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December 19, 2014

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From Base Entertainment’s Scott Zeiger: Shows close because … shows close

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Mona Shield Payne

Scott Zeiger, co-CEO of BASE Entertainment, which produces “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular” at The Venetian, said his various Las Vegas shows offer variety and uniqueness. Zeiger is pictured in The Venetian theater on June 22, 2011.

Coco Austin in Peepshow

Nicole Launch slideshow »
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Cheaza, Nicole "Coco" Austin, Jerry Mitchell and Josh Strickland appear onstage after Austin's official opening-night performance of "Peepshow" at Planet Hollywood on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

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Coco Austin

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

The musical Launch slideshow »

He’s given the two-word explanation more than two times, and, because of the nature of show business, Scott Zeiger will say it again and again.

“Shows close.”

As the co-chief executive of Base Entertainment, Zeiger is an expert about the variables that allow the opening and closing of production shows. This is true of shows on Broadway and on tour and on the Strip. But in the end, he says, the financial and artistic reality is that no production runs indefinitely.

“Shows close.”

Zeiger gave that response a couple of weeks ago when asked why “Peepshow” would be closing Labor Day Weekend. The show will have spent 4 1/2 years, or thereabouts, at Planet Hollywood. The show’s closing coincides with the end of Coco Austin’s contract extension with the production.

Replacing Austin in the role of Bo Peep, if it were to come to that, would be a daunting assignment. As Base officials found in luring Austin to the show after Holly Madison left last August, there is a scarcity of famous women who can dance and who are willing to doff their tops and who star in a popular reality TV show and who would be willing to live at least part time in Vegas for several months. That is a consistent challenge in “Peepshow,” but Zeiger and Austin both say they would like to have continued with her, at least short term, in “Peepshow.”

The show was expensive, from the union stipends paid to its performers to the licensing fees required to allow Josh Strickland to roar through such songs as “Pink.” Base had already cut the all-women band that opened the show in March 2009 to save money without dramatically altering what was being performed onstage. Whenever tracks are used in place of live musicians, it’s to save money. Some producers have tried to say otherwise, but leaning on tracks in place of paying players is a financial and not artistic move. If singing to tracks were preferable to hiring musicians, Celine Dion would ditch her orchestra at The Colosseum and plug in her iPod.

With “Peepshow,” Base had been frugal and inventive in cutting expenses and shaving ticket prices without crippling the production.

“I know that in Las Vegas, like in New York, when a show opens, the goal of the producers and the creative teams is to keep it running. The goal is forever, and the hope is for as long as possible, and you know we ran that show for a good, solid 4 1/2 years,” Zeiger said. “There are certain things that you can do and that are done with production shows to adjust to the market, to modify the operating expenses, to make it more quote-unquote affordable to operate. … There are things that you do in the marketing campaign to adjust your price point to the competitive landscape. There are things you can do in casting to attract new audiences.

“You should know that we as producers have been continuously doing all of those things since opening night.”

Zeiger talked of areas of adjustments — releasing the band, and some of the automation used in the moving of set pieces was eliminated. He said that to improve the show’s financial health would have put the show’s artistic credibility at risk.

“We experimented a lot with different celebrity singers and different celebrity Peep Divas and Bo Peeps,” he said, referring to a cast of guest stars that also included Mel B, Kelly Monaco, Shoshana Bean and the embattled Aubrey O’Day. “And we’re now at a point, I think, where to do any further tinkering with the show would unfortunately compromise the artistic integrity of the show itself.”

The announcement of the Labor Day Weekend closing of “Peepshow” followed closely the cutting of the “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” schedule at The Venetian. Base also produced the Vegas run of that show, which was originally set for 11 weeks, then cut to nine and ran for five. The feeling in the Vegas market was it was a bad week for Base. But Zeiger answers criticism that his company has miscalculated the Vegas ticket-buying market by pointing at how difficult it is to predict how well a brand will perform on the Strip; Zeiger’s perspective reminds of something Steve Wynn said many years ago after the similarly styled “Avenue Q” closed at Wynn Las Vegas: “Nobody has a crystal ball here.”

“We believed that, over the course of time through the summer of 2013, the brand of 'Priscilla' would build over that time. It was running on Broadway and the West End and everywhere else, and we hoped that we could sell a show of super quality that people love,” Zeiger said. “But the brand didn’t carry nearly as much equity as we had hoped and required a really aggressive local marketing effort. You know, when you’re only running a limited amount of time and it’s an open engagement, you don’t have the marketing dollars to build the brand. You have to count on certain brand awareness. … I mean, we spent a lot of money on advertising for ‘Priscilla.’ We spent $600,000 on this limited run, and again the reviews were nearly universally great.”

So the show pulled out a month earlier than scheduled. But it did run longer in Vegas than anywhere else on tour.

“If you look at it as a tour stop — you know San Francisco, which is an extraordinarily well-to-do market, a robust market, with an enormous gay population, they’re doing two weeks with the show there,” Zeiger said. “They’ll do two great weeks there. It did five in Las Vegas and was planning to do nine.”

Similar to a golfer forced to take a drop after hitting a drive out of bounds, Base is taking another shot with “Peepshow.” Zeiger says that director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell and he are looking at venues in Vegas to stage a scaled-back, more cabaret-style show under that title. In this far-off schematic, which would likely not be in full form until the spring of 2014 at the earliest, Austin could conceivably return to star in the production.

“ ‘Peepshow’ is a big show with aggressive, complicated choreography, lots of lights. … It’s a big, big show, and if we go into a more intimate environment, how to use a star is something we have to figure out,” Zeiger said. “But we talked to Coco about it. The girl is an amazing dancer, she’s arguably the best dancer we’ve ever had in the role. She loves the show, and we talked to her about where her future is, and she would like to stick with the show in some way, shape or form.”

An even smaller “Peepshow” would give Base a chance to recalibrate and compete among smaller-venue topless productions along the Strip. But there is a sense that the Vegas market is still overserved in terms of the high number of shows in production and the volume of seats to fill. Base seems ready for any outcome.

Fans and entertainers don’t like hearing it, but shows close. That, folks, is show business.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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