- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

LAS VEGAS

He’s keeping his brooding to less than 95 minutes and disappearing amid fiery blazes. Sparks shoot out of his sleeves; the chandelier is even more unruly; and the fog machine is cranked up full blast.

This is “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular.”

After more than 65,000 performances in 24 countries, the longest-running show in Broadway history has gone under the knife. It will emerge Saturday as a trimmed-down, amped-up version tailored to suit casino audiences who have dinners to eat and slot machines to play.

“Spectacular” is just the latest, and likely the priciest, attempt to translate a Broadway hit for Las Vegas Strip visitors, an endeavor that has enjoyed only mixed success. But “Phantom” backers say they’re not dealing with a Broadway show, they’re dealing with the strongest “brand” in live entertainment — and now they’ve “added value.”

“It’s a very different experience,” says composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who collaborated with the show’s original director, Harold Prince, to rework the production. “This will be an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.” For now, that is. There’s already talk of taking the production to the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau, presumably after renaming it.

Costs for the new production topped $75 million, including $40 million for a lavish, 1,800-seat replica of the Paris Opera House constructed inside The Venetian hotel-casino. Co-producers Live Nation and BASE Entertainment, spinoffs of Clear Channel Entertainment, and the Venetian foot the massive bill, nearly eight times the average cost of mounting a Broadway musical.

Technically, there’s less show, or at least running time, for the money. Nearly an hour of transitions and some character development have been eliminated. The phantom composer, his coveted soprano and the temperamental chandelier all made the cuts, deemed necessary to accommodate Las Vegas’ unwritten no-intermission rule.

“So they’re not burning their entire evening, so to speak,” says Scott Zeiger, head of BASE Entertainment and executive producer.

Mr. Lloyd Webber insists that nothing was lost and only “breathtaking” special effects were gained. “The piece is the piece,” he says.

“They wanted surprises, we gave them surprises,” says Mr. Prince, who credits the Victorian potboiler’s longevity to its compelling love triangle involving a disfigured outcast, a rising ingenue and a rich hunk.

“The story is primary. It’s always teed me off when the show got referred to as the show about the chandelier. The chandelier is an effective prop that takes up very little room,” he adds.

The chandelier, in fact, took up nearly $5 million of the “Spectacular” budget. It shakes, splits apart and falls so quickly that a warning to audiences is posted in the theater lobby.

Producers are hoping such special effects will bring some of the 80 million people who already have seen “The Phantom of the Opera” back for more — and save “Spectacular” from the fate suffered by some other Broadway transplants in Sin City.

Earlier this month, low attendance forced a shortened version of the musical “Hairspray” to close after less than four months. The Tony Award-winning “Avenue Q” folded last month after a disappointing nine-month engagement at Wynn Las Vegas.

“I think the key in Las Vegas is to have something that’s known to the audience before they get to Las Vegas,” says Nina Lannan, an executive producer of “Mamma Mia!” ? a show that’s found success on the Strip since it opened in 2003. “People are overwhelmed with the number of entertainment opportunities available and they want to know they’re going to have a good time.”

“Spectacular” backers point to the international track record of “Phantom,” which stretches the globe and seems unfazed by language barriers, an element that could prove crucial among Las Vegas’ international audiences. Its worldwide box-office sales have reached more than $3 billion. Now in its 18th year on Broadway in New York, the show is still playing to near capacity.

Still, Mr. Lloyd Webber’s track record in Las Vegas isn’t proved. He says he still doesn’t understand why a proposal for a “Phantom” -themed resort on the Las Vegas Strip, to be called The Phantasy, fell apart in the late 1980s. Only his “Starlight Express,” a roller-skate spectacle, has had a standing engagement, running four years at the Las Vegas Hilton in the mid-1990s.

But “Phantom,” he says, seems to have no limits.

“It just goes on and it doesn’t seem to want to go away,” Mr. Lloyd Webber says. “There’s just always another generation wanting to line up to see it.”

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