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

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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).

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

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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?”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

Photos and Video: Sammasseur with additional courtesy of Palazzo Resort

 

2017 In Review Part 3 – Trends: Hot, Cold, Wet and Sweaty


Vegas Unfiltered’s  2017 In Review continues with “The Year In Trends”…

Most Influential TrendRideshare Services

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Taxis gouge and the lines are super-long. Buses smell…and so do many of the passengers. Rental cars rack up parking fees and run the risk of accidents and DUI’s. Then there’s the monorail line, which services too few hotels and shuts down at 2 am. Thank goodness stalwart party people can choose LYFT and Uber, two modern ways of getting around that have impacted the way that we “Vegas”.

Now completing their second year of servicing McCarran International Airport along with the rest of the city, these two ride-share services will get you where you want to go at any hour. Best of all, they’re cheap!

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There is a downside with rideshares in that both the airport and the resorts seem to have conspired with the local Taxicab Authority to locate designated pick-up spots in remote areas. But expect that to change as the initial shock wears off and rideshare companies evolve from being an upstart service to the transportation method of choice.

On The Rise – Classic Cocktail and Liquor Bars

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

You may not have realized it, but bottle service has quickly become very “2014”. These days, the hip, young and young-at-heart are gathering at classic cocktail and liquor bars. Venetian/Palazzo opened up two this year (The Dorsey and Rosina) to enormous success.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Downtown’s Golden Nugget recently replaced Gold Diggers Nightclub with a Vegas version on NYC’s Troy Liquor Bar, bringing a much-needed element of class to the frequently-skeevy Fremont Street. I’ll be visiting that one soon and will report back.

Element of the Year – Water

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Water was a major player in Sin City this year. WOW – World of Wonder joined O and Le Reve as the third water-based production (read my review here). More resorts added the option to decline housekeeping and laundry services in return for resort credit, saving money, labor…and lots of water. Chippendales brought in a Prince-ly “Purple Rain” shower sequence that has audiences breaking the sound barrier with screams.

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The level of Lake Mead continued to drop, worrying officials and providing a disturbing sight for those who fly into the Valley from the east. $817 million and six years were invested into drilling a new “intake straw” to ensure that the remaining water could continue to be siphoned in a “last ditch effort to save Las Vegas from drought doom” .

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Despite the water emergency, construction is set to begin on Wynn Paradise Park, a man-made lagoon and theme park that will replace the recently-closed Wynn golf course.

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Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), it also brings a whole new focus on the concerns for water mismanagement. Steve Wynn is probably hoping that the new fire-based INFERNO show at Paris will take some of the heat away from his continued wasting of Sin City’s most precious resource.

Fading Fast – Male revues

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Any regular reader know I love attending this type of show, despite the fact that some of them are sheer crap. While 2017 started with an all-time interest for male revues, the sizzle fizzled out pretty rapidly.

A marketing blitz for Magic Mike Live caused long-time standards Chippendales and Thunder from Down Under some concern. After the initial madness, MML became just another option in a landscape littered with hungry male strippers (what an image!).

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Black Magic Live quickly moved from the Strip’s Tommy Wind Theater to a banquet hall to an off-Strip ghetto nightclub. Aussie Heat has cooled down to two performances a week (with talk of closure in the coming weeks). Men of the Strip‘s dreams of a multi-media nightclub at Tropicana were reduced to a two-week gig at Hard Rock Cafe. Then they left Las Vegas altogether for a tour through North America.

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An insider told me that it’s much too difficult to launch a residency in expensive Vegas venues. He cites the ease of filling up large spaces in other cities where this type of entertainment is rare and there is little to no competition. The profit margin is much greater for tours as well.

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You can be sure that Chipps and Thunder won’t be going anywhere next year. Unfortunately, that’s probably true for the nauseating Magic Mike Live. But in Vegas, where Sin is touted as a lifestyle and wild girls (and gays) come here to get their male-stripper groove on, expect the choices to be more limited in 2018.

Photos: Sammasseur, Wynn Resorts (and other sources, too)

“Rosina” Is The Latest Jewel In Palazzo’s Crown


Swanky art deco cocktail lounge elevates the already-luxurious Strip resort….

This past August, I penned a piece extolling the virtues of (and my love for) the Palazzo. Dripping with elegance and style, Venetian‘s high-end sister property offers a contemporary twist on top-tier resorts…and won my award for favorite five-star accommodations.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Now Palazzo has upped the ante with Rosina Cocktail Bar. Adding a page to the latest chapter of Venetian/Palazzo‘s evolution, Rosina builds on the momentum established by The Dorsey this summer. That cocktail lounge, with creations by famed mixologist Sam Ross, has already set a new standard for Venetian‘s lounge offerings.

