Friday, Aug. 6, 2010 | 6:27 p.m.
When they know they are in firm control of a fight, great boxers sometimes drop their gloves and jut their chins.
It's a dare. "Come at me," is the message. "Hit me with your best shot," as Pat Benatar once said.
Muhammad Ali was known to do this. Sugar Ray Leonard, too. And when the opponent seized the opportunity to land a blow against a seemingly defenseless fighter, his punch usually fell inches short. The opponent was too quick to be hit, deftly evading the blow and firing back with a shot of his own. Whack!
David Saxe showed some similar command of the ring Thursday night at the long-awaited gala premiere of "Vegas The Show" at his eponymous theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.
This show is Saxe's baby, there is no doubt. The operator of the bursting-with-productions V Theater in that same mall, Saxe has foisted much of his entertainment empire's resources (and a good dose of his own mental and emotional well-being) on this ambitious project. He finally took the stage before Thursday night's show, 45 minutes behind schedule, wearing a slick tux and a sly grin.
Addressing an audience stuffed with VIPs, friends and family, Saxe called out members of the media.
"If it sucks," he called into the mic, "then write that it sucks."
There's that chin.
Saxe then added, "But it doesn't suck."
Not falling for that move. "Vegas! The Show" doesn't suck. Not by a long shot. Saxe landed a scoring punch in his premiere. Not a knockout, certainly — even he agreed with that assessment after the show when he said, "There is so much to work on." But "Vegas! The Show" is, in its structure, cast and staging, just what Saxe is after: An ode to the history of entertainment in Las Vegas. Not Cirque du Soleil, which Saxe says is great but adds, "To me, that's not Vegas."
Saxe should know. He's pure, concentrated Vegas. His father, Richard, was a bandleader for some of the biggest stars on the Strip — including the Rat Pack. His mom, Bonnie, was a dancer in "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana, performing even as she was pregnant with David in 1969.
When Saxe talks of his upbringing, he often notes, "I was on the Vegas stage even before I was born."
So this show, powered by a cast of 40 and 11 musicians, simply is Saxe's interpretation of the rich entertainment history in Las Vegas. It's the Rat Pack, Liberace (as a somewhat unnerving marionette), Elvis, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, some sleight-of-hand, a botched bird act (more on that later), a dozen or so showgirls can-canning and sashaying to great delight, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, and even a topless male revue.
For many scenes the 435-seat theater's ample stage is backed by a velvety blue curtain dotted with sparkles. The opening and closing scenes feature cast member Eric Jordan Young dressed as a custodial type named Ernie, describing the Vegas of yesterday, "When the Rat Pack would party at the Sands all night and still have enough energy to film their new movie, Ocean's 11!"
"Ooooh," the crowd says, remembering that the Rat Pack and "Ocean's 11" effectively represent the hipness of Old Vegas that Saxe seeks.
Ernie is backed by a lavish set, laden with replicas of decommissioned Vegas neon signs. These are images Saxe remembers from his youth and also studied on the Neon Museum website for accurate detail. Some are obvious — Golden Nugget, Stardust, the lamp from the Aladdin. But he also slides in the pool-shaped Glass Pool Inn sign, a favorite among a lot of longtime Las Vegans who favor cool sign design.
There is a lot happening onstage, all the time. Most of it works, too. I'll say off the top that if you have former "Fantasy" and "Peepshow" performer Tara Palsha onstage doing anything for 90 minutes — playing solitaire, reciting the menu from La Salsa, whatever — I'm sold. That's a good night. The same can be said for another former "Peepshow" cast member, Carolyn Pace. The dance numbers are great fun, especially the tribute pieces that summon the best moments of "Jubilee" and "Folies Bergere." If nothing else, the show is providing employment (aside from mayoral ribbon-cuttings) for shapely showgirls.
As for the music, my affection for the work of bandleader Jerry Lopez (and of his big band, Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns) is well documented. He and music director Pat Caddick have followed through on the promise that, regardless of anything else happening with the show, the music would be superb. It is. As expected, singers Reva Rice, Trina Johnson-Finn and Jamie Preston possess the vocal dexterity to perform any singing part in a show that samples Cher, Lena Horne, Tina Turner and Knight.
Saxe and famed choreographer Tiger Martina aren't afraid of going a little wacky, a requirement if you want to convey the history of Vegas entertainment. Portraying Sammy Davis Jr., Young sings "Candy Man" as the women dancers wear snug-fitting "Good & Plenty," "Hershey," Almond Joy" and "Mounds" costumes. And in case the song's theme is still lost, the dancers throw candy into the audience.
The cast's cultural makeup does create some ill-fitting scenes. We have a black Sonny Bono (Young) and two white Pips (Tom Lowe and Gabriel Burrafato). Lowe's voice and physical stature remind no one of Elvis or Tom Jones, yet he takes on both roles anyway. As Elvis, he jokes, "I know, I'm blond," noting just one of innumerable differences between he and the King. As Jones, Lowe happily forges ahead even as he lacks Sir Tom's famous swarthiness. At the end of "What's New Pussycat?" he collapses into a sea of women dancers. Even if you don't buy him as Jones, it's obvious the kid's having a really good time.
What seems off? Not sure why Elton John's "Rocket Man" finds a way into a Vegas production, other than to showcase Lowe's wide-ranging voice and provide a soundtrack to familiar images of Vegas resort implosions. And a history-of-Vegas variety show should feature a more obvious reference to Wayne Newton and Siegfried & Roy than archived footage played across on a draped video panel (disclosure: Wayne Newton is my third-best friend).
And, in this show, where is the tribute to "Believe?"
There are so many moving parts, so many individuals and performances to reference in this show, it's impossible to note them all. That's what makes the show appealing — it's ambition. I've called it the most ambitious show I've seen in Vegas, given Saxe's personal and financial investment. Naturally, there is always the likelihood of something going haywire on a given night, and wow did we see that Thursday.
The scene featured veteran illusionist Joseph Gabriel. Earlier he had performed some slick sleight-of-hand work, making birds appear from thin air and turning a magic wand into a flame. He displayed some remarkably delicate piano work with the little Liberace doll, which performed "Boogie Woogie" to a recorded track of the legendary pianist.
Later in the show, Gabriel released a trained macaw parrot into the audience. The idea, I think, was for the color-splashed bird to make a lap around the theater and return to Gabriel's outstretched arm. Instead, the feathered diva made an additional pass, swept through the row in which I was sitting, and landed forcefully on the head of talent agent Colleen Custer.
Yes, Custer was ambushed.
Gabriel hastened up the aisle and, with the help of Christine Turner — the wife of former Rio, Palace Station and Hilton headliner Earl Turner — wrested the parrot free from Custer's head.
Custer was OK, if a little rattled, as Gabriel told her, "Good catch!"
It was a thrilling and unscripted moment. As we say, "Only in Vegas."
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.