What’s wrong with this Broadway-level, professionally polished, premium-$129-per-ticket picture:
Tony lays dying. Maria kneels over him. Rival gang members encircle them. Smoke from a prop gun hangs in the air. West Side Story is reaching its shattering, heartbreaking climax and …
Yo! Where’s the shattering heartbreak?
Are these professional actors actually acting? Posing? Waiting for a bus? Why is the emotional heat coming off The Smith Center stage not enough to boil an egg? Did some theatergoers really—OMG!—break into giggles?
Sitting among a less-than-electrified crowd recently at this subpar tour production in our shiny new penny of a performing arts center, an odd thought pops into my mind that is wandering, unmoved by onstage murder and not-so-tragic tragedy.
Seriously? I know a community theater troupe that could have done this better. Waaaay better. Charged waaaay less … and they almost took a bullet, too.
Confirm those local theater chops by asking anyone who saw Signature Productions’ professional-caliber, fast-’n’-funny Little Shop of Horrors or joyous Singin’ in the Rain in 2011—yes, they made it rain onstage (very cool)—at the Summerlin Library theater (officially, the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center).
Yet Signature, our foremost producer of family-geared musicals, was nearly washed away shortly afterward by an act of municipal madness. Simultaneously, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts—while a historic and valuable addition to this city—was sucking up every last drop of local media attention.
“I was hoping it wasn’t the end,” says Karl Larsen, co-founder and president of the 24-year-old company. “They still would love to get rid of us.”
That’s “they” as in the Clark County Library District. Stunning the nonprofit Signature in the spring of 2011, it jacked up rental fees for its Summerlin theater—the group’s home for 17 years—by a staggering 300 percent, claiming it was necessary to lasso rising costs. Financial fallout would have proven fatal, causing the library tab for a production to pole-vault from an average of $15,000-$20,000 to $75,000-$80,000, and ticket prices to balloon from around $25 to a Strip-level $60.
Faced with a fiscal nightmare, Signature canceled its 2012 season, fearing imminent extinction.
“Our shows are worth $60, but nobody would pay that,” Larsen says. “Why? Because we’re at the library.” Yet that is more a problem of perception than theatergoing reality.
While the phrase “library theater” equals “toy theater” to some, the Summerlin venue, with its 284 seats, is one of the most comfortable in town in which to see a show. Plus a generous stage and backstage facilities enhance Signature’s ability to mount complex scenes and set pieces. (Example: the Singin’ in the Rain downpour-dance, aided by a complex system of sprinklers, piping and shower heads created by UNLV engineering students.) After the troupe was priced out of the space, face-offs between Signature supporters and intractable library trustees during the public-comment portions of district meetings became exercises in tension. “We’d go back every month, and they were hostile—very hostile,” Larsen says. “They’d give us three minutes while they were busy tucking things inside their briefcases and getting ready to leave. They couldn’t have cared less.”
Sanity eventually triumphed. Credit relentless, passionate pleas by Larsen and Broadway Bound (a youth theater group that also rented the space), plus a petition drive within Signature’s fan base and entreaties to county commissioners and Mayor Goodman, prompting rethinking by library trustees.
In what amounts to a giant phew! the library district relented last fall, slashing the hike to a still-gut-punching 180 percent. Sucking it up, Signature raised ticket prices $5, to an average of $30 for adults and $20 for kids.
“Where can you go to see a Broadway [type of] show for 30 bucks?” Larsen asks. “You can’t.”
Resurrection is onstage right now, the company in the midst of its comeback run of Camelot that began April 15 at … yes, the Summerlin Library theater. Unsurprisingly, the layoff inflicted damage.
“Ticket sales are down some,” Larsen says, noting that by the first preview, advance sales for the 22 performances were only at 40 percent, though the numbers were climbing last week. “Our being gone for a whole year and the perception that we had quit performing were probably in play. Only time will tell whether we will be as successful as a year ago.” Looking back on the whole mess reveals something disturbing: Quietly, we nearly lost something precious even as we gained something momentous, and relatively few Las Vegans knew or cared, exposing a cultural blind spot—even in our new Smith Center world. Fellow local theaters didn’t get it either when it came to Signature.
