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‘Phantom’ rolls dice in Vegas

Reworked show hopes to beat tuners' losing streak after 'Avenue Q,' 'Hairspray' close

The warning signs for Broadway shows are going up fast in Las Vegas — possibly faster than the welcome mats.

Over the past two years, the city has positioned itself as a Western home for successful tuners. But producers are learning quickly that Las Vegas audiences have little patience for stories and characters. What sounds like a hit around Times Square is often greeted with a shrug along the equally jammed and glittering Las Vegas Boulevard.

“Hairspray” becomes the latest casualty, closing June 11 after fewer than 150 perfs at the Luxor. “Avenue Q” closed May 28 after nine months at the Wynn; West End import “We Will Rock You” lasted 11 months at the Paris.

Cirque du Soleil spectacles and jukebox tuners like “Mamma Mia!” are “clearly what works” in Las Vegas, says Mark Kaufman, New Line’s exec VP of production and theater, responsible for Broadway’s “The Wedding Singer.” “Shows with plots don’t.”

With most legit venues cleared, all eyes are focused on “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular,” which opens June 24. But can the disfigured man living in the Paris Opera House find success in a Sin City that has eluded the troubled teens of Baltimore, Planet Mall and Alphabet City?

“As much as I love ‘Avenue Q,’ the brand Wynn was selling was ‘Tony-winning musical,’ ” says Scott Zeiger of Base Entertainment, one of the lead producers of “Phantom.”

“They weren’t selling a concept that’s part of the American culture. For broad-based entertainment, our research shows there is no other brand like ‘Phantom’ in the world. It’s only logical that our brand should have a home here.”

“Phantom” moves into the Venetian’s new $40 million Phantom Theater amid considerable hype concerning the return of creator Andrew Lloyd Webber and original director Hal Prince, who have shaped a special Vegas version of the 20-year-old tuner.

Like a good pitch man, Zeiger has facts, figures and projections at the ready to detail how “Phantom” will be able to do what others beyond “Mamma Mia!” have not: Sit down for more than a year on the Strip.

The show is down to less than 95 minutes, with no intermission and all the songs intact. Pyrotechnics have been boosted; the chandelier is four times the size of the Broadway incarnation; and “the technology elsewhere is 15 years old. Ours is brand-new,” Zeiger says.

Construction delays kept actors off the Venetian stage until May 25, but the company says that was just an inconvenience and that everyone is ready for the previews that begin June 12.

When Kevin McCollum and his Producing Office launched “Avenue Q” at the Wynn, he, too, had nothing but positives to report. And he sees his Vegas experience as a good one: “Avenue Q” consistently made money, sold as many tickets in Las Vegas as it did in New York (which only covered 50% of the seats at the Wynn Theater) and, in the long run, built word of mouth for a national tour next year.

But McCollum was able to create a list of what could keep Las Vegas from becoming a theater town:

  • There is no such thing as a theatergoer on the Strip. “Everybody is deciding what to do next. A show is another segment of the evening, and everybody is trying to get to the next event.”

  • American humor, wordplay and irony are not Vegas’ strong suit. “There are a lot of wealthy international travelers for whom English is not a first language. Spectaculars and visual entertainment are what works.

  • Showtimes are as important as price points. “We were 6:30 and 10 p.m. That was too early and too late.”

  • Dinner, rather than theater, is real theater. “Food is exquisite in Vegas now, and dining is the 2½-hour experience.”

  • Each resort can support only one tuner, and to have two means sabotaging one or the other. “The show was small enough that we were not losing money. But Steve Wynn knew ‘Spamalot’ (which originally was skedded to run alongside “Avenue Q” at the Wynn) has to move beyond that. Shows can’t be operating at 50%-60% capacity.”

Whether it’s the producers of “We Will Rock You,” “Phantom” or “Q,” they all speak of the importance of the landlord as a marketing partner.

“Phantom” doesn’t appear to be doing anything the others haven’t done: Leads are double-cast; there are 10 shows per week; ad campaigns are under way in Phoenix, San Diego and L.A.

“We shopped hard to find the right psyche for ‘Phantom,’ ” Zeiger notes. “The Venetian fit best in marrying the themes of the show plus the scenery, the elegance and the architecture.”

Base is producing along with Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theater Co. and the Clear Channel spinoff unit Live Nation.

As is common with Las Vegas deals, the rent is low, going up after a break point and escalating in accordance with revenues. Producers are figuring about a third of the audience in the 1,800-seat Phantom Theater will be staying at the Venetian. The hotel has 4,500 rooms.

Even when shows haven’t worked out, producers of shuttered shows have been quick to compliment their landlords.

“Hairspray” co-producer Michael Gill announced its closing by saying, “The show did not find the audience it needed for us to continue.” He then praised execs of the Luxor and its parent, MGM Mirage: “Their commitment never wavered.”

Casinos, while they tolerate break-even in the early going, want to hang sold-out signs.

“It’s all about increasing traffic in the casino and getting rooms full at top prices,” says one former casino marketing exec. “If a show isn’t perceived as hot, or hard to get into, casino management starts to look for something that might fill the hall.”

One longtime Vegas observer notes modern casinos aren’t interested in anything that operates at less than 90% capacity, a number that Cirque du Soleil shows and Celine Dion and Elton John consistently hit.

Still, producers accustomed to Rialto financial formulas are willing to continue to roll the dice in Vegas.

Zeiger’s company, which brings Martin Short’s tuner “Fame Becomes Me” to Broadway in August, will renovate and operate two venues at the Planet Hollywood casino, creating a production show for one room while using the other as a concert venue.

McCollum has no plans, but he figures he’ll return.

“I’m a Broadway producer,” McCollum says before laughing. “I go to Vegas to reduce risk.”

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