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December 10, 2018

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Q+A: ‘Jubilee’ welcomes modern dance, more of the dancers, less front-of-curtain acts

‘Jubilee’ at Bally’s

Jerry Metellus

The reimagined “Jubilee” at Bally’s.

Click to enlarge photo

The reimagined “Jubilee” at Bally’s.

‘Jubilee!’ Showboy Costumes

A selection of male costumes from the show Jubilee is seen on display at the Nevada State Museum Friday, April 4, 2014. Launch slideshow »

‘Jubilee’ Grand Reopening at Bally’s

Carl Lewis attends the grand reopening of Launch slideshow »

When the topless, leggy showgirls of “Jubilee” at Bally’s balance the giant, feathered and bejeweled headpieces and strut down the glittering stairs in their theater, gasps of approval are audible and followed by thunderous applause from the 1,040-strong audience. It’s been that way since it opened nearly 35 years ago on July 30, 1981.

With 100 sets and backdrops using 100,000 light bulbs, “Jubilee” is a magical, thrilling and classic Las Vegas production staged with 70 dancers, singers and specialty acts. The opening number is a $3 million extravaganza with superb computerized sets, surround-sound music, special effects, lights, choreography and costumes by Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee.

Another $3.5 million was spent on more than 1,000 costumes. Forbes has named it one of the Top 10 shows in Las Vegas, and for 15 consecutive years it has won best show awards. It’s seven acts of original songs, dances and production numbers contain sequences including the “Sinking of the Titanic” and “Destruction of the Temple by Samson” not found on any stage in the world.

“Jubilee,” the longest-running show on the Strip, is a monumental undertaking that takes a herculean effort: Eight thousand miles of sequins, the distance from Las Vegas to London and back, are used on the costumes. The average cost of one of the finale costumes is $21,000! There are more than 1,000 costumes and accessories in the show.

The showgirls’ shoes, five pairs each, last about six months. The dancers go through 1,500 pairs of fishnet tights per year. They wear 10,000 pounds of jewelry: topaz, crystal, sapphire, emerald, ruby, amethyst and aurora borealis rhinestones. The men wear 58 Fred Astaire-styled, hand-cut and tailored tuxes.

Backstage, nearly 70 stagehands operate the stage, sets, sound equipment and lighting, and 18 of the 26 technicians on the wardrobe team have cues for running the show. Five technicians in the costume house build replacement costumes and make repairs and alterations.

Two people handle just the wigs. Ten pounds of explosives are used nightly in the 50 pyrotechnic effects with 4,200 pounds of dry ice used for smoke effects. That iceberg scene that sinks the Titanic uses 5,000 gallons of recycled water to cascade across the stage.

There is no other show in Las Vegas like “Jubilee.” It’s will always be one of a kind. Last year, Beyonce’s creative director and choreographer Frank Gatson Jr. was brought in by Caesars Entertainment to give the long-running show an edgy new look.

Frank, who has choreographed routines and performances for Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Toni Braxton and Kelly Rowland, decided to focus on one Miss Jubilee. Caesars executives clashed with the concept, and Frank left before finishing his view of the production.

Gene Lubas, who has worked for Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity” at New York-New York was brought in to add his vision. He now wears two hats as creative director of “Jubilee” and was recently promoted to director of entertainment and talent for Caesars Entertainment.

Last week, I went to see his nearly completed work and can report that the rocking ship has been righted — and now the spotlight is on six “Jubilee” beauties and not just one.

“Jubilee” remains a classic: The girls seem more glamorous than ever; the dancing comes with more drill-like precision; and the genuine, happy enthusiasm from the cast is infectious as it washes over audiences. They leave talking about it, saying, “It’s as good as it always was — even better.” It’s the only true Las Vegas showgirl spectacular and the last remaining one of its kind.

Here’s my lengthy Q+A with Gene:

I’m being gentle over the Frank Gatson Jr. changes, but when you take over the running of a show that’s as long-lasting as “Jubilee,” do you approach it with slight reverence, more reverence than usual?

Absolutely. It’s one of the world’s longest-running shows. “Phantom of the Opera” is only 27 years old, and “Jubilee” next summer will hit 35 years, so absolutely with reverence and respect. I always check myself asking what is the basis of it. What are celebrating in this show? We’re celebrating the showgirl.

We’re celebrating something that is very unique based on Parisian shows like “Lido De Paris Moulin Rouge.” It took on its own life and identity. In those shows, the girls stood still, then midcentury the showgirls would dance on the floor in front of an orchestra, and now we elevated them further by putting them on the stage themselves.

It’s like going to church. You have to have respect for that Las Vegas icon. The one thing that I really wanted to do was timeline it so it doesn’t look like a 1960s or 1970s show as much as I could without having dumping another $3 million in it, which is what my predecessor did. Yes, absolutely, you have to handle it with kid gloves and figure out what is important and what you want to keep.

