Thursday, June 23, 2016 | 5:42 p.m.
During the opening number of “Idaho! The Comedy Musical,” at the Smith Center for its first preview night July 6 and its gala celebrity premiere July 9, a bare-bottomed young man runs across the stage. “It’s a signal to say that this ain’t your grandmother’s prairie musical,” creator and writer Buddy Sheffield told me Wednesday.
After “Cabaret” loaded out its lighting and scenery Monday morning, in came the technicians to hang the lighting for “Idaho!” Today, all the scenery — all made here in Las Vegas — is installed.
I watched the cast run through three wild musical numbers Wednesday. They are finger-snapping, toe-tapping memorable tunes that also pack a punch.
Musical Director Keith Thompson (“Jersey Boys,” “Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia”) is the creative genius at the back-and-white keys. The director is Matt Lenz, also of “Hairspray.”
Who would have thought that the moon over our nearby state would be shaped and colored like a potato? This show is irreverent and hysterically funny with a Monty Python wackiness to it. As one critic who saw the New York run-throughs said: “It’s like ‘Oklahoma’ meets ‘Blazing Saddles’ with a side of mashed potatoes.”
At the opening gala with producers and theater owners flying in from Broadway to bid for the production to go there in fall 2017, they’ll serve vintage wines with French fries, julienne and mashed potatoes. This is a love letter to the potato state.
In fact, to prove there is no hard feelings, the Idaho Potato Commission is sending down an 18-wheeler with the world’s largest potato — some 18 feet long — to be on display outside the Smith Center on opening night. (It’s not real, BTW; it’s papier-mache.)
The cast of 18 brings the hilarious love story to life as a mail order bride from Ohio arrives in Idaho to marry and upsets the potato-cart long enough for three couples to discover or rediscover the loves of their lives.
Smith Center President Myron Martin candidly confessed Wednesday:
“You asked if I was nervous, and two weeks ago I probably was.
“My stomach was in knots because, as much as I knew the book was great, as much as Keith Thompson has been doing fabulous songs from ‘Idaho!’ here at Composers Showcase for the last couple of years, they were in my brain already, and I knew they were great ... until you bring the cast together, and until you start reading and till you see the chemistry between the characters, you don’t know for sure.
“I feel like today I know for sure that we’re going to give our audiences a really good show.
“It’s a love for Idaho, the people and the potato. What Buddy has written is really just a love letter to Idaho, and it’s really all about love, and what better time than now to introduce a new musical that’s about love and caring.
“I think this production is going to give people in Las Vegas a chance to laugh and smile and hear great music and take away some of that stress that we’ve all been under in recent days.”
For the Smith Center to take the “first angel” gamble of underwriting a brand new musical is a huge undertaking and much earlier in its life than envisioned. Myron continued:
“We have Teller the magician to thank. He pushed us to do ‘The Tempest’ with him, prove to us that we can do it, that we can launch a brand new show in Las Vegas, and, as you know, ‘The Tempest’ went on to Boston, Harvard, Orange County, California, Chicago, and now it may make its way to New York. That experience taught us that we really can do this. Our audiences asked for more.
“They so enjoyed ‘The Tempest.’ They said “We want to see something else before it goes to Broadway.’ We’re really excited about the fact that we’re able to do this, but, yes, you’re right, we’re doing it sooner in our life cycle than we might have otherwise.
“It is a gamble. We did have our Broadway Series subscribers, so we sold10,000 seats before we ever announced the show, but it’s still a big gamble for the Smith Center. There’s no upside in Las Vegas other than the warm, fuzzy type. There’s no chance that ‘Idaho!’ at the Smith Center makes money. Certainly not a lot of money. If we get to break even, we are thrilled.
“Part of the challenge on a short run of 13 shows is that there’s no longevity to recoup the investment. We can invite our friends from Broadway to come and see it, start lining up possible theaters and producers, the next step. When I sat in the rehearsal studio in New York two years ago at the very first reading, I said, “The Smith Center has to do this.” Period. Full stop. Because it was funny, and the music is great.