While The Dorsey is an interesting mixture of old-school vibe (the library and fireplace are especially cozy) with contemporary music and hip DJ’s, Rosina harkens back to an era of sexy glamour and utter sophistication. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the glossy blacks and shiny golds that make up the jewelry box-like exterior of this cocktail retreat.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Inside, lush chandeliers preside over four maroon-colored banquettes, small cocktail tables with pearl-colored leather chairs and high bar tables with stools in burgundy-covered cushions and backs.

Rosina Cocktail Lounge Palazzo

The 65-seat room is intimate, providing for impeccable service and attention to every detail. That includes an original beverage menu which celebrates the classic cocktails of bygone eras.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Upon arriving for a media preview, our party was led towards a glamorous lady posed upon the left side of the bar. This “cocktail fortune teller” asked each of us a few questions before suggesting a particular cocktail to start our evening.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Her recommendation for me was a Dark ‘N Stormy (from the “Shaken Cocktails” list – $18). Crafted from Bermuda rum, lime, fresh ginger and club soda inside a tall glass with a bar of hand-embossed ice, it reminded me of a high-powered Moscow Mule with a lot of sass. Additional shaken cocktails include the DaiquiriTom Collins, Presbyterian, Mai Tai and Gimlet.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Dark ‘N Stormy              

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Mai Tai                     

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo                    Daiquiri                    

The fortune teller steered my companion towards a Martini from the “Stirred Cocktails” menu (all $18). Made with gin, dry vermouth and either a lemon twist or olive, it was as smooth as it was lovely to look at. Other stirred cocktails include Mint Julep, Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Negroni.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Old Fashioned              

Later in the evening, I desired something fizzy. That meant a French ’75 (gin, champagne and lemon) from the “Bubbly” classics list, which also offered an Airmail (rum, honey, lime, champagne) and Jimmie Roosevelt (cognac, green chartreuse, bitters and champagne – all $22).

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

French ’75                   

Speaking of bubbly…if you’re out of champagne (four selections from France), there’s an innovative call button within reach. With it, you can have your flute topped off immediately. You won’t want to rush things, though, as the relaxing and elegant atmosphere will have you wondering where the time went.

A curated soundtrack of blues, jazz, soul and classic R & B plays overhead, ensuring that the mood is as classy as the cocktail in your glass. Be sure to ask your server about seasonal and daily specials while you’re there.

If you’re in the mood for wine, you can choose one of five whites from Germany, New Zealand, Italy, France and of course…California. Six red wines are brought in from Italy, California, Washington and this writer’s home of Willamette Valley, Oregon.

Baz Boot Camp

Perhaps it’s no accident that Rosina Cocktail Bar is right around the corner from Palazzo Theater. That’s where the stunning Gatsby-era BAZ – A Musical Mash-up performs Tuesday through Sunday at 7 pm. The two compliment each other perfectly, much like Bourbon Room once invited Rock of Ages guests to party on after the show.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

You won’t need Gatsby’s tuxedo or Daisy’s sparkling gowns to enjoy a cocktail at Rosina, but it’s most definitely a dress-up atmosphere. So be sure to pack your favorite evening wear and immerse yourself in the shiny beauty of Rosina Cocktail Bar.

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Rosina Cocktail Bar is nestled along the east side of Palazzo’s gaming floor. Hours of operation are from 5 pm through 3 am daily. The venue is available to host special events by calling 702.607.1945

Rosina Cocktail Bar Palazzo

Photos: Sammasseur, Anthony Mair, Palazzo Hotel and Casino

Anne Martinez Can’t Slow Down To Be “The Next Big Thing”


Meet a talent who’s equally at home in Gatsby’s world and Alice’s Wonderland…

Some performers set their sights on Las Vegas and dream of one day ruling the stage. Anne Martinez must have missed that memo about “someday”. You see, she came to Sin City four years ago and immediately began her Vegas reign.

Anne Martinez

You may not know Anne Martinez by name, but chances are that you’ve seen her perform at least once..and heard her glorious voice rattling the rafters. From Luxor‘s sexy Fantasy to Steve Wynn’s classy ShowStoppers. Dripping with blood at Zombie Burlesque or adorned with dazzling jewels in BAZ – A Musical Mash-up. There’s seemingly nothing that Anne cannot do.

