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Broadway shows hit their stride tour

The seven-hour drive from Shea's Performing Arts Center to Times Square is a long and grueling 400 miles. The good news for cash-strapped fans of musical theater is that it's often no longer necessary.

Even for the stingiest of travelers, a weekend trip to New York and a pair of tickets to a Broadway show can set you back a cool $500. And once you wind your way through the snarling traffic, inch up to the box office and finally trudge to your seat, the chances of seeing a quality piece of theater are by no means high. Because of the unknown return on investment with unproven works, the role of adventurous New York City theatergoer is generally reserved for fanatics, residents of the Big Apple and the incredibly well-off.

Increasingly, as the current season of Broadway tours that have played Shea's has ably demonstrated, snagging a couple of balcony tickets here for $65 apiece can be a far better bet.

There's a misplaced notion out there, now thankfully in decline, that Broadway touring companies are somehow second-rate substitutes for their New York predecessors. This is rarely true.

In fact, as we saw with "Mary Poppins" and "Shrek" and are likely to see again with "Young Frankenstein" and "West Side Story," tours often prove to be significant improvements over their original productions. The result, quality-wise, means that theaters like Shea's become places where shows go to shine, not to die.

There are plenty of reasons for this. The Broadway development process is its own sort of crucible, which attempts to forge the perfect show through long rehearsal periods and weeks of previews. But because competition is so fierce and the creative process so harried, the best Broadway runs sometimes lack the balance and confidence of the tours that eventually grow out of them.

Susan Stroman, who directed the original productions and tours of "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein," said tours give the creative team an opportunity to tweak shows and respond to criticism.

"If the creative team are the same people that get to do it again, we kind of jump at the chance to tweak it and get back in the studio when you're not really worried about lighting or costumes. You're not worried about anything; you're just working on the material with the actors," Stroman said of "Young Frankenstein." "To be really honest, I think it's almost a better version of the show because the comedy is the star."

Judging from reviews and Internet buzz, the same was true for the "Mary Poppins" tour, which took on a somewhat darker and less candy-coated tone that resembles the show's run on the West End more than its Broadway brother. "Shrek," which didn't do as well as producers had hoped on Broadway, was also tweaked significantly for the road and has been garnering better reviews than it did in New York.

In the case of terrible productions like the recent tours of "Dreamgirls" and "Grease" that played Shea's last year and an earlier, unforgettably dismal version of "The Wizard of Oz" in 2009 -- those shows were hopeless to begin with.

What seems indisputable is that where there is a talented creative team, and where there is a consistent vision, the best Broadway shows age like fine wine while the worst simply wither away. For Buffalo's Broadway lovers, that's a pretty good deal.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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