Jerry Mitchell is the E.F. Hutton of Broadway choreographers and directors: When he talks, people listen.
The man who won a Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work in La Cage Aux Follies and has just launched a Broadway version of Catch Me If You Can brought one of the city’s more ambitious productions, Peepshow, to Planet Hollywood two years ago. The show has since changed significantly by casting the indefatigable Holly Madison to the Bo Peep role, updating production numbers and set scenery and ditching the live band and the needless male dog character.
Based in New York, Mitchell returned to Las Vegas to take inventory of the production and gauge how Madison’s desire to sing through the “Teddy” scene was playing out. He also attended the second performance of the AIDS/HIV research and treatment benefit Broadway Bares at the Peepshow theater. He stopped in for a segment on Kats With the Dish that aired Friday on KUNV 91.5-FM. Following are some “textual” highlights from that interview:
On Madison expanding her role in the show to that of a vocalist: There’s a number in the show called "Teddy," the story of Goldilocks, which has gone through four or five different versions. As you rotate the cast, you have different performers with different talents.
She came to us maybe 4 months ago, before I went to New York and got Catch Me If You Can on Broadway, with the idea that she would sing in the show. I said, “I’ll get Catch Me open, and you keep taking singing lessons. I’ll come back and I’ll retool the number specifically for you.” So that’s what we did and, you know, she has a lot of talents. We made the number for her. Singing is something she wants to do. She’s been practicing and studying, and that girl, if she sets her mind to something, watch out. She’s made it happen. ... She’s good, she’s really good. She doesn’t sing the whole number herself; there are three other girls who sing with her. But last night (April 25) was the first night she’d performed it, and the audience screamed when she came down to the front of the stage and bared all. … Holly is the visual idea of what Vegas has to offer.
On the ascent of Cheaza, who plays Peep Diva in the show: I think she is spectacular. I give credit to where the talent is. I’d rather go to a show with someone incredibly talented delivering it than with a big name who can’t deliver. ... I first saw Cheaza with Wayne Brady, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She comes in and sings for me and Andrew Lippa, who wrote the show, and could sing every song in the show. Then what she became is the spine of the show. She is tall enough to give you some attitude, and she will challenge you on it.
On the value of Josh Strickland in the lead male role: Listen, I have nothing against any other shows on the Strip. I know they are all brilliant, but I don’t know of another male voice in town that does what Josh does. He carries the show vocally, every night, full out, 110 percent. He is a true star. I saw him on Broadway, in Tarzan, and he totally blew me away. He was doing back handsprings in dreadlocks and totally inhabiting the role, and he sings like an angel.
On how to adjust the show to ensure profitability: Every show, whether in Vegas or on Broadway, comes down to how many tickets are you selling? Are you selling enough tickets to meet what it costs you every week to run the show? Good business is you want to sell more than you are paying out. That’s how you make a profit. The show opened probably at the worst time a show could possibly open, not only here, in this town, but in New York City. I work in New York City much more than I do in Vegas. Everything has changed about the financial structure of a show, permanently. People don’t buy in advance in New York City anymore, which used to always be the case. Getting producers to put money into a show is much harder. They’re much more cautious about the product, how will it pay back, when will it pay back, so they are making different investment choices.
So when we got this show up and running, with Base (Entertainment’s) guidance -- quite brilliant guidance -- we were able to look ahead and see how we could keep the show running and hopefully start making money. So we had to make cuts, we had to make judicious cuts. We made a lot of cuts. The (live) band was one of them. We cut scenery, we cut moving automation, but what we didn’t cut were the girls. What we didn’t cut were the numbers and the impact of the numbers. The milk tank, the saddle going out over the audience, the moments that we knew turned the audience on, we left alone, and we made eliminations in other places. We cut the dog, the original dog who befriended (Bo Peep) that didn’t become the bang for the buck that we all wanted. … This is the kind of work you do for the long run, and it has been successful.
On the barrier between full-scale Broadway productions and Las Vegas audiences: I have a very simple answer: Vegas is not a “text” town, meaning spoken word. Vegas is a sound and a visual town. It’s very difficult to have a successful show here if people have to listen to the words. The No. 1 reason being it’s an international town. A lot of people do not speak the language, so you’re cutting out a huge amount of your audience if it’s all in English and it’s important to understand what is being said in English.
The reason that musical shows like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia! are successful is because those songs are internationally successful. You can go to a nightclub in Italy and hear “Dancing Queen,” and everyone is on the floor dancing to “Dancing Queen.” In this town, when you are looking for a soundtrack, you need to go with songs that are known. … This town is a visual and aural town before it is a textual town. Shows like Jabbawockeez (at Monte Carlo) and Blue Man Group (at Venetian, en route to Monte Carlo) tell stories without speaking a word.