Monday, April 26, 2010 | 4:41 p.m.
Frances Lee always looks surprised at the moment when no one else is.
A backup vocalist for Wayne Newton for more than 20 years, she certainly knows this moment is coming as Newton speaks of the song that was given to him by Bobby Darin. The one that has been featured in 22 films, including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The song for which he still receives royalty checks from Capital Records, the one he’s performed 100,000 times if he’s performed it once.
As Newton navigates the history of that song without revealing its obvious title, Lee anxiously gazes at him from her position to his right, just a few feet back on the orchestra stage. Her eyes widen and her lips purse, as if she’s about to whistle.
Then the familiar bass line kicks in, and she goes, “OOOOOH!” quiet enough not to be heard above the music. Then she sways and snaps to the Newton classic that helped vault his career in Las Vegas.
Saturday night Newton closed his run, as scheduled, at Tropicana’s Tiffany Theatre. It was not the same show as the production-heavy vehicle Newton piloted to the stage back in November.
The final performance was stripped to its frame and hard-focused on the music.
The kid and the bus were ditched after about a month. So was the agent and his requisite cigar. The orchestra was cut back from more than 20 to a dozen. Three singers opened the show, but just two – including Lee – closed it.
The changes hardly fazed Newton, though. He rifled through his catalogue of hits and standards, pausing for about 20 minutes midshow to tell jokes and relate wacky anecdotes about his legendary Vegas friends. The material is familiar for anyone who has seen Newton over the several years. Example: He joked again of the television commercials hawking the little blue pill and the famed warning about the four-hour erection.
“Call my doctor? Heck, I’m calling the newspaper!” Newton pronounced. “Let’s get a picture of this! You might need to put it in the Sunday supplement, though.”
The Wayniacs, many of whom traveled from such remote outposts as England and Australia for this event, delighted in this risqué material. He reaches back for the story about Dean Martin telling him he’d dreamt he was in heaven, standing next to God, and God sneezed. “I didn’t know what to say!” The video of Newton and Martin singing an Al Jolson medley, with Martin billowing cigarette smoke in Newton’s face and reading from cue cards strategically placed around the stage, is brilliant vintage footage. Newton seems to be stifling a laugh throughout the six-minute clip.
Late in the show, a familiar figure turned up to present Newton with a plaque commemorating his 50 years as a Vegas performer. It was Rich Natole, who played the agent in the early incarnation of the show. Joining the mini-posse were Alex Crupi, who played young Newton in the original production; Vicki Claiborne, who handled the video segments; and stagehand Jimmy Williams. Newton didn’t expect the gesture and seemed unsure of what to say, but later he did offer, “I have no intention of retiring.” He added that next month he’s heading to Maine to begin filming a movie called “40 West” and is also beginning production on the WE reality show, “Wayne’s World,” centered on the women in his life: his wife, Kathleen, daughter Lauren, mother-in-law Marilyn McCrone and sister-in-law Tricia McCrone. He also spent several hours Saturday at the Studio at the Palms, lending his voice to an upcoming Las Vegas-based video game.
Whether Saturday night really the end of Wayne Newton as a Las Vegas headliner, at least one with a standing show, is not known. The latest word from Tropicana now is that Tiffany Theatre’s renovation is to begin in July, which leaves some room for at least a return engagement there before the old room is shuttered for a good once-over. There have been hints at a deal from inside the Newton camp, but nothing concrete from anyone who actually knows what Newton’s upcoming schedule entails. His official website lists no shows for May or beyond.
Regardless, there was a sense of finality on Saturday, as equipment was for delivery back to Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah ranch. As the band disassembled, I caught Frances Lee at the front of the stage, hugging a friend. In all the years I’ve known Newton, I’d not met her, and she is a powerful, gospel-trained singer. I walked up, and Lee’s face was wet with tears, the tears of a woman who felt this really was the end.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.