'Monty' moves in to Vegas as 'Avenue' hits the road

“Avenue Q” has hit a dead end in Vegas. The show that broke the rules for legit musicals in Sin City will shutter in May, only nine months after its much-ballyhooed debut last September.

The Tony-winning tunerwill vacate its theater for “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which was initially planned to go into a third new auditorium at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel. The hotel also hosts “La Reve,” an original show directed by Franco Dragone.

Now “Avenue Q” producer Kevin McCollum has the unenviable task of going, cap in hand, to the very road presenters he dissed two years ago in favor of an exclusive Vegas deal.

Even if everyone is willing to let bygones be bygones, there are some issues for the show on the road.

“Avenue Q” will have to play subscription seasons. And it’s a tough show for hinterland presenters to sell. Its puppets suggest the family market, but its dialogue and saucy sexuality flag it for adults. Someone will have to explain that to people. And as the show gets farther and farther away from its Tony-winning apex, that will get harder and harder to do.

Luckily for McCollum, the Vegas cash already is in the bank, memories are short and a Tony-winning show is a Tony-winning show.

“This is not the kind of business where you can draw a line in the sand and say never again,” says Gina Vernacci, booker for Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center. “There is talk of a tour. People are interested in finding a way to do the show.”

McCollum last week sent a valentine to his potential presenters.

“Enjoy a schadenfreude moment,” it reads. And then book the show.

“I think you would have to do what we did with ‘Rent,’ and remind people it’s not for children,” McCollum says.

“Avenue Q” is the first high-profile flop of the casino city’s new legit-friendly era. It comes just as a slew of other legit tuners are headed to try their luck in the desert — “Hairspray” opened last week, and “The Phantom of the Opera” is headed for Vegas this summer.

“Avenue Q” went to Vegas because Steve Wynn saw the show in New York, loved it and bought it. But by Feb. 14, the hotel mogul was suddenly all about the importance of his golf course.

In a long statement explaining the changeover from puppets to Pythons, Wynn says that by folding “Avenue Q,” he could get “Spamalot” in place without having to build a new theater and “invade our golf-course real-estate.”

The demise of “Avenue Q” followed many weeks of rumors that the show was playing to rows of empty seats and headed for the Dumpster (although McCollum insists the show was “making money”).

Once “Spamalot” was announced for Wynn, few insiders believed there ever would be an additional theater built in the resort. There was some talk that “Avenue Q” might move to another, smaller venue in the basement of the hotel. But instead, Wynn decided to pull the plug.

So why did “Avenue Q” flop? In the first place, it was insufficiently known to the general public. The legit titles that work in Vegas — such as “Mamma Mia!” — are the shows people have heard of before they hit town.

“Not every show is for Vegas,” says “Mamma Mia!” producer Nina Lannan. “This is a terrible word to use, but what works there is ‘branded’ entertainment. Most people are only in town for about three days. They have to have heard of the show before they come.”

Secondly, you cannot have an intermission. “There are 76 shows on the Las Vegas strip,” says Michael Gill, one of the producers of the Vegas version of “Hairspray.” “And 75 of them are no longer than about 90 minutes.”

To thrive on the Strip, you have to be willing to lop off the weaker material and come in quick and fast. People want to have dinner, and they want to gamble. They don’t want a show to take up their entire evening. A few weeks ago, “Avenue Q” belatedly caught on to that truth, axing the intermission and trimming the running time to the obligatory 90 minutes. But by then, it was too late.

According to a spokesman, the Vegas “Spamalot” will be a 90-minute, cut-down version of the show. Same is true of “Hairspray” and “Phantom,” the latter coming this summer to the Venetian Hotel.

Vegas union deals also mean that the shorter running time allows producers to do 10 shows a week for the price of eight. For “Hairspray,” which is playing at the midpriced Luxor Hotel, the added perfs per week (for the same wages) have made it possible to top out tix at $85, thus increasing the show’s potential market.

“It really has to be 90 minutes,” says Gill, a Vegas veteran. “Matinees don’t work here at all. You don’t want to start earlier than 7, and you don’t want to go later than 11. Unions say you have to have 90 minutes between shows. So that’s the situation.”

“Hairspray,” then, has disposed of two numbers, “Big Doll House” and “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” and trimmed some dialogue. But you can’t just give the audience less. You have to give them more, and do it quicker. “Phantom” may be only 90 minutes, but the chandelier will be far bigger and more spectacular than Broadway.

Ditto “Hairspray.” “In the final scene we roll out $1 million in scenery that they don’t have in New York,” boasts Gill.

Only “Mamma Mia!” has been able to buck that trend, running at full length. But that’s a show with global Abba recognition and an involving romantic narrative.

The issues with “Avenue Q” go beyond this. The show’s satirical, hipster, downtown ambiance always looked like an odd fit for Vegas, a paradoxically conservative town that people visit for pleasures of the flesh, not pleasures of the mind.

“We learned fast that our political satire didn’t go as far as the slot machines around our theater,” says Kelly Leonard, the producer of Chi-based Second City’s Las Vegas revue. “We adapted quickly to fast and funny.”

The demise of “Avenue Q” doesn’t so much mean that Vegas is souring on legit as underscoring that legit has to play to the Vegas rules if it wants to thrive in the desert. And contrary to what you’ve been told, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Those rules may be on the move.

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