Las Vegas' latest great spectacle: musicals

When Tina Walsh arrived from Dallas to dance in a Las Vegas show, with hopes of putting in a few years before pursuing stardom on Broadway, she couldn't have predicted the Great White Way would eventually come to her.

For years, Broadway shows from "Fiddler on the Roof" to "Starlight Express" have flopped here. Vegas audiences, the truism went, seek brief bursts of mindless spectacle that are light on storytelling and heavy on visual dazzle.

But that appears to be changing. "Mamma Mia!," the musical based in the 1970s music of the European pop group Abba, and starring Ms. Walsh, is enjoying unprecedented success. Tony award winning "Avenue Q" announced that rather than tour the country it would head straight to Las Vegas and a state-of-the-art theater tailor-made for it by casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Las Vegas may still be known as "Sin City," but it's becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as it continues to draw a greater number of visitors from places like New York and Los Angeles. Nongambling revenues have almost equaled the city's gaming take for the past several years. Manhattan-like condos are springing up in the middle of this desert oasis, while the Guggenheim and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have been testing the waters with exhibitions of their own.

While highbrow art may never find a wide audience in a place that proudly flaunts its motto as "what happens here, stays here," more show producers are considering Las Vegas seriously for the first time.

"After 'Mamma Mia!,' the Broadway community now has Vegas on their radar screen, whereas before it wasn't thought of as a sit-down market," says Michael Gill of Gill Theatrical Management Inc. in Vegas. "It was thought of as maybe a tour stop at best. The idea that Vegas can sustain long-term sit-down productions is of great interest for a lot of producers now."

The shift is occurring in part because the profile of Las Vegas visitors has changed, too. No longer content with only playing host to transient crowds swooping in for a roll of the dice, the city treated a record 40 million guests this year to a wide selection of fine dining options, high-end shopping, and world-class accommodations. Many of them are young, affluent, and interested in some theater with their blackjack - even if it's Broadway lite:

• "Mamma Mia!," currently the longest show in town and the only one with an intermission, recouped its money within a year and has become a staple on the Boulevard.

• In September, the London hit "We Will Rock You," based on the music of Queen, opened at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel.

• Last month, Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based entertainment juggernaut known for surrealistic human acrobatics, opened its first easy-to-follow narrative production with the $165 million "Ka" at the MGM Grand Hotel.

• Next fall, "Avenue Q," which won the best musical Tony award this year, will premiere at the soon-to-open $2.4 billion Wynn Las Vegas resort.

But if Vegas watchers are delighted, Broadway purists are less pleased by the trend. New York Times theater writer Jesse Green says it reflects a dumbing down of Broadway and the fact that Broadway producers today are relying more on visual tricks and already popular music rather than unique storytelling and new music. In that respect, Mr. Green says, it's more a matter of Broadway stooping to Vegas' level than Vegas becoming a more artistically sophisticated market.

Still, these multibillion-dollar properties are largely banking on sure bets, says Glenn Medas, vice president for entertainment at Mandalay Resort Group, which owns the Mandalay Bay and the Luxor Resort Hotel Casino. Mr. Medas will be heading to New York City this month to check out the Vegas potential of "Wicked," "The Lion King," and "Hairspray."

"Not every show on Broadway is going to work in Las Vegas," Medas says. "It's safer to bring something in that's [been] successful somewhere else."

The big exception - and notably the biggest risk - in the group of musicals opening in the coming year: the offbeat, thought-provoking "Avenue Q." Not only is the music obscure, but it is also performed largely by puppets who ponder issues of sexuality, racism, and unemployment.

Producer Kevin McCollum notes that the 1,100-seat theater affiliated with an internationally known casino offers strong enticements for a show that may not have played well in five-day engagements around the US.

"Our show, because we don't have a lot of major stars and [have] some edgy material, is a bit of a slow burn," Mr. McCollum says. "With a tour, you go to Atlanta with a 4,000-seat theater, and you typically open on a Tuesday, close on Sunday. That's not enough time to get people excited about something that's very unique."

Indeed, the success of a show whose motif echoes "Sesame Street" could be solid proof that the entertainment appetite of Vegas audiences has expanded for good.

In the meantime, more actors like Walsh are gladly welcoming opportunities to trade in feathered headdresses to star in Broadway shows, without having to pack their bags.

"["Mamma Mia"] is the perfect role for me," says Walsh, who plays Donna, the 40-something single mother of a young woman trying to find out who her father is. "And it's perfect, because I don't have to leave Las Vegas for it. I never expected that."

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