Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Dreams and Illusions of David Copperfield

The question we most often ask ourselves of an illusionist or magician is how did he do that? The truth is that it doesn’t really matter because the wondering is the best part. 

David Copperfield has spent his entire career making people wonder. This is why his Las Vegas production, David Copperfield: An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion is one of the most popular shows in town. I recently checked it out at the David Copperfield Theater at the MGM Grand.

David Copperfield in his Squeezebox illusion

To get to know David Copperfield it helps to time travel back to each decade of his career. Growing up in the 60’s, David had what he says in his own words, a shy and lonely childhood. One summer he discovered that learning magic tricks and ventriloquism helped him overcome his shyness. After mastering several magic tricks he started his career at ten years of age back in New Jersey, as “Davino Boy Magician,” performing around the neighborhood.  It wasn't much later that he started to indulge his passion for entertainment and showmanship by taking the train to NYC and sneaking into Broadway shows after school.

In his late teens, already a highly skilled magician, he changed his last name to Copperfield and at the age of 18 won the role in a Chicago based musical as the lead. It was called “The Magic Man," and it ran for several months. "When that show closed I went back to New York thinking the doors would be wide open for me but they weren’t and I starved for a few years....but it was that during that lean period where I developed a lot of the pieces that are similar to what I do now." - DC

A few years after returning to New York he was given a shot at his own TV special on CBS. The Magic of David Copperfield aired for the first time in 1978. He was only 22 but so skilled at magic and camera friendly that his specials continued for over two decades, accumulating 17 Emmy Awards!

I went online to find some of these specials and ended up watching for several hours. Beyond the magic I was interested in what these 23 years of TV specials reflected...changes in the tricks and illusions, the music, his wardrobe, hairstyle, and David himself. 
Copperfield, early 1980's

The illusions in The Magic of David Copperfield ranged from sleight of hand to massive stunts in size and scale. There was the dancing cane, sophisticated card tricks, impaling himself while levitating, and highly entertaining dramatic or comedic acting scenes with magic weaved in using celebrity guest stars. In addition, his big show finishes were what made him a name, like a disappearing airplane, walking through the great wall of China, and a Houdini like escape act using a straight jacket over fiery spikes!

Copperfield's look and persona in the earlier specials were first the young, wide eyed magician, then the slightly tanned illusionist with his first real Hollywood haircut, followed by the magic master, and finally the superstar illusionist extraordinaire.  Come 2001 and the new millenium he transitioned to shorter hair again and for the most part has kept this look ever since.

His wardrobe tells a story as well. The late 1970’s Copperfield dons a tuxedo, then the next year a suit, even a white three piece disco getup in a scene with Bernadette Peters. The 80’s started with black shirts and skinny ties, then a puffy white shirt and even puffier leather jacket, the next year leather pants were added. The early 90’s were long dark coats, moving into black jeans and belts and a velvet blazer, mock turtlenecks and shiny silver belt buckles. He wore them all well.

The best of these specials are combined in a DVD, David Copperfield, Illusion.

During the television special years, Copperfield pursued other interests beyond performing. He founded “Project Magic," a program that uses the teaching of minor magic skills to those recovering from disabilities, augmenting their rehabilitation with creativity.

A collector of magic memorabilia, he created the private International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts which the Guinness Book of World Records has called the largest collection of magic artifacts on earth. 
David Copperfield today
It’s only fitting that David Copperfield’s next chapter after over two decades of TV specials and live appearances would lead him to Las Vegas, a town known for illusion (and not just on stage). At the beginning of the new millennium it was time to find out if he could sustain a Las Vegas show, night after night, year after year...Not surprisingly, he has.  Doing two shows a night, he performs for several weeks at a time and then takes a little time off, sometimes traveling to his home now known as Musha Cay: The Islands of Copperfield Bay, which he also operates as an ultra luxury resort.

If you're wondering what his current show, David Copperfield, An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion is like...I can tell you it's just that. From his first entrance I found him to be more candid and open with the audience than I had expected. He shares a few personal stories, and also some fantasies entwined into his illusions that focus on the importance of family, and of pursuing ones dreams. The audience is a part of this, sometimes onstage and sometimes right at their seat. 

“It’s fun interacting with the audience. Part of it is the joy of invention, is creating something brand new. We are educated so much, we know so much that we lose that sense of awe and wonder that we're given every day, you know. I get to watch people feel that every night on stage." David Copperfield

An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusions balances a large scale look with an interactive feel, and includes a stunning variety of surprises. 

What does the next decade hold for David Copperfield? His genius for magic and illusions with a combination of artistry and showmanship leaves no doubt that whatever it is will be spectacular.

