The Adjustment Bureau

UNLV’s Performing Arts Center adapts after ceding the limelight to The Smith Center


Select dancers of the Russian Ballet.

Share and share … not quite alike.

Our city’s cultural balance between our twin performing arts centers at UNLV and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has come into clearer focus now that the university—once our artistic hub—has announced its 2012-13 stage schedule.

Conclusion? Lopsided. Predictably so: Flashy-splashy newcomer does a slam-dunk on marquee value via light-up-the-sky names flocking to The Smith Center. Artistic value, however, is highly subjective and ultimately unquantifiable.

With widely recognized performers virtually gone from UNLV’s schedule—and with a shorter season and smaller venues than The Smith Center in which to make its mark—the university has weighted its lineup toward classical music and dance, sprinkling in jazz and comedy. Similar offerings also fill The Smith Center’s schedule.

However, while finding its bearings in our new Smith-centered universe, UNLV could capitalize on opportunities in two genres—nonmusical theater and opera—where The Smith Center sked is thin to nonexistent.

Taking inventory:

Over the past decade, UNLV’s Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall hosted a tier of titans: Broadway biggies (Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga); jazz heavyweights (Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea); cabaret performers (Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch); and classical superstars (Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma).

Next season: Longtime UNLV anchors—the Classical Guitar, Charles Vanda Master and New York Stage & Beyond series—will be joined by a new chamber music series. Guest list includes: classical vocal quartet New York Polyphony, select dancers of the Russian Ballet, the China National Symphony Orchestra, jazz group Fourplay and chamber ensemble Zéphyros Winds. (Plus, UNLV hosts local stalwarts including the Las Vegas Master Singers, the Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society and the Desert Chorale.)

Such performers—artistically stellar and catnip to aficionados— have always been integral to UNLV’s season, but the lack of mass appeal is glaring. Most recognizable among next season’s guests will be the tour stop of iconic comedy troupe Second City.

Overall, the roster’s commercial viability is a question mark. Given that UNLV’s center is not state-supported but under the auspices of the College of Fine Arts, it is on its own financially with an operating budget of about $2.5 million. Yet donations account for only 1 percent of its production and maintenance costs. Tickets sales and rental fees provide the bulk of its funding.

Artistic director Larry Henley estimates that expenditures on artists fees are more or less equal to last season’s $290,000, and “not every event we present generates more ticket revenue than the artist fee.” While Henley says that “the center has and will continue to operate in the black,” campus newspaper Rebel Yell reported last year that it was seeing lower student and faculty turnout, as well as declining ticket sales, including subscription series. (Next year’s series has been redesigned to include a Design Your Own Series option with discounted prices.)

Meanwhile, since its March debut, The Smith Center is attracting performers who otherwise might have been campus-bound money-makers: Yo-Yo Ma, Branford Marsalis, Barbara Cook, Idina Menzel and Diana Krall, among others. Notably, The Smith Center also inspired the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre—both onetime tenants of Ham Hall—to pack their tights, tubas and rental fees once paid to UNLV and resettle at Reynolds Hall.

Yet, as noted in the May 31 edition of Vegas Seven, opera is omitted from The Smith Center’s schedule, while Ham Hall hosts a major production of Opera Las Vegas’ Don Giovanni on June 15 and 17, and features its own campus opera group, which staged Carmen in March.

Most eye-catching on UNLV’s Ham Hall schedule is a booking that could fuel the hopes of drama-starved fans. With no permanent outlet for professional nonmusical productions, they’ve long found their fix via community playhouses and the university’s student-based Nevada Conservatory Theatre.

Having traditionally left its theater programming to that group, UNLV this year invited The Acting Company to stage the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men on Oct. 21. Co-founded by the late John Houseman, The Acting Company is one of the nation’s most prestigious touring troupes. One-man shows have been the preference to date, such as perennial favorite Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight! (though Holbrook canceled last year’s UNLV performance), while The Smith Center recently hosted Tovah Feldshuh in Golda at Reynolds Hall and Alan Safier in Say Goodnight Gracie in the Troesch Studio Theatre.

Forced out of the “star” business, by and large, UNLV has a chance to fill a cultural niche that’s been barren too long. While The Smith Center laudably imports banner Broadway musicals—Wicked, Mary Poppins, West Side Story, et al—it’s left meaty dramas off its plate. Thankfully, UNLV picked up the cue, and if Of Mice and Men is a trial balloon for polished, emotionally complex theater to stop off here, it’s a damn good one.

Utilizing that opportunity as a building block, UNLV wouldn’t need to share.

They could own it.

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