Playing a safe hand? Placing a modest bet? How un-Vegas.
Which isn’t to suggest that The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, its shiny new doors swinging open to the public this week, fears a good gamble. Wagering on transforming a fragmented arts scene into a bastion of culture in Las Vegas is a gutsy roll of the dice. In Sin City parlance, they’re the biggest whale in town.
Perhaps it’s enough. Perhaps it isn’t. Owing to the scrapping of plans for a midsize theater in 2008 and some programming decisions since, the center’s opening offerings beg questions, pitting business prudence against creative risk.
Examining the Smith bookings, spun out through early fall, the inaugural season is inarguably stacked with true talent, a solid roster of culture providers:
There is dance, stretching from traditional (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the resident Nevada Ballet Theatre) to cutting edge (MOMIX, Savion Glover). There are virtuosos (cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Joshua Bell, flamenco artist Paco de Lucia). There is classical music (the Cleveland Orchestra, the resident Las Vegas Philharmonic). There is jazz (Branford Marsalis, Al Jarreau, Ramsey Lewis). There are crooners (Barbara Cook, Andrea Marcovicci). There is a little of everything else (Lily Tomlin, author David Sedaris, Buddy Guy, The Pink Floyd Experience, Straight No Chaser, sketch comedy troupe Women Fully Clothed, Clint Holmes).
Then there’s the lineup of Broadway toe-tappers and roof-raisers: Nearly weeklong runs of The Color Purple, Mary Poppins, Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet, crowned by an almost six-week visit from megahit Wicked. (Announcements of more tours come later this month.)
Some acts are straight out of the let’s-open-a-performing-arts-center playbook: Jarreau and Lewis helped christen Dallas’ AT&T Performing Arts Center in 2009, and Tomlin, Yo-Yo Ma and Million Dollar Quartet helped fuel the launch of Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts six months ago. That simply stamps us as a member in good standing of the PAC Club (nearly 250 strong nationwide).
That doesn’t yet stamp us as artistically ambitious. Glance again at the Broadway series—the singing and dancing 800-pound gorilla of the schedule—and that’s where you catch a disappointing whiff of play-it-safe. Our Great White Way invitees are big, juicy, mass-entertainment lollipops—well-crafted, adored by audiences and critics. But there’s nothing particularly risky, challenging or potentially polarizing, as the best, most envelope-pushing theater can be. (Rumored as a next-get at the center, The Book of Mormon skewers organized religion, but in such a sweet way that it’s hardly divisive.)
Comparatively, the Kauffman Center booked only one other Broadway entry after Quartet. But it’s Next to Normal, a musical about bipolar disorder with more limited appeal—a gutsy experiment in musical theater with some real thematic meat. During the AT&T Center’s first season, South Pacific made a nod toward tradition, but Spring Awakening, the rock musical celebrating teenage sexuality, and raunchy puppet songfest Avenue Q (which had a short-lived run at the Wynn) were saucier selections made despite their subject matter likely excluding certain audiences.
Dallas and Kansas City PACs ironically were willing to wade into riskier, sexier waters than Las Vegas. Business-wise, Smith’s picks make complete sense—the less patrons you offend, the more fannies you plop in the seats. What good is a performing arts center if people don’t come to see the arts performed? Hopefully, though, Las Vegans will ask to take more interesting rides through the world of Broadway, and Smith will be willing to taxi them around.
Prospects are much dimmer for providing locals the thought-provoking pleasures of straight drama. During the AT&T Center’s premiere season, audiences were treated to the tour of the acclaimed Pulitzer/Tony-winning dark comedy August: Osage County, as well as helpings of Arthur Miller, Neil LaBute and Shakespeare by a resident repertory company (which uses a prescribed number of Equity actors). Likely won’t happen here. Smith’s vast, 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall—ideal for blowout musicals—is too oversize for a play, which demands intimacy with an audience. Average Broadway theaters seat 500-plus. UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre accommodates 550 patrons for its student-based Nevada Conservatory Theatre productions.
After a 600-seat theater was purged from Smith’s construction plans in 2008, that left only the too-cozy Troesh Studio Theater, which seats up to 240 people. That effectively deep-sixed professional plays that, despite their lower profile, separate theater from spectacle. Substituting solo shows such as Tovah Feldshuh in Golda’s Balcony and Alan Safier as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie give Smith a token presence in that genre. But it doesn’t obscure how our performing arts center is missing an important performing art.
International and intellectual flavoring is also scarce in the Smith sked. Symphony orchestras from Vienna and Hamburg, as well as the Red Star Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, are on the Kauffman Center’s first-season slate, while the AT&T Center hosted lectures by Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Swank, Frank Langella and David Frost.
Perceived shortcomings don’t overshadow one dominant fact: We’re damn lucky to finally have The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Let’s see if over the coming seasons we can get progressively luckier, as the center’s aesthetic visions evolve and the city’s artistic hopes awaken.