Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Rat Pack is Back

It was 1960’s Las Vegas and the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel was the place to be. Providing some of the best entertainment in the history of Las Vegas and nicknamed the “Rat Pack,” Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop lit up the stage night after night with their talent, humor and style.

Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. Frank Sinatra
All were stars in their own right, and when they worked together they made magic. Frank, Dean and Sammy were a big part of what first put Las Vegas on the map as a glamorous entertainment destination. Now, several decades later one of the ways their spirit and songs are being kept alive in Las Vegas is by the full scale production, The Rat Pack is Back. 
Celebrating its 14th year, The Rat Pack is Back is the closest one will ever get to the original production. Like the show it's modeled after The Rat Pack is Back is stylish, timeless and loaded with talent. The guys look and sound like a million bucks and are backed up on stage by the finest musicians in town, The Lon Bronson Orchestra.

I checked out the show for the second time recently and really liked what I saw and heard. It opens with a montage of scenes from the original Rat Pack performances at the Sands, which gave me a sense of the atmosphere of the original Copa Room back in the days when everyone dressed up to see a show and nobody had to turn off their cell phones. Then the nine piece orchestra kicks in and the four suave gentlemen who have performed for several years now as Frank, Dean, Sammy and Joey fill the room with their smooth yet powerful voices.

Standards such as Luck Be A Lady, I Get a Kick Out of You, That’s Amore, You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You, That Old Black Magic, and Mr. Bojangles are a memorable part of the ensemble performances. I was surprised at how much of the lyrics of these songs I somehow knew. Perhaps because they are now American classics and even though they have also been recorded by several performers before or since, it is the popular versions of these hits by the Rat Pack members that stand the test of time. 
The Rat Pack is Back
Did I mention they are also funny? I must admit I didn’t really know this until I’d seen the show myself. When the four guys got going, it was as good as it gets in onstage banter and physical comedy.

I was seated in the theater’s front row at the performance, and I could hear the audience applause build  more and more with each phase of the show. It was a unique experience because when writing about a production I usually look around to see if the audience is fully engaged but I couldn’t do that here, so it was by the sound of applause only that I knew they were a real hit with the crowd. 

