ELVIS IS BACK IN VEGAS WITH ‘HEARTBREAK HOTEL IN CONCERT’


Concert-style Elvis retrospective is satisfying, solid entertainment…

Just when you thought there couldn’t be any new ways to celebrate the life and music of Elvis Presley, along comes Heartbreak Hotel In Concert. The new production at Harrah’s Las Vegas is an extravaganza of swiveling hips, legendary blues and rock-a-billy guitar hits that will have you rising from your seats with cheers.

Unlike other Elvis tribute shows, Heartbreak Hotel In Concert isn’t a typical impersonation act. Instead, its talented cast of singers and a live band present a chronological journey of The King’s career in word, song and style. A carefully-crafted set list visits his earliest church gospel days to recordings in Memphis through his army stint and Hollywood breakout, culminating in that historic record-setting residency at the International Hotel (now Westgate Las Vegas).

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Bursting onstage with “All Shook Up”, front man Eddie Clendening is an accomplished rock-a-billy powerhouse. His personal love for Presley’s music shines through with every chord of “That’s Alright”, “Baby Let’s Play House” and the title tune. Having previously portrayed the late superstar on Broadway in Million Dollar Quartet as well as touring around the world with his Blue Ribbon Boys band, Eddie knows instinctively how to channel Presley’s persona and style. Rather than mimicking Elvis, the Denver Colorado native allows the music to flow through him, infusing his vocals and body language with Presley’s signature heart and soul.

Musical director Colte Julian tickles the ivories and has a great time as Jerry Lee Lewis in a sequence saluting the Million Dollar Quartet jam sessions. Julian’s spot on, having played the wild piano man in several productions of the long-running hit based on that gathering. He’s also hysterical in a “White Pop” medley that dramatically emphasizes how daring Presley’s “black” music was perceived by listeners of the day.

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Once a two-act musical drama, Heartbreak Hotel has been re-imagined for Vegas audiences by Ivan Menchell and staged by Jeff Calhoun as a concert experience. Each performer gets their moment to recount a historic milestone and share personal reflections of The King’s songbook. Lovely singers Jackie Wiatrowski, Tymara Walker and Fana Hughes take center stage (and the keyboards) for “Handyman”, “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”. Broadway vet Geno Henderson (guitarist for B.B King and Ike Turner) captivates the audience with a soul-filled rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.

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In addition to lush costumes, precise staging and slick choreography, Heartbreak Hotel has invaluable and unprecedented access to thousands of rare photographs and video footage through Elvis Presley Enterprises.

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“Donny and Marie” Turn It Up To Eleven


Famed duo hits new heights for final year of Flamingo residency….

Donny Osmond loves making jokes. Even when the gag seems to go over the audience’s head, he still keeps chuckling. “Did you get that one?” he asked, referencing This Is Spinal Tap‘s famous “up to eleven” quote. “I think you were one of the few who did” he laughed as we spoke after a recent performance of Donny and Marie Show at Flamingo Hotel Casino.

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The beloved brother and sister of the famed Osmond clan have indeed turned up the dial to maximum setting. Not only is their revamped show better than ever, but the Utah natives are about to wrap up an amazing eleven years on the Strip. “You know, we were only supposed to be here for six weeks. And now we’re in our eleventh year” Donny exclaimed. “Can you believe it?”

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While other nostalgia-based Vegas productions have had mixed success of late, Donny and Marie continue to pack the house, perhaps now more than ever. Derrick Boyce, one of the production’s award-winning dancers, is excited about their continued success. “I was in the casino before showtime and was stunned at the long line stretching around the corner. We’re sold out on a Tuesday night. It’s amazing!”.

“Amazing” is also the perfect word to describe the show itself. A perfect blend of their original hits and chart-toppers by other artists, Donny and Marie leave everyone wanting more. While their legacy is certainly the catalyst in attracting longtime fans, it’s the charisma of the two leads combined with their fantastic voices, dance skills and production numbers that lure in audiences of all ages.

Opening with a high-energy medley of Black Eyed Peas “I’ve Got A Feeling” and B-52’s “Love Shack”, the siblings thrill the crowd with non-stop banter and good-natured rivalry. Despite the passage of more than four decades, it feels like you’ve stepped into a live taping of their beloved 70’s TV variety show.