“It all pulls together with a kind of beauty to the romantic story — there was no doubt in my mind that if the Smith Center was going to gamble like you asked, that this was the show that we would gamble with. I’m the sole high-roller on this for the Smith Center. This was my baby. My entire career has come down to, ‘Would you like some fries with that show’? I happen to love potatoes, and we’ll salute that product opening night with fine wine and a French fries festival.
“Two weeks ago, my stomach was in knots because this is a huge undertaking, and the downside financially is daunting. The Smith Center took it all upon ourselves. Now, granted, we don’t have multi-million dollar sets. Andy Walmsley designed the sets for Broadway, but then he brought them down kind of to a smaller scale for the Smith Center stage. Our audiences will still get that experience.
“We got a great costume guy, but we didn’t build all the costumes. We’re buying them. Everything is from Las Vegas. It’s not just about the Smith Center. It’s about our city. We pared down the budget as much as we could with the goal that the box office would cover the cost. If all goes beautifully, we’ll do just that.
“Our city is growing up. We now have not only a world-class performing arts center, but also one that has been in the Top 10 in the Pollstar international ratings in the world. Now we have the opportunity to produce new product that will go out into the world. The Broadway community knows and loves the Smith Center and has a whole new appreciation for Las Vegas.
“The Smith Center is clearly one of the most important stops on any tour. Every show wants to come to the Smith Center. Now that we may in fact send a show the other direction, started here and send it to Broadway, sends yet another message to Broadway, and that’s that we take this business and this art very seriously and we expect that whatever we do is going to be done at the highest level possible.
“I think our friends who fly in from New York on opening night to see ‘Idaho!’ are not only going to be impressed with the facility and our show, but also with our city, which is now more than just the Entertainment Capital in the World. I think that people are going to start seeing it as the Arts and Entertainment Capital of the World.”
Actress-singer Jen Perry, who starred in “Mamma Mia” here during its two runs, is currently on a break from her role in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway to help launch “Idaho!” She told me:
“When I lived here, there was no Smith Center, so this venue is amazing. I saw ‘Cabaret’ the other night. There was nothing like this when I lived here. This venue didn’t exist when I lived here, so unless you were in a casino, which the theaters are very nice in a casino, but nothing like this.
“I couldn’t imagine starting a show or doing a pre-Broadway show in one of the casinos because I don’t think you were able to do it. I’m thrilled that The Smith Center is going to be hosting us, and we can really get a sense of can this go to Broadway? We can do a fully realized production in the big grand space and do the big choreographed numbers on its stage.
“It feels like a hit, smells like a hit, tastes like a hit it! It’s a great French fry. I have four songs in the show with this particular role I helped create. It’s very near and dear to my heart. When I read the script, I couldn’t get through it without laughing. I read the script, and it was hysterical. In rehearsals, we’ve been laughing and not been able to continue. Our director has been telling us to stop laughing while we are performing. It’s that funny.”
Nathaniel Hackman, who plays the lead role, grew up in Phoenix and often came here to Circus Circus with his family. Now he’s brought his wife and son to Las Vegas. He told me: “This city has exploded since I was here last time. It’s really fantastic. We have a great cast, and it’s packed with fun. It’s our irreverent but loving homage to Idaho and the potato.”
British set designer Andy Walmsley, who lives in Las Vegas, has built 20 musicals and was one of the youngest designers to ever work on Broadway.
“I actually did ‘Oklahoma’ back in London, so our set is blue skies, a panoramic country view and feel that is all painted on wooden planks so it feels like inside a barn. We fly in a potato moon, and people are already laughing at that as we have a little bit of fun with a western musical.
“This has been an 18-month project for me. We’re edgy, but there’s no cursing in this. The nearest is a line that says, ‘Dig the dirt till your testicles hurt” or “life can be such a ball if you just grew a pair.’ That’s Monty Python silly.”