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by Ann M. Colford

Just three years ago, Mel Brooks' blockbuster show, The Producers, debuted on Broadway, garnering 12 Tony awards and smashing attendance records. The show is still one of New York's hottest tickets, but now local musical theater buffs get a chance to see first-hand what all the fuss is about. Come fall, the first national touring company of The Producers pulls into Spokane for five days to kick off the 2004-2005 Best of Broadway Series.

"I'm thrilled that we'll get the first national tour here in Spokane," says Jack Lucas, vice-president of TicketsWest and the man primarily responsible for bringing the shows to town for WestCoast Entertainment. "Spokane is not what you'd call a first stop for New York producers."

While many in the Big Apple may sniff with disdain at the backwater of Spo-CAINE, plenty of tour producers now know how to pronounce our name correctly. From a single production of Cats in 1987 to the latest production of Fosse, touring companies have come to trust that Lucas and his team will treat them right when they come to town. What's his secret?

"A lot of it is relationships," he says. "I've known some of these producers for 17 years now. We're still civil here, and we treat each other with respect."

The companies set their tours 18 to 24 months in advance and they only have certain dates that will work, based on the tour routing. If Lucas doesn't have a venue available on those dates, Spokane is out of luck, he says.

"There are so many components for it to come together, to make it happen," he says. "I relate it to a big jigsaw puzzle. When I find a show is going on the road, I call to see if we can get it. We work closely with the Spokane Center staff to see if we can get [the dates]. Either we have those specific dates, or we don't have the show."

If the dates are open, then Lucas and crew work the numbers to determine the ticket prices they'll have to charge to make the local run a success. If the cost is reasonable for this market, then the show's a go. "Multiply that by five or six or seven shows a year, and you get some idea of the complexity involved," he says. "There's a lot of coordination."

The renovations to the Opera House five years ago helped move Spokane into the big time when competing for shows, Lucas says, while also crediting the local stagehands' union. "We're fortunate in Spokane to have a good infrastructure," he says. "We couldn't do it without the stagehands. And now the building can take virtually any show on tour. We've positioned ourselves that there's not a show we can't handle."

Next year, the team behind the Best of Broadway Series will handle four new major touring productions for the subscription series plus five additional shows, including return engagements of Les Miserables and Riverdance. The Producers -- the madcap comedy about a shady producer, his milquetoast partner and their efforts to scam investors by launching a show destined to fail -- gets the season started in style for a week in September. Less than a month before Election 2004, the Capitol Steps return with their own inimitable brand of political hilarity on October 10. The Irish dance spectacular, Riverdance, fast-steps across the stage in late October followed by perennial favorite, Les Miserables, in mid-November. And the holiday season officially begins with Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas Extraordinaire concert at the Spokane Arena on November 23.

In January 2005, the subscription series continues with the all-Gershwin show, Crazy For You, evoking the Golden Age of musicals on stage and screen. Another tribute to old-time show business, Say Goodnight Gracie, drops by for a single performance on February 16. Starring veteran actor Frank Gorshin, the show is a fond remembrance of George Burns and his long-time partner, Gracie Allen. Argentina's former first lady, Evita, is memorialized in the eponymous musical in late February, and the season comes to a close in late April with Contact, an unusual show that tells its story through dance rather than lyrics. And if that's not enough, Lucas says he has already booked Disney's The Lion King for a five-week run late in 2005.

Lucas says half of all people who attend the shows come from out of town, and those visitors spend millions on meals, lodging and shopping when they're here. While Lucas is proud of the economic impact on the region, he's even happier about the impact on quality of life.

"When people buy [those tickets], they're buying emotion," he says. "I get as excited about this today as I did when I first started, 17 years ago. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing."

Publication date: 04/08/04

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