'Little Mermaid' to world preem in Denver

DENVER With the recent Disney announcement that “The Little Mermaid” will world preem at the Denver Performing Arts Complex’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House next summer, the Mile-high City hopes this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As DPAC prexy-CEO Randy Weeks says, “If this is a successful trial run of the facility for an out-of-town tryout for a large musical, it could be a template for other producers to do the same thing.”

No matter how it’s measured — venues, seats or craft shops — the DPAC is one of the largest performing arts complexes in the world; it was the extent of these resources that made the Disney deal happen, positioning the org for similar pacts in the future.

“This project is a huge coup for Denver,” says Weeks. “It was like having a building in the right place at the right time. Unexpectedly, I got a phone call from a friend, who is now president of Disney Touring, Jack Eldon. He said, ‘I need to talk to you about a show, but I can’t tell you the title. We’re sniffing around, and we want to do an out-of-town tryout; then we’re going straight to New York.’ ”

Around the same time, the Ellie Caulkins was coming on line. Weeks invited Eldon to fly to Denver and inspect the new facility, his favorable response segueing to a visit from Disney Theatrical producer-prez Thomas Schumacher.

The Ellie, as the opera house is known, opened a year ago with Denyce Graves in “Carmen.” It is the newest of the nine venues (with a 10th community stage in the works) located on the main four-square-block campus of the DPAC.

Schumacher says, “We’ve enjoyed terrific theatrical engagements in Denver through the years, and so it makes perfect sense to work on our new musical here and have Denver become a part of our process.”

Weeks says, “We’ve presented, in some cases multiple times, everything that Disney Theatricals has done — ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aida,’ ‘The Lion King’ and ‘On the Record.’ … And from all this, we’ve developed a good relationship with Disney.

“So, we kept talking,” says Weeks. “The theater was available, and the city was very amicable to having them out for the summer. They put together a nice incentive package for Disney. The facility and all its backstage support sold itself — they’ve got a woodworking shop; they’ve got a metal shop; they’ve got enough dressing rooms for 3,000 opera singers. One of Disney’s concerns is that they’re going to have all their artistic teams out here, and they’ll have to remind them they won’t have this in New York.”

Denver is seeking to build on its long-time success as one of the top five U.S. cities for touring productions (“The Lion King” opened its road show here in 2002). “The Little Mermaid,” staged by opera helmer Francesca Zambello, will cap a season that includes “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Light in the Piazza” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

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