Steve Wynn (third from left) giving a curtain speechon opening night of Avenue Q in Las Vegas(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Steve Wynn (third from left) giving a curtain speech
on opening night of Avenue Q in Las Vegas
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
When Suzanne Somers crashed and burned on Broadway in July, more than one critic deplored her one-woman show as something you might expect to see in Las Vegas -- but that slam is largely unfair. For years now, there's been much more to live entertainment in Vegas than the sort of cheesy celebrity showcase that Somers offered, and the theater scene in "Sin City" is currently undergoing a more drastic metamorphosis than most people who've been there could ever have imagined.

Much of this is thanks to billionaire entrepreneur Steve Wynn, who famously snapped up the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q for an exclusive run at a custom-built, state-of-the-art theater in his brand new, multi-million dollar Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino complex. If you listen closely, you can still hear wailing and gnashing of teeth from tour producers and others who will not be raking in box office receipts from Q any time soon because the show probably won't be seen outside of New York and Vegas for years to come.

At its official opening night performance here -- before an eclectic audience that included Siegfried & Roy, Mimi Hines, Mark Hamill, and Paul Williams -- the show played beautifully even though the maximum number of spectators per performance has increased from 796 at Broadway's Golden Theatre to 1,200 at the Wynn. To further meet the demands of the other city that never sleeps, Avenue Q has a 10-performance-a-week schedule that requires two separate, alternating casts -- the "Blue Bears" and the "Yellow Bears," unofficially named after the show's "Bad Idea Bear" puppets. (Heading the Blue company are John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon, imported from the New York production.) An excellent sound amplification system helps in no small way to put Q over by allowing Jeff Whitty's witty book and the alternately hilarious and touching lyrics of the Robert Lopez-Jeff Marx songs to be 100% intelligible. (Would that such natural-sounding, unforced amplification were the rule for Broadway shows!)

Q book author Jeff Whitty(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Q book author Jeff Whitty
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Despite the significant distraction represented by the smell of popcorn, which is sold at the theater's concession stand and which patrons are welcome to bring back to their seats along with booze, soda, or any other libation of their choice, Q at the Wynn is quite similar to the wonderful Broadway experience. In his strongly positive review of the show for the Los Angeles Times, Philip Brandes wrote: "Has Vegas spoiled Avenue Q? That was the make-or-break question as the irreverent 2004 Tony-winning musical inaugurated its second home this week at the lavish Wynn Las Vegas resort....Despite Avenue Q's abundant hip sarcasm and raunchy antics..., its frequently applied label as an 'adult Sesame Street parody' is misleading: The show's underlying appeal is one of tender-hearted innocence, hardly a natural fit for Sin City. The good news is that, within the confines of its specially built theater at the Wynn, Avenue Q retains the simple charm that made it a runaway Broadway hit."

What remains to be seen is whether or not Q will attract in sufficient numbers the "typical" Vegas ticket buyer. Audiences here have grown used to big-star concerts -- Barry Manilow, Elton John and Celine Dion are the city's major headliners, often commanding close to $200 a ticket -- plus stand-up comedy shows, visual spectacles like Q's next-door-neighbor La Rève, and various and sundry forms of mindless entertainment. (The completely mindless Mamma Mia! is now in its third year at the Mandalay Bay while the much-reviled Queen musical We Will Rock You, a London import, is at the Paris Las Vegas.)

Broadway musicals have long played Vegas, but they were always presented in 90-minute "tab" versions, the better to get patrons in and out and back onto the casino floor. To offer a full-length-with-intermission production of Avenue Q, a show whose entertainment value is largely text-based and therefore requires audiences to pay attention, is a gutsy move; but Kevin McCollum, who co-produced both the Broadway and Vegas productions of Q with Robyn Goodman and Jeffrey Seller, is betting it's the right move. "There's still a lot of spectacle in Vegas," McCollum told TheaterMania at the opening night party, "but I think the reason Avenue Q won the Tony is that people everywhere are thirsty for a human story. I really don't believe there's a certain mentality among Vegas audiences; people come here to be entertained. I think musical comedy will take root here now. If a show is good, people will go to see it."

Steve Wynn being interviewed by Robin Leachat the opening night party for Avenue Q(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Steve Wynn being interviewed by Robin Leach
at the opening night party for Avenue Q
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Besides, one probably shouldn't bet against Steve Wynn. He was responsible for bringing the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil to Vegas over a decade ago, creating a permanent home for Mystère at Treasure Island. In addition to that still popular attraction, Cirque now has three other shows playing here: the mind-bogglingly beautiful O at the Bellagio (still the town's hottest ticket), the adults-only Zumanity at New York, New York, and , the newest entry (which received mixed reviews), at the MGM Grand. These shows are very different from Avenue Q, but the point is that they are also very different from anything that had ever before been seen in Vegas, and now they're an integral part of the city's entertainment landscape.

If Q doesn't fly, it certainly won't be for lack of publicity. As we deplaned at McCarran airport, the original Broadway cast album was playing over the public address system in the concourse, and there are all sorts of ads for the show along The Strip -- not to mention those giant neon signs in front of the Wynn, which promise that Q contains "full puppet nudity." Steve Wynn seems to be doing everything possible to support the production, and the local and national media are only too happy to shine the spotlight on his new baby.

In a speech immediately following Q's opening performance, Wynn remarked that Las Vegas has always been a city of choices and that now those choices will include the wit and craft of Broadway musicals. Putting his money where his mouth is, Wynn -- who insists that "there's no such thing as a Vegas audience" -- has Spamalot lined up for a run at his hotel in 2007. Also set for production under his aegis is a $35-million, edited version of The Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian, to be staged in a specially designed theater by David Rockwell. Before that, look for a Vegas Hairspray with original stars Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa, set to open at the Luxor in February.

So, will Avenue Q become a well-traveled byway in Vegas? "What I've always found," says Kevin McCollum, "is that those who recognize what people are thirsty for are the ones who have success. People love to laugh, and this is a wonderful musical comedy. That's the special effect of Avenue Q: It makes you laugh a lot."

********************

[For more information on the Las Vegas production of Avenue Q, click here.]