Anne Martinez

Anne and her husband John Martinez came to Vegas in 2013. John’s expertise in rigging and scuba diving made him a perfect fit for Cirque du Soleil‘s water production “O”. While hubby was getting his feet wet at Bellagio, Anne was putting her own skills into play on various stages…while simultaneously working with a team of gifted colleagues to establish her own production company. BBR, like Anne, quickly made a name for itself with the genre-bending Alice: A Steampunk Concert Fantasy (more on that in a bit).

Anne Martinez

Despite her short time in the city, Anne dove headfirst into a wide variety of gigs, charitable functions and community events. Belting out hits at House of Blues Music Forward Foundation, joining Mondays Dark to benefit AFAN, singing the National Anthem during March Madness, saluting Amy Winehouse at Brooklyn Bowl‘s The Setlist late-night concert series…the list truly is endless.

Earning a BFA in acting no doubt explains Anne’s ability to step into a wide variety of song styles and characters, but her Masters of Fine Arts degree in Theatre Practice (aka show creation) is how Alice: A Steampunk Concert Fantasy sprang to life. Taking the darker elements of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” and weaving them into a hard-rocking opera set in a retro-futuristic sci-fi world, Alice is sheer brilliance. Even Tim Burton didn’t try something so audacious for his interpretation.

Anne Martinez

Anne credits a great deal of Alice‘s success to other ambitious young artists like Jeffrey DeBarathyAdolfo BarretoLora KelseyAshley FullerClaudia MitriaApril Leopardi and co-director Ryan Kelsey. Having such a gifted ensemble almost guaranteed a show unlike anything Vegas had ever seen.

Naturally, Martinez wanted to see her baby become a resident production. Having outgrown its early days at Hard Rock Hotel‘s VinylAlice quickly became the must-see monthly event at Brooklyn Bowl…for locals and tourists alike. Even when the show was on hiatus last summer, she re-assembled the cast for a one-off at Las Vegas Pride.

Since then, Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Casino has become the permanent home for Alice. One Monday each month, the cast gathers for another epic performance. Their next show date is November 13th with guest performance by Cirque du Soleil artist Michelle DiTerlizzi as the Red Queen.

Anne Martinez

Compounding the challenge of short preparation time was the fact that her predecessors have gone on to major high-profile productions. Returning BAZ star Ruby Lewis finished her Daisy run at Light before the titular role in Broadway’s Paramour. Last fall, Joanna Alexis Jones left Palazzo Theater‘s production for the NBC broadcast of Hairspray Live. Her abrupt departure required Martinez to step into the star-making character.

Despite being an understudy for only a few short weeks, Anne’s version of Daisy was nothing short of breathtaking. She subsequently took on the lead role of “Satine”, made famous by Nicole Kidman in the film Moulin Rouge:

As if her schedule wasn’t already busy enough, Anne currently does double-duty as one half of the duo HEART in Stratosphere’s World’s Greatest Rock Show. She literally finishes her BAZ performance at Palazzo and high-tails it down the Strip to roar onstage and belt out high-powered anthems like this:

Before a performance of BAZ, I sat down with this dynamo outside of the Palazzo Theater to talk about her background, her inspirations, and of course, plans for her future in Las Vegas.

When asked what it felt like to join For The Record‘s innovative, genre-busting, star-making troupe, the Rochester NY native had this to say:

I think For the Record is a brilliant company that has only just begun on their road to amazing success! They have a keen sense of entertainment and are completely fearless in their journey of storytelling. It’s incredible to be a part of and magical to watch.

Despite the difficulties that entertainment productions aced in Sin City during 2016 (over 30 closures), Anne is optimistic that quality shows will continue to thrive on Las Vegas stages:
I think Vegas is an ever-changing amoeba that will always take us by surprise. As artists, we are always working toward entertaining our patrons and how exactly to do that. Experimentation is the key to growing as an artist and as a business. Keeping an open mind and trying new things will allow projects to grow and flourish. As new generations come forward, we can (hopefully) create entertainment that they will enjoy!
When asked how challenging it was to join an established cast then quickly step into a central role, Anne seemed grateful and confident at the same time:
My primary talent is willingness to learn. Everything can always be improved as a performer…but you have to be willing to jump. I love music with meaning. Listening to QUEEN and the BEATLES as a child really informed the sense of using music to speak…to color…to paint with your musicality….to speak your truth or to find the truth in others.

