I just returned from about six days in Sin City … and I’m still not sure I have much interest in the City or its Sins. I did have lots of fun, but I don’t gamble and I’d rather shop at Kohl’s or Target than Van Cleef & Arpels or Fendi. I’m not terribly crazy about crowds, and I am certainly not crazy about crowds of drunk party people who are play-acting some neurotic mash-up of The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians while lounging about the hotel pool.And, yet, there was much I did enjoy. For example, the famed Las Vegas “Strip” is what it is and has no shame about it. It’s like a humongous traveling carnival that set up shop and just never bothered to leave town. Furthermore, many individuals I met, notably fellow tourists in the audience at shows I attended and the Las Vegas residents staffing the various venues, were kind, friendly, and authentic…a refreshing throwback to a more gracious time, albeit with postmodern and progressive sensibilities. What redeemed the experience was when I had the “a-ha moment” that I was surrounded by world-class Broadway-caliber entertainment and that I would be a big dummy if I did not avail myself of any of it. I always have been a bit late to the party on these kinds of things. Somebody who loves theatre and movies? Why did this realization not dawn on me sooner? Ah well.
Fortunately, given Las Vegas’ 24/7 operation and the churn of folks coming and going, there really was no shortage of opportunities or tickets once I caught on. As this blog is about reviewing entertainment and not about me being a travel snob, let’s get into the highlights. My apologies for the rote, travelogue, day-by-day approach that follows, but my brain is mush and I’m all outta clever right now.The Treasure Island casino and resort played host to Oscar-winner, comedian and pundit Whoopi Goldberg Friday night, and she was everything I’d hoped she’d be. Less a stand-up routine and more a master class in how to deal with a world that seems to go a bit more off the rails every day, Goldberg’s show was a delight. Just a smart, sensitive, spiky person sharing her sensibilities on a stark stage with only a stool, a bottle of water, and a microphone…and she was pretty transfixing. Only blemish on the evening was a poorly executed Q&A that devolved into a handful of audience members asking how to get tickets to The View and if they could come visit Goldberg at her home. Seriously. I – and the nice Canadians sitting all around me – wanted to crawl under our chairs. Goldberg started the show by saying she had received flak for using “bad words” (e.g. profanity) in the past. Her response? “The only ‘bad’ word I won’t use is the word ‘stupid.’ That’s the only truly bad word I know.” LOVED that.
(Saturday was spent primarily visiting the Hoover Dam…the less said about that the better. Awe-inspiring feat of engineering; lots of stair climbing and winding through dank tunnels; hotter than h*ll…six hours of my life I ain’t getting back any time soon.)Sunday started with what seemed like a good idea: gospel brunch at The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay casino. Meh. Again, we encountered the kindest people, but the food was cruise ship-esque mass-produced sludge and the musical performers were over-amplified, over-spiritualized, and just plain over-done. (I had hopes that we would stumble across a genuinely joyous experience like my parents had when they saw The Blind Boys of Alabama in Fort Wayne, Indiana a few weeks back, but, alas, we did not.) The day ended, though, in spectacular fashion with Jersey Boys at Paris casino. If you see nothing else, go see this one. Compelling, smart, and funny, the show is like Goodfellas on disco roller skates. I like Frankie Valli’s voice – Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You (double preposition aside) is about as perfect a song as can be – but I wouldn’t say I’d had much interest in seeing/hearing how the Four Seasons came to fame, tragedy, fame, and more tragedy. How wrong I was. The juke box musical format has seemed a bit lazy to me in the past, but here it is perfection as if Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe’s compositions were always meant for the stage. Scene transitions were whirling dervish marvels, with director Des McAnuff using spare lines and crisp, efficient movement to drive energy and propel the narrative along. Travis Cloer as Valli and Rob Marnell as Gaudio were standouts in that rarest of rares: a completely perfect cast. Not one clunker in the bunch. Monday and Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s. Another juke box musical and another Tony Award winner, but this one about the rare night at Sun Records when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all converged for their first and only collective jam session with impresario Sam Phillips. I admit I don’t like any of those rockabilly performers, with the exception of a few of Cash’s songs, but I was curious about the show and still a bit euphoric from Jersey Boys so I gave it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed, though it fell a bit flat in the shadow of the previous night’s offering. The show is surprisingly slight at just 75 minutes with what is effectively another 15 minutes of encore (and shameless mugging) for the audience. However, all of the principals were marvelous, walking a fine line (apologies to Mr. Cash’s arguably most famous tune) between impersonation and characterization. At my performance, Lewis was played by an understudy, who, while excellent, suffered from the giddy overeagerness of someone getting one shot at their role. The show, though, belongs to the Phillips character, who serves as narrator and tragic hero, as we the audience witness what may very well be his last great hurrah. Marc D. Donovan utterly charmed in the role, simultaneously breaking your heart and energizing you with a huckster’s world of possibilities. Finally, Tuesday brought Shania Twain’s resident performance at Caesar’s Palace. You may recall the precedent Celine Dion set five years ago, when Caesar’s built a state-of-the-art arena just for her. Said arena now is a revolving (not literally rotating, though in Vegas, that very well may be next) showcase for Dion as well as Elton John, Rod Stewart, and now Shania Twain. I was fortunate enough to be on the front row seated with a delightful couple from South Dakota and another wonderful soul from Nebraska. Somehow we all bonded almost instantly which just added to the fun. Twain’s show is all VEGAS! baby with the singer flying in on some zany motorcycle contraption, her own personal horses thundering across the stage live (inches from our particular happy band of audience members), a million costume changes, and, yes, SHANIA in block letters the size of, well, city blocks descending during the finale in full klieg-light glory from somewhere in outer space (as far as I could tell). Twain was in fine voice but a bit of a raw nerve in light of her personal problems over the past few years…which in some way added a much-needed relatability to her heretofore beautiful but kinda chilly glamazon stage presence. She was at her best, when she worked the room, engaging with her fans, delighting that a girl who probably wasn’t even born during Twain’s 90s heyday knew all the lyrics to every song, and even pulling our new Nebraska friend on stage to celebrate his birthday. AND I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune “You’re Still the One” to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy . Now THAT is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.