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April 20, 2014

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Avenue Q’ dead-ends

In the end, maybe what "Avenue Q" needed to be a hit in Las Vegas was acrobats diving into a pool, some pyrotechnics unleashed against a driving soundtrack, a less American-centric script dealing with topics less weighty than racism - and maybe a few showgirls. Yeah, more showgirls - that's the ticket.

But the Tony Award-winning musical direct from Broadway had none of those staples of the Las Vegas spectacle - and ended up selling far fewer tickets at the 1,200-seat Wynn Las Vegas theater than producers and Steve Wynn had hoped.

And so Wynn this week decided to cut the strings to the adult-themed puppet show, deciding that his theater is a much too valuable piece of real estate to continue to house a production that is only modestly successful.

The planned May 28 closing of "Avenue Q," only nine months after its much-touted Sept. 9 debut, is perhaps less important for what it says about the show than for what it reveals about what works - and doesn't work - in theaters on the Strip.

"One of our challenges is that Las Vegas is an international city," Kevin McCollum, "Avenue Q's" producer, said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his New York City office.

Wynn Las Vegas, McCollum noted, is especially popular with Japanese tourists.

"And 'Avenue Q' is a very American production," he said. "It's full of irony and American symbols."

Some of the most successful shows in Las Vegas are visual and do not require a command of the English language, he added.

"With shows like those by Cirque du Soliel and shows with beautiful showgirls, audiences don't need to listen," McCollum said. "We need a listening audience, not just a watching audience. That might have kept us from doing a million a week."

The production's potential gross from its $88 and $99 tickets, if each performance plays to a full house, is about $1 million a week. McCollum said the Las Vegas production, which recently cut its intermission and dropped a couple of songs to make it more conducive to fans on the Strip, is bringing in about $500,000 a week.

The show's break-even point, McCollum said, is roughly $350,000 a week.

"We are not closing because it is a financial disaster," McCollum said. "We're making money."

But, from Wynn's perspective, not nearly enough money.

"It's developed a niche, but not enough of a niche," the Strip developer said. " 'Avenue Q' was always a fringy decision - a calculated decision to go against the grain. I wanted it to be a niche product, but the buzz didn't develop as I'd hoped."

By ending the show in May and paying "Avenue Q's" producers $4 million to $5 million to end its run a few months early, Wynn said he will save millions of dollars.

The early closing of "Avenue Q" will allow Wynn to use the space for Monty Python's "Spamalot," a Broadway smash that Wynn predicts will have greater appeal.

If, as originally planned, he had built a new theater for "Spamalot," the facility would have cost about $70 million - and invaded the Wynn golf course, something he wanted to avoid.

In addition, Wynn said he would have had to pay about $10 million to move the hotel's convention offices to make way for a new theater.

Beyond the fact that paid attendance for "Avenue Q" has been only slightly more than 50 percent of the theater's capacity, the scheduled Feb. 3 opening of "Spamalot" also drove the decision to end "Avenue Q's" run early. After "Avenue Q" closes, the theater will be renovated, then turned over to "Spamalot" producer Mike Nichols for rehearsals in November.

"I had something Wynn wanted (the theater), and he had something I wanted - I wanted my exclusivity back," McCollum said.

When Wynn brought "Avenue Q" to Las Vegas directly from Broadway, it was with the agreement that it would not play in any other location.

"Now I can talk to the world about my show, and that's an exciting place to be," McCollum said. "In a couple of days we will officially open a company in London."

McCollum said when Wynn made the decision three months ago to take over the "Avenue Q" space, an attempt was made to find another suitable location at the resort.

"We actually found another space with an opportunity to have a 400-seat theater, but that would have been too small for us," he said. "What we need is a room with 700 to 900 seats."

Unable to find such a spot, McCollum said, they began working on the most graceful exit possible.

He left open the possibility that the production could remain in Las Vegas, if the right venue could be found.

"Vegas is a viable market," McCollum said. "The audiences who have seen our show are enthusiastic about it."

