Fasten your seat belts -- it's a bumpy road out there for several new tours

Payday or mayday? | It’s reigning men in Las Vegas | Chi’s broadway bandwagon

At the Denver Center Attractions, prexy Randy Weeks is opening his 2011 road season with the tour of “Next to Normal,” starring Alice Ripley.

“It’s apt,” Weeks says of his selection of the mental-health tuner. “I keep wondering what is normal now.”

As presenters peek out at the new road roster, they mostly like what they see.

“West Side Story” is both a classic title and (unlike the tuners from the previous decades), a show with demonstrable boomer appeal. “It’s one of those shows,” says Mike Isaacson of the St. Louis-based Fox Theatricals, “to which parents want to take their kids to share something that meant a lot to them. And that’s very, very powerful.”

“Rock of Ages,” the 1980s jukebox attraction, is regarded as a tad risky for the subscriber base but a strong single-ticket and a draw for the under-40 set. And with Constantine Maroulis (of “American Idol” fame) in the lineup, road auds will be getting that rare creature known as an original Broadway star, one willing to sing his pretty face off for their viewing pleasure. Another boomer-friendly show headed out this year, “Hair” is viewed as offering some needed excitement, along with some risk for more conservative markets.

Meanwhile, “9 to 5″ has been retooled as a road-friendly show, replete with an all-new streamlined production from new director Jeff Calhoun, an explicitly retro setting and a new presence for the much-beloved Dolly Parton. The Oprah of East Tennessee has not only shot a TV commercial for the tour, she now appears in the show in video form — just like the Dixie Stampede at Dollywood — introducing and contextualizing the familiar characters.

“Billy Elliot” isn’t viewed as a sold-out, multiweek blockbuster — which had been the original hope in some road quarters — but the well-reviewed Chi-originating tour and its pending touring sibling (bowing this fall) are regarded as high-quality, if expensive, road attractions capable of seven-figure weekly grosses in most markets, despite some potential resistance to politics and profanity. The show is a prestige title, capable of anchoring subscriptions, even if its high running costs — which far exceed its peers — preclude big paydays for either side of the business.

“Shrek the Musical,” which was significantly improved for the road by DreamWorks Theatricals prior to its Chicago bow this summer, is also viewed as a solid prospect in most markets. DreamWorks, which gets multimedia benefits from promoting the “Shrek” brand, has been putting major marketing resources behind the tour. Still, it’s regarded as a show very much for families. That’s a double-edged sword — the show’s adult appeal appears limited, but families buy multiple tickets.

As long as they can afford to buy them. And therein lies the rub. Since economic conditions remain rough, nobody quite knows what’s normal on the road any more.

“It’s a bit of a nailbiter this season,” Isaacson says.

In many industrial cities, increasingly close attention is being paid to pricing. At the Playhouse Square Center in Cleveland, for example, you now can sit on the main floor for seven touring shows for just $140. Vice-president Gina Vernaci says that a decision was made to ensure that seats at the rear of the orchestra were filled with warm bodies, especially early in the first week of the typical two-week run. In the past, Cleveland created a variety of three- and four-show packages to keep prices down. Those have been scrapped.

“We only have seven home games,” Vernaci said. “We have to make it affordable for people to see all of them.”

Plans are still being formed for “American Idiot,” a complicated issue on the road, and “Fela!” which is expected to begin touring in either the summer or the fall of 2011. At the same time, presenters are eyeing the planned tour of “Memphis” with wary interest, unsure of whether it will be a strange title in a strange land or a sleeper show that could outperform the bigger boys, just as it did on Broadway.

Meanwhile, “The Addams Family” is having no trouble securing 2011-12 bookings. Weeks might not know what’s normal any more, but he can read proven Broadway grosses with no difficulty whatsoever.

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