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Smith Center, Broadway broadcasts great for theater lovers

Is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts a mistake?

I don’t know. I gave up predictions years ago, when "Hairspray" failed at the Luxor. I was certain the show was going to be a perfect fit for Vegas and would run forever.

But I do know: Watching the high-definition national broadcast of last year’s Tony-winning musical "Memphis" at The Orleans last weekend (it also played at other movie houses for several days), I was reminded of how starved Vegas is for professional theater.

The NCM Fathom and Broadway Worldwide organizations took a risk in selecting Sin City as one of its participating outlets. No, the broadcast didn’t give off the same electricity as a live show, but it contributed its own magic. Camera angles often heightened the action and took us places the naked eye couldn’t. The huge images made Sergio Trujillo’s choreography all the more overwhelming.

The musical (with a score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan and Joe DiPietro) bears a surface resemblance to "Hairspray." A white male DJ falls in love with a black female singer, and that doesn’t sit well in 1950s Tennessee. The plot sounds familiar, but I was surprised at how well bookwriter DiPietro was able to communicate the complications of the issue. It’s easy for well-meaning people to say, "The couple should follow their hearts," but DiPietro shows us (sometimes graphically) the results of that attitude during a time of violent segregation. I came away wondering, "If the pair really loved each other, should they have put each other at deadly risk?"

It was frequently breathtaking to watch how director Christopher Ashley transported us from one scene to another. We were reminded of how far Broadway productions have come in terms of technical know-how.

"Memphis" is to be one of a series of upcoming broadcasts. Of course, whether or not Vegas continues to be on the playing list will depend on what happens at the box office (these special event tickets are $20 — a bargain for an up-close look at a Broadway show).

During intermission, Myron Martin, the president of the now-being-built Smith Center, offered the audience some good news. The touring company of the live "Memphis" will be among the shows slated to play the downtown complex in 2012. The other announced titles are all recent big leaguers: "Mary Poppins," "Million Dollar Quartet" (about a 1956 recording session that united Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charles Perkins and Elvis Presley), "The Color Purple" and "Wicked." Martin estimated tickets will go from $24 to about $89 for a "gold circle." But he emphasized there will no premium-priced seats (which can cost about $300 in New York).

There are many who doubt the future success of the Smith Center; perhaps for good reason, I can’t say, I’m not a businessman. But considering that the complex is bringing us at least five shows next year — compared to the zero we’ve had this year and several years prior — I would think local theater lovers would be wishing the Smith Center well. At least someone, at long last, is doing something.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@ aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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