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After that raucous opener, the Osmonds stroll down memory lane with their successful individual careers. Marie makes a visit to Broadway, then slips on a pair of cowgirl boots for country favorites. Duo Des Fleurs (from the French opera Lakme) is a beautiful sequence in which Marie performs a duet with herself via special effects. The segment closes with Music Is Medicine (from the album of the same name). That release features a collaboration with Olivia Newton-John and benefits Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which Marie helped to establish in 1983.

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There’s definitely no opera or country when brother Donny takes over the stage. He unleashes serious rock and roll amidst hardcore pyrotechnics for Crazy Horses and Soldier of Love. The former heartthrob boasts about his recent Dancing With the Stars and The Masked Singer successes, revisits those teen idol days with Puppy Love and reunites with the legendary Osmond Brothers (via video) for Love Me For A Reason.

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Fuerza Bruta Is a Sin City Game Changer



Spectacular production poised to redefine entertainment on the Strip….

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Every decade or so, a show comes along that changes the face of Las Vegas entertainment. First Mystere brought Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil to the desert. Then Celine Dion’s record-breaking Coliseum residency paved the way for other top-tier headliners. The last truly innovative production we’ve seen is Absinthe, the bawdy acrobatic tribute to burlesque. That is until Fuerza Bruta arrived on the scene. And this high-energy production is one phantasmagorical thrill you won’t want to miss.

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Like Absinthe, Fuerza Bruta is located in a tent outside of a major casino (in this case, Excalibur). That’s about the only thing these two productions have in common. You’ll know you’re in for something unusual when you step inside the entrance and receive a short briefing by a staffer. He or she will explain that you’ll be required to stand during the entire performance and follow crew instructions to move as set pieces and cast members move through and around the performance space.

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Once inside, you’ll notice that the cavernous area is entirely black and dimly-lit, except for a neon sign displaying the show’s title. The anticipation will be palpable as you try to decide where to congregate and which direction to focus your attention. But don’t waste your time wondering, as you and the rest of the audience literally ARE the stage 360-degree, 3-dimensional.

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Once the lights go down and the cast appears, you’ll be swept away into the most immersive production the city has going. Wind, rain, sound effects, lasers, flying objects, moving sets, live musicians, singers and special effects on an epic scale combine to   envelope you in a way that Las Vegas has never seen.

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Well, that last statement isn’t entirely true. A previous incarnation, entitled De La Guarda, ran for about a year at Rio Hotel Casino. Somewhat ahead of its time back in 2001, the current version is exactly what Las Vegas needs. Not only does it avoid the “sameness” of most new roll-outs, Fuerza Bruta raises the bar for every show in the city.

Trying to describe Fuerza Bruta is a bit of a challenge. There’s no story line or discernible theme. What the Argentinian production does offer is an onslaught of imagery, mind-boggling segments and a daring assault on the senses. The music is fantastic, the cast is extremely attractive and the atmosphere evokes a secret rave.

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How long has it been since you attended a show and your jaw literally dropped? That’s sure to happen when the audience is surrounded by a massive mylar wall that begins to rotate like a horizontal hamster wheel. Performers jog along this enormous silver road,  suspended at a right angle and reaching out to the audience below.

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If you’ve been fascinated by the aqua-stages at “O” and “Le Reve”, wait until you see what Fuerza Bruta does. A transparent swimming pool appears from high above, slides over the audience and descends until you can reach out and touch it. Cast members swim, flip and swoosh through water that’s lit from above, creating a swirling collage of colors and patterns.

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A favorite sequence involves a white-suited young man on a stroll that suddenly turns into a soaking windstorm. He encounters flying furniture, a spinning room and breakaway walls that sail through the air….all while never losing his rhythm to the techno beat. A truly avante-garde sequence that’ll have you cheering, dancing…and perhaps scratching your head.

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The Bronx Wanderers Premiere New Show at the LINQ Hotel


Inside the family band’s new production…

There’s something about the music and culture of late 1950’s/early 1960’s Bronx New York that strikes a chord in music fans. The 1979 cult film The Wanderers and songs by Franki Valli and the Four Seasons continue to entertain audiences as a new generation discovers that special time and place.