After checking out The Rat Pack is Back, I interviewed the show’s originator and producer Dick Feeney, who has produced several hit shows in Las Vegas over the past three decades. 
The video montage at the opening really sets a mood. Is that some of the footage from the original Rat Pack? Most of that footage is from the original Rat Pack show from the Sands’ archives. I had the last show at the Sands before they imploded it and so was given access to some great footage. 
The Rat Pack is Back runs seven nights a week, which means you must have more than one actor for each of the roles? Several actors play the Rat Pack roles. We have 12 guys so we can have three different acts out there at a time. (The shows also tours nationally). Some of our actors can portray dual roles, such as Robbie, who plays Dean and Frank, for example. The night you saw the show was Frank Sinatra (Brian Duprey), Dean Martin (Drew Anthony) Sammy Davis Jr, (Kyle Diamond), and Joey Bishop (Mark Cohen).
I loved the nine piece black tie orchestra. Who are they? There aren't a lot of shows in town that use live bands so I was able to get the choice of the best players in Las Vegas, The Lon Bronson Orchestra.
Is this your longest running show as a producer? Although The Rat Pack is Back is in its 14th year, my longest running show was Viva Las Vegas, which only started with a four week contract then ran for 18 years. I really enjoy Rat Pack is Back because it has all the elements of what I did for many years as a performer singing, playing an instrument (mine was trumpet), and dancing. However it drives the cast crazy because if they make a mistake I know it every time.
Do you ever just sit in the audience of your shows just to watch their reactions? Yes, all the time. However my favorite thing to do in the world is to stand at the showroom exit as people leave. Back when I was an entertainer I knew if an audience was affected because of the applause. But now as a producer I don't have that so by standing in the back of the room and seeing people come out with smiles on their faces that's now how I get my feedback. If I just gave the audience an hour and a half of escape through entertainment, and if I can make that magic happen for them, that's my applause. 
Over the years what is another of your favorites of the shows you've produced? Forbidden Vegas, which was my version of Forbidden Broadway. We closed with an Elvis number and this was when I came up with the word “Elvi.”
You have owned the Flying Elvi for 23 years now. Have you ever sky dived with them? Once, and on a scale of one to ten I’d say it’s a 25, (both in fun and in terror)! 
Did you dress up as Elvis too? No because I had a film crew that day and jumped tandem. There’s no better sound in the world then when you hear that parachute go up!
I just read about how George H. Bush jumped for his 90th birthday.  
Yea! He has asked us, (The Flying Elvi) to jump with him, but we could never get our schedules to coordinate, so it didn’t happen. Speaking of George H. Bush, we did a three week run of Rat Pack is Back in Kennebunkport, Maine not long ago. The theatre called and told me the Bush family will probably come to the show, but they always leave shows halfway through. They ended up coming to see it and even stayed the whole time. Then they invited the cast over for lunch! 
What is one of the ways you incorporate new media or technology into your productions? I was one of the first to do this, and I do it with Rat Pack is Back but only in the beginning of the show. It’s tricky, and a slippery slope between too much and not enough. If you use too much or you do this wrong you can unintentionally shut down an audience. For example with MJ Live (the Michael Jackson tribute show Dick also produces), there are flashes of video and graphics during the show but only split seconds, so as not to take the focus off the performer.
You say too much video can take away from a show, what else can?
I feel strongly about this, at least with a tribute show. The magic of a tribute artist is to suspend disbelief, and to “be” the person they are performing as. I ask the performers not to break the spell at any point in the show by referring to the star, or by saying they are not that person.  Of course the audience knows that they are not Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra for example, but they want to experience them as if they were and it is the tribute artist’s purpose to give them that experience.
Do you often use the same performers over the years for different shows? Yes, Kona Kozy is the star of my Kona Kozy’s Comedy & Magic Show in Hawaii, and he was a performer in a past show of mine called The World’s Greatest Magic Show.
How has your background as a performer helped you as a producer? One of the strengths I have is timing. A second of dead time in a show is like a minute to an audience, being a performer first helped me to understand this and avoid it in my shows.
Rumor has it the Rat Pack is Back may be leaving the Rio? Yes we are. The show has had runs in various venues in the past 14 years. The last show at the Rio Crown Theater is scheduled to be February 22. We are looking into other venues and are excited about those opportunities to continue our legacy of performing for thousands of audiences in Las Vegas.

The Rat Pack is Back has performed in various venues in Las Vegas and nationwide since 2001 with over 5,000 performances to date. I enjoyed seeing their show twice, both at different venues and look forward to see what they do next.

Anna Wendt Copyright 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Promises, Promises

What do you get when you fall in love? 

According to the musical Promises, Promises, the main answer to that question is that it depends on whom you ask, and when.

I checked out the show while in San Francisco the other night. Promises, Promises is the the story of Chuck, a sweet young "worker bee" in a huge company who is looking for a nice girl but also searching for a way to quickly climb up the corporate ladder. He accidentally finds one by allowing some of the male executives the use of his apartment for their secret trysts with the cute, young members of the secretarial pool. Also there's Fran, a waitress at the company cafeteria who is in over her head with a mysterious romance. Chuck likes Fran, Fran likes someone else, and everyone is trying to score in some way or another.

Although set in 1968, (the year it originally debuted on Broadway), the story and premise is still relevant today due to the fact the sexual revolution was already in full swing at that time.  Also in many ways the life of a corporate employee in a large city is much the same now as it was then with office politics, gossip, and booze filled holiday parties!

I can relate to Chuck, especially when I was his age, filled with blind enthusiasm and ambition, before learning the meaning of balance in life, and equally to Fran, having had a mysterious relationship of my own many years ago and being further in over my head than I realized.

