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Blood, sweat and chainsaws
Story by David McKee and
Photography by Mike Hill
The rise and fall — and rise and fall — of shock theater impresario Sirc Michaels. (Insert f-bomb here)
Jacked up on Mountain Dew and blitzing audiences into shock with a barrage of f-bombs, he came seemingly out of nowhere to set Las Vegas’ theater scene on its ear. Rarely have Sin City stages seen personalities — and fortunes — so mercurial as those of Sirc Michaels, who’s gone from presenting small-scale community theater to producing three Strip shows in well under two years.
And, oh, what Strip shows they are: “Evil Dead The Musical,” a campy, gory, goo-drenched tribute to an ’80s cult horror flick about a spectral force terrorizing teens in a remote cabin; “Awesome ’80s Prom,” a free-form, interactive “happening” that bombed before it ever truly opened; and “Legwarmers,” an uber-cheesy jukebox musical that Michaels likens to the entire MTV era come to bright, bouncy life. His surprising flops are as frequent as his unlikely hits. But amid the vagaries of fickle audiences and hard-to-gauge markets, one quality of his is constant: A burning desire to not just attract an audience, but to forge fans — hardcore, cult-following, seen-it-20-times fans.
“Theatergoers will go and see the show,” he says. “Fans will go to see the show, they’ll buy the T-shirt, they’ll buy everything you’ve got, they’ll want their tits autographed, they’ve got the tattoo. It’s a rabid sort of vibe — and I’m one of them.”
Rabid is certainly one word that comes to mind when describing Michaels, a feisty, verbose, bearded bantam seemingly crossbred from P.T. Barnum and Wolfman Jack. The only thing he enjoys more than making productions is making waves — and headlines.
“Here in Vegas, I’m just flabbergasted that no one has done these types of shows because it makes sense. You have a fan base. You don’t have to do traditional marketing. You don’t have to fight for the average theatergoer. You can go to fans, put it on their boards and they will spread that across the country. They’ll flock here. We’re in Vegas.”
It might be a stretch to say he’s hit upon some magic formula to draw crowds to his circus-like events. But Michaels’ approach and sensibility has certainly tapped a nerve — and brought to theater venues people who otherwise might not know William Shakespeare from Sam Shepard.
How ironic that his start was so … quiet. After a series of unrelated crises unraveled Onyx Theatre’s 2010-10 season, the hitherto-unknown Michaels was brought in, mid-year, as artistic director of the cult house, which operates out of the back of a fetish shop (The Rack) in Commercial Center and had presented mostly gay-friendly entertainment. Michaels quickly carpentered an ambitious production slate for a venue that had been at the mercy of whatever fell across the transom. After some fits and starts, he hit paydirt with “Evil Dead The Musical,” which played to sold-out houses in October 2011 and again last January.
Yet behind the boffo box office, trouble was brewing. For reasons that remain murky to this day, Michaels — a nom de voyage for Chris Palkow, who places his origins vaguely “in Jersey” in the early 1970s — was given the sack last February. However, Michaels still had a hot property in his back pocket — “Evil Dead” — and he quickly began shopping it, eventually landing, of all places, in Planet Hollywood’s V Theater, where it plays 10 p.m. Fridays and 11:30 p.m. Saturdays. Despite debuting opposite $10 million ultra-megaflop “Surf the Musical” (“their opening sucked the air out of ours,” Michaels says), “Evil Dead” has thrived in its new home while, upstairs, “Surf” was a swift wipeout.
Maybe the secret is splatter. By Michaels’ estimate, “Evil Dead” plays to 75 percent of capacity and regularly sells out its “Splatter Zone.” Splatter Zone? This is the front of the house where fans pay a premium to be doused with pink goo – a spectacle that sometimes brings the show to a screeching halt. “Presently we can hold up to 100 people in the Splatter Zone alone,” says Michaels. “At the Onyx, 100 seats was the entire venue capacity.”