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The Bronx Wanderers are a part of that timeless legacy. This Italian family band has its roots in the Jersey Boys era but with their feet firmly planted in contemporary Las Vegas. A veritable living jukebox of legendary hits, this handsome and talented collection of musicians and singers brings down the house with every performance.

Patriarch Vinny Adinolf worked behind the scenes in the music industry for decades. A successful record producer and label executive, he was instrumental in the careers of Dion and the Belmonts, Jim Croce, Alabama, Reba McEntire and many more. Despite his enormous success spearheading other artists, Adinolfi had always wanted to have his own act.

By the mid-2000’s, Vinny’s two sons had mastered several instruments and exhibited an enormous amount of musical talent. So the time was right to form a family band and take that “Jersey Boys” sound out on the road. That’s how The Bronx Wanderers was born.

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Inside “The NAKED MAGICIANS” at MGM Grand


Genre-bending illusionists reveal more than magic tricks….

There are some who say that Sin City doesn’t always live up to its name. Perhaps there is no such thing as shock value anymore? Well, don’t be so sure of that. A pair of bawdy Australian illusionists has arrived at MGM Grand and they plan to rip the roof off the resort by tearing away their top hats and tails.

Unless you’re Mariah Carey, most performers would rather focus on their craft than how much skin they put on display But for Mike Tyler and Christopher Wayne, fans of The Naked Magicians wouldn’t have it any other way. These two handsome hunks are constantly goaded by audience members to “take it off”. And eventually, they do!

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Vegas 2018 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst in Large-scale Production Shows

 


Wrapping up another event-filled year with fond memories and a little sass…

Can it really be that Santa is returning to his home base to put the elves back to work? Perhaps, but that Christmas hangover still lingers, ensuring that you didn’t dream your way through another holiday season in Vegas.

As you bring out the noisemakers and put champagne on ice for New Year’s Eve (check out my piece for tips on last-minute NYE planning), let’s look back at some of the noteworthy…and notorious…moments and madness from Las Vegas 2018. First up: the shows…

BEST NEW SHOW – Manilow: The Hits Come Home

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I’ll admit to being a bit worried when 75-year-old Barry Manilow missed his own big night at Westgate Las Vegas. The legendary singer was hospitalized on the morning of his kick-off weekend, which scuttled a massive media party and prompted singers Clint Holmes and Earl Turner to entertain the sold-out auditorium with their SOUNDTRACK show in his absence.

It turns out that my fears were unnecessary, as Manilow snapped back quickly, proving that he truly is the World’s Greatest Showman. Brimming with energy and love for his audience, Barry is everything you want in a Las Vegas event production. Check out my full review here and be sure to see Manilow: The Hits Come Home through June of 2019.

Runner-up: Soundtrack with Clint Holmes and Earl Turner, also at Westgate (now closed), OPIUM at Cosmopolitan (tie)

WORST NEW SHOW – Inferno: The Fire Spectacular 

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                                        “We need more GAS-O-LEEN!!!!!” 

There are certain entertainment venues in Sin City that seem to have a hex on them. Bad things happen, shows close way faster than they should and nothing seems to go right. Tropicana Showroom, Encore Theater at Wynn and Palazzo Theater have all gone through this period at one time or another (in Tropicana’s case, it’s as bad as ever). Now the curse seems to have landed at Paris Hotel Casino.

This was a bad year for Paris. Its troubled (and aging) Paris Theater chewed up and spit out Circus 1903 and Marilyn: The New Musical in just the first half of this year. Next came the cringe-worthy Inferno: The Fire Spectacular. Built around the supposed talents of peculiar and obscure magician Joe Labero, this upstart element-based production squandered every bit of potential in its premise and left you laughing for all the wrong reasons (“We need more gasoline. Lots and lots of GAS-O-LEEN!”). Read my full review here.

While Inferno could have been salvaged by jettisoning its star and focusing on the fire aspect (and The Fuel Girls), the show was abruptly yanked from the Paris schedule just six months in. Its cast was rudely told to hit the road during a break without the benefit of a farewell performance. Show business can be cruel.

It’s interesting to note that I Love The 90’s, the next production to enter this venue, went on an abrupt hiatus for most of December, just two months into its residency. UD Factory‘s CEO Seth Yudof assures me that there is no reason to be concerned. He swears that I Love The 90’s will return stronger than ever in January. Let’s hope his production is the one to break the Paris showroom curse. Entertainers in Sin City already have it tough enough.

