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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Raiding the Rock Vault Two Years Later

Everyone loves a success story, especially a Rock 'n' roll one!

In March of 2013 I was invited to a preview of a new show called Raiding the Rock Vault

It was made up of rock musicians and vocalists that had toured the world for separate bands who had come together to form their own show. Based on the history of Rock 'n' roll from the late 60's to early 90's, the format included cover songs performed by true Rock 'n' roll veterans. 

It was intriguing to me, the concept of a production built around classic rock using a super group.  But I wondered could the show stick and actually make it here in Las Vegas as a permanent act? 

I soon had my answer and it was good news. The show blew me a-w-a-y. I knew they had tapped into something very special. Raiding the Rock Vault was a hit with audiences and critics from the very first performance!

The cast of Raiding the Rock Vault...(Oh the stories they could tell!)....Photo by Erik Nielsen

It takes a huge amount of talent, hard work, sweat and luck to create a show from scratch and have it succeed enough to stay open, much less rise to the top and stay there like these guys have. For Raiding the Rock Vault it has been a successful and steady but sometimes uncomfortable behind the scenes climb up the Las Vegas entertainment ladder. 

Really, nothing else could have been expected with a new show, especially one involving such unique and strong willed individuals with equal and high levels of talent. The performers have all stayed relevant and working in the business for decades, like real life Rock 'n' roll warriors. A couple of them didn't gel as part of the cast early on and were replaced with just as talented artists, usually friends of current cast members. Maybe Raiding the Rock Vault is better for it...there's no complacency. The show must go on and it DOES.

Last week as they approached their second anniversary I decided it was time to check out the show again. This was my fourth time seeing RTRV but my first time since they moved into their new home this past fall, the Tropicana Theater at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino. 

Upon first entering the scarlet colored theater I loved the large, modern, comfy seats. There's table and booth seating the first three rows but then theater style for the rest. The bar inside the venue is just behind the last row of seats and is a great set up for the party that is this show.

Tropicana Theater,
In the new venue I noticed the plot from the original act is different and the music is now more the focus. At two hours long it does not have an intermission but instead when there's no live music there are short comedic skits using two actors, which are fun but also provide just enough time to get up and get a drink or something without the interruption of an actual intermission. I like this approach.

Other than that little has changed, which is good, if you ask me. It seems they kept what resonated the most with audiences, great classic rock performed by world class talents. Maybe the reason the show is such a hit with almost everyone who sees it is not just the talent but also the premise. Rock 'n' roll reminds us that we can shout, sing, dance, speak up, be different, enjoy life, and party but still be part of the daily establishment that many of us have such a love/hate relationship with.

Jay Schellen, Drums
Overall though what makes me a fan the most is the cast give of themselves and it's palpable. Although the performers of RTRV are unique in their careers in most ways they are no different than the rest of us. They've got families to take care of, mortgages to pay, they probably worry about getting older, we all do. I know they're working during the show and we're not, but they don't make it seem that way at all, and I love them for it. For two hours, six nights a week at the Tropicana Theater the audience can put everything aside and we are all as one, singing and thrusting our fists in the air like teenagers do when only the moment they're currently having matters.  We're experiencing again an era just before cell phones and the internet. The world will never go back to that, and it shouldn't, but to visit it once in awhile is a beautiful thing, like Rock 'n' roll therapy.

Michael T. Ross, Keyboards
I think I can speak for many of us when I say we feel a kinship with Robin, Doug, Paul, Howard, and the others. We knew of them decades ago as their music wafted through our car stereos, out of our giant stereo speakers, our boomboxes, then on CD players before iPods and streaming. Now we all meet again, older, wiser, survivors of young adulthood, or maybe middle aged or headed for it we are all still looking for a little fun and escape and believing some of the best of life is still ahead.

For the younger ones many of them know the music because it's classic rock, Boston, AC/DC, Queen, the Rolling Stones. They've heard it their whole lives at barbeques, NFL and NBA Games, on classic rock stations and YouTube. Some have even performed the songs themselves in their own fledgling garage bands. RTRV appeals to all ages because there's a spirit in classic rock that this show embodies.

So, what has Raiding the Rock Vault accomplished in their two years so far in Las Vegas?....

Raiding the Rock Vault was voted "Best Musical of 2014" in the Las Vegas Review Journal's annual Best of Las Vegas readers poll.*

Eighteen months after their debut RTRV left their former off strip venue and took up residency on the Las Vegas strip, at the Tropicana Theater.

The RTRV cast recorded and released two albums on CD and iTunes, "Songs from the Vault Volume I" and then "Songs from the Vault Volume II."

RTRV was voted one of the top attractions out of hundreds in Las Vegas by Trip Advisor members within the first year of opening, and are still rated in the top five today.

Almost every review of Raiding the Rock Vault on is five stars.

