Broadway in casinos still shows signs of life

Will “Jersey Boys” reopening in March be the last hurrah for Broadway in casinos? Not if disco drag queens or Texas madams have any say.

Downtown’s long-awaited Smith Center will host a flood of touring Broadway titles that would never be considered for extended “sit-downs” in a casino, from “Mary Poppins” (just imagine the Jay Leno jokes) to “The Color Purple.”

And last week’s news that the Las Vegas “Phantom” will close Labor Day doesn’t make it easier to sort out the future for casino-based musicals after the Smith Center opens.

Still, the Plaza plans to host a standing, community-based production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” just a few blocks from the new municipal center. The 1978 hit is set to open by March as a 5 p.m. attraction in the Plaza’s vintage showroom, which once hosted dinner-theater productions of musicals and slamming-door farces.

“Absolutely it’s going to help” to be so close to the Smith Center, says Anthony Cools, who is overseeing entertainment at the Plaza (while still performing his own hypnosis show at Paris Las Vegas). “Whorehouse” will be helmed by SFS Entertainment, known for years of community productions from partners Betty Sullivan-Cleary, William Freyd and Bob Sperling.

And on the Strip, The Venetian/Palazzo is at least one casino player that seems to consider Broadway still viable in the Smith Center era.

The Palazzo theater vacated by “Jersey Boys” is likely to be filled by “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a currently running Broadway adaptation of the Australian movie comedy about drag performers on a road-trip quest. It uses a jukebox score to repurpose disco songs from the likes of Madonna and the Village People.

Another jukebox hit, “Rock of Ages,” may follow the Blue Man Group, and there is at least a solid technical foundation for rumors of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” to follow “Phantom.”

Bully for The Venetian. Broadway musicals still seem like a valid answer to the Strip’s current creative and financial embarrassment. Here in town, no one seems to have any good show ideas beyond, “Hmm. What if we did a Cirque du Soleil to … Madonna songs!” And who else has deep enough pockets to get a new idea off the ground?

A Broadway hit is somewhat safer. After other investors take the initial risk, the question becomes how long of a Las Vegas run it deserves. “The Producers,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “The Lion King” were unquestionably good; the problem came in overstaying their welcomes.

In all those cases, investors were sold on a multiyear “sit-down” assembled from scratch. When the show closed, the investment dissolved, with no other way to recoup.

By contrast, most long runs of Broadway musicals outside New York are officially “tours.” Even if a show runs a year, it still packs up and moves to another city when it’s done. This appears to be what will happen with “Priscilla”: a limited run before a national tour starting next fall.

Audiences benefited from the “supersizing” of “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular” with fireworks and stunts, and it was arguably necessary to renew interest in the title. But The Venetian production is said to be $20 million shy of its $35 million investment, on its way to being the only version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” ever to lose money.

By contrast, the first national “tour” of “Phantom” sat in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a combined run of nearly 10 years, grossing more than $305 million. (Three national tours of the show grossed a combined $1.5 billion, a statistic that could be bent to argue either that the “Phantom” endures, or that Las Vegas waited until the cow was nearly milked dry.)

Theater buffs can see it as a win-win, though it does seem ironic that casino presenters come up with a more flexible casino model for Broadway shows just as the Smith Center arrives. Still, only a few shows, such as “Jersey Boys,” are big enough hits to launch more than one touring company. The Smith Center fits the model for single tours that want to cover a lot of ground in short hops. …

Anthony Cools also has another title lined up for the Plaza, a more Las Vegas comedy-magic show called “Avant Garde,” produced by Jon Fondy for PMJ Global Entertainment. “It’s not a typical variety show,” Fondy says of the “music, mime, mirth and magic” aiming for a Valentine’s Day debut.

It will offer a modular format with a continuing cast headlined by illusionist Juliana Chen, with mirthful magic backup from Kevin James, Ed Alonzo and Michael Finney. Jerome Murat provides the mime. …

Every night is Halloween for “Bite,” the campy topless show about vampires that’s well into its seventh year at the Stratosphere. Even though producer Tim Molyneux missed his own Halloween deadline for reworking the production, changes will be in place Feb. 4, at least for Valentine’s Day.

The ominous narration has changed to a new tone that signals it’s OK to laugh with the show, not at it, Molyneux says. But a major shift comes simply from casting Mitchell Tannis as the new Lord Vampire.

“He looks more like the ‘Twilight’ cast,” the producer says, and “moves a lot more, makes it a little more rockish.” Tannis’ dancing skills also create “a lot more interaction between him and the Queen.”

The new Queen, Ashton Joseph, also will become an Elvira-like mascot who promotes the show at outside events as “Vegas’s only vampire hostess.”

These changes will coincide with new marketing (“Vegas Vampires. Classic rock.”) to relaunch the show. “The Stratosphere likes the ‘Bite’ show because it makes money for them,” Molyneux said.

However, during the stretch between the departure of “American Superstars” and the arrival of Frankie Moreno as the new early show, “we strategically waited to market ‘Bite.’ They were not crazy about having a topless vampire show be the face of the Stratosphere.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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