Look for my review of I Love The 90’s when it returns in 2019.

MOST UNWELCOME RETURN – Mariah Carey/Britney Spears/Criss Angel (tie)

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                   A stripper, a robot and a douche bag walk into a bar…

The worst thing about Christmas is taking down the tree, packing up the lights and tossing away all that torn wrapping paper. I get that same sinking feeling every time I spot a billboard hyping the residencies of these three clowns.

Like a dried-up fruit cake that won’t go down the garbage disposer, the miserable triad of Carey, Spears and Angel continue to regurgitate up our collective pipes and spread noxious odors throughout the Vegas valley.

There’s an amazing amount of common ground among the self-proclaimed diva, robotic lip-syncer and goth faux-magician. Arrogance, fakery and distraction are the hallmarks of their supposed talents. Onstage gaffes, cancellations, accidents and savage reviews have plagued each of their productions. Yet minimally-talented blowhards continues to sell tickets and broker new residencies shortly after the last ones have been kicked into the desert.

The PR teams for each were touting their “returns” before the stench had even cleared from their previous rounds. Mariah’s somehow on her second stint at Caesars…three if you count last year’s Christmas gig. MGM Resorts wooed Britney from Planet Hollywood over to Park MGM Theater starting in February (why, exactly?). They’re probably regretting it now that advance ticket sales have been lukewarm at best.

Criss Angel’s partnership with Cirque du Soleil is finally over (they’re probably breathing a collective sigh of relief for surviving ten tumultuous and embarrassing years). He’s left Luxor biggest theater for a mezzanine-level auditorium at PHo, the same troubled theater that swallowed Frankie Moreno and Paul Zerdin just last year. Let’s hope it manages to choke down Mindfreak Live…and digest it once and for all.

Santa didn’t hand out coal this year…he gave away tickets to Mariah, Britney and Criss.

SADDEST CLOSURE – BAZ/David Goldrake’s IMAGINARIUM (tie)

It’s frustrating to see unique and talent-packed shows being overlooked for the likes of the notorious three mentioned above. And while they’re vastly different, both BAZ and IMAGINARIUM suffered similar fates.

Palazzo Hotel Casino deserves a lot of credit for backing BAZ, the daring musical mash-up built around a trio of familiar and tragic love stories. Defying simple descriptions and difficult to promote in any form of media, BAZ relied on word of mouth to put butts in seats. Those who saw it praised the innovative production and its amazing cast. In other words, it was doomed from day one.

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David Goldrake IMAGINARIUM had the unfortunate challenges of 1) coming in behind notorious child-porn illusionist Jan Rouven in the cursed Tropicana Showroom 2) sharing the same corner with high-profile magicians Criss Angel and David Copperfield, and 3) being better than Vegas audiences wanted…or deserved. The hard-working Goldrake made IMAGINARIUM far superior to anything either of his competitors currently offer. And he did it with sincerity, dignity, humility and a great deal of sexiness.

Runner-up: Soundtrack at Westgate Hotel Casino

BEST OVERALL PRODUCTION – Le Reve The Dream

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It’s nice to have my all-time show back on this list. Le Reve – The Dream had to take a backseat to BAZ for a few years. But now that the musical has closed down, nothing shines more brightly than Wynn’s signature spectacular.

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Not only is Le Reve back to the top of my list, but it’s fresher than ever. New costumes and make-up design, a fabulous re-imagined score and songs by original composer Benoit Jutras…and a revised story line all come together for an unforgettable experience. When it comes to sheer spectacle, nothing on the Strip beats Le Reve – The Dream. Read my full review here.

Be sure to check back for my next entry in 2018’s wrap-up. And best wishes for the New Year.

Thunder From Down Under: Time To Toss Out This Outback Throwback


Long-running male revue needs to desperately up its game plan…

Maybe it’s just an off-season phenomenon. Perhaps it’s the temporary venue being utilized during their theater renovation. But more likely, being covered in dust has more to do with neglect than construction debris.

