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.

David Goldrake IMAGINARIUM

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

Le Reve

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.

Le Reve

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.

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MAGIC OF JEN KRAMER Is Delightful, Frothy Fun


Award-winning illusionist brings laughter, surprises and boundless charm to Westgate’s Cabaret Theater…

P.T. Barnum has one of the most memorable legacies in entertainment history. His recent resurgence in popularity, thanks to “The Greatest Showman“, reminds us that despite decades of change in entertainment culture, the master of deception had universal ideas:

“The noblest art is that of making others happy”. – P.T. Barnum

In the world of magic shows, there is an extremely familiar collection of illusions that most entertainers fall back on: card tricks, disappearing/reappearing, nail-biting escapes, “mind reading”, audience predictions and the classic saw-a-lady-in-half are all favorites. What makes or breaks these acts is how they are presented….and whether or not the entertainer is indeed a great showman. Or in this case, show person.

Much has been made in other media about the disproportionate amount of male magicians. I won’t belabor the point other than to say that it’s refreshing to see a lovely young lady front and center as the headliner of a magic show. And Jen Kramer has certainly earned her place on a Las Vegas stage.

Magic of Jen Kramer

Already familiar to fans of television shows like Masters of Illusions and Penn and Teller: Fool Us, Ms. Kramer has risen quickly through the ranks of the magical boys club. Think of her as a “Hermoine Granger” to David Goldrake‘s “Harry Potter”. Despite a young age (she graduated from Yale University in 2014), Jen’s already received honors such as the Merlin Award and Female Magician of the Year 2016 by the International Magicians Society.

Ms. Kramer kicked off her new residency at Westgate Las Vegas just last week. I attended on the second evening of what might be considered a soft opening. Despite a couple of minor technical gaffes, it was a fast-moving and altogether enjoyable 70 minutes. The intimate Westgate Cabaret is the ideal location for Jen’s illusions, many of which rely on detailed sleight of hand.

Magic of Jen Kramer

What Magic of Jen Kramer lacks in large production values is made up for with plenty of comedy, audience participation and charm. Kramer brims with enthusiasm for her craft, drawing the audience into her prestidigitation with a magnetism that Criss Angel could only hope to match.

Kramer’s ability to engage her guests is quite noteworthy. I immediately fell for this young performer, despite know nothing about her background or achievements. What followed that evening was indeed a collection of tried-and-true favorites, but delivered with a next-generation spin.

Magic of Jen Kramer

While the show could actually use some theatrical bombast, it’s off to a solid start. I’ll avoid describing individual illusions (nobody likes review spoilers, anyway). Instead, lets boast about the fact that Jen was able to pull off the near-impossible by stunning me with a few tricks that I’d never seen before (the Rubik’s Cube is still haunting me). That in itself makes this production worthy of the admission price.

The family-friendly show is suitable for all ages and an early start time makes it a perfect pairing for dinner at one of Westgate‘s adjacent restaurants (yes, that’s a blatant plug since I’m a known fan of their dining offerings).

Magic of Jen Kramer

Surprise me once and you can consider me a fan. Do it twice and I’ll call you amazing. Jen Kramer astounded me numerous times in her new residency. So I guess you can label me a “groupie”. Being a fan of Vegas magic acts, that can be considered high praise.

Magic of Jen Kramer performs Wednesday through Saturday at 6pm. Tickets start at $19.99 (plus taxes/fees) and can be ordered here or purchased at the Westgate Box Office. 

Photos: Jen Kramer, Westgate Las Vegas, Beckett Studios, Sammasseur

 

 

 

NEON DREAMS – RENO: Where “Old Vegas” Went To Thrive


Yours truly visits Sin City’s sister and re-discovers treasures you thought had long disappeared….

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Last week, three downtown Boyd properties quietly began charging resort fees. Popular Main Street Station, California and Fremont hotels were three of the last four to avoid the reviled mandatory daily charges. Now only Four Queens remains as the sole truly value-laden destination in what was once considered a refuge for those avoiding Strip-style gouging.

To make today’s Vegas seem even more frustrating, our friend Scott Roeben of VitalVegas.com recently exposed a sneaky, expensive trick being played on patrons at nightclubs like Tao, Omnia, Hakkasan and Wynn’s XS. It’s not unlike the bogus CNF charge he warned us about two years ago. And yet, Sin City continues to find new ways to rip you off.

You’d think that all this bull-shittery would have pushed Vegas fans passed the tipping point long ago…yet they continue to flock in. Those of us who are savvy and sick of being gouged may be seeking out more value-laden destinations for our Vegas fix, and rightly so. It never hurts to discover new places…or in my case, to rediscover an old one.

Nearby Laughlin, an easy two-hour drive from the Strip, boasts an old-time atmosphere you may be craving. Smokey casinos, cornball shows, sticky slot machines, cheap buffets and oceans of blue hair vie for your attention.

