• 'Avenue Q' prepares its debut in Las Vegas
     | September 02,2005

    LAS VEGAS — Playwright Jeff Whitty was leery when he learned his Broadway hit, "Avenue Q," would bypass a national tour and head west to the Wynn Las Vegas megaresort.

    The boyish-looking Whitty, who wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning musical, thought that he would be asked to slash the approximately two-hour production.

    Such a distasteful task would make any writer grimace, including Whitty, who had taken great care took to craft his sophisticated albeit naughty story.

    But billionaire casino developer Steve Wynn, the man behind bringing the people-and-puppet show to his $2.7 billion hotel-casino, had something else in mind.

    Instead of making it conform to the Las Vegas model that calls for bigger, grander and shorter, he built a $50 million, 1,200-seat theater for "Avenue Q" and never suggested the slightest change or alteration.

    "The fact that we didn't have to cut it down to 90 minutes was such a blessing," Whitty says. "The fact that he wanted it as is erased all my suspicions that we were going to Vegasize it."

    Audiences that relished their "Avenue Q" experience in New York, will find much of the same when the show officially opens Sept. 8 in Las Vegas, Whitty and director Jason Moore say.

    People will encounter that familiar, rundown New York City block and those puckish puppets: Trekkie Monster (he enjoys Internet porn), a very gay Rod (who prefers a discreet man) and Lucy The Slut (her name says it all).

    At least initially, audiences here will be able to watch the masterful John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon work their puppets. They can also expect some minor tweaking when it comes to the ribald and subversive script.

    There will be some new bells and whistles: more colorful puppets and costumes, along with brighter lighting and fog in the dazzling new theater that resembles an opera house with its plush, roomy chairs, towering curtains and vibrant red colors.

    "I'm dreading going back to New York," says Moore. "Everything here is dedicated to entertaining people."

    According to Moore, Wynn management approved changes to the stage's sight lines to give the theater a Broadway feel, intimacy and stadium seating — but reduce the number of people who could attend nightly. That might have been Wynn's biggest concession because it affected the show's revenues, thus trimming the property's profits.

    While the theater, stage and puppets will probably impress, the show's success rests on the two Las Vegas casts that will perform twice a night, five days a week.

    Finding the right mix of actors who can dance, sing and work the puppets was an enormous challenge, says Lyon, performer and puppet designer. It took a nationwide casting search more than a year.

    Lyon knows topping or matching the critical acclaim the Broadway show achieved will prove formidable.

    "Those are big shoes to fill in a replacement cast," he says. "It's like casting a new version of 'A Wonderful Life.' How do you follow up Jimmy Stewart?"

    Audiences will only be able to size up different casts in Las Vegas and New York. Wynn managed to snag the show and keep it from touring around the country, a move that made major touring producers unhappy.

    The "Avenue Q" folks couldn't be happier.

    "Touring is hard," Lyon says. "It's really nice to have the audiences coming to you."

    The question though is whether they will come? What's brilliant on Broadway could be considered offensive on the Strip.

    Skeptics claim people come to Sin City for a stint of escapism and fantasy. That's why they devour light entertainment such as Celine Dion, Cirque de Soleil and Barry Manilow.

    Myron Martin, an independent producer and president of the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation, says Las Vegas has a history of being racy and politically incorrect. He expects tourists to embrace "Avenue Q."

    "I honestly don't (think) that it's too edgy and too smart for Vegas," he says. "It's a smart, funny show that happens to be on the edge a bit. I think people are going to leave the theater amused."

    Moore isn't worried about the show.

    "You just never know how audiences are going to react. Theater is always a gamble."

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