The last 16 times Cirque du Soleil has come to town, it's been in Philadelphia. But in recent weeks, the Montreal-based frequent flyers took a leap of faith and set up their high-wire act in a somewhat novel environment: Montgomery County .
Cirque opened its show "Volta" in the "Big Top" in Oaks on July 12. It was originally slated to run until Aug. 5 but after strong ticket sales extended its run to Aug. 19.
Hosting this production marks a rise in arts programming for the suburb, which once housed the Valley Forge Music Fair, hosting Broadway national tours and acts like John Denver, Aretha Franklin, and Kenny Rogers until its closure in 1996. But recent growth in retail, hospitality, and a business migration west made "all the stars align," says Mike Bowman, CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.
"There's a huge demand for entertainment in Montco," he said. "Cirque solidified it."
Arts Montco is a response to that demand, an initiative to promote "theaters, live music, museums, and more" in the region. Jessica Willingham, director of arts and culture for the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, says there are more than 200 "arts attractions" included in the initiative, which launched last year and also covers nearby counties.
Music offerings range from the Bacon Brothers appearing this month at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside and the vocalists Manhattan Transfer coming to the Sellersville Theater in October; theater such as Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie at People's Light in Malvern; and museum exhibitions ranging from religious iconography in the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn to the Stoogeum in Ambler, dedicated to the pugilistic wit of the Three Stooges.
The tourist board claims $113 million in economic impact in Montgomery County from performing arts, historical museums, visual arts, public art and gardens, libraries, and other groups. The board touts "more than 30 public gardens within a 30-mile radius of the city," "more than 20 places to take in a show," and "five orchestras."
Just hotel occupancy by the Cirque team consists of "140 people from 20 different countries, including 47 artists," who perform in the show. Cirque's corporate office estimates spending $2 million in the Oaks area for employees' daily needs, local direct labor, and equipment. And the company employs about 150 local workers for support functions like ushering, concessions, and ticket sales. Bowman says the show typically takes place in cities and more densely populated areas, so it's a big get for the suburban Montgomery County and "sends a strong message."
The show takes place under the "Big Top," a tent that seats 2,500 and travels with the troupe. It is rigged with equipment for such stunts as BMX biking and "hair suspension," in which a female performer's hair, wired on cables, hoists her in the air.
The general manager of the Expo center, which is privately owned by Pen Oaks LLC, and described on its website as "one of the largest on the East Coast," could not be reached.
Stephanie Gaudette, general manager of Cirque du Soleil's touring-show division, says this isn't the first show Cirque du Soleil has put on in a suburb. They aren't worried so much about city vs. suburbs, but for "great destinations where people are going to have a tendency to appreciate the culture." And, she says, the family-oriented nature of the suburbs is a draw.
Steven Ross, Cirque's publicist for the show, adds that "Volta is one of the shows with the biggest footprint in terms of size requirements," which means that a more open space like Oaks works well logistically.
Edward Harris, chief marketing officer for the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, projected ticket sales at 80,000 to 85,000 total, but exact numbers will not come in until the end of the show's run. "In terms of a major entertainment event," Harris says, "this is really the first time we've done something like this." But he's "confident [the area] can do more of this" moving forward.
And, he notes, "anecdotally, we've received a lot of positive feedback from the restaurant community, which is a good indicator that people are coming here."
One local business, the Melting Pot in King of Prussia, concurs: "While we don't have any hard data to provide, we have seen an influx of business from people who have gone to the show and have dined with us either before or after," a company statement said.
Amy Kradzinski, general manager of P.J. Whelihan's in Oaks, credits Cirque's run with an 18 percent growth in sales from last year, which translates to an additional $15,000 per week or so. This is significant for the restaurant "because the summer months … tend to be [its] slowest," but an influx of people before and after the shows, as well as Cirque's premiere party, which was hosted in the restaurant, has resulted in significant revenue.
Janel and Mike Risell of Skippack Township in Montgomery County attended the show on July 31. The couple frequent shows in Las Vegas, New York City, and Atlantic City, and have seen Cirque du Soleil productions a few times before, in addition to shows by groups like the Blue Man Group and the Rockettes.
"We're not traditional Phantom of the Opera people," Janel, a pharmacy technician, explains; they prefer their shows more free-wheeling and kinetic.
Mike, a firefighter in East Whiteland Township, noted the free parking as something "unlike anywhere else we've seen." This sentiment echoes part of what Bowman called the "value proposition" of the area — free parking, "best shopping in the Northeast," featuring the King of Prussia Mall, the nation's largest in terms of retail space, and the high median household income. All are draws for a world-class company to come to Montgomery County.
Bowman says there'll likely be another show with Cirque down the line, but nothing's final yet, though they're looking at "a show that [Cirque is] in the process of tweaking right now." Gaudette, the Cirque touring-show division head, echoes that they're "open" to having another show in Montgomery County.
The next big initiative for Arts Montco is the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which runs Aug. 16 to 19 in Schwenksville. Down the line, Bowman adds, "we're looking to bring the entertainment from out of town into the market. There is definitely an appetite for that here now."
Willingham says that the team is also looking forward to a Van Gogh Museum Pop-up Aug. 16 through Oct. 14 at the Lord & Taylor court in the King of Prussia Mall, with "curator-approved replicas of nine van Gogh masterpieces; it is even possible to feel van Gogh's famous brushstrokes."
When asked about the emergence of the county as an "arts destination," Janel Risell seemed excited. "This is a great way to start."