THEATER NOTES : Trail of the 'Spider Woman'

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The opening of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" at the Ahmanson Theatre on Saturday will mark the first time a major theatrical production arrives at the Music Center after playing other prime venues in Los Angeles or Orange counties.

"Kiss" occupied Orange County Performing Arts Center from Dec. 26 to Jan. 7, then played Jan. 9-14 at Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Although it will stay longer at the Ahmanson (through April 21) than at the other two venues, the others seat more people at each performance. The Ahmanson capacity for "Kiss" will be 2,006 (up by 380 from the last two Ahmanson shows) compared to 2,994 at Orange County's Segerstrom Hall and 2,961 at Pasadena Civic.

When Robert Schlosser, Center Theatre Group director of audience development, heard that "Kiss" would go first to the other halls, "I got faint of head," he said. The advertising in December and January mentioned all three sites, but still Schlosser was concerned that fans who wanted to be the first on the block to see "Kiss" might choose another venue over the Ahmanson.

"As it turned out, it doesn't seem to have sapped sales," Schlosser continued. As of Tuesday, the Ahmanson engagement had taken in more than $810,000 in single ticket sales--on top of a $1,452,823 sale to 69% of the regular Ahmanson subscribers, who were offered "Kiss" as an optional addition to the season. (That 69% is the highest percentage of CTG subscribers choosing an optional show that Schlosser can recall).

Schlosser said the flexibility of dates in a longer run and the intimacy of a smaller hall may have encouraged some theatergoers to wait for the Ahmanson run. Also, "there is a certain kind of glamour about its appearing in a recently renovated theater at the Music Center," he said.

Conversely, did the other runs do worse because people decided to wait for the Ahmanson run?

At Orange County, the hall was filled to 63% of capacity, which might not sound great until you consider that this is a musical set in a prison--and it was playing over the Christmas holidays.

In fact, said an OCPAC spokesman, the Center had projected that only 60% of the hall would be filled. The show took in $1,178,929 over two weeks in Costa Mesa, with the first week--which had a base of subscribers--doing better than the second, which relied on single ticket sales.

In Pasadena, where there is a smaller subscription base than Orange County, the show took in $472,000 for its one week. It filled about 60% of the house, reported Nicholas Litrenta, who produces the Pasadena musicals series. He felt it "underperformed" in Pasadena and said the proximity of the Ahmanson and Pasadena Civic--as opposed to the more distant Orange County facility--"had to have some effect" in steering audiences to one house instead of the other. "How much is too much for the market?" he asked. "It's a question many of us are struggling with."

However, Litrenta suspects the traffic between venues was on a two-way street--that some who otherwise might have waited for the Ahmanson run came to Pasadena because of the then-current Orange County reviews and word of mouth, while others who might have seen it in Pasadena waited for a more convenient date at the Ahmanson.

An official of the Canadian company that produced "Kiss" said its Southern California itinerary is a "model that will be tried more and more." Nowadays, Southland residents are less willing to fight freeway traffic, said Bill Conner, senior vice president of North American touring for Livent (U.S.) Inc. Yet the TV and radio stations that carry the show's broadcast ads embrace the entire area, he said, so if a producer is paying for exposure to so many people, playing different venues in the same region is a way to amortize those costs.

Of course additional costs are incurred by loading a show in and out of several venues, so it's worthwhile for a very large show to stay in one place for awhile, he added. That's what Livent intends to do with "Show Boat," coming next fall to the Ahmanson, where it will stay for five months. However, the company's "Andrew Lloyd Webber--Music of the Night" will play brief dates at the Ahmanson, Long Beach Terrace Theater and San Diego this spring.

"I don't think L.A. should be worried," Conner said. This new "model"--which also can be seen in the Theater League productions that travel between Thousand Oaks and Glendale--"just means that audiences have grown and are more decentralized."

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