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Goodbye, Norma Jean


Brent Holmes

Marilyn! producer Tegan Summer

The biggest challenge to launching new Broadway-style shows in Las Vegas: How do you know when one is ready?

It’s clear now, with hindsight’s usual morning-after clarity, that Marilyn! The New Musical wasn’t.

Jersey Boys came to the same Paris Las Vegas stage as a sturdy Broadway hit. But the Marilyn Monroe biography needed a lot more work — and apparently a lot more money — if it wanted to ride out a slow start and find its footing in front of paying customers at Paris Las Vegas.

Instead, the half-baked musical will have run not quite a month when it closes June 29, with announced plans to return September 4.

That seems dubious, but so did a Vegas Golden Knights futures bet. It’s rare for a show to leave and then come back, but it does happen. Baz — the Strip’s only other acrobat-free musical — had a brief 2015 run at Mandalay Bay, then returned for what will be two years at the Palazzo. (The show was served notice Tuesday of its July 29 closing. The double whammy for the local theatrical community slams another door for cross-pollinated Marilyn! star Ruby Lewis and other cast members.)

Marilyn! was largely the creation of Tegan Summer, a Brit by way of Los Angeles credited as producer, director, writer, and lyricist. Orange County attorney and estate planner Rick S. Weiner is credited as executive producer. Las Vegas-based Seth Yudof and his UD Factory shared local management duties, and it was Yudof who had to deliver the closing notice on June 8.

None seemed equipped to budget for a show that involved three unions — actors, musicians, and stagehands — and the assorted benefits and reserve funds those contracts require.

Sources privy to those contracts say there were warning signs during rehearsals that the enterprise was under-budgeted from the get-go, with insufficient reserves to cover running losses while the show built an audience.

The money certainly wasn’t in the set design. Marilyn! unfolds on a stark bandstand riser, in front of a video screen displaying historical photos of the real screen goddess — a welcome asset thanks to a partnership with Authentic Brands Group, keepers of Monroe’s estate.

But the gorgeous still photos also remind us that beyond a couple of enduring classics (Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch), Monroe lives on more as a visual icon and fashion accessory than as the movie star of The Prince and the Showgirl and other now-obscure films referenced onstage.

It’s hard to imagine younger audiences getting excited about Monroe’s downbeat life story, full of people who are no longer a cultural touchstone to them. Joe DiMaggio, maybe. Darryl F. Zanuck? Probably not.

A quality cast, including Broadway-to-Las Vegas transplants Travis Cloer (Jersey Boys) and Randal Keith (Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers), does its best to make these barely sketched characters come to life in short bursts. Lewis is a tiny thing compared to the voluptuous Monroe body type, but the force of her belting at least helps conceal Summer’s lack of a unifying theory on what made Marilyn tick.

Historians and diehard fans still try to unravel the Marilyn Monroe enigma and the circumstances of her death. But this mediocre musical doesn’t even give casual fans the screen Marilyn: The sex appeal balanced by a sweetness and vulnerability that made men want to protect as well as possess.

Instead, we get a champagne-chugging Marilyn declaring, “I want respect. I want credibility” in song, and dropping anachronistic you-go-girl bombs on the #MeToo men in her life: “It seems like you get off on objectifying women!”

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We also get the promising but under-explored device of Marilyn interacting with her inner-self doppelgänger Norma Jeane (Brittney Bertier). And yet, two songs inexplicably go to Marilyn’s chauffeur (Frank Lawson), a character almost nonexistent beyond his role as narrator, telling instead of showing us such things as, “To the world she was getting bigger. But inside she was falling apart.”

Marilyn’s saga is still the stuff of Greek tragedy, and possibly a Broadway musical. The oddest footnote to this story is there is another Marilyn show out there — sorta, kinda. Bombshell was the musical being created on the NBC backstage drama Smash, with songs by Marc Shaiman of Hairspray preserved on a cast album. Smash aired in 2012 and 2013, but its creators still haven’t given up on Bombshell becoming a real-life Broadway show. And now Shaiman is at work on a Broadway adaptation of Some Like it Hot.

If either of those projects makes it to Las Vegas before Marilyn! returns, it’s doubtful that anyone would be surprised. Or complain.