Although “Evil Dead” audiences at V are split roughly 60/40 between newbies and fans of the cult films — a trilogy directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell — the show is definitely best appreciated by those who have seen and liked the flicks. When protagonist Ash proclaims, “Good? Bad? I’m the guy with the gun,” movie fans go ape while novices draw a blank.
“The whole thing is a deliberate exercise in bad taste and over-the-topness, so you can’t say there’s a right or wrong way of doing it,” wrote the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mike Weatherford, a perceptive chronicler of Michaels’ transformation from local provocateur to Strip celebrity.
“The show is written very specifically to be a stand-alone production,” explains “Evil Dead The Musical” author George Reinblatt. “We’ve seen tons of audience members who know nothing about ‘Evil Dead’ — and they love it. That being said, if you are a fan of the movies, you’ll hear the lines you want to hear and once in a while you’ll catch a little something that maybe not everyone gets. But when done correctly, these insider moments don’t take away from the production and the show is enjoyed by both fans and non-fans alike.”
But don’t write it off as mere (literally) splashy schlock. Michaels — who can switch hats from showman to champion of the arts at the drop of a bloody chainsaw — insists there’s a nobler end to it all.
“As a producer, my job is butts in seats. As an artist, my desire is to instill in everyone a love of the arts,” he says. “So if I see that happening, I know I’m doing something right. I’m speaking to people who live now. They’re not necessarily high-minded. That’s not what they’re about. They’re coming because it’s ‘Evil Dead.’ ‘I love those movies. They’re awesome. Oh my God, it’s a musical? I’ve gotta see that. It’s not at all what I thought theater was.’” He muses, without a hint of irony, that today’s “Evil Dead” fans may be tomorrow’s audience for “Antigone.”
Chicken feed and blood
Relocation to V also enabled Michaels to upsize his budget and restage parts of the show for a Strip sensibility. Animatronics have been augmented, video interludes added and the low-budget Onyx set has been given a higher sheen. Blood-spurt effects, however protracted, are less obvious in their execution, there’s an audience-participation encore and the prolonged finale has been completely restaged, incorporating Michael Jackson and Jabbawockeez impersonators. Rolling billboards, the bane of Strip motorists, were soon schlepping mammoth “Evil Dead” logos up and down the boulevard.
Such adaptability, along with persistence and eye to the main chance, sets Michaels apart from most Vegas-based producers. The starving-artist pose is not for him. He’s unabashedly commercial and doesn’t care if he’s perceived as a lowbrow. While marketing is practically an alien concept off-Strip (and sometimes on-Strip as well), Michaels has studied it and misses no opportunity to hawk his product — as when he and cast members made an in-character appearance at Las Vegas Comic Expo, held in late September at the Riviera.
While flops invariably outnumber hits in show business (and this has been no different for Sirc Michaels Prods.), the peppery impresario drew to a hot hand with “Evil Dead” and has run the table with it. At V, it was done on a budget less than $100,000 … chicken feed by Strip standards.
[HEAR MORE: Behave yourself! Learn about theater etiquette on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
“If someone tells you that you need a ton of cash to make something happen, they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. What you need is dedication — and a f---ton of it,” says Michaels. Landlord David Saxe has also allowed Michaels to keep ticket prices relatively low, starting at $55.
Saxe and Michaels, however, were not so fortunate with a companion show, “Awesome ’80s Prom.” A plotless “happening,” it required audience members (“You will dance and sing along,” promo materials commanded) to mingle and role-play with “Evil Dead” cast members who were doing double duty as prom queens, faculty, etc., in order to amortize their salaries, since “Evil Dead” only plays twice weekly.
But dancing and singing can only take you so far. Unlike “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” or “Marriage Can Be Murder,” there was scant seating and no dinner to ameliorate the steep ticket prices, higher than “Evil Dead’s.” Neither coupon offers nor added seats could stave off the inevitable. After innumerable previews and no media night, “Prom” folded on Sept. 16, making it that rara avis: a Strip show that closed before it officially opened.