This type of production is one of my favorites, held in a mid size theater, in this case the San Francisco Playhouse. With a live orchestra and a cast of proven talent that has worked together before, this production was able to walk the line between humor and poignancy without becoming either too farcical or maudlin.

Jeffrey Brian Adams is Chuck, who is the kind of guy a girl might not immediately notice as handsome because he is shy with too much of an eagerness to please. Monique Hafen quietly exudes the youth and slightly waning optimism of her character, Fran. Her angelic but soulful voice brings magic to the musical numbers. Johnny Moreno, who reminds me a bit of Raul Julia, plays the powerful Mr. Sheldrake as a man who is enjoying his position of power as CEO perhaps a little too much as he treats the company as his own personal kingdom. Corrine Proctor, is wonderful as Marge, a likeable but vulnerable woman trying to stay one step ahead of despair with a sense of humor and a playful veneer.

Ray Reinhardt is perfect as the wise cracking and all knowing doc next door who has seen it all and realizes most of his sage advice falls on the deaf ears of young adults. Steven Shear, Joseph Estlack and Rudy Guerrero as the company executives are so likeable and enthusiastic you forget what cads they can be! Morgan Dayley, Kathryn Fox Hart and Leah Shesky are lively and fun as dancing secretaries, making the most of their confined roles in the show just as their characters had to do back then in the gender repressed corporate culture of the time.

Johnny Moreno, Monique Hafen, Jeffrey Brian Adams

Promises, Promises is a musical first produced on Broadway in 1968, Book by Neil Simon and Music Burt Bacharach and based on the film The Apartment by Billy Wilder, (1960).

Promises, Promises....San Francisco Playhouse through January 10 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

My fave holiday flicks...and then some!

Yes, it's that time of year again....
Here are some of my favorite holiday flicks to rent or stream during the season. Hint, they are not all holiday movies. Also, if this looks familiar it's a re-post of last year's list. I cannot tell a lie, this is what us busy bloggers do when we don't have time to write.....we recycle!

I left out some of the obvious classics like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story"....You don't need me to remind you.

Also, not all films on the list are specifically holiday movies, but are still favorites of mine this time of year and serve as a great background for writing Christmas cards, wrapping gifts, or just getting a laugh watching "on screen" families more dysfunctional than our own!

Scrooged!.....Bill Murray as the typical workaholic of the late 1980's...

A Christmas Memory....Starring Patty Duke. This is based on the poignant short story by Truman Capote, (which I also recommend).

The Santa Clause (Part 1 only)....Tim Allen attempts to fight his destiny to be the next Santa Claus.

Christmas with the Kranks....Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis. A tropical vacation instead of Christmas? Who hasn't dreamed of that!

Christmas Time in South Park...Just another reminder you can get away with anything if it's a cartoon.

12 Men of Christmas....Kristin Chenowith....Major chick flick!

These two are not for the kids and in pretty bad taste but too FUNNY to leave out!

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas....Hard to keep up with at times there is so much going on, but in a good way. Horribly crude but in a "non offensive" way...,;)

Bad Santa....Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as the worst mall Santa Claus of all time. Also, this is one of the last films of the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac who are perfectly cast as the uptight store manager and head of security.

Because sometimes we need a break from holiday season overload, these suggested below are not necessarily movies about the holidays but a good watch during the season!

Goodwill Hunting....Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck.....Blue collar Cinderella story

Last Holiday.....Queen Latifah plays a woman who finds out she has a short time to live and plans to live it up! Also stars LL Cool J and Timothy Hutton.

Rush Hour.....Jackie Chan and Chris's just funny because it's a little "off".

Bridget Jones Diary.....Renee Zellweger is a hot cute mess and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth are easy on the eyes, oh and don't forget the awesome fight scene.

