Coming Soon to a Barn Near You

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Fact: Where you see a show affects how you see it. And how you don't.

Obvious, no? And yet for the typical mollycoddled theater critic--reeking of alcohol, sweetmeats and sixth-row-center entitlement, like a studio executive without the expensive eye wear--it's easy to forget this.

When a Broadway show spins off into a Broadway touring production, for economic reasons it often plays cavernous, less-than-ideal venues. And then you have a two-tiered affair. It's one show to people within a reasonable distance from the stage, and it's another show to everyone else.

I heard more than the usual number of grumbles and "Huhs?" during the Los Angeles engagement of "Dame Edna: The Royal Tour" at the Shubert Theatre.

On Broadway, Barry Humphries' wonderfully droll slice of audience harassment played the 785-seat Booth Theatre. Here, as "Dame Edna" did in most post-Broadway cities, it attempted to fill a more expansive canvas, shall we say.

As barns go, the 2,135-seat Shubert is far from the biggest or the worst in the country. (The Shubert used to seat 1,829, until additional seats were added for "Sunset Boulevard.") Major touring-show venues in other cities routinely top 3,000 and even 4,000.

Nonetheless, "Dame Edna" on Broadway was a very different party from "Dame Edna" at the Shubert. Edna is an expansive personality. From one perspective, she could make Staples Center her private sitting room. From another perspective--the Shubert balcony--she required a fair amount of neck-craning and caused mild-to-moderate disgruntlement. No fool, Humphries, "Dame Edna" acknowledged the weirdness of playing such an auditorium, referring with ineffable sarcasm to the "little tucked-away Shubert Theatre."

Was I glad to have seen "Dame Edna"? Absolutely. I had a lovely time. And a lovely seat. And the latter had something to do with the former.

Even from my lovely seat, however, as in any too-large auditorium, the laughter tended to roll in slowly, unevenly from the back of the house, like a wave. Not a crashing tidal wave, more of a . . . roller. Humphries' timing is so amazingly exact that he didn't let it affect his delivery. But for years, reviewing touring musicals at huge, vast barns in cities such as Dallas and San Diego, I heard variations on that rolling, lumbering laughter. I saw what it could do to a show's effectiveness.

Performers, the good ones at least, tend not to like this sort of venue. It's like playing to audiences in two or three time zones at once.

On Broadway, the largest-capacity legitimate houses are the Gershwin Theatre, with 1,927 seats, and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, with 1,839. A typical, older, mid-size Broadway house--one with some real class and ambience--is the St. James Theatre, whose 1,623 seats are filled for eight shows weekly by those who murdered someone in order to see "The Producers."

Theaters in the optimal 1,000-to 1,600-seat range put the show right in your lap. And that's part of what the old folks call "the whole live theater thing. " The experience naturally becomes less immediate the farther back you go, or up and back. But with luck, on Broadway, you're still talking about a human-scale event.

Too often in regional markets, you take what you can get, where you can get it. Modest shows must contend with immodestly scaled auditoriums. The higher weekly potential gross of the large houses serves as catnip to a producer, or more commonly, to a team of producers, for whom breaking even on a show can be as difficult as scoring "Producers" tickets.

Although "The Producers" is certainly mega, it's not a mega-musical along the lines of "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" or "Miss Saigon." Those three, and a handful of other titles, had the scenic stuff it took to take on a cavernous auditorium. But the schlocko-spectacle-musicales such as "Phantom" or "Saigon"--I like "Les Miz," so I won't lump it in with the other two--don't come along every year. Or every decade. They are rare. They continue to tour and are destined to be revived throughout the 21st century. But they belong to a show-biz cycle that has already waned.

In contrast, a new show such as "The Full Monty" is not a mega-musical. It's a medium-sized hit. And it's about to test its elasticity in new, larger post-Broadway venues.

