Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008 | 2 a.m.
If You Go
- What: Jay White as Neil Diamond
- When: 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
- Where: Le Bistro Theatre at the Riviera
- Admission: $68.90; 794-9433, www.rivierahotel.com
Beyond the Sun
You come to Las Vegas and you want things your way, right? This is your time, and you’re spending money, and you’re gonna have it just how you want it.
You’ve seen it on TV, you know how it works around here, you know how to slip 10 bucks to the maitre d’ to get a good seat at the steakhouse.
And you want to see shows and you want to impress your lady or whomever you’re with.
But some of the shows are just too dang expensive. And some of the stars don’t want to sing their biggest hit anymore, they want to play songs from that new album that you’re probably never going to buy. And they’re older or fatter. And the only seats you can get are far, far away.
But in small showrooms all over the Strip, you find plenty of close-enough entertainers. They are willing to be who you want them to be. And they’re going to make eye contact, put on a show for you, sing all their hits, pose for a photo afterward. And, for an hour or 90 minutes, you want to believe.
Neil Diamond just started his 37-city U.S. tour — but he forgot to pencil in a Vegas stop!
In a recent interview, Diamond, 67, said he isn’t considering a Vegas residency like those of fellow sexagenarian icons Bette Midler, Cher, Elton John and Barry Manilow, all of whom remain big concert draws.
So while Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Tampa are singing along to “Song Sung Blue” and “I Am, I Said,” Diamondheads in Vegas have only one man to turn to: Jay White. For nearly 10 years, White has been impersonating Neil Diamond at Le Bistro Theatre at the Riviera, and he’s the top man in his admittedly narrow field.
A former insurance salesman from Detroit who nailed Neil’s moves with repeat viewings of the movie “The Jazz Singer,” White was offered a seven-week gig at a Reno casino, and it went so well he packed up and moved in 1989 to Vegas, where he did Diamond duty — 50 weeks a year for nine years — in “Legends in Concert” at the Imperial Palace.
White met Diamond backstage before the superstar’s 1996 show at the MGM Grand and asked him to sign a 1977 publicity photo. “Is this me or you?” Diamond said.
This is a major moment in Diamond’s four-decade career — he’s been uncool so long that he’s suddenly beyond cool. His current cred was certainly helped along by the fact that his two most recent albums, “12 Songs” and “Home Before Dark” (which went to No. 1 when it was released) were produced by Rick Rubin, who did the honors for Johnny Cash’s final recordings. Diamond’s tour in 2005 grossed nearly $80 million from 86 shows that drew 1.2 million people. Play Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” at a sports arena and the entire crowd answers the chorus with “wo-wo-wo.”
All of this can be only good for White, who now headlines his own Diamond show at the Riviera on Sunday through Thursday.
It’s a hot August night, and White has just returned from a family vacation in Indiana to find only about 50 people in the house for his first show of the week.
“I don’t know what it is, some people feel the need to look like somebody else,” White jokes with the audience. “Can’t we all just be ourselves?”
He sings ’em all: “Soolaimon,” “Kentucky Woman,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Holly Holy,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Cherry, Cherry” — even “Be” from the film “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” “I’m a Believer” (which the real Neil is singing again) and, of course, “America,” complete with flag drop.
Backed by a young five-piece band, White nails it all: the proto-mullet hair, the squint, the grandiose stage moves, three costume changes including those silky, spangled, puffy-sleeved shirts open to the navel and the baritone with that gravitas and gravelly growl — he probably sounds better than the real Neil at this point in time.
And even though it’s a relatively small house on a slow summer night in an intimate showroom, by the end, White’s got almost everyone up on his feet singing and swaying and clapping along.
“There were times in the past, where people kind of wrinkled their nose and said, ‘Uh, Neil Diamond?’ But not as much anymore.”
Being Neil Diamond has been White’s full-time job for 25 years. “When I started, I thought, well, this will last for a couple of years, and then it’ll kind of fizzle out and that’ll be the end of that. And that was in 1983.”
White keeps current with Diamond’s career moves, but he doesn’t do any of Neil’s newer material in his act.
“I really can’t, only because the general public won’t recognize the songs,” White says. “Unfortunately, because of Neil’s age or whatever it is, his new stuff, mostly ballads, doesn’t get any radio airplay.
“But he has such a huge variety of songs that came out in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that we can’t even fit them all into the show at the Riviera. We have to rotate them to get them all in.”
So the Diamond market is strong and solid. White is still jazzed about an outdoor performance in Salt Lake City last month: He and his band played a two-hour Diamond set, backed by a 40-piece orchestra, for a crowd of 14,000. And he’ll be playing Diamond on the big screen this December in the Ron Howard-directed film “Frost/Nixon,” an adaptation of a Broadway play, which itself was based on a series of televised interviews that British TV personality David Frost did with former President Nixon in 1977.
White has even written a stage musical based on — wait for it — the life and music of Neil Diamond, and he’s shopping it around in Las Vegas and beyond.
“I don’t consider myself so much an actor,” White says. “Although I guess I do act every night, but I only know one part. So I’ve learned to play one part really well, I guess.”