Austin Powers "The Spy Who Shagged Me".....The original and best of them. Mike Myers tribute to his late father.

The Holiday....Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet trade houses and lives....

Trading Places....I put this on all of my movie pick lists. One of the five best comedies of all time! Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy are beyond compare as Louise Winthorp III and Billy Ray Valentine. Jamie Lee Curtis makes a great "hooker with a stock portfolio".

The Wedding Singer....Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. How can you not root for these two?...And who knew Billy Idol was funny!

Everyone Says I Love You....I always have to include a Woody Allen flick and this one is the kind of movie you either love or hate. If you're not sure if you will like it here's a hint, Ed Norton sings and Julie Roberts sleeps with Woody Allen. (Oh yeah and my cousin Tim plays the doctor in the hospital scene so that's a bonus.)

Groundhog's Day...Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell....reminds how much one can do with a day when not busy complaining.

Mr. Deeds (both the original with Gary Cooper and the re-make with Adam Sandler)....simple but some how not simple.

The Royal Tannenbaums....Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke and Owen Wilson....Are there actually real families like this? This movie proves that just because a couple has money does not mean they will have normal children!

Here are my picks for the worst holiday movies....(might want to skip these turkeys)!

Home For The Holidays...Jodie word, depressing.
Polar Express....I'm sorry but this movie just made me sad, not jolly, even a little creeped out.
The Santa Clause Part 2 and 3.....yawn
Surviving Christmas....Ben Affleck and James Gondolfini.....Ben Affleck's character pays some miserable family to keep him company at if!


Last but not least I've been requested to add my sister Karen's favorite pick for the holidays which includes the "National Lampoon Vacation" films!... 

National Lampoon Vacation, National Lampoon European Vacation, National Lampoon Christmas Vacation and National Lampoon Vegas Vacation!....(I think she just has a crush on Clark Griswold).

Please fee free to add any of your favorite holiday films to the list by entering them as a comment!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

There's a Message in Their Song...The Las Vegas Mass Choir

The sound and presence of the Las Vegas Mass Choir powerfully enhances the many concerts, events and awards shows in which they perform. They have accompanied Stevie Wonder for his Icon Award medley at the Billboard Awards, harmonized with Wynonna Judd for a live TV telethon performance, and performed with John Legend, Neil Diamond and Josh Grobin, among many others. The Las Vegas Mass Choir also performs occasionally at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, most recently for the Nevada Sesquicentennial Celebration. They also take on specialty bookings such as a recent singing wedding proposal at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino.

Recently the Las Vegas Mass Choir has taken their act to another level as an integral part of "Georgia On My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles," at the Venetian Theatre on the Las Vegas strip.

The story of the Las Vegas Mass Choir 
Because of the variety of events the choir had been asked to perform for several years, James R. Smith, Master Choir Director decided the time had come to make them an official act, and in 2004 the Las Vegas Mass Choir was officially formed. To celebrate they released a CD entitled Mass Appeal. This adult choir consisting of 35 vocalists has now been a special presence in Las Vegas for over a decade!

When I heard the Las Vegas Mass Choir (LVMC) was going to be performing in a several week run of  "Georgia On My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles," I thought it was a perfect fit. Since his early years Ray Charles was known for the special and unique way he blended jazz and southern gospel.  So it's only fitting that a Ray Charles tribute would include a choir...not just any choir but a strong and experienced one, so of course, the Las Vegas Mass Choir!

I recently spoke with James R. Smith. He told me "We would like people to know that the Las Vegas Mass Choir is a Faith-based professional choir that sings music to inspire people from ALL walks of life. We choose to go to places where many people will not go and spread joy through our music. Our tag line says There's a Message In Our Song."

James is currently living in Houston and takes frequent trips to Las Vegas as LVMC's CEO. He helps give direction to major events, and teaches and directs music. James is the point person and there is a stellar Las Vegas based leadership team including a Business Manager, Publicist, Spiritual Advisor, Lead Choir Director, 4 Associate Choir Directors and a Support Staff all in place to assure the success of the Las Vegas Mass Choir.

