Spectacle and Flash

Mitchell Maxwell was deep into the creation of "Hats!" when he took his 81-year-old mother out for a drink.

"A waiter came over to us and asked me what I wanted to drink. Then he asked me, ‘What’s she want?’ " Maxwell recalls.

His answer was, "Why don’t you ask her? She’s not invisible."

Except, perhaps, that she was.

Maxwell soon called singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester to announce the show’s "11th hour number" — that point in the second act of most musicals when the protagonist faces a crisis — "has to be about being invisible."

The Red Hat Society is a visible answer to society’s tendency to ignore older women, figures producer Maxwell. The loose-knit organization of women over 50, identified by their fancy red hats and purple garb, is perhaps the least metaphoric way possible to fight society’s collective tendency to "make them disappear as they get older."

The Society is also good box office, based on the number of red hats you’ll find in almost any given audience for "Menopause The Musical" at the Las Vegas Hilton.

A pre-sold organization with about 1.5 million members, a licensing agreement for the show title (which originally carried the subtitle "The Red Hat Society Musical") and its own infrastructure for delivering bus loads of patrons may not guarantee success on the Strip. But it sure can’t hurt.

"Nobody designs a show without an audience in mind," Maxwell says of the musical that opens Saturday at Harrah’s Las Vegas. "This just happens to be a very vocal, visible audience."

The Red Hatters also may make Harrah’s breathe easier about a title Mitchell describes as "a revue with a book," after the disappointing receptions to full-fledged Broadway musicals such as "Hairspray" and "The Producers."

And since ticketed shows are losing their late-show audiences to nightclubs, the producers see a 6 p.m. start time — with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays — as a brave new world for those who still buy show tickets.

Maxwell’s Sibling Entertainment Group staged "Hats!" as regional theater in Denver and Chicago, but also teamed with veteran Las Vegas producer Dick Foster for the shorter casino version that first played at Harrah’s New Orleans early last year.

"I would say the variety version of the show has a lot more spectacle and flash to it," director David Gravatt says. "We have to at least compete with the lobby of a Las Vegas casino."

However, the trim to 75 minutes wasn’t as simple as cutting all the serious songs to keep all the funny stuff. "I think we’ve been able to achieve a great balance with a show that has a lot of substance and great entertainment value," Gravatt says.

Maxwell was an early investor in "Menopause," and says that show made him see "how rabid, how vociferous" a demographic the Red Hatters could be.

But he calls "Menopause" a "one-joke idea" with its parody lyrics set to familiar songs. "There’s no growth from the beginning of the show to the end. No character really learns anything."

Maxwell took a different tact, commissioning original songs from an array of composers and performers, including Kathie Lee Gifford, Pam Tillis and Manchester, who also starred in the Chicago production.

Even after a month of rehearsals, "sometimes we still get emotional. They really are beautiful, beautiful songs," says Dolly Coulter, one of the nine women rotating the show’s seven roles.

Coulter has been part of Las Vegas entertainment since the ’70s. Though she’s busy with the Irish pub band Killian’s Angels, the one-time poster girl for the Flamingo revue "City Lites" wondered if her days on the Strip were through.

"We all share that loss of youth. We don’t just share it in our careers, but in our bodies and all of that stuff," Coulter says. "You have to embrace it and have a good time with it or it’s going to be a drag."

"It’s just so refreshing, because in my life it’s either lounge gigs or look-alike shows," says Corrie Sachs, who spent much of her Las Vegas career as a Reba McEntire impersonator. "To actually be in a play here in Las Vegas is a miracle. I’m thrilled to be able to do something different."

The cast ranges in age from 49 to 71 and lives out the lesson taught to Maryanne, the show’s protagonist, who is on the verge of 50 and not thrilled about the passage.

"You can still do everything you do. It’s not left up to the younger people to do it," Coulter says. "Of course, I’m not saying we’re not sore. We go through our bottles of Ibuprofen, but we still do it."

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

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