2017 In Review – Ranking The Resorts


There’s something for everyone when choosing a hotel. But not all of them deserve your business…

Best Luxury ResortPalazzo

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The Venetian‘s more contemporary sister property has what it takes to satisfy your luxury needs without overt attempts at “hipness” (Cosmopolitan) or coasting on a previously-established reputation (Bellagio).

Palazzo7

Palazzo2

The Palazzo offers easy access from Las Vegas Boulevard, free parking, spacious rooms, flawless service, gorgeous common areas, lush pools and an airy, high-ceiling casino. Visitors can indulge in top-notch lounges (check out my write-up of the new Rosina Cocktail Lounge), restaurants, shops, the famous Canyon Ranch Spa and the Best Overall Show in Vegas (BAZ: A Musical Mash-up). You can learn more by visiting my full write-up here.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Palazzo is easily my choice for best five-star accommodations in Las Vegas.

Most Improved ResortWestgate Las Vegas

My relationship with Westgate (aka the former Las Vegas Hilton) began three years ago….and was rocky to say the least. An unflattering article I had penned for VegasChatter.com got a very professional response from a member of the team in charge of transforming the aging off-Strip giant into a newly-born destination.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

“Give us another chance. We’ve got great things happening here”. That was the message, in essence, of the Westgate Las Vegas representative. And he wasn’t just tossing some pretty words and glitter in my direction. Promises were kept…and I’ve been back many many times since.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Westgate5

The current state of Westgate is one of gloriously-restored elegance. Brass has been polished, gorgeous chandeliers have been restored, the marble flooring is immaculate and guest rooms are all modern and sleek.

Chef18

The property has recruited some of the finest chefs in the city to operate an admirable line-up of new restaurants (see my monthly series of profiles to learn more about the people behind the dishes). Then there’s the glorious new Serenity Spa, an extension of Westgate’s acclaimed facility in Park City, Utah (you can see my detailed experiences at Serenity Spa here).

Serenity Spa Westgate

Westgate2

Every Westgate staffer from valet to reservations to the hostess at Sid’s Cafe will offer their name and ask you for yours. There’s a vibe throughout the casino that’s palpable and contagious. You’ll feel that your patronage and presence are appreciated…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

You can expect lots of new entertainment offerings to take up residence at Westgate this year (Barry Manilow is coming back!) and you can continue to enjoy free parking as a hotel/casino guest.

By the way…don’t be put off by the off-Strip location. A convenient monorail station at the FRONT of the hotel (not far in the rear like everywhere else) can get you from your room to center Strip in a matter of minutes.

Re-think your ideas of how a 2018 visit to Las Vegas should be. Give Westgate a try…and prepare to be wowed.

Steepest DeclineRio Las Vegas

Best Worst Vegas 2017

A short decade ago, the Rio was one of my favorite places to stay and play. There was a vibrance throughout the resort that made it worth the visit. These days, it’s just a sad red-and-blue stepchild of the Caesars family, mostly forgotten and seemingly just hanging on.

The restaurants are nothing to brag about, Masquerade Village is still a giant echo chamber, Kiss by Monster Mini Golf turned out to be a dud and the once-legendary Carnival World Buffet now operates on limited hours. At least there’s still the wonderful Chippendales and new WOW – World of Wonder to keep me stopping by for a few hours.

Miniature stages throughout the gaming floor used to light up regularly for songs and dances by “Bever-tainers”. Now those performance spaces sit empty and ignored (a current cocktail server told me that “most of them are broken and just don’t work anymore”). The stage and overhead tracks for once-popular Rio Show In The Sky also remain, dusty and forgotten.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

An unpleasant odor permeates certain areas of this hotel, uncomfortable reminders of the Legionnaire’s Disease incident that affected numerous visitors last year. Guest rooms and common areas are maintained with indifference. The conditions of the fitness facilities and spa areas have badly deteriorated as well.

There are better places to choose than Rio Las Vegas…and the ever-rising mandatory resort fee (currently $34.01 per day, up from $18.99 plus tax in 2016) does nothing to make me want to book there again. After a lackluster stay in mid-December resulted in my complaining via email and phone to the manager, I cancelled my next visit (which was scheduled for the very next week).

Staffers at Rio seem to be going through the motions of their chores across the board, much like the team at Sahara did in the years leading up to its closure. Which brings us to…

In The Throes of DeathSLS (the former Sahara)

best6

Driving towards the north Strip property once know as Sahara, you’d be hard-pressed to know exactly what the name is. The sign reads SLS at the bottom and a giant twinkling W at the top. Why, exactly? Because this is a property with an identity crisis…and no good reason for existing in its current state.

