Erik Kabik / Retna / ErikKabik.com
Thursday, May 22, 2014 | 7:30 p.m.
Guns N’ Roses and “Mamma Mia!” have again touched down in town. We know these acts well, of course.
One is a bounding exercise where central figure effectively plays off a collection of unique but headstrong characters while evoking vividly compelling memories of a reckless past.
The other is “Mamma Mia!”
GNR is back at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel with a nine-show spree through June 7, the title of which is “An Evening of Destruction: No Trickery.” Over at Tropicana Theater, “Mamma Mia!” returns after a nearly five-year hiatus from Las Vegas after closing its spirited six-year run at Mandalay Bay in 2009. That production’s residency at the Trop, with a beautiful new room that is being used to full effect, is open-ended.
These two “entertainment experiences,” as the suits call them, seem unalike, but that isn’t so. Both lean on familiarity in their respective performances, playing to audiences that know all the words and moves yet keep coming back.
Similarities abound. The serpentine shimmy of GNR frontman Axl Rose (whom we would term the Donna Sheridan of the band, if not for the obvious) is as recognizable as the head banging and devil’s horns move by “Mamma Mia!” island inhabitant Harry Bright.
Bright, in fact, has gone by “H.B.,” as short for “Head Banger.”
With Guns N’ Roses, of course, it’s all head banger.
“Mamma Mia!” is helmed by a grown-up who has survived myriad challenges as a single mother and sole operator of her own business. Portrayed by Christine Sherrill (who has college-age twin boys and a 3-year-old daughter), Donna shouts down a would-be Lancelot, Sam Carmichael (portrayed with genuine compassion by Sean Allan Krill), and turns back H.B.’s sympathetic attempt to hand her a check for her daughter’s wedding. When finally persuaded that it’s time to reunite Donna & The Dynamos for a live show, Donna takes her spot in the middle without entertaining any questions.
Rose can be pretty pushy, too. When guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal played a solo on his acoustic, Rose crept up from behind and began knocking out a rhythm on the body of the instrument with his fists. Thal shot the singer either a fast grin or a grimace, prompting Rose to say, “That annoys the (heck) out of him when I do that.” But he does it anyway.
There are references to bad behavior intertwined in each show. “Mamma Mia!” depicts Sophie (Kimbre Lancaster, in her first major stage role) and her nosy little friends leafing through her mother’s diary, coming to the sex-on-the-beach moments referred to only as “dot, dot, dot!” The sex references run amok in GNR’s, set, naturally — recite the lyrics to “It’s So Easy,” for starters — and “Mr. Brownstone” is a famous paean to drug use.
But the only staging of a joint being rolled onstage is in “Mamma Mia!” And the only time a seemingly incapacitated person is led from his colleagues is when Sky gets trashed on the night of his bachelor party. Such a fate has not befallen Rose or any of the guys in GNR, their reputed appetite for destruction notwithstanding.
Sharp visuals permeate both shows, though you won’t find the sort of thunderous and aggressive pyrotechnics used in the GNR show anywhere near “Mamma Mia!” But the stage at Tropicana Theater is bright and crisp, the costumes again aglow in vivid colors. The guys flop across stage wearing flippers and blue Spandex scuba suits; the women sashay across the set in flashy swimsuits. At show’s end, all the main characters zip into satin, spacesuit-styled costumes trimmed in sequins and (for the guys) ridiculous codpieces. The show’s stage rotates from its nightclub set to Donna’s bedroom to its outdoor aquatic setting. Missing, but not entirely missed, is the hydraulic wooden walkway that led Sky and Sophie into the sunset in the version at Mandalay Bay.
At the Joint, GNR has fulfilled its promise do deliver the heat, with explosions punctuating most songs, especially “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Night Train” and, as expected, the cover of “Live & Let Die.” Glowing green lasers slice through the crowd. Five big screens carried off the documentary-style treatment of the musicians along with graphics of the band’s logo and cityscapes of the Strip. Six smaller screens hung above the stage, and if you became bored with any of that, a quartet of highly gymnastic strippers in tight black leather and lace spin around poles at the sides of the stage.
Musically, obviously, these shows were loaded with material any music fan of the 1970s and '80s, especially, would recognize. But beyond the performances of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and “S.O.S.,” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City” from the enduring “Appetite for Destruction” album, snippets and hooks from these songs grab the audience’s attention. The thumping chorus of “Voulez-Vous” is a fitting end to the first act of “Mamma Mia!” When DJ Ashba dances through the opening riff of “Sweet Child,” the crowd goes nuts.
And, as always, there are standout performances in both shows. Krill is a powerhouse personality and a resonant singer. Sherrill has moved from the role of Tanya (who is, as usual, something of a slut as played wonderfully by Alison Ewing) to the more integral role as Donna. Steve Judkins as Bill Austin is one of the more physically comedic performers to inhabit that role in Vegas; he might not like knowing this, but he evokes a distinct Three Stooges-esque quality, specifically Curly. And if that thundering backing dancer seems a bit familiar, it’s because she is one-time “Peepshow” standout Kaci Wilson, also a commanding performer.
In the GNR concert, most impressive was the front-and-center musicianship and showmanship of Ashba. In previous performances by the band at the Joint, Ashba ceded considerable time to his fellow guitarists, especially Thal, who is positively revered among his contemporaries. But in Wednesday’s opener, Ashba was provided the balance of solos and delighted in sprinting across the stage repeatedly and loping into the crowd. He’s a Las Vegas guy and clearly relished a return to performing in his adopted hometown (and, before the show, Ashba took time to beat back an online report that the band was splitting after its June 7 closing show, writing, “That’s B.S.,” using more colorful language).
Not to be ignored, both shows played to their full length, “Mamma Mia!” at more than 2 hours with an intermission; GNR at 2 hours, 20 minutes in a high-velocity concert laced with hits, solos and surprises (“The Seeker” by The Who, on this night). In each show, these artists have put in their time, and deserve time to unleash the full scope of their performance.
So, yeah, Donna and Axl, take as long as you need. We’re not going anywhere.