Anna Wendt Copyright 2015  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Las Vegas Outlaws

Before last weekend all I knew about arena football is that it’s played indoors and Las Vegas has a new team. The Las Vegas Outlaws kicked off their inaugural season back in March.
Pretty much every American has heard of the NFL with its big budgets, salaries and scandals, but not everyone is aware of the AFL, the Arena Football League. The AFL has 12 teams and has been around since the late 80’s.

Our new Las Vegas Outlaws are partly owned by rocker Vince Neil, who in 2015 is experiencing his first year as an Outlaws team owner while simultaneously performing with Motley Crue through December on their final world tour. Outlaws Head Coach Aaron Garcia had a successful 19 year career as a player in the AFL before retiring his #8 jersey at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is so far the only AFL player to have received this distinction.
Las Vegas Outlaws and Spokane Shock players

Last Saturday I went to my first Outlaws game, against the Spokane Shock at the Thomas and Mack Arena.

Upon entering I noticed it was a professional football game but with its own unique look and feel. Once I sat down I felt like I was in the game. There seemed to be no side boundary lines, and the playing field came right up to the stands.

Before the game the AFL Outlaws Posse dance team entered in their black and gold team colors, riding on the back of motorcycles. It was a cool effect.

The National anthem was performed beautifully by local singer Nieve Malandra. 

Then a drone flew high over the field carrying the game football and landed right in front of the players to be used for the opening kick off!
I was surprised to see the kick off football bounce off a giant net and then be caught by the receiver for the return. This is when I realized the game is played somewhat differently than in the NFL. I didn’t learn about arena football in advance because I wanted to experience a game as the average person would and not someone who is writing about it.

As the game progressed Spokane took a pretty early lead and so it was the Outlaws trying to play catch up for most of it. Since Arena Football is a high scoring game there was never a dull moment either way. In addition, when the team wasn’t on the field someone else was, whether it was for sing a long and air guitar contests, tumblers, or an intramural visiting cheer leading squad. The whole event had momentum.

My husband and I decided to check out the concessions, and chose pizza and beer.  I watched as our beer glasses were filled from the bottom instead of the top with a contraption that contained a souvenir magnet at the bottom of the glass. Unexpected and a little odd, just what I like. Oh, and we topped things off with a third quarter ice cream cone from the Dairy Queen inside the Thomas and Mack.

I looked around at the spectators to see who the average fan was and found there wasn't one particular type. There were a lot of couples, young and old, some college age guys, rock and roll types and plenty of families, multiple generations all seated together. There was also a large section of rather manic fans of the Shock, dressed in bright orange.

There were some unusual plays, like one of the Outlaws falling over a boundary fence while still catching the ball.  Then twice during kick offs the ball hit the Jumbotron, which was awesome! All of the plays were fun to watch. I don’t know who the players were individually, nor was there a program or anything on the screens to introduce them that I noticed. That would have been helpful and I hope it will be something that is done in the future.

The Outlaws dance team performed many times during the game. Their moves were tight, and the choreography was sexy and athletic. 

It wouldn’t be a sporting event without music and there was plenty of mostly classic rock with some hip hop mixed in. It wasn’t blasting though, more in the background like you’d hear at a neighborhood barbeque, which provided the perfect upbeat vibe without being overwhelming. The half time show was a rock cover band called Sin City Sinners and they kept the party going, performing three songs, the most popular one with the crowd being Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar On Me."

If you go to an arena football game please remember this, DO NOT leave early! I learned this the hard way. It was 42-21 when I left the game end of 3rd quarter. I assumed it was over. Oh no...not even close. This is arena football, and a lot of scoring can happen in a little bit of time. The Outlaws rallied their butts off and scored 35 points in the final quarter. Even though they still lost by seven points I missed the best quarter of the game!

The Outlaws listen to Coach Garcia
Now that I've seen the Outlaws play in person, tonight I'm finishing this story while watching them for my first time on TV. CBS Sports is broadcasting the "Boardwalk Bowl," with the Las Vegas Outlaws playing the Philadelphia Soul in Atlantic City. I watch the NFL regularly so that's why I can't help making comparisons. For me, AFL football is easier to follow on TV than NFL. Probably because the action is tighter and there is just more of it on the downsized field. This game I did watch until the very end, with a final score of 43-51. The Outlaws lost by eight points making their mid season record 3-6, with nine games remaining.

In the past 30 years the Las Vegas area has had over 25 professional sports teams that have come and gone. They had names like the Venom, the Sting, the Dustdevils and even a previous team back in 2001 also named the Outlaws, no affiliation to the current one. The longest running team here is the Las Vegas 51’s Baseball team which has been in operation since 1983.

