In an effort to bring some truffles and caviar to the popcorn-and-soda-pop crowd, Las Vegas is attempting to shine the bright lights of Broadway on its neon Strip.
If anyone could bring some class to Sequin City, critics have said, Tommy Tune could. After all, the nine-time Tony Award-winning dancer and choreographer is himself a Broadway legend. Mr. Tune opened as the lead in the $50 million high-tech "EFX" show at the MGM Grand earlier this year.
But in the desert city known around the world for scantily clad showgirls, some say the effort to import good taste is like getting an opera diva to perform at Chuck E. Cheese's.
"It's a big gamble," says Bob Brewer, a former instructor at M.S. Juilliard School of Music who has been producing plays at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 10 years. "Is this town going to become a San Francisco or a New York City? I think it's very risky. But I want to think they can pull it off."
Tune, who has not been the breakout hit widely expected, isn't the only member of the Great White Way to move out west. Last month, a production of "Chicago" opened at Mandalay Bay, the newest megaresort. The Tony-award-winning musical has an unlimited run and features an all-star cast, including two-time Tony winner Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen.
Certainly the show's skimpy costumes and Fosse sensibility fit right in, but what sets "Chicago" apart is that it is the first-ever full-length Broadway production to hit the Strip.
While the final tally has yet to be made, tourists are warming up to the idea of a Broadway play, says Bill Doak, spokesman for Mandalay Bay. "Chicago" hasn't sold out, but sales have not been disappointing either, he says, declining to give exact numbers. "It is a departure from what generally is playing on the Strip. We feel as if we are filling a niche."
While tourists may consider Broadway just another show, they are lining up in droves for the fine-art exhibit at the Bellagio. That's right, Picasso and Renoir have also moved to the Strip.
At the heart of the middle-brow movement is the same thing that inspired architects to recreate Venice in the desert: money. Casinos are looking to attract more tourists.
"I think it's a little bit of tonying up the joints," says Donald Carns, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada. But he adds, "I would be careful about type-casting this town in any way. I've been here 25 years and it continually changes.
"This town doesn't strive to be high culture," he says. "Whatever appears here doesn't surprise me. This town has a real corny side to it. Las Vegas is capable within its purview to accommodate most anything."
But it may not be enough to simply run the same old shows, critics say. People "come here to see something completely different," says Michael Paskevich, a critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I think if we're going to do Broadway, [it can't be] the old war horses that people know. People are going to continue to want to see a 'Siegfried and Roy' or showgirls."
It's not the first time Broadway has come to Vegas: In 1951, Jack Soo starred in a heavily cut version of "Flower Drum Song" at the Thunderbird hotel; in 1963, the Riviera staged an edited "Bye, Bye, Birdie"; and in 1967, Caesar's Palace brought in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." The fact that this hasn't been tried since Lyndon Johnson was president is emblematic of those shows' success here.
"If 'Chicago' bombs, it'll be a while before somebody tries that again," says Mr. Carns.
And even though a few casinos are once again trying to lure tourists with Broadway-caliber productions, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority continues to lure tourists with lounge lizards and Elvis impersonators. "Casinos are trying to change the image of Las Vegas, yet representatives of the Convention and Visitors Authority travel all over the world ... with showgirls and Elvis impersonators. Las Vegas is experimenting again with Broadway shows, that's all," says Myram Borders, bureau chief for the Convention Authority's News Bureau.
In the meantime, Tommy Tune will return to Broadway. "He's a very powerful person in the theater," UNLV's Mr. Brewer says. "I don't think his reputation has been tarnished by coming to Vegas." And, he notes, Las Vegas will go on without him.