Feel better about yourself, Las Vegas?
Declarations of cultural enrichment notwithstanding, the loudly trumpeted opening of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts on March 10, 2012 was, at its core, a nearly half-billion-dollar exercise in communal self-esteem.
Fine arts, at least on a professional, national level, had no permanent address in this town until the elegant art deco palace at 361 Symphony Park Avenue welcomed Las Vegans to trod its Italian marble floors.
“People in Las Vegas continue to surprise us by telling their friends because new people are discovering The Smith Center all the time,” says Myron Martin, the center’s president. “But anybody who says they opened a $470 million building and everything was perfect, I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the history of man.”
Did musicals turn Las Vegans into Broadway babies? Will we ever see plays that don’t sing and dance? Did jazz pack the promised razzmatazz?
Could we hear it all clearly and see it all cleanly? In reaching for perfection—or at least making an admirable quest for it— we asked Martin to assess some fixes, tweaks and triumphs after The Smith Center, Year One.
If You Stage It, They Will Come … Most of the Time
Building its season with the Broadway series at Reynolds Hall as its centerpiece, The Smith Center booked musicals including The Color Purple, The Addams Family, Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet, Anything Goes, West Side Story and the tour season’s big dog, Wicked.
“We went way beyond our expectations in terms of Broadway subscribers,” Martin says. “Before we opened, I said if we could get to the same level as Dallas—they opened a couple of years before us with 6,000 subscribers—I thought that would be pretty good for us, and we opened with 11,000.”
Straight drama was not on the bill during the Broadway series, though one—War Horse—is among the titles for the 2013-14 season. Reason for the dearth? Lack of choices.
“This isn’t an artistic decision as much as a touring decision,” Martin says. “The Broadway touring model is based on musicals. Out of all the great plays I’ve seen on Broadway this year, I know that none of them are currently slated to tour.“
While musicals as a genre began with a built-in fan base, quirkier presentations brought in a whole other audience. “Seventy percent of the audience that came for DRUMLine had never been here before,” he says. “Two full nights of people who had a blast seeing this show based on the historically black college marching bands.”
Yet expectations had to be downscaled for other attractions, such as the lecture series, whose highlight—an evening with Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim reminiscing about his storied career—did not sell out the 2,050-seat hall.
“Being a perfectionist, anything less than completely sold out was a failure,” Martin says. “Well, the reality is, 1,800 people came to see Stephen Sondheim in Las Vegas, and that’s pretty cool. We can always block out the balcony and make it feel really intimate for a speaker series.” Among upcoming guests who might not require that accommodation: TV icon Alan Alda.
After departing UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall, the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre became roomies again at Reynolds Hall. Though there was statistical overlap as the Philharmonic’s season began at UNLV and continued at The Smith Center, it enjoyed a 20 percent increase in subscriptions for the 2012-13 season. Moving its annual production of The Nutcracker to the center from Paris Las Vegas, Nevada Ballet saw a 13 percent bump in ticket sales.
Lend an Ear, Cast an Eye
Acoustically, Reynolds Hall has garnered largely favorable reviews. “Among the things we got right were non-amplified acoustics,” Martin says. “When the Cleveland Orchestra says it’s one of the best-sounding rooms they’ve played in, it validates what we thought.”
Musicals posed a different challenge. Each tour arrives packing its own sound gear, designed to work in average-sized, average-shaped auditoriums. However, the first to pull in, The Color Purple, revealed that some patrons in certain seating areas were not getting the full audio impact, especially in understanding that show’s heavy dialect.
“We would talk to one person who said the sound was the best they’d ever heard, and someone else maybe 6 or 8 feet away felt like they were missing some of the dialogue,” Martin says.
Adding line array speakers, which aim the sound into narrow, specific areas, addressed the problem, hitting spots not reached by the cluster of speakers on each side of the stage.
Visually, the room is nearly obstruction-free—no poles or pillars—but sitting in the balcony has produced a few complaints about handrails that popped up in the peripheral views of some seat-holders. Rather than risk safety by removing the rails, the center flagged the trouble seats on its website with asterisks, so buyers will know what they’re paying for—or choose not to pay for.
Jazz Me Up, Jazz Me Down
Gorgeous room, great music—you can’t argue with an opening-season lineup that included Branford Marsalis, Barbara Cook, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Al Jarreau, Ramsey Lewis, Pia Zadora, the local Composers Showcase and monthly appearances by Clint Holmes. And yet …
“It’s not where we want it yet,” Martin says about the Cabaret Jazz club. “Live music sounds incredibly good in there. In one weekend, artist X is completely sold out. But we get to Wednesday, or Thursday and it’s only about half sold and we scratch our heads.”
Marketing likely confused some patrons who mistook the title “cabaret jazz” for a series within Reynolds Hall. Also problematic is that some jazz heavyweights such as Diana Krall are booked at Reynolds because of their drawing power while the equally esteemed Marsalis plays at Cabaret Jazz.
“We haven’t done a very good job describing what happens there, that you can have a little drink, have a little food, and hear the greatest performers from around the world in jazz and cabaret,” Martin says. “It’s up to me to get the word out.”
Yes, the Troesh Studio Theater hosted shows, including the one-man George Burns tribute, Say Goodnight, Gracie, and The Diary of Anne Frank by the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada. Still, it remains the least publicly known of the Smith complex’s three venues.
“Maybe we haven’t done as many publicly ticketed performances there as other spaces, but it may be our most used room in the complex,” Martin says. “The Troesh was designed to be a blank slate space. It’s a black box theater, a dance rehearsal space and a place for corporate events. We’ve even done a handful of weddings in there. I’m happy with the productive occupancy in that space.”
Hey, They Noticed!
Before the opening of The Smith Center, Martin was fond of predicting that it would create a newfound reputation for Las Vegas’ cultural potency.
Citing one example, he tells the story of a colleague who was wearing a Smith Center cap during a visit to Singapore. “He was stopped and someone said, ‘We’ve heard all about your place, and I can’t wait when we come to Las Vegas to see a concert at The Smith Center.’ I think it says a lot about how people around the world are perceiving Las Vegas differently.”
Feel better about yourself, Las Vegas? You should.