I really like the Outlaws, and they're proving themselves competitive. I can also appreciate the risk and guts involved in starting up the team. Time will tell if the Las Vegas Outlaws will succeed. I hope they do. If cities like Jacksonville, Portland, New Orleans, L.A., Philadelphia and others can sustain an arena football team, Las Vegas has as good of a chance or better. 

Photos courtesy of

Special thanks to Jen Wenk 

Monday, May 4, 2015

MJ Live lives on at the Stratosphere Theater

MJ LIVE, the Michael Jackson tribute show recently moved to its new home at the Stratosphere Theater.

“We couldn’t be more pleased to have partnered MJ Live with the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino 
and their Stratosphere Theater.”   Dick Feeney, MJ Live Producer

With his unique voice, crisp dance moves and legendary status, Michael Jackson is one of the most complex stars for a tribute artist to emulate. It's in the first few moments of this kind of show that the audience is deciding if they trust the entertainer on stage enough to suspend disbelief for that hour or so that they're all together. Coming from an acting background I am always curious to see how different performers take on the same role. So I recently decided to see both Jalles Franca and Justin Dean who alternate the role of Michael Jackson in MJ Live. Jalles performs Sundays through Tuesdays and Justin, Wednesdays through Saturdays.

Jalles Franca and two of the dancers in MJ Live at the Stratosphere Theater

On a recent media night Jalles Franca performed. As someone who has been a fan of Michael Jackson since my teens I can say say with knowledge of the subject that Jalles' energetic interpretation is fantastic from start to finish. Jalles’ presence is strong, and although I know it took years to perfect, he looks like he was born to move the way Michael did. I had seen the show once before and was impressed with the talent of this tribute artist whose performance hits every mark while capturing the essence of the late singer.

Justin Dean as MJ
Justin Dean, who I saw the other night is different in that he's more like Michael from the inside out, meaning he seemed to emulate Michael Jacksons' softer side. His dance moves were right on track and a pleasure to watch but with more emphasis on the songs and the meaning of them, Justin provides a slightly different but equal approach than Jalles. Lastly, Justin's  Moonwalk, which he did to great applause, is killer!

Both Jalles and Justin have committed a large part of their lives to bringing Michael Jackson to fans at the highest level and in doing so are both entertaining, heart warming and exciting to see in action.

The shows is tight and focused at its new home at The Stratosphere Theater. MJ is the focus but the stage is filled in with several sharp, energetic dancers choreographed by Missy Cochran and a back up band that provides a full production experience. The large video screens on each side enhance the show without distracting from the performers.

The Jackson 5 segment is a nice surprise and I’m glad its there. It’s easy to forget because his solo career was so astounding, that Michael Jackson started as a five year old kid performing with his big brothers. The Jackson 5, with Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael were a sensation on their own before he went on his own. This energetic segment is a little mini shot of fun within the show!

MJ LIVE is strong with hits like Beat it, Black or White, Smooth Criminal, Dirty Diana, Thriller, and many more but also slows it down with She’s Out of My Life and Man in the Mirror to create a nice blend of MJ's dance singles and ballads throughout the show. The musical arrangement enhances this greatly, especially in the second half.

Michael Jackson is known for some of his noteworthy and timeless costume and fashion choices throughout his 45 year career. In MJ Live, whether its Jalles or Justin or the dancers, the costumes themselves are very well done. Nobody wants to see a legend being paid tribute to in ill fitted polyester or a bad wig, as is done all too often in these types of shows. Except for the Jackson 5 segment, where they are obviously having fun with funky costumes, the costumes are top notch and well fitted in MJ Live. The red leather jacket from Thriller, the white jacket and fedora from Smooth Criminal, and the adorned military style coats are almost as much a highlight of the show as the performers.

The impact Michael Jackson’s music had on his fans has continued in his absence. Just like Elvis Presley and other legends before him he will remain as popular as ever or even more so in the future. As Jalles and Justin become more experienced and embedded with the skills of the King of Pop the line between the original artist and the tribute artist will become even more blurred, ensuring MJ LIVE will continue to be well received for years to come. 

MJ Live's producer, Dick Feeney has been at the helm of several long running shows in Las Vegas including Viva Las Vegas and The Rat Pack is Back. I predict MJ LIVE will also become one of his most successful productions. With Michael Jackson gone for almost six years now, the demand for a thrilling tribute will only increase with each passing year.

Dick Feeney with Drew DiConstanzo, Stratosphere Entertainment Mgr

As MJ Live approaches its third anniversary they recently celebrated their move to the Stratosphere with a media night including a party at McCall’s Heartland Grill at the Stratosphere.  Special Michael Jackson themed art pieces were given as raffle prizes by the I.S.I. Group, The Agency for Underground Arts.