What is important about this show? What is it about the show that has let it live 35 years in a day and age when people are fickle with entertainment that you are lucky if you get a six-week run?

This is true. The thing that is important is that we remember the main attraction is the showgirl. The tall, leggy showgirls and her body parts. I don’t know how to say this with dignity, but her costume accents the beauty of the body.

They used to be referred to originally as mannequins. When this type of show started, the topless showgirls would just stand. They didn’t want them to move or do anything. They just wanted people to ooh and awe at the sight of the woman.

But it’s the legs mainly, not the topless portion?

Absolutely! It’s the height, and that’s why we still maintain a height requirement. The girls needs to be 5’10” and taller, and it’s all about their legs. At the angle that the audience is sitting, their legs need to look like they go on and on and on.

We can’t always be so lucky when we are casting. We always keep searching and searching . We don’t always find a girl who is 5’10,” so we take a girl who is 5’9,” and we make sure that her costumes make her look as tall as everyone else. The key is to really frame the beauty of the woman. We celebrate the beauty of the woman.

A showgirl is unlike any other entertainer because her presence is statuesque, tall, just like a mannequin. When they stand still, they could look like a gorgeous mannequin. We really have to honor and respect the woman in the show.

Do the girls love dancing in “Jubilee,” perhaps more than other shows, because of its history, tradition and longevity?

They do. The younger camp wants to be challenged. What they really love is that they can walk down the grand staircase, are on platforms 14 feet tall, and that they are wearing hats 6 feet wide. They feel pretty, the show makes the girls feel very feminine, very much a girl. We’re not going to get the same girls who are doing “Chicago” or “Showstoppers.” Those are very different types of girls.

But we are going to get the types of girls who love to wear gorgeous costumes, and they are probably just as good dancers, but they just feel better doing this, parading around in these beautiful costumes that make them feel different.

Your early show used to have the girls covered up, and just the late show went topless?

We eliminated the covered show about two years ago. We found that covering up, we could open it up to families and make it more family friendly, but people really wanted to see the female form. They wanted to see the full body and what “Jubilee” was known for — the decorated topless females.

It doesn’t come across as lascivious, but you couldn’t say it was prurient?

No, and I love that. I worked on “Zumanity” for four years, and you know that show is all about sex and being promiscuous, naughty and silly. We don’t push that at all. Sex is not even thought of in this show. It’s just about performance. There is no play like that in any of the scenes.

Even Samson and Delilah, the little dance they do between each other. It’s very sensual, but it doesn’t cross that line of “Uh, oh, this is going to get a little raunchy.”

‘Jubilee!’ Auditions

Male dancers run through a choreographed piece during Launch slideshow »

‘Jubilee!’ Through the Years

Launch slideshow »

‘Jubilee!’ Female Auditions

Kaleigh Jones of Los Angeles practice a high kick routine during auditions for Jubilee! at Bally's Las Vegas on Monday, January 21, 2013. Launch slideshow »

No criticism is implied in this question, but you must get asked it. How do you stay relevant with a show that was created nearly 35 years ago?

We have added newer songs in the show. We had a John Legend song, a Beyonce mashup that we do at the end and one number from “Dreamgirls.” We took a song from a Broadway show, a 15-year or 20-year-old show, but we still have numbers like “Putting on the Ritz.” We use projections, we use LED lighting. Our sound system is more up to date.

It’s a mixture of old and new. If I had a bigger budget to work with, I would put more things in, LEDs, more effects. I still want to stay respectful of what this type of show was, but we added a few things. We still have the beautiful showgirls, but now they are dancing to John Legend and Beyonce with a little more fierce in their step.

You’ve removed the focus on just one Miss Jubilee and in a sense are showcasing six Jubilee beauties.

Yes. We have several. I found the storyline of just one was a little bumpy. When I first got here, we did a lot of audience surveys. That seemed to be the response from a lot of people. The bumpiness of the storyline and that it kind of fizzled out in the middle, then it returns back to a review or production show. But whatever happened to the character Miss Jubilee?

I said there are a lot of these girls who should be featured, and one beautiful girl all the way through featured would be great, but how about we have a brunette featured here or a blonde here or a ginger here? Let’s mix it up. We’re focusing on not just one girl but showgirls. I tried to spread the love. We have many beautiful girls in the show, and I like to feature several of them.

Have you also spent money on costuming? They look more dazzling than before.

Yes. We have updated costumes; we’ve changed a few things around. Again, this show is 34 years old, and some of the costumes are still from that era. Our costume team works really hard to try and keep those original designs up to date, and you could probably tell that the feathers are starting to wilt. When they are $60 a stem, it’s like, “How are we going to do this?”

