Singing Songs In Sin City

In this desert metropolis known more for its lounge acts and showgirls, Broadway musicals are blooming.

An increasing number of high-profile shows, including the Tony Award-winning "Avenue Q," are putting down roots in Sin City for extended runs, bypassing bigger locales such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

"The great thing about Vegas is that we don't have to go to America," said Kevin McCollum, an "Avenue Q" producer. "America will come to us."

Word that "Avenue Q" will not tour, opting for an open-ended engagement in Las Vegas next year, surprised many in the theater world and was met with criticism, particularly from road producers whose cities would have seen a production.

When the curtain goes up on "Avenue Q" in September 2005, the Las Vegas Strip will be home to no fewer than four big-budget musicals.

"We really are becoming the entertainment capital of the world," said Myron Martin, executive director of the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation. "We've said it for years, but with Broadway, it adds a little bit more legitimacy."

Las Vegas has long been a draw for big-name entertainment and has played host to Broadway shows on tour. But it wasn't until 1999 and "Chicago" that the local tourism industry realized there was a market for long-running theatrical productions.

The sexy musical parlayed what was supposed to be a 17-week stint at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino into a yearlong engagement. It was the first Broadway show to successfully manage an extended run in Las Vegas.

The show's success kept hotel executives thinking of Broadway. When the opportunity arose last year to land "Mamma Mia!" - the high-energy show built around songs from the Swedish pop group ABBA - Mandalay Bay snapped it up.

For the show's producers, opening a permanent production in Las Vegas was an opportunity to tap into the city's seemingly endless stream of visitors - some 36 million a year.

"People come to Las Vegas to have fun, enjoy the city and enjoy the company of other people," said Nina Lannan, the show's executive producer and general manager. "`Mamma Mia!' fits into that."

The "Mamma Mia!" strategy has been a hit. Since opening in February 2003, the show has filled an average of about 85 percent of the theater's 1,744 seats each night. The success also prompted a recent rise in ticket prices, which now range from $49.50 to $110 and compare to those on Broadway, where the top ticket is about $100.

But the coziness of Broadway can sometimes be hard to replicate for shows requiring smaller theaters. For "Avenue Q," it was essential. The show's Las Vegas home at Steve Wynn's new megaresort, Wynn Las Vegas, will be a $40 million, 1,200-seat theater. The resort is scheduled to open in April 2005.

"In Steve, we had someone who not only loved the show, but was willing to build an intimate theater," said McCollum, the producer. "Part of the show is the environment in which you see the show."

For some in the business of musical theater, Las Vegas offers an opportunity to bypass Broadway.

Earlier this month, the producers of "We Will Rock You" - the London musical incorporating the legendary songs of Queen - announced the show's North American debut would be in August, as part of an extended engagement at the Paris Las Vegas hotel-casino.

"Vegas is just a wonderful place to launch a show, when you think about the risks you can take here and the openness of the audience," said Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca Film Festival founder and one of the show's producers.

Rosenthal, who co-founded the New York-based Tribeca Theatrical Productions with actor Robert De Niro, said producers decided Las Vegas was a better choice for the show, which was largely panned by critics in London.

"New York is a very tough, critic-driven town," Rosenthal said. "Sometimes when you're trying something new and different, it doesn't necessarily work there."

But Las Vegas isn't always a sure bet.

The Paris hotel-casino gambled on the musical "Notre Dame de Paris" in 2000. Its unfamiliar title, music and dark ending didn't play well with vacationing tourists, and the show closed after seven months.

The producers of "Saturday Night Fever" are hoping to improve on the show's limited Broadway success with an open-ended run at the Sahara hotel-casino. The musical was a hit in London, but endured tough reviews in New York before leaving in 2000.

The show has been modified, with producers deleting some dialogue and adding more music and dancing, said Ron Garrett, Sahara's director of marketing and entertainment.

"We glitzed it up," Garrett said. "We felt that anything beyond an hour and a half might be more than a Vegas audience might want."

The typical tourist might be easier to please than a New York critic.

Adds Martin, of the performing arts foundation: "Las Vegas audiences love to be entertained, tap their feet and sing along."

By Christina Almeida