SLS Las Vegas answers a question that nobody in their right mind would ask: “What would happen if you whitewashed (literally and figuratively) a heavily themed historic property, filled it with Vegas-lite duplicates of Los Angeles dining/nightclub favorites, then tried to lure the L.A. millenials over the state line?”.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The answer is “not much”. There’s no reason for the hip L.A. crowd to come to Vegas for inferior copies of what they already have. Nevertheless, the combined arrogance of Sam Nazarian and SBE led to betting heavily…and losing…on a proposition that was never going to work.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

All seven Fred Segal stores were shuttered, along with LIFE Nightclub and an excellent buffet that lasted all of three months. SLS promised to reopen the buffet in early 2015. I’m still waiting.

If only SBE has taken a cue from Westgate and honored the Sahara‘s legacy with a little updating instead of throwing it out the back door, they’d probably be sharing a different place on this list.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Someday, logical will prevail and SLS (which sold off a portion of the resort to the W hotel chain…that tower now operates as a separate entity) will be reborn once more as “The New Sahara”. Until that time, you can consider SLS to be as good as….

DeadLucky Dragon

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Here’s another resort with no good reason for existing. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing worthwhile to offer guests, the Lucky Dragon announced the closure of its casino and restaurants just yesterday.

This has got to be some kind of record. After only 13 months and one day of operations, a brand-new casino resort has shut down everything but the tiny little hotel. Employees have been sent packing only four days into the new year…a sad start for them and a bad omen for any hope of Resorts World actually making an impact on the north end of the Strip.

best4

It was clear after a highly-touted early opening that just a few months into the year, Lucky Dragon was anything but lucky. Restaurants Pearl Ocean and Dragon Alley were reworked along with the high-limit areas of the gaming floor. The excitement of a brand-new hotel casino had completely fizzled, and by the time I visited in late mid October, at least one restaurant was shuttered and the entire complex was virtually empty.

Dragon2

Dragon1

As the financials are reworked and optimistic press releases tout a full reopening of Lucky Dragon, expect the northern face of the famous Las Vegas Strip to continue fighting some really persistent blemishes. And one big blue tumor.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Abandoned Fontainebleau Resort                         

 

Photos: Greg C., Sammasseur

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review Part 4 – Performances and Shows, Highs and Lows


Best Overall Show – BAZ: A Musical Mash-up

All of the dozens of shows around the Valley tend to fall into just a few categories. Then there’s BAZ: A Musical Mash-up. A song-and-dance unlike anything Vegas has ever seen, it’s hard to describe…and an experience you will never forget.

That’s why, after two consecutive years as “Best New Show” (new name, location and cast allowed it to qualify twice), BAZ: A Musical Mash-up gets my award for “Best Overall Show”.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

With three universally-renowned tragic love stories interwoven through a tapestry of contemporary hits, BAZ will have you dancing, crying, laughing and singing…all while rediscovering your love for musical theater.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

With the most talented cast in the city, BAZ: A Musical Mash-up is one show that demands to be experienced and shared. Kudos to Palazzo for their continued support of this amazing achievement.

Worst Overall Show – Black Magic Live aka Vivica’s Black Magic

This one started out with an ugly anti-gay controversy and ended up as a sloppy assault on the senses. An unbearable amateurish concoction with no rhyme or reason, an indifferent cast and an emcee (D-list movie director Jean-Claude LaMarre) who argues with and badgers an audience he’s ill-equipped to handle, Black Magic Live is one reality-show baby that was delivered stillborn.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Audience abuse works fine if it’s meant to be comically shocking a la Absinthe. But at Black Magic Live, the insults are hurled without a single bit of tongue-in-cheek. “Don’t be touching my jacket with your greasy hands, lady. I don’t know you!”. Or how about “Sit down and shut the Hell up or you’re out of here!”.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

After 60 minutes of this nonsense and at least four instances of audience members rushing the stage and stopping the show, I was out of there, too. Save your money and time. Turn your back on Black Magic Live.

Best Performance – Ruby Lewis (BAZ – A Musical Mash-up)

It’s almost unfair to select one individual from the best line-up on a Vegas stage. Alas, choosing a “Best Performance” winner must be done, if for nothing else than to provide counterpoint to the absolute worst.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Of all the amazing and gifted individuals who make BAZ the best show on the Strip, Ruby Lewis gets my choice for best performance. After a landmark performance on Broadway in PARAMOUR, Lewis returned to the For The Record Live family…and the Palazzo Theater…this summer.

Ruby’s jaw-dropping and emotional finale (Over The Love from The Great Gatsby) will have you gasping, wiping away tears and rising to your feet in applause. It’s the must-see moment on the Strip.

