between the first-class tours — or see their theaters turned into supermarkets.

Caught in between, road auds might prefer to wait it out and watch “Desperate Housewives” instead.

(Joel Hirschhorn in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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