Monday, March 16, 2009 | 2 a.m.
If You Go
- What: Ventriloquist/puppeteer/comedian Terry Fator
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
- Where: Terry Fator Theatre at the Mirage
- Admission: $59-$129; 792-7777, www.mirage.com
- Running time: About 90 minutes
- Audience advisory: Contains yodeling
Newton’s third law of motion can be applied to entertainment on the Las Vegas Strip: While some venues seem to be veering toward boardwalk-style sideshow shockeroos — soon to open are “Freaks” at O’Sheas, “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood and “Monster Circus” at the Hilton — there’s an equal and opposite reaction favoring the family-friendly and familiar.
There’s clearly a market for the sanitized-for-your-protection stuff, and ventriloquist/puppeteer/singer/comedian Terry Fator, the aggressively innocuous headliner show at the Mirage, is the safest and most squeaky-clean of entertainment options on the Strip. Born to be mild, Fator makes Donny & Marie look like Sid & Nancy.
Fator recently moved over to the Mirage after more than a year at the Hilton, and his 750-seat Terry Fator Theatre is snazzy and plush, with sophisticated lighting and a stage that could easily be used as a game show set. Before showtime, the crowd is warmed up by bouncy hype man and DJ Ben Harris, who plays a danceable mix of pop song snippets — it feels sort of like a wedding reception before Fator takes the stage.
The $1 million winner of the televised “America’s Got Talent” contest in 2007, called “one of the most talented people on the planet” by Simon Cowell himself, Fator is the direct descendant of Edgar Bergen, Buffalo Bob Smith, Shari Lewis, Wayland Flowers and Jim Henson. Fator plays the straight man to a series of TV-famous plushy, pop-eyed puppet characters, a crew of Muppets knockoffs whom he refers to as his “guests.” There’s Winston the Impersonating Turtle (an amphibious, unambiguous relative of Kermit the Frog), country singing cowboy Walter T. Airdale, hair-tossing “cougar” Vikki, soul singer Julius, rocker-stoner Dougie and Elvis impersonator Maynard Tomkins (who doesn’t know any Elvis songs).
Fator’s an expert ventriloquist and his animated and expressive characters are a platform for his true talent: He’s a singing impressionist, a human iPod, conjuring the distinctive sounds and styles of Garth Brooks, Rod Stewart, Etta James, Louie Armstrong, Axl Rose and, inevitably, Elvis.
But Fator’s material is a more than a bit dated and dusty. Even Saturday’s enthusiastic opening night audience, which was packed with well-wishers, cronies and free-ticket-holders, groaned loudly after one or two of the jokes thudded to the floor.
And then there’s the yodeling ...
One of Fator’s bigger set pieces is based on “Bad”-period Michael Jackson, with a breathy-voiced Fator clad in red leather jacket, looking more like Weird Al. His fey, simpering Jackson duets with the cowboy puppet on Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” and while the incongruity of the styles and voices is truly funny, the Jackson jokes could qualify for “Antiques Road Show.”
Later, Fator brought onstage three of the Commodores (sans Lionel Richie, and we’ll have to take Fator’s word that they were the Commodores) to sing “Brick House” as the Vikki puppet vamped off the stage.
At moments like this you may find yourself wondering, as I did, just what year it is. What decade, even.
Fator comes up with one truly ingenious bit, in which he pulls a volunteer up from the audience and transforms him into a puppet. A Cher puppet. And a bewigged Fator plays Sonny.
On opening night, the lucky subject was the hulking actor Lou Ferrigno, and after he was decked out with long-black wig, “Bob Mackie gown,” and a remote-control mask with moveable lips, Ferrigno was perhaps more lifelike than the real thing. Fator supplied Ferrigno with some phrases designed to please Ferrigno’s wife, then the pair dueted on “I Got You Babe.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the target audience for this sort of American cheese. But what I may see as cloyingly cute, reactionary and regressive, many others experience as classic, comforting and familiar.
We’re all supposed to be past the red state-blue state divide by now, but Fator’s shtick and sentiments are a deep, solid red. The show is speckled with fear-of-Obama jokes, and at one point he brings the house lights up, calls for the veterans in the audience to stand up, and sings Michael Buble’s “Home,” as an American flag ripples behind him on the projection screen.
Again, what I may view as out-of-place pandering in the middle of a Vegas puppet show, others may see as perfectly appropriate and patriotic.
Fator is undeniably talented, likeable and professional, and his act at the Mirage is well-paced and polished.
But I couldn’t shake the impression that this was a single segment of a variety show that somehow metastasized and took over the entire show. A full evening of this is too much of too little.