Worst Performance – Sammasseur  (BAZ – A Musical Mash-up)

“Wooden”. “Uninspired”. “As nervous as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory”. Those are some of the reviews that would have been deservedly slung at this writer had I been an actual cast member of BAZ – A Musical Mash-up. Fortunately, my participation was limited to an exciting and brilliantly-conceived “boot camp” experience for members of the media (you can read all about it here).

Best Worst Vegas 2017

As an invited guest, I was privileged to go through the paces of a performer from choreography to costuming and make-up. Then an actual number in front of a selected (and very kind) audience of Venetian/Palazzo team members. I’m proud to say that nobody was hit when my shoe went sailing through the air during a kick….and I’ll leave it at that.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

    Myself with Ruby Lewis, Savannah Cross, Anne Martinez and Ron Remke…

Photos and Video: Sammasseur with additional courtesy of Palazzo Resort

 

Puttin’ On The Ritz at BAZ BOOT CAMP


Yours truly has a “Performer for a Day” experience at the signature Palazzo production…

Baz Boot Camp

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy.

They say he wandered very far
Very far over land and sea.

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise, was he.

Those dreamy lyrics from 1947’s classic NATURE BOY open the stunning BAZ: Star Crossed Love inside Palazzo Theater. And for one immersive day, they also described this author’s experience inside the world of Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. Well, minus the “very wise” part, perhaps.

Baz10

BAZ: Star Crossed Love is a very unique piece of live entertainment. It has the distinction of being my choice for “Best New Show” in both 2015 and 2016. How? By moving from Mandalay Bay’s LIGHT Nightclub and being relaunched after a major reworking. While essentially the same production at heart, BAZ was fine-tuned to maximize the benefits of a custom-designed venue inside Palazzo Resort.

Baz Boot Camp

With the full support of Sands Corporation, BAZ went from “the little show that could” to an amazing word-of-mouth success. To celebrate their triumphant one-year anniversary (in the intensely competitive Vegas show-scape, no less), a handful of recognizable media celebrities were invited to attend an afternoon “boot camp”. They were welcomed to step into the shoes of BAZ cast members and perform a number from the show in front of a live audience.

Baz Boot Camp

Invitees included Barrett Foa (Eric Beale on NCIS Los Angeles), Andrew Freund (Fox Network’s Dish Nation), Las Vegas Review Journal columnist John KatsilometesMorning Blend host Jennifer Jean Snyder…and a certain small-time BAZ-loving Oregonian blogger. How I ended up being included in a group of such talented and distinguished individuals is anybody’s guess…but I wasn’t about to jeopardize the invitation by questioning it.

Upon receiving the email, it took me all of ten minutes to stop jumping up and down, clear my schedule and book a flight to Las Vegas. In no time, our group was seated in the auditorium and receiving a round of greetings from Keith Salwoski, Executive Director of Public Relations and Blair Farrington, the Show Manager.

Baz Boot Camp

On our laps were folders detailing the Boot Camp itinerary, along with statistics about the show. Introductions were made all around, then we headed to the stage for dance lessons with BAZ‘s ballroom champions Savannah Cross and Marcquet Hill.

The next sixty or so minutes were perhaps the most invigorating, exhausting, humbling and memorable since my skydive this past February. Surrounded by cast members Ron Remke, Broadway star Ruby Lewis and Anne Martinez (Alice: A Steampunk Concert Fantasy), our stalwart band of boot-campers received expert instruction on how to kick, swoop, heel-toe-heel-toe and drop-drop-drop.

Baz Boot Camp

During all the excitement and sweat, it became clear that one member of our novice group was lagging behind….and it was me. While the others seemed to have varying degrees of showbiz experience, “Sammasseur” brought little to the stage besides laughter and enthusiasm.

Baz Boot Camp

Shaun Burgess of Vegas.com (white shirt) gets tips from cast member Ron Remke             

Baz Boot Camp

                      Johnny Kats and I go through the paces…and kicks…

To their stylish womp-womp-womps I countered with my Franken-stomps. Their high kicks were my wobbly half-kicks. At one point my left shoe even went flying through the air. While trying hard to look like Gary Cooper, I’d somehow stumbled into the tap dance scene from a certain Mel Brooks film.

Baz Boot Camp

Photographers and a videographer recorded the action as Savannah and Marcquet added more steps to the sequence. Ron Remke kept my spirits high with high-fives and “You’ve got this!” encouragement. I marveled at the ease with which his body swooped and swayed through the mechanics of the steps…just like everyone else around me.

Baz Boot Camp

Baz Boot Camp

Jennifer, Savannah and Melinda Sheckells show the cameras what they’ve got.