Inevitably, however, the early departure of "Avenue Q" from Wynn Las Vegas will put another chink in Las Vegas' effort in recent years to craft an image as "Broadway West."

That idea already has been tainted by the recent closing of "We Will Rock You," last year's failure of "Forbidden Vegas" to find an audience and the financial disaster of "Notre Dame de Paris," which closed at Paris Las Vegas after a seven-month run in 2000.

Late last year, a critic for the New York Post offered a caustic assessment of what was behind "Avenue Q's" attendance problems in Las Vegas, writing: " 'Q' may also be too sophisticated for Vegas audiences, whose tastes generally run to animal acts, Celine Dion and slot machines."

McCollum, though, believes that the "Broadway West" concept is still valid, but argues that because Las Vegas is very different from Broadway, shows must adapt.

"People's attention spans are so much shorter in Las Vegas," McCollum said. "The idea there is to see and do as much as possible in an evening - so the shows must tie in with the restaurants, clubs, bars and spas."

Even as Wynn announced the intention to close "Avenue Q," another Broadway show debuted in Las Vegas - "Hairspray" at the Luxor.

Producer Michael Gill is not the least intimidated by the announced closing.

"It's sad to see that it didn't work. I am very fond of the show," he said. "But I don't think it is an indicator."

Gill believes one of the reasons that "Avenue Q" has not drawn bigger audiences is that it tackles some profound issues - including racism and sexism.

"It's not a spectacle," he said. "It just doesn't meet the definition of entertainment in Las Vegas."

Longtime Las Vegas producer Jeff Kutash, who created "Splash," which has been at the Riviera for more than 20 years, feels "Avenue Q" also was hampered by appealing primarily to a narrow audience.

To succeed in Las Vegas, he said, a show must have broad appeal.

"People come to Vegas to see something they can't find anywhere else," said Kutash, whose latest production, the topless "Headlights and Tailpipes," will open soon at the Stardust. "With 'Splash,' we make frequent changes to keep it fresh, to create repeat business."

"Avenue Q," he said, is simply too esoteric to draw the numbers it needed to succeed.

"I don't think a puppet show in Vegas fits," he said.

Kutash has similar qualms about "Spamalot."

"It, too, is very esoteric," he said. "If you're not a Monty Python fan, are you going to go see the show?"

Wynn, though, is betting that there are more than enough Python fans to make "Spamalot" a hit in Las Vegas.

Asked what he believes will make "Spamalot" a better fit in Las Vegas in general and for Wynn Las Vegas in particular, Wynn offered a succinct reply: "Monty Python."

Despite terminating the $12 million Vegas-sized version of "Avenue Q," Wynn declined to characterize the production as a flop, not least of which because its weekly bottom line is in the black. He also stressed that "Avenue Q" draws about the same number of patrons weekly as Mandalay Bay's widely acclaimed "Mamma Mia."

"Mamma Mia," however, sells about 6,400 tickets in eight shows a week, while it takes "Avenue Q" 10 shows weekly to reach that number.

The failure of "Avenue Q" to make a big profit - and to realize the extra revenue that a full house of showgoers could spend on dining and in his casino - made the decision easy, albeit painful, Wynn said.

"Who loves 'Avenue Q' more than me?" Wynn said. "I've seen it 11 times. But business is business. And now people around the country will be able to see 'Avenue Q.' "

In the meantime, as people inside and outside Las Vegas continue to ponder what went wrong with this production of "Avenue Q," one of the more unusual theories comes from longtime local publicist Frank Lieberman.

Although it is difficult to imagine a Las Vegas show being harmed by risque marketing, Lieberman believes that is exactly what may have happened with "Avenue Q's" teasing "See what all the fuzz is about" ads.

"They made it look like a dirty puppet show," he said.

And in Las Vegas, while audiences have no problem with a little salacious dirt, they apparently would just as soon not have puppets involved.

Jerry Fink can be reached at 259-4058 or at [email protected]

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