Martinez confided that coming down from the show each night is a bit difficult. The emotional energy required to take on a production like BAZ is also evident in her personal life and passions:

I love NSPCA. I have rescue cats myself and it breaks my heart to think they were hurt in the past. Adopting a pet or donating to NSPCA can save so many lives of innocent animals. I also have a yearly holiday show for Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. There are so many teens and children in need of protection, education and opportunity.
 Anne Martinez
Every year, pianist Kenny Davidsen and I gather numerous vocalists in Las Vegas who donate their talents for a night of music. Our next one is December 19th at Tuscany Resort. It’s so important to remember that everyone deserves a chance.

The morning after the recent shooting tragedy in Vegas, Anne and husband John were the first people I saw on social media delivering food, water and assistance to first responders operating out of the Las Vegas Convention Center. They were broadcasting live via Facebook and urging people to come down and do the same.

Later that month, she and her fellow castmates formed “Team BAZ” for last month’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the largest such event dedicated to fighting that dreaded disease.

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Just this past Sunday (November 5th), Anne appeared with many other entertainers at Venetian Hotel for the Vegas Cares Benefit Concert to support both victims of and first responders to the tragedy.

It’s clear that Anne Martinez has truly found happiness in the city she calls home. Her love for its people is as strong as the passion she delivers in her performances. I look forward to many more hours of enjoying this boundless talent in darkened theaters throughout Las Vegas.

BAZ – A Musical Mash-up performs Tuesday through Saturday at 7pm at Palazzo Theater. Tickets start at $65 and can be ordered by clicking here

World’s Greatest Rock Show performs Tuesday through Sunday at 9pm at Stratosphere. Tickets tickets start at $73 and are available here.

ALICE: A Steampunk Concert Fantasy performs one Monday each month at Rocks Lounge inside Red Rock Resort. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered here.

This article previously appeared elsewhere in another version. It has been updated with new information.

Photos:  Jake Klein, Patrick Rivera, Elaine Wilkinson, Richard Brusky, Bill Hiltz, BBR and Anne Martinez via Facebook. Videos by Sammasseur

Feeling the Love for PALAZZO


Searching for elegance at Bellagio and Wynn but finding it quietly tucked away…

Last month this writer spent two weeks experiencing the pleasures of three top-tier resorts – Bellagio, Wynn and Palazzo. All are established, respected and great at what they do. Each of them is a 5-star property catering to similar demographics, yet they’re distinct in style and flavor.

Palazzo is the sister property to Venetian. Opened in December of 2007, it’s listed by Wikipedia as the second-largest building in the Western Hemisphere, yet its presence on the Strip is as understated as the clean lines and Earth tones that make up its superstructure.

Inside, two cavernous domes oversee your entrance from either the main lobby or through the waterfall atrium connecting Palazzo to Venetian‘s Grand Canal Shoppes and Restaurant Row.

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Both Bellagio and Wynn sprang from the mind of legendary Steve Wynn, so of course they are essentially kindred hotels. Both have ornate decor, colorful seasonal displays, art collections, water-themed production shows created by the same man (Franco Dragone) and outdoor fountains synchronized to familiar musical standards.

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        Deja-view….                             

Unfortunately, Bellagio’s ownership and operations now rest in the hands of MGM Resorts International. That’s the money-grubbing corporation which introduced universally-reviled mandatory resort fees to the Strip, along with parking and valet charges. Their now-notorious profit-growth plan was designed to suck every last dollar out of the consumer’s pocket.

The results are even apparent in a luxury resort such as this, where you pay $12 a day to park while risking damage to your undercarriage. Some have even lost their tires and wheels (check out this mind-bending incident from April), so clearly those extra fees aren’t going towards additional security, which is odd for a casino that has been robbed time and again.

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Wynn/Encore initially resisted resort fees but caved when they became the new normal. I truly expected them to continue offering free parking and valet services, but that is no longer the case. One could argue that all Strip resorts should be on equal footing in respect to their parking arrangements, yet Wynn/Encore is far removed from the core of those affected.

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“Let’s put an ATM next to the garage payment kiosks and see if anyone gets the message”….

There is little to no chance of drivers using Wynn/Encore garages to visit other properties, especially with neighbors like Treasure Island still offering free parking. Installing gates and kiosks this week reeks of yet another money grab…and an insult to valued guests.

Fortunately for those of us who rent cars on our trips, the garages at Venetian and Palazzo are well-maintained and free of charge…at least for now. In the case of Palazzo, conveniently-located escalators and elevators bring guests directly into the lobby, center of the casino or near the showroom. Even when not staying at Palazzo, I frequently dine at wonderful Grand Lux Cafe, in part due to the ease of access (the food, service and free Wi-Fi rock, too).

