Thursday, May 10, 2012

Theatre: In the Heights and Good Bye to Dancap

In The Heights was the 2008 Tony Award winner and a smash hit on Broadway.  So why did its one week Toronto run in February have such dismal ticket sales that my cheap seats were upgraded to the front of the first balcony (usually the best seats in the house) and only half of the Toronto Centre of the Arts theatre was filled?  The reasons are probably symptomatic of why Aubrey Dan has recently announced that he is giving up on the theatre industry in Toronto after several years of mixed success to outright failures.
In The Heights is a musical about three days in the life of Dominican-Americans in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights.  While critically acclaimed, this musical may not appeal to all theatre goers, especially in the older generation, since much of its music is based on rap and part of the songs are in Spanish.

I personally loved the music and the songs (having heard the CD) and looked forward to watching the show.  But I found the performances to be a bit flat, especially in the key love story between Nina and Benny.  I could not connect with them and therefore felt disengaged with their journey.  Later on I found out that In the Heights was cast with "non-Equity" actors in order to lower costs.  I'm not sure if this is a case of "you don't get what you didn't pay for", but it might account for my ambivalence about the experience.

 In my opinion, Dan had trouble with his show choices, possibly due to losing in the battle against Mirvish Productions to book top notch shows.  He scored big with Jersey Boys but was not able to repeat the magnitude of that success.  Of the 2012 subscription series, In the Heights was the only choice that excited me.  West Side Story and Beauty and the Beast have been done already by Mirvish and others, while Shrek the Musical and Million Dollar Quartet did not interest me at all.  You knew there was trouble in the 2011 subscription offering when the featured show (South Pacific) was a repeat of the previous year's show.  The marketing spin of "so good we're offering it to you again" just didn't fly.

For me, Dancap Productions had a problem from the get-go with its marketing strategy and price point.  I was so excited when I first heard about a new theatre group entering the scene, until I found out the cost to see the shows.  I was paying around $150 for my entire Mirvish subscription (6-7 shows) while the cheapest single ticket for any Dancap show as around $60-70 with the subscription prices not offering much of a volume discount.  Add that to my luke-warm interest in the shows to begin with and this was not going to be a win of my limited theatre dollar.

The final issue with Dancap productions is the lack of proper permanent venues to host the shows.  Once Aubrey Dan lost the war with David Mirvish to purchase the Panasonic and Canon theatres (now renamed the Ed Mirvish Theatre!!), it left him with poor alternatives that were unsuitable in terms of either size or location.

The theatre experience loses something when you have to trek up to suburbia to get to the Toronto Centre of the Arts in North York.  The Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts has great acoustics, but its upper balcony is curved in such a way that you cannot see past the centre of the stage without leaning forward.  Toxic Avenger was staged at the Danforth Music Hall, which was way too large a venue for the small quirky musical and most people had no idea where this place was.  Dancap then devalued the show even more by trying to give tickets away for free to get people to go see it in order to fill the seats.  This did nothing to help ticket sales.

It really is a shame that Aubrey Dan was not able to make a go of it.  Good old fashioned competition for Mirvish Productions should have meant more theatre opportunity for Toronto, which in my mind is a good thing.  He just went about it the wrong way.  As I read in one recent newspaper article, Dan's biggest mistake was trying to replace Garth Drabinsky's Livent market.  And as we now know, the extent of that market was mostly a fabrication in Drabinksy's books.  Good bye Dancap.  I'm sorry it didn't work out.

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