MJ LIVE runs 7pm nightly at the Stratosphere Theater.

 Anna Wendt Copyright 2015

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Farewell to a classic...The Riviera

This month the Riviera Hotel & Casino celebrated its 60th Anniversary. Next month it closes down for good. The lights go out at noon on May 4.

After outlasting its neighbors the Stardust, Frontier, and the Sahara, I thought the Riviera would manage to stick around a little longer. Long enough to see the opening of Resorts World across the street and whatever it is the Fontainebleau is going to be after it's someday bought and finished. But it wasn't to be. The Riviera will be replaced with more convention facilities.

The Riviera 1950's,

The Riviera Hotel & Casino opened in 1955 and was the first high rise type hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip. Liberace was the headliner for several years. There were three major Riviera based shows over the past sixty years that had extraordinarily long runs...Splash, An Evening at La Cage, and Crazy Girls

The other day my sister and I went to pay one last visit to the Riviera. Over fish & chips at the Wicked Vicky Tavern we tried to recall our favorite memories of this classic property. Turns out we didn't have many, except a few in the 1990's because the Riviera had not been a major player in town for many years. Although I always liked it, the Riv had no real identity amongst the newer giants of the strip. In fact a lot of people didn't even realize this piece of old Vegas was still around.

Wishing Michael the bartender well. He worked at the Riviera 27 years.

Even though it's sad to say goodbye to this grand old lady of the Las Vegas strip it's also true that it was time for the Riviera to go. To prosper there must be change. Las Vegas learned this the hard way in the late 1980's, and has never forgotten that lesson.

Riviera Hotel & Casino  Las Vegas ...1955 - 2015

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Set List

Remember albums? Oh I know they're still around in digital and CD form but these days many people just buy individual hits instead of entire albums so they never actually hear all of the songs their favorite artists record. 

So I was intrigued when I saw there was an upcoming series of performances called The Set List, to be held at Vinyl at Hard Rock Hotel. Three highly revered Las Vegas based female vocalists and various members of the Blue Man Group's band were planning to perform an entire album from start to finish, and that was the whole basis of the show. 

The Set List vocalists Cian Coey, Rockie Brown, Anne Martinez & Niki Scalera   Photo by Richard Brusky

To kick off this series they chose Alanis Morissette's  "Jagged Little Pill," a Grammy Award winning and internationally acclaimed album originally released in 1995. 

"Jagged Little Pill is not just a great rock album. There are these really huge and impactful songs on there that deal with everything from religion to politics to women in ugly relationships." 
 -Niki Scalera, on The Morning Blend

Niki Scalera, Photo by Richard Brusky
The show opened with Broadway and Las Vegas Philharmonic performer Niki Scalera belting out "What I Really Want."....During this opening track I sensed the singers and band really got what this album is about. Their interpretation was true to the style of the music and meaning of Alanis' compilation but with more of a funk rock version than the original.

Next up was Anne Martinez with "You Oughta Know," a song about the aftermath of being tossed aside by the love of your life. Best known as a Hard Rock resident artist and lead singer of Jubilee, Anne conveyed powerful vocals and a balance between angst and anger, with a rock 'n' roll Shakira style vibe.

Anne Martinez, Photo by Richard Brusky
Local rock star Cian Coey then took her turn with the ballad, "Perfect." Her voice has a rock opera style which I love, poignant but strong. She then segued into "Hand in my Pocket,"...harmonica and all. This song resonated with me when I first moved west 20 years ago, leaving my life behind in search of a new one.

Then they all joined together for "Right Through You." Niki next railed through "Forgiven," then the trio shared "Ironic," taking turns with some of the verses.

Cian Coey by Richard Brusky
Toward the end of the production singer Rockie Brown showed up, and blew us away with "Uninvited." Finishing the show just like the album, all four ladies brought it home with a stunning a cappella version of "You Oughta Know."

I spoke with Andrew Wright, who created and directs this series and he told me....."The Set List is my new baby and so far has been a great experience. Audiences get to hear some of the greatest albums performed live in their entirety by top performers from the Las Vegas strip. The performers get to be creative and have fun with the albums we all grew up on, and the events raise money for Vegas Valley based charities. We’re able to go back to our roots and immerse ourselves in why we love music. Our musical director is Vincent Verderame from The Blue Man Group."

As for me, I loved The Set List, and the mix of talent, execution and spontaneity. What's next for the series? It's July 9th, Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet," in its entirety.

The Set List is presented by

A portion of the proceeds on April 8 benefited Shade Tree, 
"Sheltering Women, Children & their Pets"

Anna Wendt Copyright 2015