Las Vegas theater back after bust

Some shows that play Sin City actually stay

The right kind of legit is still thriving in Sin City after some very lean seasons. But with high-end, uber-theatrical ultra-lounges now spreading like kudzu in the desert, the lure of sex, bottle service and starlets behaving badly has pretty much killed off those once-ubiquitous latenight curtains.

“Shows in Vegas mostly have moved back to a Broadway kind of schedule,” says Scott Zeiger, whose partnership with the entertainment-heavy Venetian Hotel and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. has made the former Clear Channel exec perhaps the leading current player in Strip legit. “Shows aren’t the only entertainment option anymore. This is a dynamic, changing market and the rules are constantly evolving.”

With branded eateries and malls routinely open till midnight, most punters now prefer to catch the show early, then eat, then party. In Vegas people pack a lot into a night.

Like the gamblers whose wagers help underwrite the budgets, Vegas legit has been through some rapid boom-and-bust-and-boom-again cycles over the past two or three years. Although underperforming shows like “Avenue Q” and “Hairspray” took some bloom off the legit bet, the current cycle again seems to be trending up.

Zeiger’s souped-up “The Phantom of the Opera’ is making money at the Venetian, and “Spamalot” is also doing decent biz at the Wynn Hotel.

“It’s really about having the right partnership,” says producer Bill Haber. “We know we’re going to be running more than a year in Vegas … and we’ve been very happy. I’d go back there with the right show in a second.”

The major legit opening of the 2007-8 season is “Jersey Boys,” a partnership between Zeiger, the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the original Broadway producers. Beginning in spring, the Four Seasons tuner will play a 1,650-seat custom-designed theater at the new high-end Palazzo Hotel, going up next to the Venetian.

“It will be a beautiful space with a lobby that complements the experience of the show,” Zeiger says.

The production will probably be fairly close in execution to the hit Broadway original (“No crazy chandeliers,” Zeiger says), with a few additional bells and whistles.

The coming growth in rooms is seen by Vegas legiters as crucial.

“The inventory of theater seats has gone way up, but the inventory of rooms weirdly has gone down recently because of all the implosions to make way for the new hotels,” says “Blue Man Group” co-creater Matt Goldman. And although “Blue Man” is still going strong at the Venetian — where it plays in a 1,770-seat house after moving from its five-year stand at the Luxor Hotel — Goldman says he’d like to see the Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau put more emphasis on the city’s entertainment offerings and a bit less on that ubiquitous hedonistic lifestyle. “We’d like to see shows become more of the city’s focus,” he says.

“Mamma Mia,” one of the great legit success stories on the Strip, closes in August at the Mandalay Bay after a five-year run. Alan Feldman, senior VP at MGM Mirage, says the company hasn’t yet decided what will be its replacement.

“We’re talking with producers all across the country,” he says. “With the rise of the ultra lounge and the power of the nightclub scene over the last three or four years, shows now have to have even a stronger raison d’etre.”

Up next from Vegas powerhouse Cirque du Soleil is a show built around Elvis Presley. Currently in development, it’s slated to bow at MGM Mirage’s new high-end City Center resort complex in late 2009.

The Wynn Hotel, which hosts “Spamalot,” is also adding rooms. When it opens in a little more than a year, the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas will have over 2,000 suites and a walkway to the original property.

“To get from one hotel to the other,” says Haber, “you’ll have to walk right past the door to the ‘Spamalot’ theater. That’s very good.”

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