Offstage in Burnsville: A lot of drama

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2010 - 7:53 PM

The new Burnsville Performing Arts Center has an agreement for three musicals with a man whose past includes jail time for fraud.

Nearly two years after its grand opening, the $20 million Burnsville Performing Arts Center is hosting its biggest Broadway-style production to date. But "Mame" -- the first of three well-known musicals from troubled producer Kevin Von Feldt -- has run into problems even before its opening Friday night.

Already the Sunday evening performance has been canceled, reportedly due to poor ticket sales. At least 20 percent of cast members quit the show and were replaced during a short rehearsal period.

Von Feldt has a sketchy track record going back decades. In the mid-1980s, he pleaded no contest in a California courtroom to charges of false advertising regarding job training for a nonexistent airline and a movie-promotion scam. In 1987, he received a one-year jail sentence.

He made news here a year ago when his touring production of "A Christmas Carol," bound for the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, was canceled after Von Feldt failed to make scheduled payments to secure the theater.

Making a deal

In August, Von Feldt and the city-owned performing arts center finalized a deal with Von Feldt to produce three shows in Burnsville. "Mame," a 1966 musical about a spirited bohemian who believes that "life is a banquet," is to be followed by "A Christmas Carol" and "Peter Pan." Von Feldt himself is scheduled to perform in "Mame."

"We're a straight rental [venue], we don't have a financial stake," said Jon Elbaum, executive director of the center, which is managed by VenuWorks, a facility management company that also consults with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.

Struggles since opening

Envisioned as a civic amenity and south-suburban draw for its roster of concerts, recitals and stage shows, BPAC is the centerpiece of a larger downtown development. But the 1,000-seat venue has struggled since opening in January 2009. The center, which has a $1 million budget and 8 full-time employees, lost $533,599 in its first year. Its prospects have improved since then, and it is expecting smaller losses this year; the operating deficit is running at about $274,458 through September.

The theater has attracted more than 68,000 people to its events so far this year -- up from 59,493 all of last year. It has hosted productions of "Titanic" and "Sweeney Todd" with casts partly composed of high-school students. "Mame," cast locally and nationally, is to be the major musical that showcases the potential of the space and advances the production standards of shows staged there. But at least six actors have quit.

Other cast members said they are under-rehearsed, in part because the sheet music, which often is different from cast recordings, did not arrive until last Wednesday, eight days before the opening. Ordinarily, directors and producers have secured the rights to properties well before the first day of rehearsal.

'Due diligence'

If the center's leadership has any qualms about working with Von Feldt, they did not share them in recent interviews. Elbaum, the center's fourth leader in two years, said that he does not believe that BPAC will be harmed by its association with Von Feldt, who is operating under the name Burnsville Civic Light Opera.

"We did our research into the background, we've done our due diligence there," said Elbaum, who admitted that he had not heard of Von Feldt before engaging him. "We've made a business decision to move forward with this. We're an open house, and people who can meet our requirements are entitled to rent the facility."

Von Feldt, who lives in Rice Lake, Wis., said that he's a changed man. He does not want to be judged by his past.

"I'm really trying to do it a different way," he said in a telephone interview. "I would just like a chance to show what we can do."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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