Off Broadway gets physical

Non-verbal theater makes noise with int'l auds

If you want to sell tickets Off Broadway, shut up.

That, at least, is the consensus reached by a new crop of dialogue-lite Off Broadway productions aiming for the all-important international tourist audience currently shanghaied by the Broadway strike.

Following in the agile footsteps of long-running Gotham fixtures like “Stomp” and “The Blue Man Group,” a crop of recent arrivals underlines the growing strength of the nonverbal theater market, combining elements of circus acrobatics, dance, athletics, mime and martial arts. Designed to provide a vigorous, visceral experience that departs radically from traditional, word-driven theater, these shows are making a significant commercial impact with both locals and visitors.

Shows like Korean martial-arts spoof “Jump,” Cirque du Soleil’s “Wintuk” and aerial stunt spectacle “Fuerzabruta” are expensive to produce by Off Broadway standards, but they are also designed to run long enough to turn a profit. And producers hope each show will prove sufficiently strong to adopt the formula invented by their long-running physical-theater role models, “Stomp” and “ Blue Man,” which have been spun into franchises that play both nationally and abroad.

In fact, “Jump” started outside the U.S., playing to Seoul and Pusan auds in South Korea. A broad physical comedy starring Korean acrobats who incorporate martial arts into dozens of sight gags, the show is one of the prime hopefuls for the tourist aud and has been drawing larger crowds to the Union Square Theater in the wake of the strike.

“Of course it’s always unpleasant to benefit from somebody else’s downside, but we saw a really nice boost,” says “Jump” producer Mark Maluso of the first week after the labor dispute darkened the majority of Broadway shows.

Maluso goes on to explain that the production is designed to sit down at the Union Square for as long as possible, and to spawn traveling companies from there.

“That was pretty much the goal, and it’s looking favorable for us,” he says. Maluso says the show’s nonverbal nature contributes to its popularity: “It crosses language barriers, it’s a family show and it’s great for kids,” he says. “It’s not trying to be something high and mighty.”

“Stomp” co-producer Marc Routh agrees that transcending the language barrier opens up the audience in a unique way. “Our show appeals to lots of age groups,” says Routh of the athletic percussion and dance show, playing continuously in Gotham since 1994. “A lot of our audience in New York is non-English-speaking. They can enjoy it in a way they can’t enjoy a serious play, and it still has a certain sophistication to it.”

Playing two blocks south of “Jump” is “Fuerzabruta,” another kinetic, wordless show with an international pedigree and large aspirations. Argentine creators Diqui James and Gaby Kerpel landed on the Off Broadway scene in 2001 with “De La Guarda,” a well-received show that looked ready to join “Stomp” and “Blue Man” once it got up to speed, but became one of many Gotham box office casualties post-9/11.

U.S. producer David Binder suggests that the closing of “De La Guarda” actually helped pave the way for “Fuerzabruta.”

“ ‘De La Guarda’ took months to build a following,” Binder says. “Now, we’re building on that brand.” Binder suggests that the popularity of “De La Guarda” has resulted in a prefab fan base for “Fuerzabruta.”

Binder also notes that the weak dollar is bringing international audiences that favor nonverbal shows to New York in larger numbers.

“Fuerzabruta” follows the exploits of a man, running on a treadmill through and around various obstacles that swing into his path. Along the way, there are actors that leap along billowing curtains surrounding the audience, and a giant clear Mylar swimming pool that descends from the ceiling. With its throbbing music and light elements and with the audience herded around to be part of the action, the show’s vibe is not unlike a club experience, targeting it more toward young hipsters than the families flocking to “Jump” or the child-friendly “Wintuk.”

While Binder readily admits “Fuerzabruta” is expensive to mount (he won’t say how much), the show has a history of success abroad, with iterations in Buenos Aires, Lisbon, London, Edinburgh, Bogota and Berlin. “The American company was built from scratch,” he says. “In the future, we’d love to see ‘Fuerzabruta’ around the country and around the world.”

“Stomp,” which was created in the U.K. and found its first major success in Australia, set the template for much of the physical theater that followed.

The show wasn’t originally that costly — “At the time, $400,000 wasn’t an inconsiderable amount, but it wasn’t huge,” says Routh — but times have changed.

The latest edition is a $6 million spinoff called “Stomp Out Loud” in Las Vegas.

That version, capitalized as a separate venture, is one example of the “Stomp” business model. When “Stomp” took off, Routh and his partners did what the new shows are currently dreaming of doing in one form or another: using profits from the first production to capitalize a tour, which resulted in multiple tours and sit-downs.

In a similar way, the New York run of “Jump” is a means, rather than an end for Maluso, who sees it as a crucial step in branding the property for wider commercial exploitation. Once the New York production closes, Maluso wants to launch “a series of sit-down engagements,” noting that a traditional tour would be impractical due to the show’s long load-in. (Floor-padding requirements mean each venue has to be customized.)

“Jump” is less costly than some — under $2 million for the initial capitalization — but the recoup time could be a long one with a weekly gross potential of $231,000 in the 499-seat Union Square. “The weekend nights are selling out now,” says Maluso, adding that a third Saturday perf is in the works and suggesting spring 2008 as the start of the U.S. tour.

“Fuerzabruta” and “Jump” may be a trial to mount and move, but neither is the size of the sprawling “Wintuk,” which Cirque recently opened for an exclusive New York run in Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater.

As with other shows from the Canadian troupe,“Wintuk’s” strong visuals are designed to appeal to audiences across national boundaries. Whether or not auds comprehend the simple dialogue, the story is told visually, and is largely secondary to the series of acrobatic and scenic feats.

It’s not business as usual for the troupe, though — “Wintuk” is both the first show Cirque has premiered in Manhattan and its first family-oriented venture.

Presale figures for “Wintuk” indicate success — the show reportedly sold 300,000 tickets before it even opened, raking in an advance of more than $20 million.

Highbrow legiters may despair that these crowd-pleasing spectacles are conspiring to turn Gotham into Vegas East. But it’s worth noting that some producers who do well targeting foreign tourists with highly visual shows don’t necessarily limit themselves to that arena: Routh and his partners produced Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” on Broadway, while Binder has a production credit on the Tony-winning “Frost/Nixon.”

Directly and indirectly, these physical theater ventures feed the Gotham legit scene in ways Broadway hasn’t been able to do for two weeks now. It’s a subset of the theater that’s becoming increasingly valuable, and with Broadway business momentarily stifled, these shows are making a loud noise with few words.

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