I underestimated how long it would take to do everything on a holiday weekend in Las Vegas. From trekking from the Monte Carlo to the buffet at the Cosmopolitan to standing in the buffet line to getting from the South Strip to Downtown, nothing happened quickly. This is my excuse for not having more time to explore the Smith Center prior to the beginning of the musical, Wicked, which was my introduction to this new Las Vegas performing arts center. And what an introduction it was!
My Introduction to the Smith Center
I don’t recall ever traveling through this particular part of town before. It’s not far from the familiar towers of casino resorts like the Plaza on Fremont Street and has an excellent view of the Stratosphere. I wished I’d had my camera at the ready as my cab passed the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which is about a block away. The architecture of that building is wild! It looks like crumpled sheet metal. The architecture of the Smith Center is a bit more restrained—Art Deco, which seems really fitting for a theater. If only I’d had more time to tour it. I never made it past the first floor.
Wicked played in the Center’s larger venue, Reynolds Hall. By the time I arrived, the Grand Lobby was pretty well packed with theater-goers mingling and sipping pre-show cocktails from one of the two bars set up at either end of the lobby. Spectacular art deco chandeliers overhead and gleaming stone walls and floors evoke absolute class from another era. Right now, there is a temporary bright green photo staging area where you can buy a souvenir photo of yourself “in Oz,” and tables selling Wicked merchandise. My eyes, though, kept being drawn to the winged Benjamin Victor sculpture dominating the dual staircase leading to the upper floors. After just a few minutes, I needed to head into the theater to find my seat.
The 2,050-seat theater is gorgeous, with five balcony levels plus parterre and orchestra seating (and an orchestra pit, of course). The stage is big enough to accommodate a major musical like Wicked, where a large cast is sometimes on stage all at once. The acoustics are wonderful and the stage is equipped to handle all sorts of movement and set changes as might be expected for a Broadway-class musical.
I had a parterre seat on the floor toward the back (row XX, seat 104). The seats were comfortable. (They’d better be when you’re sitting there for three hours.) I couldn’t see facial expressions of the cast from my seat, but I could see what was happening clearly enough. Several people sitting around me were smart enough to bring theater binoculars with them. (Note to self: Must buy theater binoculars!)
In short, the performing arts center is a real gem. But enough about the theater: How was the show?
My Introduction to Wicked
In a word, Wicked is spectacular. I’ve seen a number of Broadway musicals (not on Broadway, mind you, but the touring companies that come through Burlington) and this was without a doubt, the best I’ve seen. Probably most of you reading this have seen it already. For those who haven’t, I don’t want to spoil it. So here’s what I can say about it without giving too much away.
Wicked is the brilliant and funny “untold story” of the witches from the Wizard of Oz—misunderstood Elphaba (aka The Wicked Witch of the West) and popular and pretty Glinda (Glinda the Good)—who become friends despite themselves. It doesn’t change any of the facts as we know them from the Wizard of Oz, but by providing history, filling in the gaps, and telling the story from a different point of view, it totally turns the Wizard of Oz on its head.
Dorothy is a minor character here, never seen as more than a shadow. Most of the story actually takes place before the events of The Wizard of Oz. We get to see the surprising origins of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the flying monkeys. But most importantly, we get to see how Elphaba came to be labelled “wicked” while Glinda came to be labelled “good”.
The nearly three hour story spans government corruption, the cult of celebrity, mob mentality, and how reputations often have little to do with reality. The music is top-notch and catchy, and the set designs were above and beyond what I expected for a touring company. I often found myself dazzled by the gorgeous backdrops.
In short, do not die without seeing this musical if you can help it. (You have until October 7 to see it at the Smith Center.)
It was a true pleasure to be part of such an appreciative audience at the Smith Center. Everyone was very enthusiastic, applauding regularly, laughing—and sniffling—in all the right places, and the cast got a standing ovation at the end. And not the kind of standing ovation you feel obligated to give because you know a performer’s ego is expecting it, but the kind where you leap to your feet in applause because you just can’t contain yourself any more.
Many members of the cast have performed in the musical on Broadway, so they were experienced in their roles. I wasn’t surprised when I read this, because so many of them have knockout voices. Nicole Parker as Elphaba and Patti Murin as Glinda, in particular, shine. Murin has the best comedic timing ever. Cliffton Hall, as romantic lead Fiyero, had a terrific voice as well. Rounding out the main cast are Tom McGowan as the Wizard, Kim Zimmer (of Guiding Light fame!) as Madame Morrible, Clifton Davis, as Dr. Dillamond, Demaree Hill as Nessarose, and Justin Brill as the Munchkin Boq.
Exit Stage Left
My one criticism about this whole experience was trying to get a cab back to the Strip afterwards. There were no Smith Center staff members outside the theater to answer questions or direct people to where they needed to go. There was an area roped off as a “taxi stand” but there was a blockade preventing taxis from approaching on that side of the street. So those of us who wanted taxis had to cross the street and take our chances walking out into traffic to approach the line of passing cabs. It was confusing, inefficient, and didn’t feel very safe.
During the drive back to the Strip, I overheard a cab driver over the radio tell the others that “everyone drove their own cars” to the Smith Center and so “it was dead” (no one needed a cab). I thought “Thank God I went outside immediately after the show, instead of going to the bathroom again or stopping to buy merchandise, because if I hadn’t, there might not have been any cabs around to catch back to the Strip.” So if you’re going by cab, you might want to bring the phone number of a cab company and a cell phone, just in case.
Believe it or not, Wicked was the only show I saw during my 6-night trip. Why? Because I’ve already seen all the Strip shows I’m interested in. If you’re a repeat Vegas visitor, too, and you feel like you’ve “seen and done it all,” I highly recommend that you add the Smith Center to your list of entertainment options. It offers programming that is different from what you will find on the Strip and you never know which world-class performers or Broadway musicals might be playing here when you’re in town.
You could even get as lucky as I did and finally fulfill your dream of seeing the musical destined to be your favorite.
A few additional notes:
Location: 361 Symphony Park Avenue
Dress code: Don’t wear shorts or flip-flops. Just don’t. This isn’t the Strip. Most people were dressed at least business casual, and many were very dressed up. Going to see a show here is a special event; treat it like one.
Drinks: You can buy drinks in the Lobby, but I didn’t see anyone cradling yardlong margaritas during the show (thank God).
Photography: There is no photography allowed in the theater, at least during Wicked. They are very strict about this. A woman in front of me was scolded by an usher for taking pictures of the theater before the show even started.
If you’re late: They’ll only let you into the theater during Act changes.
Cost of cab from South Strip: Approximately $20 each way (before tip), depending on traffic.
Photos above courtesy of the Smith Center.