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Whatever the reason, Excalibur’s THUNDER FROM DOWN UNDER is a relic in need of a serious upgrade. Out of touch with the times and suffering from a complete lack of production values, this by-the-numbers slog is about as erotic as a post-Halloween jack-o-lantern that’s left sitting on the porch to rot.

Much of the blame rests squarely on the muscular shoulders of Marcus Deegan, the host of this sad little time capsule. Abrasive and short-tempered, Deegan seems to take delight in belittling rowdy audience members. That’s totally unacceptable, especially in the type of show where getting wild is typically not only welcomed but encouraged.

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           Host Marcus Deegan will put you in your place. No fun allowed…

The past two times that I’ve seen THUNDER, Deegan’s stopped the show dead in its tracks to berate rowdy women. He’s gone so far as to blatantly tell them to “Shut the f*ck up”. On one occasion, he even came out during final bows to flip his middle finger at an audience member while mouthing “F*ck you!”…and it wasn’t done with a wink.

Such obnoxious treatment of guests might be tolerable if the show itself was a must-see. Unfortunately, this isn’t 1974 and Excalibur isn’t in remote Tonopah Nevada. Contemporary visitors to Sin City have every reason to expect flashy high-tech glitz but that just ain’t happening inside this sad little showroom at The Castle.

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Despite being currently housed in an abandoned casino-side location once home to the bankrupt Lynyrd Skynryd BBQ (which itself has been collecting cobwebs behind a wall for six years) the show is virtually unchanged from its usual upstairs location. With a plain black-canvas backdrop, awkward tables that resemble balance beams and rows of uncomfortable bar stools, it’s clear that no expense has been…er, spent to elevate your experience.

As for the show itself, it’s everything that the equally awful Magic Mike Live ridicules male revues for being. Packed with rote production numbers, Thunder will have you mentally scratching off each item from the list of cliches as it plays out on a cheap plywood stage. Erotic vampires? Yep. Law enforcement and military officers? Of course. George of the Jungle and a gorilla? Unfortunately, that’s here too.

Then there is the requisite songbook that every male revue includes: “Uptown Funk”, “Save A Horse – Ride A Cowboy” and a Michael Jackson number all get spun by the DJ, along with that brain-piercing Beyonce earworm “Run The World – Girls”.  The costumes are cheap, there are no sets to speak of and props are at a bare minimum. Choreography is decent but certainly not innovative.

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As for the performers, they’re an unremarkable lot that actually seem quite bored. Going through very basic movements with a minimum of energy or attention to synchronization, the cast projects a complete absence of sincerity…and a clear lack of engagement. These guys seem more interested in their gym memberships than creating a memorable experience for the audience.

One notable exception is Chad Homan, formerly of the far superior Aussie Heat at Planet Hollywood. The youngest member of Thunder, Chad’s also the best dancer by far. Smiling from ear to ear, he spins and sails through the air in ways the other guys could only hope to pull off. He also brings inclusive energy and audience interaction from his previous gig, even hugging male audience members (apparently a no-no here).

Speaking of that matter, THUNDER flounders next-to-last on my published ranking of male revues for their treatment of men. Guys are barely acknowledged here and host Deegan even says something to the effect of “This night is for ladies only…you won’t see your guys here”. Take away from that what you will. But in this era of inclusion, saying “Ladies ladies ladies” is another example of just how dated the Outback boys really are.

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                    Free tickets abound yet the showroom is nearly empty…

Perhaps it’s rather telling that, despite the proliferation of free tickets on MyVegas (the online game that awards real prizes) and various fill-a-seat services, Thunder From Down Under was roughly 75 percent empty last night. You’d think that with the current tidal wave of cowgirls here for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the venue would have been overflowing. Instead, it resembled a dried-up lake during a severe Aussie drought.

Let’s hope that when a newly-renovated theater debuts at Excalibur, the shopworn Thunder From Down Under also unleashes a fresh new version. Until then, it’ll continue to be a great big middle finger to the audience. So save your discretionary income for genuine grade-A beef like the Chippendales. Or maybe just a bargain cut of steak at your local Outback restaurant.

If you’re going: Thunder From Down Under performs nightly at 9 pm with an additional 11 pm show on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets start at $50.95 (plus taxes/fees) and can be purchased here

Photos/video: Sam Novak, Marcus Deegan/Thunder From Down Under via Facebook