The LVMC has been acknowledged with awards such as Choir of the Year - BMA Award 2013, Melbourne Gospel Jazz Festival Award 2007, and the Hollywood Gospel Insider Award 2005, to name a few.

James went on to say, "Our relationship with The Smith Center is growing and we are honored to participate whenever they call us. We first did Georgia On My Mind back in February as a one time show not ever thinking it would turn into a multiple week run on the Las Vegas strip. That's pretty exciting!....The Music of Ray Charles is timeless and it's rewarding to have this accomplishment on our resume. While appearing in Georgia On My Mind, we are sharing the stage with awesome and talented performers. Aside from this, some of our members have not had the experience of working five nights a week on the strip until now. Our choir has about 35 active members and the show only requires 20 of our singers each night. We rehearse the whole choir to allow for rotation and understudies as needed."
Photo by USA Today...Some of the cast of "Georgia On My Mind"

"The Las Vegas Mass Choir brings spirit to the production!".....Clint Holmes

The dimension a gospel choir brings to any performance goes beyond the energetic but soothing harmonies. It adds depth, excitement, and inspiration to every song!

The choir director for "Georgia On My Mind" and longtime member of the LVMC, Edie Aikels told me,
"It's very rewarding to see the training and preparation that I and the choir have done come to fruition every night in such a great venue at the Venetian. One of the things I enjoy is seeing and being a part of such a great group of people. Everyone that is involved in the show is truly amazing as individuals and as performers and its a great honor to share the stage with them!"

The Raelettes with Clint Holmes...Photo from Clint Holmes FB Page

The first song the choir performs in and for me the moment when the show really kicks into full force  is "I Can't Stop Loving You." Originally recorded by Don Gibson and also Kitty Wells, it was Ray Charles' 1962 version that reached number 1 on the billboard Hot 100 and R & B charts. For "Hit the Road Jack" three members of the LVMC serve as the Raelettes and it's a sizzling rendition with Clint Holmes and the three ladies!

Also included of course is what many would say is Ray Charles' signature song, "Georgia On My Mind." Written in 1930  by Hoagy Carmichael, it was the 1960 version by Ray that made it a major hit.  Many artists have recorded or sampled the song since. The extravaganza ends with a real showstopper, "America the Beautiful." It's only fitting the choir should be a part of the performance of this song as the music was originally composed in the 1800's by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. Ray recorded his version in 1976 during America's Bicentennial celebration year.

Following "Georgia On My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles," the choir will be preparing for their 2nd Annual Home for the Holidays Christmas Party. The date is December 13th this year and will be held at the Larry Hart Mansion. The charity will be the Ronald McDonald House

Other projects include new music to be recorded with a possible February release date and a reunion concert in May of 2015 to celebrate the success of ten years as the Las Vegas Mass Choir!

Las Vegas Mass Choir....702-334-8444....Email
Publicist, Lillian McMorris, 888-812-5455,

LVMC Single ..."Hold On" available on!/id368333981

"Georgia On My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles" Venetian Theater Las Vegas, Musical Director David Loeb
Clint Holmes, Nnena Freelon, Kirk Whalum,Take 6, Las Vegas All Star Big Band & the Las Vegas Mass Choir!

LVMC Cast...James R. Smith, Choir Master Director, Edie Aikels,Choir Director
Veronica Morton - Raelette, Wilma Roberts - Raelette, Urian Booze - Raelette,Vee Vee Prejean, Teresa Bolden, Judy Mitchell, Stephanie Stewart, Edith Newsome, Dawn Haley, Lucy Baines, Michelle Bender, Henrietta Scott, Beverly Reese, Anthony Bolden, Deven Chase, Wallace Broadnax, Reida Solis, Sonya Aikels - Curry, Jason Manapaz, Andre Crockette, Robert Parker

Copyright Anna Wendt 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Sound of an Era - Forever Motor City

One of the most amazing things music can do is capture the feeling and energy of an era, through sound.