But, I digress. Let’s delve into the resorts themselves, and why I favor Palazzo over the other two. For me, it all comes down to atmosphere…how I’m treated as a guest and whether I felt comfortable and relaxed in my surroundings.

While Bellagio is the oldest of the three, its rooms remain in tip-top shape and have recently-refreshed decor. Furniture, bedding and fixtures are all lovely, thanks to excellent maintenance. Unfortunately during my three-day stay, the room rumbled throughout the daylight hours until 7 pm with the sound of jackhammers, thanks to renovations above me.

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Bellagio Fountain-View King…          

A complaint to the front desk resulted in a $100.00 food/beverage credit being added to my account. It was willingly offered after my complaint – not something I was soliciting, as I was trying to write and needed to know when the pounding would stop so I could work. Nevertheless, the incessant noise tainted my stay and rattled my teeth loose. It would have been nice if they’d alerted us about construction prior to check-in, but they didn’t.

Noise can also be an issue at Wynn/Encore, especially if you’re hoping for a restful night. With its beach clubs and nightclubs, a constant thump-thump-thump rises up the sides of both towers. It’s a frequent complaint on travel sites for those who are accustomed to the elegance that Wynn initially offered in its early days.

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Wynn Tower King, Strip View…                

These days, Wynn/Encore has shifted from sophistication to the trendy club scene. It lures in a rowdy crowd that carries on loudly throughout common areas, casinos and elevators, in stark contrast to their expensive, classy surroundings. The effect is very off-putting and a disappointing about-face.

It wasn’t that long ago that trouble-making celebs like Paris Hilton and bad-behavior rappers like Lil Wayne were barred from Wynn/Encore. Now their kind seem to be openly courted. The type that this element attracts make Wynn the most money…yet are openly mocked by Steve as he collects a hefty share of their trust funds.

Take care not to collide with a stroller while reading Wynn’s “No Stroller” signs…

Along with “club kids”, the corridors and casinos at Wynn are inexplicably jammed to the max with real children, too. Despite a “No Stroller” policy posted at each and every entrance, there is nothing done to enforce this rule. The dreaded sound of screeching children at all hours of the day and night does nothing to convey the atmosphere of a luxury hotel…unless your idea of opulence is a cuticle trim at the Wal-mart nail spa.

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An unattended child parties down at Wynn’s “Parasol Up” casino bar…              

Earlier last year, the outspoken Mr. Wynn took heat for saying “nobody likes being around poor people”. One would assume, then, that he avoids visiting Bellagio these days. My biggest gripe about that Strip-center showpiece is the massive crowd that continuously flows through the lobby and into the Conservatory and Botanical Garden.

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Bellagio is one of the most expensive and well-regarded hotels in the city…yet the masses choking its heart tend make the lobby resemble a redneck State Fair. Thousands of flip-flops, cargo shorts, pajama bottoms, tank tops and yard-long drinks shuffle beneath a $10,000,000.00 Dale Chihuly ceiling every day, having no idea what it is or why it’s unique.

These everyday gawkers are in stark contrast to the multi-million-dollar surroundings, carrying their bad behavior, lack of manners, beer coolers and overflowing strollers with them. Call me snobby (I prefer the term “outspoken”, which is why this site is a one-man operation) but if I’m staying at a palatial resort, I want to be around a classier group of people.

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Palazzo Luxury King Suite (standard), Golf Course View…  

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   Every Palazzo room is a spacious suite with sunken living quarters and desk…     

That’s why I enjoyed my stay at Palazzo so much. Venetian‘s sister property has the right level of vibe, elegance and excitement to check off every box on my wish list. It has somehow managed to achieve the proper balance between fun and classy…and draws in a pleasant and appreciative crowd…minus the throngs that lug ice chests and beer coozies with them.

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Palazzo‘s porte cochere is absolutely gorgeous, but you wouldn’t really discover it unless you were a guest. Indoor attractions like the massive waterfall and spectacular atrium fountain don’t draw in nearly as many sidewalk gawkers as Bellagio‘s conservatory, either.

Palazzo hasn’t always been devoid of nightclubs, but that clearly isn’t their focus. Lavo continues to operate, but now as a restaurant and lounge. Their nightlife offerings were shuttered after a few years, allowing the focus to shift back to long-running Tao at Venetian.