While Michaels still thinks “Prom” might work in Vegas, he chalks up its failure, tellingly, not to failure of art, but a failure of marketing — “an inability to market the show properly,” Michaels says. “If that isn’t in place, no matter how many drinks you give away or how good your performers are, ultimately not enough people will see your show to make it viable.”
Ya gotta have legs
But he lets no grass grow under his feet. Scarcely was “Prom’s” obituary posted when Michaels announced its replacement — a jukebox musical of his own devising, “Legwarmers,” which opened Sept. 20. It’s another audience-participation/sing-along show, also employing “Evil Dead” actors, born of Michaels’ own nostalgia for the ’80s. He describes as the MTV era “come to life,” and plans to shoot music videos as part of a viral marketing campaign.
Michaels is a great believer in online marketing and word of mouth. “It is irresponsible not to go that route,” he says. Last January’s “Evil Dead” revival sold to the rafters although press coverage was minimal and “we did nothing in advertising. I’m going to use everything at my fingertips to reach everyone: the fan sites, the boards, places that theaters don’t normally go. But once you put it out there, they spread it amongst themselves. You get to engage directly with your potential fans.”
He’s also proud of having cast two Strip shows (with a third to come) entirely from talent within the community. “Evil Dead” lead Ben Stobber has become such a cult figure already that he was the centerpiece of a Review-Journal feature on the “Evil Dead” phenom. “There is an endless supply of strong talent right here that, for a production show, it is shortsighted to pass over,” Michaels says. For “Legwarmers,” he signed the busiest actress in town, Breon Jenay — a publicity coup.
“We needed a strong female for the show,” Michael explains. “I’d wanted to work with her for a while.” So he cold-called her.
“After seeing ‘Evil Dead’ and ’80s Prom,’ I was pretty psyched to get on board with ‘Legwarmers,’” Jenay says, though she’s a relative newcomer to musical theater. “I was a bit nervous about the prospect, but Sirc and the cast made me feel right at home. It’s a bit of a dream come true for me because I love Eighties music and the song selection is dynamite.”
Or just a bomb? Jenay soon left the show and inked a contract with “Marriage Can Be Murder” at The D. (It cannot have helped that Michaels took an extended — and well-publicized — Disneyland vacation smack in the middle of “Legwarmers’” abbreviated rehearsal period.)
If “Legwarmers” doesn’t have legs, Michaels may attempt a Strip version of his first Onyx show, Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a musical comedy about the romantic rivalry between a superhero and a supervillain. “I could see it doing very well as an afternoon or early evening show,” he says. Still other projects are hush-hush, “just thoughts and conversations.”
In the meantime, “Evil Dead” will be Michaels’ bread-and-butter (bread-and-splatter?) product. “We have to live off the tourists, otherwise we won’t make a return off our investment,” he says, adding that his responsibility is to make the show both affordable and profitable. Even slow nights (say, 120 people) “are pretty damned full. We’ve hit sold out a couple of times, but no one expected that to be the norm until we got closer to October. We have people who come to Vegas specifically to see Evil Dead.” Its box office performance is seemingly immune to fluctuations in Vegas tourism. The producer/director reports that sales are up when those for other shows are down and “over the top” when tourism is strong.
It surely helps that Evil Dead isn’t standard “tourist” fodder but plays to a coterie of loyal cultists, the kind who still stick with their fandom through thick and thin — and that it has one of the lower price points on the Strip, a precinct notorious for stratospheric fares.
“I’m not sure how many shows on the Strip have that sort of pull,” Michaels says. “Some nights the place turns into a madhouse with people screaming, laughing, singing along and generally having a raucous time and other nights the audience is a bit more subdued. I can envision a day when the audience is full of repeat customers. It will take time to get there, but it isn’t an impossibility.”
That’s the moment when the standard audience member is transformed through Michaels’ strange alchemy of shock and camp into someone quite different.
ldquo;I don’t want to do a show where people sit in a chair and watch it,” he says. “I want them to be in the environment and become part of it.” Because that’s what fans do.
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