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July 22, 2017

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L.V. doubleheader: Paul Zerdin opens ‘vent’ at P.H.; Scorpions blackout at Joint

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Denise Truscello / WireImage / DeniseTruscello.net

The grand opening of Paul Zerdin’s “Mouthing Off” on Friday, May 13, 2016, at Planet Hollywood.

Paul Zerdin Grand Opening

The grand opening of Paul Zerdin’s “Mouthing Off” on Friday, May 13, 2016, at Planet Hollywood. Launch slideshow »
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Dan Zerdin, Paul Zerdin, Hillary Zerdin and Robyn Mellor arrive at the grand opening of Paul Zerdin’s “Mouthing Off” on Friday, May 13, 2016, at Planet Hollywood.

Once more the lineup of shows was uniquely VegasVille. Early in the night, it was ventriloquist Paul Zerdin with his “Mouthing Off” show at Planet Hollywood Showroom.

Later, it was a scramble to the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel to catch veteran German rock band The Scorpions fronted by Klaus Meine, a diminutive man with a towering voice.

One is an appreciably nonplussed, polished performer who effectively interacts with his onstage co-stars by using impressive vocal dexterity.

The other is Paul Zerdin.

Starting with the art of the ventriloquial (fast becoming a favorite word), Zerdin held his premiere at Planet Hollywood on Friday night in an intriguing booking at the former “Peepshow” theater.

Intriguing, for at least a couple of reasons, as Zerdin is sharing that venue with a headliner wholly unlike him — Frankie Moreno with “Under the Influence” — and also because Zerdin’s show is staged across the Strip from fellow “vent” and “America’s Got Talent” champion Terry Fator at the Mirage.

And, not insignificantly, more puppets descend on the scene when “Puppet Up! Uncensored,” a troupe of 60 puppets and a half-dozen comic puppeteers, opens July 21 at Sands Showroom at the Venetian.

Similar to the field of magic, where the methods of entertainment are finite, ventriloquism is a challenging medium in which to break new ground. This is a chief reason why, similar to the magic culture, there is so much accusation of intellectual theft in ventriloquism.

But Zerdin, the reigning Season 10 champion of “America’s Got Talent” (Fator won Season 2), has assembled and cultivated an inventive act that does not rely upon props-as-people to generate laughs. Important to this show is that Zerdin and his director, Jim Millan (“Kids in the Hall” among his projects), understand the nuance of pacing very well.

The video clip opening the show is of Zerdin breaking down in the desert (I believe it’s on I-15 between Las Vegas and Primm), summoning an Uber ride that takes hours to arrive and being delivered, with his many trunks of dolls, to Planet Hollywood.

Just as it seems we are over this segment, with an addled Zerdin lugging these trunks while attempting to talk his way into the theater, it ends, and the real Zerdin appears. All those trunks from the video are stacked across the stage.

He makes repeated references to idolizing James Bond (Daniel Craig, specifically), and Zerdin does appear a bit like a satire of Bond if the famed spy were to embrace ventriloquism — “My little friend Albert here would like a martini shaken, not stirred.’’

The 43-year-old showman logged ample stage time before auditioning for “AGT,” having appeared at Royal Variety Performance, Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival. Notably, he decided not to audition for a show he would be more likely to win than “AGT,” the offshoot “Britain’s Got Talent,” in part because the winning prize package included a spot on Royal Variety Performance.

Returning to that familiar terrain would be no way for Zerdin to advance his cause. He proves his zeal for using his voice-tossing talent by performing a bit where he “likes to throw off the sound man” by speaking and moving his mouth out of synch. He mouths “hello,” and, a moment later, we hear the word. Really effective.

In introducing the baby character simply named “Baby,” Zerdin takes a stroller from stage assistant Robyn Mellor, who also is a fine singer and Zerdin’s girlfriend. He picks up the carrier, and the baby whines. Put it down, the voice falls silent. Up, down, cry, silence — drawing laughs with the audience yet to see the puppet.

Baby will make the odd reference to boobs — all of Zerdin’s co-stars will spy females in the audience — and toss out jokes targeted at adults. The craggy old man Albert, who is in his 80s and wears too-high pants, is introduced after Zerdin opens a trunk to find the puppet on the loo.

“Got any toilet paper?!” Albert shouts as his way of saying hello. Zerdin brings the doll to the middle of the stage. “Say hello, Albert. Say hello. Hello!” he calls out. “Is your hearing aid on? Is your hearing aid on?”

Albert waits for maybe a half-dozen of these requests before finally answering, “Yes, it’s on.” Zerdin pulls from the puppet’s ear what looks to be a suppository. “Oh, dear!” Albert says. “Now I know where my hearing aid has gone off to!”

Sam, Albert's redheaded, pre-teen grandson, is left at the middle of the stage alone. He talks to the audience feeling very liberated as Zerdin works out of site. Another fun, funny moment, watching the puppet fly solo. Sam says he doesn’t need the puppeteer, and for a moment you actually believe him.

The Scorpions at the Joint

The Scorpions at the Joint on Friday, May 13, 2016, at the Hard Rock Hotel. Launch slideshow »

The vocal gymnastics didn’t cease with the end of Zerdin’s premiere. Opening less than an hour after his show ended was the five-show “Blacked Out in Vegas” run of The Scorpions at the Joint (sadly, I did not catch the opening set by metal flamethrowers Queensryche, a logistic impossibility).

This is the first such multi-show Las Vegas appearance by the band that blasted to widespread fame with the 1982 album “Blackout,” its first release to go platinum. The Hard Rock has hosted a high complement of rock bands from The Scorps’ era: Journey, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, KISS and Guns N’ Roses.

Thus, the hotel and booking partner AEG Live have again hit a pocket of the right number of shows from a band with enough recognizable songs and solid fan base to sell about 15,000 tickets in a week (this series ends Saturday night).

Yet again, we see a band largely defy the advancement of time. Meine and fellow original member Rudolph Schenker are 67, and longtime lead guitarist Matthias Jabs is 60 going on 23. The show burst with an opening of “Going Out With a Bang,” “Make It Real” and “The Zoo.”

The band performed in front of a wide video image of stacks of amps (Rush also has used amplifiers as props in its latest tours), elevated runway and backing LED screen that spanned the width of the stage.

Playing at top proficiency, The Scorps used the video displays to impressive effect, showing images of a giant peace sign above the Berlin Wall during the soaring “Winds of Change”; Meine’s visage behind an American flag during “Coast to Coast”; and the “Blackout” cover of artist Gottfried Helnwein with his head wrapped in gauze with forks across his eyes.

The show settled a bit in the middle, with instrumental forays (including a blistering drum solo by Mikkey Dee) giving Meine a vocal respite. But the closing flourish, with “Blackout,” “No One Like You,” “Big City Nights,” “Still Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” was an audiovisual slam dunk.

As the band bowed toward a roaring opening-night crowd, a guy a few rows ahead held high his walking aid. A cane, like rock you like a hurri-cane, I guess.

This ageless rocker stood freely in that moment, as did the band. It was something of a fitting epitaph to a night where a performer throwing his voice, and a band for all time throwing down rock classics, deserved such a salute.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow Kats on Instagram at Instagram.com/JohnnyKats1.

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