A short-lived stint of The Act Nightclub on the upper floor of the shopping atrium was deemed too outrageous by the operators of Palazzo, who found nudity and shocking activity to be against the otherwise-conservative nature of the resort. The Sands Corp. forced its closure and the space, to my knowledge, remains empty.

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The rowdy Bourbon Room at Venetian was replaced this year as The Dorsey, an elegant affair featuring unique cocktails by famed Sam Ross in an atmosphere that evokes the sitting room and library of a stately mansion. Somehow the shelves of books and fireplace manage to feel hip without being stuffy, again reflective of that delicate balance that Palazzo and Venetian carry out so well.

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The pool scene at Palazzo is also lively without wallowing in vulgarity, especially at the adults-only Aquatic Club. That new day club offers throwback-style, super-cool server costumes and a slick intimate party atmosphere with retro sass. The service is impeccable and Wolfgang Puck makes a pretty mean turkey burger!

Just like Cirque du Soleil’s “O” and “Le Reve” reflect Steve Wynn’s fondness for water acrobatics, BAZ – Star Crossed Love represents the style and sensibilities of Palazzo. Hip, classy, bold and unique, the movie-musical mash-up BAZ dazzles the eye and puts a song (or thirty) in your heart. Its attention to details is rich without smashing you over the head…just like the hotel it calls home.

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BAZ: Star Crossed Love is sass, class and flash…               

Head clearance is another pleasing element of Palazzo. Both Wynn and Bellagio have very low ceilings throughout their casinos, which accentuate an already crowded atmosphere. The vertical height of Palazzo‘s casino is easily double that of the other properties, offering more natural lighting, fresher air and a spaciousness that compliments the nicely-spread slot machines and table games.

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As for the check-in areas, the less said about Bellagio‘s, the better. While the gardens behind the reservation desk are gorgeous, the lines are chaotic and smack dab in the middle of that human tide of fanny packs. No matter what time of day or night that you arrive, you’ll feel like a silver orb inside a pinball game.

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Wynn‘s check-in area for the original tower (there’s a separate entrance and desk for Encore) has undergone its own embarrassing problems of late. A brand-new arrival area, immediately to the right of the front entrance, lasted about a month before an onslaught of guest complaints (cramped quarters and a sloggy queuing system) shut it down.

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Guests weren’t the only ones confused by the constantly moving reservation desk…

The backlash prompted a reopening of the original reservation desk and dismantling of the new one during my stay. For a resort that prides itself on impeccable attention to detail, this must have stung!

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No such problems exist in the elegant and cathedral-like Palazzo reservation counter, which is as glorious as it is spacious. Despite the enormity of the property and its 3,000+ rooms, the check-in center is a model of efficiency…and once again, class.  The same could be said of the staff that I encounter whenever walking through Palazzo. Everyone I speak to is friendly, helpful, and comes across as genuine.

Perhaps that’s why I am writing this article. It’s easy to fall under the spell of gorgeous surroundings, and Bellagio, Wynn and Palazzo are indeed palatial resorts. But once you’ve “been there, done that” with back-to-back stays at each of the Big Three, you begin to notice the differences. You realize that one of those places stood out in ways you never noticed before.

My takeaway is that the deterioration of decorum has rendered the notion of luxury resorts to be rather pointless in most cases. Despite their beginnings as palaces for the more affluent traveler, Bellagio has now devolved into a pseudo Mall of the Americas and Wynn/Encore version 2017 is essentially douche-bag central.

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Thank goodness Palazzo remains everything a five-star resort should be. No amount of glitz and glamour from Wynn’s current or former properties can replace the high-end experience of staying at the big P. It rises above the others by staying true to its purpose…and makes Palazzo my favorite luxury hotel on the Strip.

Photos by Sammasseur, Palazzo via Facebook, TripAdvisor, Expedia

Featured image courtesy Scott and Ryan Lyons

A side note:

There’s a widely-held misconception that critics and bloggers give favorable reviews when the object of their analysis has been comped. That notion is so common that even a former editor suggested that my scathing review of Magic Mike Live stemmed from not being invited to the media premiere (it’s a nauseating stink-fest no matter the circumstances).

As purveyors of our craft, it’s our responsibility to offer truthful opinions. That being said, when we’re invited guests, we’re likely to receive over-the-top service and perks galore. But as professionals, we can sift through the glitter and judge objectively.

 

Puttin’ On The Ritz at BAZ BOOT CAMP


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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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                      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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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             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.

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   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.

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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.

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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

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