Soon we were putting the sequence to music and running through the entire scene…from an opening one-legged kneel to the final thrust of our arms. This time, we sang along with the dancing (take that, Britney!). After a brief rest (not brief enough, gasp gasp) it was behind the stage and downstairs to the actual dressing rooms used by the cast.

Once there, a small army of make-up artists and hair stylists gave us the theatrical flair that help make the already-stunning BAZ performers one of the most attractive casts on the Strip. My face was covered in a sweat-proof foundation and my eyebrows were darkened and thickened.

Baz Boot Camp

Baz Boot Camp

While in the chairs, the other guests and I were given on-camera interviews to share our initial impressions. The most common response drew attention to how difficult the dancing was. No matter what level of proficiency they’d brought to the boot camp, it was clear that our troupe had gained a greater respect for the craft of live performance.

Baz12

    NCIS Los Angeles actor Barrett Foa is used to being in the make-up chair…

Baz Boot Camp

             Andrew Freund records a clip for his Dish Nation TV series…

After donning our tuxes and dresses, it was back to the stage for a round of individual and group portraits before our actual performance. Dynamic Michael Shulman (of ShulmanSays.com) acted as emcee and welcomed our audience – guests, friends and execs/team members of various departments within the Venetian/Palazzo family.

Baz7

   Ruby Lewis returned to BAZ last week after a triumphant lead on Broadway…

The whirlwind afternoon had come to its biggest moment – a production number carried out by professional performers with the Boot Camp troupe on an actual Las Vegas stage. To call this a “pinch me” moment would be too mild…and it seemed to be over before it actually began.

Baz Boot Camp

Baz Boot Camp

Standing out there on an elevated extension of the stage, my arms outstretched with applause all around me, this total novice and dedicated fan understood the drive that brings talented individuals to Sin City stages. A lifetime of lessons, joy, pain, sacrifice, tears and ambition to perfect their art culminates in that one moment…and there’s nothing like it in the world.

Clips from the One-Year Anniversary Performance of BAZ

Returning to the dressing room, the guys and I laughed about how fun the afternoon had been, but the experience was far from over. From there, the group headed over to Venetian’s The Dorsey to sample various libations created by famed mixologist Sam Ross for their new summer cocktail menu.

Then we slid next door for an outrageously delicious array of small plates and entrees at Chica, the new Latin eatery by celeb chef Lorena Garcia. Perhaps it was the round of cocktails at Chica that gave us our second wind, but Barett Fao, Andrew Freund and I decided to grab a taxi and head down the Strip for another song-and-dance show. It was a long, exhilarating, exhausting and unforgettable day.

The next morning I grabbed my laptop to learn that reviews were pouring in for our BAZ Boot Camp performance. For once, the tables were turned…and the critic was receiving critique. Much like the day before, everyone was extremely kind:

Savannah Cross (BAZ Boot Camp instructor/performer) – Killed it!!

Blair Farrington (BAZ show manager) – Sam… you added a lot of personality to the BAZ Boot Camp performance! Welcome to the team!

Shane Scheel (creator of BAZ) – Thank you Sam Novak for your unwavering support of BAZ Star Crossed Love.

Bill Evans (BAZ emcee/performer) – You look good Sam!!!

Lisa Sundseth (VegasUnfiltered reader) – You are a STAR ⭐️!!

Nikki Ann Medaugh (VegasUnfiltered reader) – Dapper, very dapper. Who knew you could look so good wearing all of those pesky clothes?

Private Message: “Sam – you looked hot hot hot in BAZ CAMP!”

Private message from a cast member: “Sam!!! Ah Thank YOU so much for your incredible energy and presence!! Today was so incredibly enjoyable and was a reminder of why I love this this art form so much. All the love!”

Private message from a cast member – “Sam! You were fantastic and I’m so glad you had fun! Thank you for being so supportive of us!”

Rising from the bed of my Palazzo suite (which they’d kindly arranged for me), I noticed how sore my legs were from the previous day. It was a warm reminder of the incredible effort that performers give forth to keep us entertained.

Baz Boot Camp

With cast member Ron Remke and Jennifer Jean Snyder of ABC’s Morning Blend

As I went through the rest of that day, I kept thinking about how generous everyone at Palazzo and BAZ had been. They are a tightly-knit group, brought together for one purpose and working together to make BAZ the best show on the Strip…a genuine labor of love.

It was an honor to be a part of BAZ Boot Camp – and I think I made a few friends along the way.

The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return….

                                                                             – lyrics from NATURE BOY

Baz Boot Camp

Photos: [Sammasseur, BAZ Boot Camp at Palazzo, 20th Century Fox]