All-American tuners roll out on road

Producers strive to get shows to auds

With moods frazzled and the Gotham-based infrastructure in inevitable disarray, this year’s road season is getting off to the shakiest of starts.

But with weary auds across the country now in serious need of escapism and comfort, the fall slate’s unusual reliance on such classic all-American tuners as “Kiss Me, Kate,” “South Pacific,” “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls” may well prove to be a move that fits the times.

Producers are banking that the familiarity and comfort of some of these blue-chip titles will overcome any worries about their lack of a Broadway pedigree. The current tour of “Kiss Me, Kate” is the only one of the crop of classics that’s coming off a Broadway stand.

Last season’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” which made a mint without benefit of a recent Broadway revival, sparked this year’s sudden return to the classics, often with a moderate budget. ” ‘Fiddler’ was our biggest hit,” says Eileen LaCario of Clear Channel Entertainment’s Broadway in Chicago series.

Ticket slump seen

But this year’s crop is facing a different environment in the wake of last week’s events.

Road presenters are seeing an instant, hopefully temporary, crisis in ticket sales, and producers are having trouble getting their people and sets where they need to go.

Even in markets without road shows on the boards, ticket sales dropped precipitously last week. In Detroit, advance sales for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” sunk by at least two-thirds on Sept. 11 and were still off by a third the following day.

“Obviously, people are very distracted,” says Al Lichtenstein, who runs the Detroit road stop for the Nederlander Organization.

“Sales here are as flat as I have ever seen them,” says Gina Vernacci of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center.

Making things worse, bought-and-paid-for TV spots did not air last week.

“I figured we had $10,000 in TV that did not run,” Lichtenstein says. “So I switched to newspapers as quickly as I could for the weekend.”

With media crews busy elsewhere, promo events like the season kickoff at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhoad Island and a Rockettes photo call in Cleveland, Ohio, were both nixed.

“This is just a tough time to be in the ticket business,” says Providence prexy Lyn Singleton. “People just don’t want to buy tickets to anything.”

And as of last week, road producers were in logistical hell.

Barry Weissler likes to remind people that he began his career as a road mogul with a couple of actors and an old station wagon. As he tried to get “South Pacific” sailing toward Bloomington, Ind., Weissler found himself on the dusty road again.

“We’re going back to the old days of touring,” a weary Weissler said last week, having failed to secure flights for any of his company out of New York and resorted to busing everyone to Indiana. There were other “South Pacific” complications, too.

Director Scott Feris was supposed to be flying in and out and then leaving to direct “Chicago” in Manchester, England. And creative consultant Jerry Zaks had commitments in New York.

With planes barely in the air, Weissler was scrambling.

“Right now,” he said, “yours truly will be directing the show.”

Classics lead the way

Along with a well-received revival of “Guys and Dolls” starring Maurice Hines and the controversial non-Equity “Music Man,” the Weisslers’ “South Pacific” is one of the pinnacles of the new road slate.

With Michael Nouri toplining, the 1949 tuner has gone out for a 50-week run (Nouri says he has committed to only six months). According to Weissler, new material is being added (or, more accurately, put back) into the book this weekend, fleshing out the show that was workshopped at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

If all goes well, Weissler says, this show will become “the base” for a separate Broadway production with Zaks at the helm.

“Everything we are doing is trivialized by these recent events,” Nouri said late last week. “But I’m looking at the material with new eyes now.”

“South Pacific,” after all, preaches a message of tolerance, most notably in the song “You’ve Got To Be Taught.”

Perhaps as a result of the flap with Actors’ Equity, Big League Theatricals has clearly moved away from explicitly marketing its nonunion “Music Man” as any kind of first national tour, and Broadway helmer Susan Stroman apparently has avoided much direct involvement.

The director is listed as Ray Roderick, Stroman’s associate, and the tour release describes the direction as “adapted from” Stroman’s original work. Similarly, Stroman’s choreography is being “re-created” by an associate.

“It’s not being touted as the Broadway show,” says marketing consultant Laura Matalon, who says the show is selling well on the basis of its title. Still, some presenters are grumbling that union protests surrounding the tuner will cause them some hassles, especially in the bigger markets.

“Guys and Dolls,” first seen at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, is in Buffalo, N.Y., this week as part of a 50-city slate. It’s being marketed with its multiracial cast, which includes Hines and married thesps Diane and Brian Sutherland as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson.

Presenters say Hines is filling out the top line nicely. “People know him,” says Lichtenstein. “His name sells tickets.”

Like “South Pacific,” the show may well end up on Broadway in 2002. But for now, it’s serving road auds craving some all-American release.

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