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Shallow Water for 'Show Boat' in O.C.

September 19, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Despite critical acclaim and a great historical legacy, Harold Prince's national touring production of "Show Boat" has had a not-so-bon voyage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

With attendance averaging less than 50% since it opened in Costa Mesa four weeks ago, the show, which closes Sept. 27, will be lucky to do half as much business as center officials had projected for it. Eager to boost ticket sales, they recently slashed ticket prices for the remaining weekday performances.

"Show Boat's" poor performance at the box office is noteworthy in part because theater scholars widely regard it as "the great American musical" and because this particular production offers the spectacle, if not the big-name stars, that has traditionally appealed to the local audience for Broadway musicals.

The road version in Costa Mesa, which uses sets from the Broadway production, originated in March in Detroit, where a critic for the Detroit News called it a masterpiece. The Times also reviewed the show favorably. Perhaps the only ingredient it lacks to satisfy a taste for extravagance is wall-to-wall dancing, although Susan Stroman's striking choreography in the second act provides plenty of eye candy.

The show's box-office disappointment predates the center stop. This production and the two other Prince-directed companies now on the road have fared scarcely better in other markets, among them St. Louis, Cleveland and Houston.

In Seattle, where another company of "Show Boat" opens next week for a monthlong engagement, advance ticket sales are running at 50%.

Toronto-based producer Livent claims nothing's amiss, except perhaps in Costa Mesa, where "Show Boat" has labored in the wake of a smash-hit, 21-week run in Los Angeles. (It grossed $18 million and averaged 85% attendance from November 1996 to April at the Ahmanson Theatre.)

But "Show Boat's" inability to perform well beyond a few major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago underscores the unpredictable nature of the road, even for some of Broadway's biggest hits.

Despite the phenomenal growth of such touring productions during the 1990s, the road is littered with shows that did not live up to commercial expectations.

The most obvious recent example, "Sunset Boulevard," closed on tour last season for lack of business, and the center replaced it with "Show Boat." Revivals of "Applause" and "Funny Girl" also canceled Costa Mesa bookings.

Des McAnuff's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which originated at the La Jolla Playhouse, went to Broadway for a successful run and played the center in 1996 on an extensive post-Broadway tour that did poorly.

Still, Livent's senior vice president for touring, Bill Conner, said Wednesday: "I think the issue in Costa Mesa is really just an issue in Costa Mesa. We knew we were taking a calculated risk when we brought 'Show Boat' in so soon after Los Angeles. But we did it to help out the center and its partner, Pace Theatricals. They were scared to death that they didn't have a high-quality show to substitute for 'Sunset Boulevard.' "

Conner said he rerouted this "Show Boat" tour to Costa Mesa from Phoenix, where it will go next, to fill the center's open dates.

"I'll tell you straight up that we'd like to do better than 50%," Conner said. "But the theater business has two underpinnings: economic and relational. There comes a time that you take a risk for the sake of a relationship and holding together a market you believe in."

At the same time, he added, "The road is not what it was. Last week, [tour grosses were] down by 30% from the same week a year ago. This is a cyclical business, and the reason it changes in one market is not necessarily the reason it changes in another."

The cause may be overexposing a particular show in a market or it may be saturating a market with too many blockbusters.

"You bring in 'Phantom of the Opera' and 'Miss Saigon' and 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Sunset Boulevard' one after the other," Conner said, "and you get what happened to us in St. Louis."

Center president Jerry Mandel said he sees clear sailing for the county's largest arts presenter. "We won't lose any money on this show," he said.

Although the local box-office gross will probably fall short of the $5-million projection by at least $2 million, the center has a small stake in the production's profit or loss. Mandel cited the "brilliance" of his staff in working out a contract that minimizes the center's risk.

But the center's vice president for financial affairs, Rick Johnson, described the contract as "a standard arrangement for Broadway shows." Livent, not the center, "structured the deal," Conner said. Itbasically guarantees the center's expenses from gross box-office income and a small percentage of net earnings, if any.

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