‘Priscilla’: Another market misread

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” turned out to be a very bad idea with a good one still wrapped inside its dress. At least, Broadway fans should hope so.

To the surprise of almost no one, the campy musical will close July 21, four weeks shy of its scheduled stay at The Venetian.

Flipping through an airline magazine over the holiday weekend, a “Priscilla” ad featuring its stars in garish drag jolted me with just how scary an image it was for straight dudes. And this from one who has seen the show, and liked it quite a lot.

But most straight dudes in other cities ended up seeing “Priscilla” as part of a Broadway subscription series, like the ones offered at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

You are more likely to go see something you have paid for already. And audiences once seated will find “Priscilla” has a lot of heart.

But selling walk-up tickets on the Strip for a very gay title, based on an equally nichey cult movie that came out 19 years ago? I was reminded of a long-ago conversation with a Broadway show producer, who explained why “Jersey Boys” made it in Las Vegas, and why “Monty Python’s Spamalot” fared better than some.

Women make the show-buying decisions, the producer explained, with the choice often settled by which prospect gets the least resistance from the husband or boyfriend.

Whether that’s true, “Priscilla” continues the tendency of local producer Base Entertainment to misread the market, and its knack for getting in deep water with expenses.

Last week, Base announced it will close “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood Resort on Sept. 1, a decision likely related to the show’s overhead. With “Priscilla,” union contracts are said to keep the cast paid for eight shows a week even though it’s only performing six.

Still, bad math can be overcome if you have a show people want to see. With The Smith Center now bringing touring Broadway shows one week at a time, it’s a very short list of titles that make sense for longer casino-based runs. Of those running right now, I’d say only “Book of Mormon” and “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” would be in the long-term interests of both show producers and a casino landlord.

Still, “Priscilla” got one thing right. It’s a touring production, one that will end up in San Francisco after its unplanned vacation. Other Broadway shows that played on the Strip lacked that mobility. Whether it was “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Avenue Q” or “The Lion King,” all of them were financed specifically for a Las Vegas run. When numbers slowed, packing up and moving on to the next town was simply not an option.

But if a three-month stay could be an option for other titles? Casinos could be back in competition with The Smith Center for the likes of “Book of Mormon” (to which it lost Round One), or newer Broadway hits once they go on the road.

The Smith Center will play tough here; already it has scored the first tour date for the Cyndi Lauper hit “Kinky Boots.” But the plot involves drag queens. And Priscilla has probably poisoned casino buyers’ interest in drag — if not Broadway altogether — for some time to come.

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

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