To sum it up, Raiding the Rock Vault combines Rock 'n' roll theater with world class talent performing timeless songs. 

* It was announced on 3/29 that RTRV just won "Best Musical of 2015" as well!

Photos courtesy of ERIK NIELSEN

Raiding the Rock Vault Line up includes some or all of this cast on any given night...Howard Leese, Doug Aldrich, Robin McAuley, Paul Shortino, Jay Schellen, Andrew Freeman, Michael T. Ross, Hugh McDonald, Mark Boals, Carol-Lyn Liddle and Stephanie Calvert....Note: The night I saw the show Jason Boyleston substituted for Howard Leese and Uriah Duffy for Hugh McDonald. In my opinion they both fit in well with the show and the cast.

Actors and Dancers...Ryan Mueller, Sarah Jessica Rhodes, Christine Richards


Rock Vault fan? Check out my previous articles about the journey of Raiding the Rock Vault:

Rock Vault Reloaded...Hollywood Underdog August 20, 2014 

Raiding the Rock Vault...again!...Hollywood Underdog, May 1 2014

Raiding the Rock Vault really strikes a chord....March 24, 2013

Copyright 2015 Anna Wendt

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Healthy Menu Means Happy Customers

Several years ago I got a job that required me to travel a lot. Just over a month into it I’d gained almost ten pounds! This was how I learned about the extra fat, calories and other additives restaurant meals can have in comparison to the ones I made at home. 

However the good news is that since then the restaurant industry has been picking up on the fact that many, like me, would probably dine out more if offered healthier entrees. In addition, a growing number of Americans are seeking menu choices that are non GMO, Organic, and also Vegetarian and Vegan.

Nine in 10 restaurant operators say their guests are more knowledgeable about food than they used to be and pay more attention to food quality than just two years ago. Healthier options are now at the top of the list of what consumers consider when choosing a restaurant, according to the National Restaurant Association. Followed by Eco-friendly dining, Technology, Quality Innovative Food, Local Foods, Ethnic Options and Mobile Options. In addition, research shows that about a third of all adults have gone online to get nutrition data on restaurant food. 

El Dorado Cantina Las Vegas...A Non GMO Restaurant
In relation to healthy eating, one of the terms most of us have heard is “non GMO,” especially in the past few years. What does non GMO mean? Non GMO Food is food that is not genetically modified from its original source.

One of the restaurants I recently checked out that promotes its healthy and Non GMO menu is the casual but upscale authentic Mexican restaurant, El Dorado Cantina here in Las Vegas. A large part of their menu includes entrees that are GMO-free and Organic, as well as some unique Vegetarian and Vegan choices.  To find out more about how a Non GMO establishment is different, I spoke with El Dorado Cantina Co-Owner Darin Feinstein.

“We believe strongly that sustainably-raised products are of superior quality, and we offer exclusively products from carefully-selected U.S. farms that are free of antibiotics, pesticides and steroids.”  -Darin Feinstein, Co-Owner of El Dorado Cantina

The restaurant is in its first year of operations so I asked Darin how it was different setting up a Non GMO restaurant compared to a traditional one. He told me that it took a little longer than it did for his previous restaurants to locate and set up relationships with suppliers, organic farmers and the like, but once those relationships were in place, the system operated smoothly. 

I also asked him what is unique about the menu at El Dorado Cantina. He said, “Our menu shares information with the consumer such as who our supplier farms are. Also, there’s a symbol next to each entrée on our menu that tells you if it is or can be prepared to be Gluten free, Vegetarian, or Vegan!” Darin went on to say, “Non GMO foods are healthier and often times better tasting than Genetically Modified Choices."


As for my own personal experience with the menu, two items I enjoyed from the small bites section of the menu were Shrimp Taquitos, (Pacific wild shrimp wrapped in fresh corn tortillas, topped with, chipotle ranch dressing, roasted morita salsa, queso fresco & fresh, guacamole), and Aguachiles, (Pacific wild shrimp in lime juice & rich spices with cucumber, cilantro, red onions & chiles, served ceviche style with house tortilla chips). Both of these items by Chef Paco, (a native of Mexico City),  were flavorful beyond my expectations. The shrimp taquitos were what a taquito should be, (but seldom is) light, tasty and fresh, and the Aguachiles item was modified to contain no onions per my request.

I also noticed the El Dorado Cantina beverage choices include a variety of cocktails of course, but also a selection of non-alcoholic fresh juices like Horchata and seasonal fruit drinks such as Tamarind, Hibiscus, Mango and more.  I wish I’d see more of this out there because I don’t think a drink has to contain alcohol to be an exotic drink. 

As for me, I will be expanding my dining horizons to include more Non GMO restaurants like El Dorado Cantina. 

To locate restaurants and retail shops like this in your city a good source is, a listing of thousands of local, organic and sustainable proprietors.

Anna Wendt Copyright 2014