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Broadway of the South

Big-name shows sweeping the Carolinas 

This year, those who traveled to New York's Broadway could see such hits as "Jersey Boys" and "The Phantom of the Opera" and such revivals as "South Pacific" and "Chicago."

But those who lived in the Carolinas didn't need to fight crowded airports and hunt for Manhattan hotels to see those shows, which were brought practically to their doorsteps.

Carolinians have the advantage of major Broadway tour presenters and a top-flight classics revival organization that bring the shows to them. Despite the current economic turndown affecting many of the professional arts organizations, great musical theater is still abundantly available.

Four Carolina venues host the same touring shows that go on to play in the biggest urban centers, such as San Francisco, Houston and Washington. New and refurbished stages in Greenville, S.C., and Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, N.C., make it possible to see Broadway musicals direct from New York. Most shows run for a week with a least eight performances, and many are now settling in for three- and four-week runs, a nod to the strength of the market.

The nature of touring musicals has changed in the past two decades. Earlier, many shows sent out on tour were cut-down versions, oftentimes little resembling their Broadway originals. But with new technology and modern facilities to house them, national touring productions can now virtually duplicate the Broadway originals and often showcase performers fresh from their New York appearances.

Greenville's Peace Center for the Performing Arts, named for the Greenville family that pledged major seed money, opened to the public in 1990. The 2,100-seat concert hall, with its glowing red and gold d├ęcor and six double tiers of box seats, offers a modern take on old-world charm. In this comfortable setting, the Peace Center offers its annual Broadway package, which recently included runs of "Legally Blonde" and "Chicago." Last month, the Tony-award-winning revival of "South Pacific," still on Broadway, played for a week, featuring the Broadway alternate leading man, opera singer David Pittsinger.

Charlotte's North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, a 2,100-seat facility built to fully accommodate Broadway tours, first opened its doors in 1992. It has a charming blend of the old-fashioned horseshoe shape and tiered boxes, integrated into a sleek modern design enhanced by its soft white background.

"The only small concession we had to make," says Blumenthal president Tom Gabbard, "was to add a ceiling access door to accommodate 'Phantom of the Opera' for controlling the falling chandelier."

 The Blumenthal was the first of the Carolina venues to get "Phantom," which played 64 performances in October and November 1996. In 2010, the Blumenthal continues to host long-term runs, including three-week stays for "Jersey Boys" and "Mary Poppins."

Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium has been around since 1932, but major renovations in the 1990s offered a revival, adding a single rise of red plush seating connecting to the former balcony, making better sightlines for its 2,200 seats. It was also specifically upfitted for Broadway Series South's hosting of "The Phantom of the Opera," which came to stay for five sold-out weeks in 1998. That production, which included every special effect and scenic device seen in the Broadway version, paved the way for many more stage-filling shows since, including "Miss Saigon" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Jim Lavery, general manager of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which includes Memorial Auditorium, credits "The Lion King" as its best-selling show so far, playing to more than 100,000 people in 2006 for six and half weeks. The show was also the Blumenthal's best seller, with two separate monthlong runs in 2003 and 2007.

North Carolina's newest facility for touring shows is the Durham Performing Arts Center, a gleaming structure of glass and steel that opened in November 2008. It anchors Durham's American Tobacco District, a 16-acre campus of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. The clean design of the center's 2,700-seat theater belies its size with two wide, sweeping balconies that keep all seats close to the stage.

In its first season, the Durham center presented "The Color Purple" and "Fiddler on the Roof." The center's Broadway tours are under the management of New York's Nederlander group, which means Durham will get the much-anticipated tour of "Wicked" for four weeks this spring (the show also stops in Charlotte and Greenville for multiweek runs).

Raleigh's North Carolina Theatre takes a different approach to staging Broadway musicals, concentrating on popular classics, such as the recent acclaimed versions of "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story." From its first production of "Camelot" in 1984, the Raleigh theater has produced full seasons every year, drawing top professional actors, directors and choreographers from New York and around the country for its Broadway-level productions. The shows play in Memorial Auditorium for one to two weeks and have featured such stars as Larry Gatlin, Debby Boone, Paul Sorvino and Lou Diamond Phillips. In 2010, Sally Struthers will appear in "The Full Monty."

In addition to providing quality productions, these five organizations also offer great perks for those who subscribe at the highest level or become donors.

 The North Carolina Theatre has its Backer's Club, which hosts a private reception with heavy hors d'oeuvres and drinks before the show and during intermission. Club members also get complimentary parking, priority seating and special discounts.

The Durham Performing Arts Center offers membership in its President's Club, which includes a private VIP donors' lounge and complimentary beverages, reserved parking, red carpet entrance and invitations to cast parties.

The Blumenthal has a range of membership levels, which can include VIP dinners, free parking, best seats and concierge services.

All of the organizations offer various ticket exchanges, advance notices of shows and priority ticket purchasing.

Various professional musical tours play other Carolina venues, such as civic auditoriums and university facilities from Asheville and Wilmington to Columbia and Charleston, although these often have shorter runs of one to three days and are generally smaller shows, such as "Avenue Q." In addition, many fine musical productions are mounted by college, semiprofessional and community theaters.

While there's nothing wrong with a nice trip to the Big Apple for shopping, dining and shows, we can catch the latest Tony winners right here in "The Broadway of the South." 

Carolinas' Broadway Musical Presenters: 

  N. C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte:

  http://performingartsctr.org

  Box office: (704) 372-1000 

  Durham Performing Arts Center:

  www.dpacnc.com

  Box office: (919) 680-2787 

  Broadway Series South, Raleigh (Memorial Auditorium)

  www.broadwayseriessouth.com

  Box office: (800) 745-3000 (Ticketmaster) 

  North Carolina Theatre, Raleigh (Memorial Auditorium)

  www.nctheatre.com

  Box office: (800) 745-3000 (Ticketmaster) 

  Peace Center, Greenville

  www.peacecenter.org

  Box office: (864) 467-3000 or (800) 888-7768