Take your seat in downtown Las Vegas!

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts (Photo by Geri Kodey)The curtain is rising on The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

By Renée LiButti

The celebration is well underway. The subject of nearly two decades of discussion, planning, construction and anticipation, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is opening on March 10 with a grand show produced by George Steven Jr., who is best known for the “Kennedy Center Honors” telecasts. It will be taped for broadcast later in 2012. Country music singer Randy Travis already made the first two official performances at the $470 million world-class arts complex located in downtown Las Vegas this past weekend. His shows, two “Hard Hat” concerts, served to thank all of the people involved with the design and construction of this magnificent facility. This week will see an array of events from “Donor Appreciation Previews” to an open house, before The Smith Center raises the curtain for the public on March 12 with a concert from the Grammy Award-winning quartet Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

“This is for all of us. The Smith Center was built for those of us who live here,” said Myron Martin, president and CEO of The Smith Center, during a media day tour. “And it’s for our children and our grandchildren’s grandchildren – for future generations.”

Troesh Studio Theater

Troesh Studio Theater in Bowman Pavilion serves as a practice facility for the Nevada Ballet Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair.

Intended to truly embrace the community, tickets to most events will be made available to residents for surprisingly affordable prices. The Smith Center will present a blend of entertainment from local performers and arts groups to first-rate touring productions. It will also promote culture from around the world. There will be opportunities to experience everything including classical, pop, opera and jazz music, ballet and contemporary dance, Broadway productions, comedy shows, literary readings and much more. In addition, The Smith Center will serve as the home of two of the city’s leading performing arts organizations – the Nevada Ballet Theatre and the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

“This is truly a game changer for the Philharmonic because you’ll be able to hear what we really sound like,” joked Patricia Pieper Fink, the marketing director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, regarding the symphony orchestra’s chance to play in The Smith Center’s splendid 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall. “The sound is phenomenal in there, and for Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ [to be their debut performance on March 24] we’ll have 300 people onstage.”

The Smith Center has three superb venues. In addition to Reynolds Hall, which boasts stunning balconies, a massive stage and a full orchestra pit, there is the intimate 258-seat Cabaret Jazz theater as well as the 250-seat Troesh Studio Theater. All three will offer audiences engaging performance experiences, while providing resident companies with considerably enhanced technical capabilities. The Smith Center is also home to a 1.7-acre park, which will be used for outdoor concerts and special events.

The 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall is the largest venue in The Smith Center with a dramatic stage and five-tiered audience chamber. Photo by Geri Codey

Each space contains dramatic design that combines sophisticated aesthetics and state-of-the-art acoustics. At the helm of this endeavor was a technical team of architects, acousticians and other theater experts including David M. Schwartz Architects, HKS Architects, Inc., Akusticks and Fisher Dachs Associates.

Sitting on five acres, The Smith Center is meant to be evocative of Hoover Dam, both in architectural beauty and community impact. The man-made engineering wonder, which was constructed during the Great Depression, was critical to the growth of Las Vegas, and the founders of The Smith Center hope their new project, which also employed loads of people during tough economic times, will usher in a new era of culture. Numerous elements in the arts complex emulate Hoover Dam – the most noticeable one being a bronze sculpture in the Grand Lobby. Called “Winged Genius” and created by artist Benjamin Victor, it was inspired by Oskar Hansen’s “Winged Figures of the Republic,” two stone carvings that stand at entrance on the Nevada side of the dam.

“It took about a year to produce,” said Victor of the sculpture that weighs more than 2,000 pounds and stands more than 19 feet tall. “It’s bronze. I actually sculpted it in clay, made molds of the entire piece and cast it. This will be around for thousands of years. Bronze is a great material for something you want to be permanent.”

Artist Benjamin Victor was commissioned to create the "Winged Genius" bronze lobby sculpture, which was inspired by Hoover Dam. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

Like Hoover Dam, The Smith Center was built in record time. Ground was broken in May 2009. The project took 32 months and more than 2,600 hundred construction workers to complete. The facility is comprised of 4,000 tons of structural steel and 2,458 tons of Indiana limestone. Throughout the interior and exterior, the style of Art Deco was utilized, which also has a strong influence at the dam.

Now dominating the skyline in downtown Las Vegas is The Smith Center’s signature landmark, a 16-story bell tower. It can produce melodies spanning four octaves with its 47 bells, turning the whole building into a musical instrument.

“The carillon was a very controversial item,” said Martin, “but we wanted the arts to extend past the building. Everyone is happy we did it now.”

Speaking of extending the arts past the brick and mortar of the premises, a strong program to engage all ages – from children to seniors – is integral to the The Smith Center’s mission. Candy Schneider, the vice president of education outreach, discussed how they are promoting arts today and for the generations to come. In late 2009, The Smith Center became one of 16 organizations in the country to work in cooperation with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Virginia. This highly acclaimed program enhances preschool education by training teachers to incorporate creative music, theater and dance into their curricula.

“Right now we’re preparing teachers for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – how to introduce the company to young people, the history of the company and storytelling through dance,” said Schneider. The troupe of young African-American modern dancers is coming to The Smith Center March 20 – 21. “An Alvin Ailey dancer will visit schools and talk about life as a dancer.”

The Smith Center's carillon

The Smith Center's four-octave, 47-bell carillon stands out aurally and architecturally in downtown Las Vegas' skyline. Photo by Jennifer Whitehair

In 2010, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts chose Las Vegas as the fourth partner city for Any Given Child, a program that creates a long-range arts education plan for area students. It’s specifically geared to the Clark County School District and strives to bring access, balance and equity in arts education to students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

“When you’d attend [performing arts centers] in other places, you’d think, ‘Where’s ours?’” said Schneider, on her feelings about the opening of The Smith Center. “It’s a phenomenal experience that it is here now and filled with people – I need some Kleenex! – and I hope to see the entire complex ringed with school buses.”

Born out of the foresight of those locals who dreamed for a long time of having a performing arts center in Las Vegas, the opening of The Smith Center is finally a reality, the realization of a longstanding vision and one that marks a new milestone in the emergence of the Entertainment Capital of the World as a world center for arts and culture.

Everyone from locals to visitors now has an opportunity to become personally involved – through performances, activities, volunteering and donations. For more information on The Smith Center and a list of its upcoming shows, which includes a Broadway Series bringing some of the best traveling musicals to town (“The Color Purple,” Apr. 3 -8;  “Mary Poppins,” May 22 – 27;  “Million Dollar Quartet,” June 12 – 17; “Memphis,” July 18 – 22; and “Wicked,” Aug. 29 – Oct. 7), visit TheSmithCenter.com.

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I’m a Las Vegas native. By profession, I write at Vegas.com. Mostly about the city’s hotels, but on other topics – gaming and transportation – too. I really love staying at hotels. And the ones here are among the biggest and best in the world. Some key things I’ve learned: Resort fees are inescapable (frustrating but true), a friendly attitude at the front desk may score you a great view and over-the-top room amenities – bath butlers, Japanese tea service, menus with “intimate” items – do exist. What else should you know about me? Well, I’m comfortable at a blackjack table. And I like eating late-night pancakes in hotel coffee shops. A lot. Follow Renee on Google+.