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Hotels with familiar names like Golden Nugget, Tropicana and Harrah’s still have that out-of-the-seventies feel (brass, glass and tacky carpeting). Alas, Laughlin’s version of the Strip is quite small, with only nine hotels to choose from. In its favor, they all line up along a scenic riverside location.

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Reno, on the other hand, is a full city of adventure. Nicknamed “The Biggest Little City In The World”, it’s very much like the Las Vegas I discovered over a decade ago….right before everything started to go to shit for the sake of “upscale” improvements.

Once downtrodden and decaying, Reno still carries a sad reputation. Some of it is deserved, as certain sections of the city remain sketchy and unattractive. Yet at its heart, “Little Vegas” is alive and thriving. And lots more fun these days than you’d expect.

My most recent visit to Reno was last weekend after a three year hiatus. The experience was positive from arrival to check-out time. There was an intense feeling of deja-vu during the entire stay. It felt as though I’d been transported to my first Vegas visit…and all of that excitement of discovering Sin City came flooding back.

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Even if you’ve never been to Reno, you’re likely to feel right at home immediately. The local airport is small but efficient and well-equipped and it’s an easy drive to the heart of the city. You’ll recognize familiar names like El CortezCircus Circus and Harrah’s. In fact, the current Caesars Entertainment Corporation began life right here in Reno.

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        Cool, overcast days are part of the seasonal weather variety in Reno…

For this stay, my hubby and I decided to try Whitney Peak Hotel, a newly-renovated building that was once known as Fitzgerald’s Casino Hotel. Yes, the same as THAT Fitzgerald’s on Fremont Street (now known as The D – a stupid rebranding that I still can’t make myself say out loud). Despite being less-than-impressed with the Whitney Peak website, we were curious to finally see the inside of this long-shuttered tower, so we took a chance. And what a breath of fresh air it was.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Before getting into details of Whitney Peak, I want to focus on what made Reno such a great alternative. First off, the ambiance was fantastic…very much like “lost Vegas”. The neon is bright and blinding, the tackiness is more atmospheric than literal (things in every major casino appeared to be polished and well-maintained) and employees were uniformly pleasant if not outright endearing.

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Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

When I first started visiting in 2011, Reno was in a really sad state. Casinos were shuttered, businesses were boarded up and vagrants lined the sidewalks. These days, those elements are disappearing at a rapid pace…and in their place are fun new restaurants, shops and hotels. Street fairs and events are commonplace and an eclectic vibe has moved into the area.

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After storing our luggage at the Whitney Peak reservation desk (we had driven overnight from northern Oregon and arrived around breakfast time), it was off to the casinos to play while waiting to be notified of early check-in availability.

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Hubby quickly ate through a few twenties at the slots (as is his norm), but I quadrupled my cash while enjoying some very tasty Bloody Marys at Eldorado Casino. And yes, just like in Vegas, your cocktails are free as you play.

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Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Silver Legacy is Downtown Reno’s most popular hotel. Blame the Bloody Marys…

Next we strolled through adjacent Silver Legacy, a spacious and slightly more luxurious offering than its neighbor. Cocktail service was speedy here as well and the Bloody Marys were abundant with celery stalks, green beans, olives and lime. While scoping out dining and entertainment options for the weekend, we realized we were quite hungry. So, it was back the way we came for lunch at the Club Cal-Neva.

Reno Old Vegas

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Reno Old Vegas

The Cal-Neva originally opened in 1962 and is one of the longest-running and most historic casinos in the downtown area. For a while it also operated the adjacent Virginian Hotel. The sixteen-story Virginian had 125 rooms that were shuttered in 2004. In that way and many others, the casino’s history and resemblance to Binion’s Gambling Hall on Fremont Street are remarkable.

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Along with a large and popular William Hill Sportsbook, the biggest draw at Cal-Neva appears to be the Top Deck diner. If you’re a fan of the former Binion’s Original Coffee Shop in Vegas, (the basement location, not the current casino cafe) you’ll love Top Deck.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The interior design is all hunter green and brass…very reminiscent of the Paradise Buffet at Fremont Hotel in Vegas. Open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays and from 6am to whenever the rest of the week, Top Deck has portions and prices that are insane.

If you’re a fan of Hash House a Go Go, you can get your Sage Fried Chicken Benedict fix at Harrah’s Reno. That hotel casino also has their own buffet named Carvings. While similar in size and quality to Flavors of Harrah’s Vegas, the prices are way lower (dinner is $20 vs. up to $33.99). There’s also Bavarian World for you Hofbrauhaus aficianados.

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Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

                    La Strada Italian Restaurant is an outstanding choice…

If fine dining is your thing, there are plenty of steakhouses and higher-end international options. We chose La Strada inside Eldorado Casino for our anniversary/Saturday-night pre-show meal. Ranked as one of the top ten Italian restaurants in the country with an award-winning wine list, La Strada was definitely a top-notch experience. And our tickets to Cirque Paris in the main showroom entitled us to 50% off our entrees.