Motown, more than any other record company is known for doing just that. Founded in 1959 in Detroit Michigan by Barry Gordy and his sisters, Motown like many businesses has changed hands several times in the 55 years since. It is now a sublabel under Universal Music Group..

The Motown sound lives on through its original recordings, influences in today's music, and in the interpretations of performers keeping it alive on stage. Forever Motor City captures the Motown sound every night at The Riviera Hotel here in Las Vegas.

"There has never been an explosion of music and energy like the days of Motown".....Early Clover

The era of Motown was part of a time of great change in our country including the civil rights and women's liberation movement, and of course the sexual revolution. There was a whole lot going on and it flew in the face of what was considered "acceptable" at the time. Some would say society needed a little shaking up and others would disagree but in the end the music of the Motown era reflects the energy, angst, spirit and excitement of this chapter in America.

Unlike the Doo Wop era before it, female singers and groups played a visible role in the music and top hits of Motown. Diana Ross and The Supremes, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, Kiki Dee, and more, were and are as much a part of the Motown sound as The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.

I enjoyed meeting Tonja Foster, Gwendolyn Forsyth and Leanna Carter
After checking out Forever Motor City recently I spoke with Tonja Foster, one of the female leads and an experienced performer of the Motown sound. She told me, "The music of Motown continues to influence music today. Often when classic Motown tunes are sampled and covered in current songs and hits, many younger people don't know that it's not a new song or melody!"

To Tonja's point, just a few examples are RUN DMC, who samples Papa Was a Rolling Stone on their single Papa Crazy and Sean Kingston sampling Stand By Me in his song Beautiful Girls, as well as Miley Cyrus and Future's hit My Darlin' which is a fractured and haunting sample/cover of Stand By Me. Ain't No Mountain High Enough was reworked by Amy Winehouse in Tears Dry On Their Own.

A couple of Tonja's favorite songs to perform are You're All I Need to Get By, which she sings with Jerome Jackson and Ain't No Mountain High Enough with the entire cast. When asked what song she would record herself today if given the opportunity she told me it would be Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing Baby.

"My favorite part of the show is the meet and greet after, as many times I see
 tears through smiles and people tell me how touched they are by these songs." 
 ....Tonja Foster, Performer in Forever Motor City

She also said, "I love performing in Las Vegas because in a way it's like Broadway. We have audiences here every night from all over the world."

I can't say enough good things about the Forever Motor City production and performers. They were even better than expected (just like with Forever Doo Wop). Far from rote, the cast's interpretation and talent really make an impact! Not just with well known hits such as Heard It Through the Grapevine, My Guy, Stop In The Name of Love, and more, but also songs such as Pride and Joy and Just My Imagination.

Some of the cast of Forever Motor City, Riviera Hotel & Casino
The host of Forever Motor City, the Riviera Hotel & Casino will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. The casino opened in the spring of 1955. It has gone through many changes, but has endured as a landmark of the past and current...just like the sound of Motown has.

Forever Motor City cast includes members of the musical groups The Spinners, Main Ingredient, and The Jones. 

Ensemble Cast:
Early Clover, Jerome Jackson, Willie Green, Tom Ross, Terry Forsythe, Tonja Foster, Gwendolyn Forsyth,
Serena Henry, Greg Carter, E.J. Welch, Lawrence Jones, Leanna Carter, Tyneisha Lewis, Farah Melanson, Denita Asbury, Erica Bower, Jill Rock Jones, Paige Siggal

Music by Broadway Legend Gary Kupper, Stage Direction Misty Singer
Assistant Production Operations Manager, Early Clover

Nightly 9 pm Riviera Hotel & Casino

30 Seconds of Forever Motor City... 


Anna Wendt Copyright 2014