“I didn’t feel any support from the smaller companies,” Larsen says. “The theater community is really split up in this town. We don’t trust each other. It’s like North and South Korea here.”
What level of theater were we denied while they battled to keep breathing? Consider the perspective of the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Anthony Del Valle, the city’s toughest, most respected (and in some quarters, feared) theater critic.
On 2007’s Peter Pan: “a blissful achievement.” On 2010’s All Shook Up: “an orgy of fun” and a “celebration of being alive.” On 2011’s Oh What a Night: “exuberantly performed, excitingly sung and pumped with theatrical pizzazz.” On 2009’s Thoroughly Modern Millie: “You’ll say ‘Wow’ a lot. There’s more musical-comedy talent here per square foot than anyone has the right to ask for in a community production.”
(Not that it’s all warm hugs and sweet kisses. About Signature’s The Sound of Music in 2010, he wrote that “the inevitable tears come dutifully and unimaginatively,” one among other pointed criticisms over the years. Still, you can’t quibble over the consistency of his standards. While Del Valle smiled upon several Broadway tour productions in The Smith Center’s inaugural season in the R-J, he also machine-gunned the visiting Anything Goes and The Addams Family.)
Conventional thinking suggests that because community theater exists in its own bubble, with its own loyal (if modest) following, The Smith Center’s Broadway series of traditional musicals doesn’t threaten to swipe patrons. Largely that’s true, given that the schedules of the most active local companies—including Las Vegas Little Theatre, the Onyx, Cockroach Theatre, Nevada Conservatory Theatre and CSN’s theater department—are crowded with dramas, comedies, original works, adult-oriented plays, avant-garde pieces and other non-musicals absent from The Smith Center.
Not so Signature. Unlike some other local troupes (PS Productions, Stage Door Entertainment, Huntsman Entertainment) that offer similar musicals sporadically—often merely one-offs on a rotation at the Super Summer Theatre program at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park—Signature is the steadiest provider, producing three or four annually.
Only Signature, then, is even near the same ballpark with The Smith Center in terms of delivering the same theater genre at quality levels with regularity—creating potential audience overlap. Yet Signature’s promotional resources amount to a fraction of a fraction of Smith’s, and it lacks the Broadway brand sex appeal of a tour production.
Statistics don’t exist (and almost certainly won’t) quantifying whether Signature patrons now save their splurge money on a Broadway tour instead. Or, conversely, whether some Smith Center attendees, newly turned on to musicals, will check out Signature and be surprised to discover quality shows—albeit on a smaller scale, but also at less expense—that are in no way creatively slumming.
Or whether, frankly, it will make no damn difference.
More importantly, Signature’s survival has got to count for something. Specifically, how will high-grade local theater be perceived and valued in a post-Smith Center era, given its overall exclusion from that gleaming venue while locally produced classical music (the Las Vegas Philharmonic) and dance (Nevada Ballet Theatre) get to snuggle in and call it home?
Unreservedly, we say: Glory be to The Smith Center, that half-a-billion-dollar pearl that has elevated our cultural cred and widened our entertainment palate. Its enormous positive impact is undeniable. Yet it has also pushed back the goalposts, perception-wise.
Once upon a pre-Smith time, community theater left Las Vegans impressed or unimpressed based on their own merits or demerits. Now its image issues are akin to Sisyphus and that damn boulder. No longer can residents claim their city lacks culture: The Smith Center is a mighty rebuke. Some, however, will dismiss local theater as culturally irrelevant by comparison.
Quaint, but not impactful. Diversion, but not art. Or worse …
“[A library official] said, ‘Now that we have The Smith Center, we don’t need [library] theaters,’” Larsen says.
Employing a word likely never uttered at a Signature show: Bullshit.
Let’s not allow the refreshing performing-arts awareness incubating inside The Smith Center to breed cultural small-mindedness toward what’s outside it.
Signature’s back. We’re better for it. Reflecting on its journey through adversity to survival, there is poetry in a line from King Arthur’s soliloquy in Camelot, now onstage at the home that was nearly lost:
“We shall live through this together, Excalibur.”