When it tried out at San Diego's nonprofit Old Globe Theatre, "The Full Monty" played the facility's 580-seat theater. It's fun to see musicals there, in part because the venue affords an intimate audience-performer relationship. Not untoward, mind you, just intimate.

The relationship is even better at the La Jolla Playhouse, which launches its musicals at the 499-seat Mandell Weiss Theatre. There, matters of quality aside, you get a big show in a small house. When "Jane Eyre" moved from La Jolla to Broadway, the show's scenery had to be rebuilt--cut down, that is, rather than expanded. Watching a whomper such as "The Who's Tommy" in its original La Jolla incarnation was like watching it in a modified Imax format.

Shopping for a Broadway theater for "The Full Monty," Fox Searchlight--the show's producer, along with co-producers Lindsay Law and Thomas Hall--was interested in the Ford Center, all 1,800-plus seats of it. Law and Hall, however, felt the show would go over better in a smaller house and generate better word-of-mouth.

"Essentially our argument was one of aesthetics," Hall says, "not economics." But what's good for the aesthetics is often good for the economics.

"The Full Monty" is now several months into its run at the 1,108-seat Eugene O'Neill. It is drawing well--no blockbuster, but solid. From every point of view, it ended up in the right-sized theater. (The show got a nice bump from its Tony Awards show excerpt, what with bare bodkins in prime time.)

The road will be a different tale, but Hall and company are doing what they can to steer their Buffalo strippers away from the barns. Realistically, of course, Broadway musicals of any size rarely play a 1,000-seat auditorium; there's no profit in that, unless you're dealing with an exceptionally low weekly break-even figure.

When "The Full Monty" comes to L.A. next April, it'll play Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, presently under construction, future home of the Academy Awards. For "The Full Monty," the Kodak is likely to be configured in a 2,600-seat arrangement. From 580 to 1,100 to 2,600: a considerable jump. Hall, who was also talking to the Ahmanson, which has a capacity of up to 2,000, ultimately got a better deal with the Kodak.

Los Angeles constitutes an unusual touring-show market. Other major cities have one or two presenters of Broadway touring fare. We're about to get our fourth. We have the Nederlanders booking the Pantages, the Wilshire and the Henry Fonda; the Centre Theatre Group presenting at the Ahmanson; the Shubert Organization booking the Shubert; and now, Anschutz Entertainment booking the Kodak.

Anschutz also has announced plans, pending city approval, for a multiuse 7,000-seat auditorium near Staples Center. Although mention was made in the proposal of the occasional musical-theater attraction, no one's seriously expecting musical theater of any recognizable shape to show up there. I'm not sure what kind of show would make sense in a 7,000-seater. "Lord of the Dance on Mars on Ice," maybe, but . . .

At some point in the future, the 2,700-seat Pantages will lose its long-term tenant "The Lion King" and host a variety of shorter-term tenants, some too small, none too big. Still, we must remember the national context. We could be in Atlanta, where the main road house, the Fox Theatre, a former Shriners' organization hall, seats nearly 5,000. That's large.

Another Nederlander-booked house, the Wilshire Theatre, isn't anyone's favorite L.A. venue. By now, it really should've gotten a face lift, some lipo and an all-year spa treatment. But among true mid-sized houses, it's at least atmospheric and flexible, able to seat between 1,350 and 1,910, depending on the production.

For the national touring version of "Copenhagen," Michael Frayn's Tony-winning best play, the Wilshire will be configured in its smaller, 1,350-seat capacity. The show will also be offered in the Mark Taper Forum season subscription package. It would've been better suited to the Taper stage. But the Wilshire's better than the Shubert.

The Shubert worked well enough for "Mamma Mia!" and it will probably work for the forthcoming "Kiss Me, Kate." If the "Kiss Me, Kate" road company's half as strong as the revival's original Broadway company, it'll be worth seeing. But one undeniable aspect of the show's appeal won't go on tour. That is the Broadway venue itself, a beaut, the Martin Beck Theatre, 1,422 seats, most of them nice and close to the action.

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