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Speaking of the show, Cirque Paris is a new variety production at Eldorado that can give nearly any similar Vegas show a run for its money. A brilliant cast, excellent acts and clever production design was a little Zumanity, a slice of BAZ and a whole lot of Absinthe.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Cirque Paris evokes a turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret. Sexy courtesans and muscular ushers help guests to their seats and mingle with patrons at a full-service circular bar in front of the main stage. If you’re lucky, one of them might slap a gold seal on your shoulder, which upgrades you to front-row seating that magically appears when the bar transforms into part of the stage.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

It turns out that the ushers and bar staff are actually performers. They bring in a row of lounge chairs to surround the stage before taking their places on the set. The effect is dazzling, as is the show itself.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Former members of Cirque du Soleil, along with other world-class acrobats and comedy acts, mix sexy flirtation with astounding athleticism. And at $59.99 for top-tier seats (which include champagne), Cirque Paris is one of the most outstanding entertainment deals you can find.

Reno Old Vegas

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Reno Old Vegas

Today’s Las Vegas seems intent to scrub away or tear down its own history, but Reno casinos embrace it. Walls are festooned with plaques commemorating legendary performances. The Cal-Neva is celebrating 56 years of operation by charging its customers even LESS than normal. And hotels don’t strip away their themes but boast about them.

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Whitney Peak may be a newly-opened hotel but it dares to have a theme of its own. Unlike the office-building blandness of Aria, Whitney Peak offers a unique theme that appeals to sports enthusiasts of the literal kind. Armchair quarterbacks might feel at home in the city’s sportsbooks, but adventurous Spiderman wannabees are encouraged to climb right up the side of Whitney Peak’s exterior wall.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The second floor of the new hotel is home to Base Camp Climbing Gym, an indoor rock-climbing facility and workout center. Guests of all ages can challenge their abilities with boulders in varying degrees of difficulty, all in a safe and monitored environment. Group workout classes, climbing instruction, fitness center and steam room/sauna combine into one unique experience.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

The rooms at Whitney Peak have been gloriously refitted and decorated with modern yet rugged appeal. We were kindly upgraded to a top-floor suite that included a top-of-the-line Keurig coffee maker, kitchen with microwave oven and fridge, dining counter and expansive seating area. Wi-fi is included in all rooms, it’s pet-friendly, purified water dispensers are located on each floor and the entire resort is smoke-free. And the most innovative thing of all? NO RESORT FEES!

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Whitney Peak doesn’t have a casino…but it does have its own excellent restaurant called Roundabout Grill. Despite the top-notch service, excellent ambiance, live music and delicious cuisine, the prices aren’t a dollar more than you’d expect to pay in your own home town. And I dare say that Whitney Peak is LGBTQ-friendly, as we were treated with the utmost respect.

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Reno Old Vegas

The hotel offers a selection of Club Level rooms on the fifteenth floor. An accompanying lounge provides a small breakfast buffet, private sitting areas, computer access, board games and a happy hour every evening.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

   Atlantis Casino (above) evokes an underwater city theme with large domes…

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

   Peppermill is Reno’s most luxurious resort and features a rich Tuscany flavor…

If bigger resorts are your thing, the town is surrounded by modern, larger casino hotels. The Atlantis rivals most anything you can find on the Vegas Strip. Reno does Sin City one better by turning Peppermill Restaurant into an epic casino resort. The signature bright pinks, purples and ultra-high-def visuals of the popular north-Strip diner are amplified to the Nth degree at Peppermill Reno. It’s blinding, dazzling…and delicious.

Reno Old Vegas

For nostalgic moviegoers, the beloved West Wind 6 Drive-in Theater of Las Vegas has its own twin in Reno. Operated by the same company, West Wind El Rancho 4 offers four screens of first-run double-features (yes, two new films back-to-back) for only $7.50 per person ($5.50 on Tuesdays). Compare that to the typical price of a film at Century Theaters Orleans Casino, where a single evening movie costs $11.00 or higher.

Reno Old Vegas

Reno Old Vegas

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If watching films, enjoying great shows or gambling aren’t your thing, Reno has plenty of outdoor activities to relish like skiing, boating, hiking, camping, golfing, mountain biking and more. Gorgeous and glorious Lake Tahoe is a short day trip away and Tahoe has its own collection of hotel casinos like Harvey’s, Hard Rock, Biltmore and of course, another Harrah’s.

With all these positives, it’s no surprise that Reno is starting to get renewed media attention…and population growth. Vegas ABC affiliate KTNV-TV recently reported that the city outranks Las Vegas as a great place to live, citing cultural events, outdoor activities and job opportunities.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Reno. A vacation there won’t drag your wallet through the mud and you’re sure to have a blast. There’s still nothing to replace the actual Las Vegas. But as the city you love continues to re-invent itself ad nauseam, you can still get your nostalgic “old Vegas” fix in Nevada’s other Sin City.

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You may find yourself returning to Reno again and again.

Photos: Sammasseur, LaughlinNevada.net, WhitneyPeaks.com