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Frankie Moreno producer still hasn’t learned its Las Vegas lessons

Are you old enough to remember when newspapers reprinted “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” every year?

Well, it’s summer and it’s hot outside and, yawn, maybe I should just dust off a column that ran on March 17, 2013.

The headline was “Base takes its bumps learning on the fly,” referring to Base Entertainment, which runs two Broadway musicals in town — “Rock of Ages” and “Million Dollar Quartet” — and operates the second-floor PH Showroom at Planet Hollywood Resort.

“There’s no arguing the company has interesting ideas. They’ve just been very expensive,” I wrote of misfires such as CeeLo Green’s karaoke show “Loberace.” But that old column actually did go out of date, because I concluded that hard knocks and new management may have taught the company “how to have high-roller tastes on a low-roller budget.”

Apparently not.

Saturday was to bring down the curtain on Frankie Moreno’s “Under the Influence” showcase after only 10 weeks.

I can still cut and paste from another column on July 24, 2013. That one talked about how a short-lived Broadway title, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” continued Base’s tendency “to misread the market, and its knack for getting in deep water with expenses.”

If you need catching up, Moreno is an old-school entertainer and locals favorite, who played three years at the Stratosphere on a low budget: just him, his piano, his band and his showmanship. Nothing fancy.

Base, to its credit, wanted to take him to another level of stardom. And to do that under the same roof as Britney and J-Lo would call for a bigger production, full of moving set pieces and video screens.

What we saw from the audience seemed about right. The video screens could be shared with roommate ventriloquist Paul Zerdin. The prop convertible was left over from “Peepshow.”

It was a no-brainer that Moreno was a word-of-mouth act who would need six months to build. Tourists have to go home and tell their friends, and Moreno’s PR folks need time to get him booked on Jimmy Kimmel and the like.

Surely the producers were braced for the long game with a handsome, but hardly extravagant production that was buckled down to a lean-and-mean overhead, right?

Wrong.

It came to light last week that Moreno was given a four-week notice on his four-year contract only two weeks after his official opening night, May 4. Apparently, the show’s overhead was so high that the producers weren’t financially prepared to run a month, let alone six.

Before we proceed, caveats: Both sides’ on-the-record comments are limited to diplomatic statements, and off-the-record background is a bit imbalanced.

Base’s diplomatic statement points the finger Moreno’s way: “The show has been unable to draw the level of audience required for an ongoing residency.”

That’s a problem, all right.

But just what was “the level of audience required”? For most shows in Moreno’s price range, you should need about 100 to 125 paid customers per night. This one was said to require more than three times that number to break even.

Most of your more modest, non-Cirque titles, such as “Legends in Concert,” should have weekly running costs in the $35,000 to $50,000 range. This one was said to be more than twice that.

Moreno’s camp was blindsided by these numbers, since they weren’t co-producers or investors in the show.

Moreno says that because he and his band were only about a fourth of the weekly cost, he was more than willing to cut all the moving parts — three pianos, wireless feeds to multiple amps — and go back to the show he did at the Stratosphere.

But he was told that wasn’t possible. Which is curious, considering that Base did just that when it trimmed operating expenses for “Peepshow” in the same room a few years ago, after initial projections proved overoptimistic.

Base’s answer was instead to run the full show less often, on Friday and Saturday nights.

This isn’t always a bad idea. But again, Moreno’s level of fame isn’t Britney’s, and it seems like you have to give potential customers more chances to see him.

Moreno is likely to land on his feet, either in a more modest showcase on the Strip or back in Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

And Base? Hopefully it will keep bringing cool stuff to town. “Million Dollar Quartet” is awesome. But it will learn from its mistakes this time, right?

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com. Follow him @Mikeweatherford

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