So we have to be careful on what we pick and choose to update in the show. Some of the girls, in the one disco section, we had those little black dresses, we added those to the show. The kick line number, we put in red, white and blue costumes but they are based on original designs.

I worked with the team downstairs on going back to not the exact same costume, but something similar to it, and we updated that with colors and Swarovski crystals. Any time we get the opportunity to upgrade the show, we jump on it.

The really unusual two guys you’ve added to push the luggage cart to the Titanic are incredible dancers. Are they contortionists or just loose limbed?

They are Michael and Robert Scott, and I found them watching “America’s Got Talent.” I didn’t want any more bad transition acts in front of the curtain while we changed sets backstage. We didn’t want to put something like that back in the show.

I said, “Why don’t we find a dance team or something that’s really unique?” So we went through YouTube videos, and when I found out that they were living in Las Vegas, I was like, “Jackpot! We hit it!” So, yes, it’s Michael and Robert Scott. We call them the luggage porters. Yes they are loose-limbed brothers.

Did you ever ask them how they developed that act or why they thought up that act?

I know they had worked for a while at the Riviera as dancers, and they found that they could really move in that pop-and-lock style, not really hip-hop, but its almost comical because they are very funny, as well. We are thinking about developing another scene for them with comedy.

I like that you took out the front-of-curtain acts, yet made the new front-of-curtain act part of the story to unfold.

When I saw what they were doing on “America’s Got Talent,” I thought, “How can we incorporate this into the show so it doesn’t look like a front-of-curtain act while 40 guys are backstage pushing scenery, and it’s obvious that we’re covering a scene change?

I took a picture of the old Titanic set when they used to do a thing called “The Pier,” and we brought that in and I took a picture of it, and we did a projection of it. Then I thought, “OK, that’s how we can get away with it.” So it didn’t look like we were going to close the main curtain and put these guys in front of it, but we were actually going to make it part of the scene. Thank for recognizing that.

It looked good. You forgot that it was a scene change, and it carried the continuity of the overall show nicely. Ed Sullivan is long gone and won’t be back. Entertainment has changed over the years, so it’s nice to see a 35-year-old show still be current.

One of the things that I kept worrying about when people see the show, there are these two guys who are kind of doing hip-hop to techno music in front of the Titanic, but no one had ever said that.

No one said that doesn’t make sense because you have a Titanic scene, and you have them dressed like they are pushing luggage like bell hops but they are dancing to techno music. But no one has every said that. My own fear has really never surfaced.

If you want to draw an analogy, everyone who went to see the new James Bond movie “Spectre” didn’t say, “Where was the dry cleaners in the middle of the North African desert to give him a brand new tuxedo? You accept mesmerized by the action. It also is the same reason why doing a spectacle to the worst sinking on the high seas doesn’t upset people.

That’s exactly right. People applaud at the end. It’s not like a funeral. People are like, “Wow, that was a really cool effect.” It’s not like people are like, “Why are we celebrating the death of 1,500 people?” You’re right.

The show is now nearly 35 years old. Could it last another 35 in tender, loving hands?

I’m hoping because I am not planning on going anywhere, and I really hope, hope, hope, hope, hope that a lot of people who didn’t return because of, how do I say this without pointing fingers, but when it was put into the hands of somebody who made a valiant effort, and it didn’t succeed, I know a lot of people turned away, and the locals who love the show didn’t return.

I’m hoping to really get them back in here, and I have plans, constant plans to freshen up the show and put new songs and new dances in the show and hopefully someday put in live musicians, and the audiences will return, and they will say, “What is he up to now?” “What is he putting into the show now?”

We’ve actually shortened the show. It used to be 100 minutes when I first got here, and now it’s 80 minutes. I believe we should leave the audience wanting more. Yes, I hope and pray that we will continue for a long time, and, like I said, I have the utmost respect for the content. It’s iconic and unique.

It was a full house with a very enthusiastic crowd when I saw it.

It’s always a crap shoot. You never know what you’re going to get. There were a lot of fun people. Tuesday is usually a rough night for us. It’s middle of the week, and that’s the other thing when I shortened the show. They used to do a 7:30 and 10:30, then when I got here, it was 7 and 10, and now it’s 7 and 9:30.

People aren’t seeing late night shows so much today. I think by bringing it forward to 9:30, we are still able to get bums in seats.

* * *

In addition to “Jubilee,” Gene is now working on new entertainment projects for the Linq Promenade and is assisting with the new Jennifer Lopez show “All I Have” starting at Axis at Planet Hollywood in January. He also is preparing for the New Year’s Eve high-roller’s spectacular for Caesars Entertainment.

“We have a couple of things brewing, but were not finalized yet. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, and we’ll keep you posted.”

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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