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Give My Regards to . . . Vegas?

The city reinvents itself again, gambling that Broadway-style shows and stage stars will lure new visitors.

July 18, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The show is "Chicago," and it's here in Las Vegas to make people from Milwaukee feel like they're visiting New York.

This geographical mind-boggler came to life recently at the city's new $950-million, tropical-themed Mandalay Bay Resort--where the hit Broadway revival, starring Ben Vereen, opened this spring in a state-of-the-art theater with 1,800 plush seats.

People visiting Las Vegas tend to buy show tickets on the spur of the moment, and among those nosing around the ticket window one recent evening were members of the Construction Industry Manufacturers Assn. More than 124,000 members of the international group, based in Milwaukee, had descended here for ConExpo, their annual convention.

From their questions, it was easy to deduce that this group was not as familiar with "Chicago" as with, say, Siegfried & Roy, the famous illusionists who have been making white tigers disappear at the Mirage Resort since 1989.

Still, more than a few conventioneers must have made it into the theater, because the razzle-dazzle "Chicago" drew a polite but quietly bemused response. Even the cabdrivers here say that ConExpo just doesn't know how to party.

Just as the ersatz, half-scale Eiffel Tower being erected at the Paris-Las Vegas Casino Resort, which opens Sept. 2, isn't really Paris, the Mandalay Bay Resort is no Broadway.

It has a Broadway-style theater offering a Broadway show, but with an audience that appears to be dressed for a Dodger game. This is not the old-time Las Vegas show room, where mini-skirted waitresses flit through the dark to deliver the two-drink minimum to patrons crammed together at long tables in hard chairs. The Mandalay Bay Theater has comfy, tiered seating, and even though you can't order your margarita inside, you can buy one outside and park it in the cup holder attached to every seat.

And why is a new Vegas resort-casino even attempting to capture the flavor of Broadway? It's all part of the latest attempt to reinvent the city, acknowledges Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief executive officer of Circus Circus Enterprises, which owns the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, its adjacent Four Seasons Hotel, as well as the Circus Circus, Luxor and Excalibur hotel-casinos.

As Schaeffer is fond of pointing out, every eight seconds, someone in America turns 49. If you are one of those baby boomers--or fall anywhere in the adjacent range--Las Vegas wants to grab you by your demographic and not let go.

The new "superstores of entertainment," as Schaeffer calls them, make no secret that the push is on to find new ways to entice an increasingly international, sophisticated group of travelers to choose one monstrous 2,000-to-3,000-room hotel-casino over another.

What those consumers want, Schaeffer says, is "Woodstock without the mud," a chance to have all the creature comforts but still party like it's 1969. And each new resort is trying to top the last by providing an ever-higher peak experience.

Each resort's casino, Vegas insiders note, is virtually the same (although it's gaming, not gambling, in today's Las Vegas). Resort chiefs agree that it's the hotel's theme decor, restaurants, shops and other offerings that distinguish one resort from the next.

And essential to the package is more and more expensive, star-studded, eye-popping entertainment. "Everything is interrelated; the importance of entertainment as a centerpiece of an evening's excitement can't be overstated," says Mirage Resorts spokesman Alan Feldman.

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It's the reason Steve Wynn's $1.6-billion Bellagio spent $100 million to create Cirque du Soleil's first water show "O"; that the MGM Grand has brought in Broadway brand-name star Tommy Tune as the most recent host of its $45-million special-effects extravaganza "EFX"; that Mandalay Bay opened another new performance venue, its 1,800-seat House of Blues, with Bob Dylan, and in April brought pop-opera star Luciano Pavarotti in to christen its 12,000-seat Events Center.

It's also the reason that Sandy Gallin, former Hollywood manager and producer hired by Wynn last June as chief of Mirage Entertainment and Sports Inc., is talking about adding 1,500-seat theaters to Mirage's hotels here and nationwide, and producing approximately 90-minute book musicals and plays to put in them to create a Broadway of the West--an idea that meets with mixed reviews among Vegas watchers.

As one strolls through the extravagant, Italian-marble glitz of the Bellagio ("Fantasia" meets the Vatican) or the determinedly hip showrooms and eateries of Mandalay Bay never has one felt more . . . well, more marketed to than this.

For better and worse, says "Chicago" star Ben Vereen, it's a different city from the one he came to as a young performer. And he's someone who knows the town from a vantage point that spans more than 30 years.

Vereen knew Vegas before "demographic research" came to town, a time when those coveted baby boomers were still navigating high school, and the Rat Pack ruled the roost.

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