Auckland musical 'City of 100 Lovers' cost $8 million but is playing to near-empty houses - Kogonuso

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Dec 15, 2018

Auckland musical 'City of 100 Lovers' cost $8 million but is playing to near-empty houses

It's one of New Zealand's most expensive theatrical productions at a cost of $8 million and rising.

The production team juggled 150 costumes and 16 songs at a celebrity-studded opening night as City of 100 Lovers began its hugely ambitious nine-month run six weeks ago.

But earlier this week, when the lights came up and the 26-strong cast took the stage for their curtain call, the 800-seat SkyCity theatre was revealed to be more than 90 per cent empty.

The Herald understands the attendance of 70 is typical and bolstered considerably, according to box officer staff, by complimentary tickets handed out by SkyCity.

Reviews have been sparse and at times scathing. Theatrescene's James Wenley said despite the lavish budget, he found the spectacle "underwhelming" and described the show's signature nationalism as "soulless patriotic pageantry".

The Herald's Dione Joseph concluded her own lukewarm review with the question: "Will it have the legs to walk and how far can it go?"

It's a question New Zealand's theatre community have been asking since that glitzy opening night in October: how can such an expensive show succeed when the 70-strong cast and crew sometimes outnumber the audience?

Michael Bayley, of Showbiz Christchurch, said City of 100 Lovers had left many in the industry scratching their heads.

Citing the comparatively huge budget - "certainly one of the most expensive theatrical productions in New Zealand history" - and apparent poor sales, he couldn't see it working financially.

"There are many ventures in viticulture, horticulture - and theatre - driven by people with larger bank balances than relevant commercial backgrounds. This one doesn't seem to make any fiscal sense at all," he said.

A member of the Auckland theatre community, who did not wish to be named as colleagues and friends had livelihoods on the line, compared the show's no-expense-spared spectacle to infamous Hollywood bombs Battlefield Earth and Waterworld.

The show's well-reviewed and considerably less lavish rival Shortland Street: The Musical cited poor ticket sales in cancelling its planned national run this week, but promoters for City of 100 Lovers told the Herald this week they weren't going anywhere.

A statement by PR firm Campbell + Co on behalf of producers said 6386 had attended the show in its first 44 performances. This suggests an average attendance of 145 for each show - 18 per cent of the venue's capacity.

Further questions revealed this figure bundled together complimentary and paid tickets, and included four, largely free, preview performances.

"Average ticket sales have been slow. However, they are on target with the long-term strategy of the project," the statement said. A spokeswoman later told the Herald that Tuesday, the day the Herald attended the show, was traditionally a quiet day for theatre audiences.

The statement said the strategy was to develop a Vegas-style "show in residence", focussing on the tourist market. It was unique to New Zealand and the model was substantially different to typical theatrical productions.

The statement said $8.8m had been invested to date - an $800,000 increase on the $8m claimed at opening in October - but financing was not a problem.

"The production company expects this investment to stretch up to $12m to continually refine and improve the show while commercial channels continue to be developed."

The figures suggest the show is costing about $100,000 per week - costs its promoter says it is happy to bear - during its run at SkyCity.

The vehicle used to produce the show is Templar Tourism Management, part of the Templar group - described on its website as a "wealth preservation" company - headed by Jihong Lu, a 54-year-old resident of Mission Bay.

The Campbell + Co statement confirmed this arrangement, noting while Templar was the largest single funder, there was a "small group of domestic and international professional investors [who] have also invested into this production".

The show's programme lists Lu as promoter and producer, but otherwise he's absent from the glossy programme and publicity campaign. A request to interview Lu about the show was declined, but questions about his business background were answered in the Campbell + Co statement with a disclaimer.

"There is concern within the team that your line of questioning brings up elements of Jihong Lu's commercial past. These are completely unrelated to City of 100 Lovers."

Lu has a colourful backstory including a failed attempt to develop Britomart and a large slice of the Auckland CBD, bankruptcy, a case involving court charges and multi-million dollar fines in Shanghai, and a cameo appearance in the Paradise Papers leak into offshore tax havens.

According to news reports, Lu - a talented student pianist - was born in Wuhan in central China, then came to New Zealand in 1985 to study music at Auckland and Victoria universities.

He became publicly known in New Zealand in the late 1990s with an ambitious, but ultimately unrealised, billion-dollar plan to redevelop Britomart and plant nearly a dozen skyscrapers on Auckland's waterfront.

The project ultimately flopped when Lu, who claimed at the time to manage over $6 billion, was bankrupted in the Auckland High Court in 2000 over a $3m debt.

In 2009, Jihong was arrested in Shanghai. A failed appeal by Jihong to the Shanghai High Court in 2013 seen by the Herald shows he was found to have used his New Zealand-registered company AFG Asset Management to engage in "illegal business practices" and he was fined the equivalent of $12m.

Campbell + Co said in response to questions about these episodes that "this is all on the public record".

Lu's name also makes an appearance in the Paradise Papers, a cache of documents leaked from international legal firm Appleby's. Lu is shown to have been a director of the Bermuda-registered Nan Hai Corporation for a period in 2000.

There is nothing illegal about the use of such structures, and the Campbell + Co statement said this directorship was also a matter of public record.

Since his bankruptcy, Lu has kept a low profile in New Zealand, appearing in neither the business press nor society pages for more than a decade.

He has only re-emerged into the Auckland limelight in the last few years, attending polo matches and establishing an Instagram presence heavy on shots of his 25m superyacht.

His recent moves have been into arts philanthropy. Lu has given lectures on art investment and Templar has become a major sponsor of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
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