OZ ‘BEAST’ A BEAUTY

The first offshore production of Disney’s hit musical “Beauty and the Beast” has opened in Melbourne to standing ovations and mostly laudatory notices, while Cameron Mackintosh is in Sydney overseeing final rehearsals for “Miss Saigon.” Both shows racked up huge advances and look set for lengthy runs. The Australian producers of “Beauty and the Beast” now are planning an Asian version, which could debut next year.

The $A10 million ($7.2 million) Australian production of the Disney musical, helmed by Richard Wherrett, bowed at the Princess Theater July 8, co-produced for Disney by Kevin Jacobsen and Michael Edgley.

“It was an exhilarating experience, seeing such audience response and an artistic level of such quality,” said international producer Conwell Worthington, one of a phalanx of Disney brass at the preem.

Noting that each of the international versions aims to replicate the Broadway show (Toronto is next in August, then Vienna, Tokyo and Osaka), Worthington said, “The first show is always the hardest; it’s when you find out, ‘Have we done it right?’ It’s a wonderful (Australian) production team, one of the finest in the world.”

Jacobsen says 200,000 tickets were sold before the opening, and the show is SRO until November. Sales hit a record 14,500 tix on the Monday after the preem, and since then have averaged 7,000 a day. That adds up to a B.O. of $7.9 million. Top price is $48. He forecasts the Melbourne stand will run at least 18 months, after which it’s planned to move to Sydney.

“A blockbuster panto for adults,” said the Melbourne Herald-Sun newspaper, praising the “terrible magnetism and power” of Michael Cormick’s Beast, and Rachel Beck as the “fearless and intelligent” Belle. The paper’s critic Chris Boyd said Hugh Jackman’s Gaston threatens to steal the show.

The production values “eclipse those of ‘Phantom of the Opera,'” opined Peter Cochrane in the Sydney Morning Herald. Tim Robertson in t h e Melbourne Age complimented the staging but faulted the book for “unrelieved banality of character and witlessness of dialogue.”

Jacobsen and Worthington depart July 17 to tour Southeast Asian locations including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Bombay. The Indian city may be problematic due to a steep 35% tax on tickets and concerns about the economy, said Worthington.

“We’re going there to look at venues and to discuss terms and conditions,” said Jacobsen. He and Edgley will produce the Asian version, to launch in either late 1966 or 1997. Jacobsen estimates it will cost about the same to mount an Asian production as the Aussie show.

“Miss Saigon” has already clocked an Australian B.O. record of $14.4 million advance. The top is $54. The Aussie production is the costliest yet , budgeted at $10.8 million.

Mackintosh on the scene

Mackintosh arrived in Sydney last week to oversee final rehearsals of this, the tuner’s eighth production, which will play at the refurbished, 1,900-seat Capitol Theater.

Sydney will thus join N.Y. and London as the only cities simultaneously hosting his productions of “The Phantom of the Opera” (co-produced with Really Useful) and “Miss Saigon.”

Matthew Dalco, Mackintosh’s general manager in Australia, is banking on favorable word of mouth to ensure a “very solid one-year-to-two-years” season in Sydney for “Saigon.”

Directed by Matt Ryan, the musical features Filipino actor CoCoy Laurel as the Engineer, Joanna Ampil as Kim (reprising the role from the West End production), Aussie Peter Cousens as her lover Chris, and Broadway thesp Milton Craig Nealy as Chris’ buddy John.

Rather than detract from “Phantom,” which celebrates its second anniversary at Sydney’s Theater Royal July 24, “Miss Saigon” has made the pair a formidable one-two combination. The airline Qantas sponsors both productions and is doing terrific business flying people from other Australian cities and New Zealand to Sydney to see both shows – “the Disneyland effect,” Dalco calls it.

The Oz “Phantom” has the distinction of having never played to an empty seat in five years. The musical grossed $60 million in Melbourne before moving to Sydney, where ticket sales have topped 918,000, realizing $44 million, including a $A2 million advance. Dalco calculates the knock-on effect from “Saigon” has boosted “Phantom” ticket sales by 10% or 1,000 a week.

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