Sunday, August 24, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Written and directed by Woody Allen, Magic in the Moonlight is a tale about a famous magician played by Colin Firth, who is skeptical of clairvoyants. Known for exposing them as fakes, he sets out to prove Sophie (Emma Stone) is just that. Ironic, considering a magician is himself in many ways, a fake. 

Emma Stone and Colin Firth
Setting aside the lush and elegant location in the south of France, to me, this story, taking place in the late 1920's is more like a play that just happens to be on film, than a motion picture. Perhaps Mr. Allen is reaching back into his playwright days, and it works for this film.

Woody Allen is showing his age in this movie. By that I mean his themes are less focused on the neurosis and anxiety suffered by many of us in our daily lives but instead on the larger questions we ask ourselves about the meaning of life in general. Questions such as is there a God and a spirit world, can it be accessed by certain people, does prayer work, do our lives hold more meaning than just what we see, do we live more than once....

If you either like Woody Allen movies or are fond of classic films you'll probably enjoy this one.  If not, you may be better served by one of his non Woody Allen type pictures such as "Match Point."

Of course I won't give away the ending. I will say though that this story criticizes those who perform "tricks" of various kinds, but it also equally gives them credit and explores our need to believe in something other than what we can see and explain.

Emma Stone, Woody Allen and Colin Firth on the set.... "Magic in the Moonlight"

For a complete listing of Woody Allen films go to:

Copyright Anna Wendt 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rock Vault Reloaded

With so much entertainment in Vegas to choose from on any given night, the pressure is on for productions to keep things alive and interesting. A noticeable recent trend is to give a show some room to grow and allow varied performers and production revisions as needed. With this approach, Raiding the Rock Vault continues to be a Rock N' Roll fantasy come to life.

I checked it out for a third time recently as I'd heard they've made some changes. Although I will miss John Payne who departed this spring and was replaced in the line up, his mark will last in his own way as co-creator of this super group....Having said that,  Rock Vault has taken on a life of its own which I predict will last even beyond its creators or current members.

Raiding the Rock Vault....Photo by Erik Nielsen

In addition to band changes, some of the production has been pared down. The extraneous opening and a few of the skits have been cut or shortened letting it shapeshift  into more of a true musical and concert experience.  I like this. They've also amp'd up the dancers a bit, and I must say I was impressed! A couple of them were so hot they almost turned me gay for a minute.

This time I went on a Monday night, which was interesting because the audience seemed more reserved than on the weekend nights, at least in the beginning. One guy even told me to sit down at one point. I did because I knew that wouldn't last long and the VERY next song he was on HIS everyone eventually always is at this show!

I know for a fact the more high energy the crowd is, the more we give the performers on stage to work with. However I noticed with the Rock Vault performers, having seen them three times now, that they always seem to give it their all even on a Monday night. They emit rock n' roll out of every pour every moment on stage and it's palpable....probably not easy to do five nights a week.

In addition, the lighting for RTRV is as much a part of the impact of this show as anything else.  It's truly fantastic!...I don't know who does it but it blows me away. Why would I mention lighting? There's a saying in the biz that "lighting is everything".....this is true to a certain degree. Because when done right it enhances a production in ways that are noticeable and also in ways that are nuanced. Oh, and I don't know who their stylist or costume designer is, but I could do a story on just that alone. It's all it should be and more and befitting of the various personalities onstage.

The show is still housed in Elvis Presley's former showroom at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.

Doug Aldrich & Howard Leese, Photo by Erik Nielsen

The group has released two albums of their music, both in CD and downloadable form (see below).
I hope they someday release a Rock Vault concert DVD.

Paul Shortino & 2 hot dancers,  Photo by Erik Nielsen

Although I mentioned Carol-Lyn Liddle in a previous article I have to take a minute to say Carol, you are a vocal goddess and now one of my fave singers, (along with Shakira and Stevie Nicks). Stephanie Calvert I still haven't yet heard do her thing.

Carol Lyn from Raiding the Rock Vault Facebook Page

Raiding the Rock Vault Line Up...

Howard Leese -Guitar (Heart, Bad Company)
Doug Aldrich -Guitar (Whitesnake)
Robin McAuley -Lead Vocals (MSG, Survivor)
Paul Shortino -Lead Vocals (Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot)
Jay Schellen -Drums (Hurricane, Asia)
Andrew Freeman -Lead Vocals (Offpsring)
Michael T. Ross -Keyboards (Lita Ford)
Hugh McDonald -Bass (Bon Jovi, Ringo Starr)
Carol-Lyn Liddle -Lead Vocals (Masters of Rock)
Stephanie Calvert -Lead Vocals (Starship)

The show's current actors...Ryan Mueller, Sarah Jessica Rhodes, Scott Kinworthy and Christine Richards.

Songs from the Vault....Volume I and Volume II now both available on iTunes and other music sites...

Songs From the Vault Volume I

Songs From the Vault Volume II

My past blogs about Raiding the Rock Vault:

Anna Wendt Copyright 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sydney After Dark

"Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura...behind the curtain, behind the aura?" 

- Lady Gaga

To borrow a question from one of the songs performed last night in Sydney After Dark, I think the audience answer would be yes...Tonight at 9:30 is the last performance of the limited run of Sydney After Dark at Planet Hollywood's PH Showroom. I checked it out last night with some friends and we had a great time. The ladies have talent and the music was so high energy at times I was wishing there was a dance floor!

Natalie Conway, the lead singer is a force all her own and it was wise of the production to highlight her vocal talents and personality, not to mention she can really rock a chrome bikini!

Also notable were the two aerial acts, which were a nice surprise and thoroughly enjoyable albeit more sensual than acrobatic. The group and solo dance to "Darling Nikki" straddled the fence perfectly between bondage inspired and tasteful.

The roping routine to AC/DC's Thunderstruck was exciting, but I couldn't tell if they were using the actual recording of the original band, or a recording of an impersonator, which distracted me from that act a little.

A true "pro" never misses a beat, and this was evident in the few moments during an audio glitch when they lost sound and just kept on going until it returned. 

Most of the ladies of Sydney have worked together for five years all over the world, London, Paris, L.A., Tokyo, etc., and it shows. Watching them perform, their energy and mutual respect is palpable so it doesn't seem like just nine bodies in motion, but  a private party, in which the audience is invited.

However, as some before me have said Sydney After Dark is held in too large of a venue and would be better served in a more intimate setting. I agree. The venue's title, the "PH Showroom" is misleading, as it's actually not a showroom but a very large multilevel theater. The performers when not downstage seemed sometimes quite far away and it felt a bit detached at times. The stage is also rather cavernous and the nine ladies when not near each other were spread a little too thin thereby lacking a comfortable focal point from the audience perspective.

One last note, I wish they'd publish these ladies names somewhere so proper credit can be given, because I couldn't remember them all from the introduction and wasn't able to find them anywhere online or otherwise, except for the lead singer.

Whether or not they stay in Vegas in a different venue or return later, I would see their show again.

Creative direction and costume design by Belinda Chapple

Choreography by Miss Ame Delves & Wil Sabin

Sydney After Dark Photos are used for editorial purposes only

SPI Entertainment

Related articles:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bringing Change to Mind....Again

Because the suicide of internationally known actor Robin Williams has brought a lot of attention to the subject of depression, I decided to re-post this article I wrote last year, and share again the information within. - AW

In the film, Silver Linings Playbook, the main character Pat, struggles with the effects of mental illness along with his new friend, Tiffany, who also has mental health issues. For Pat, as is common with this disease he does not realize how his behavior is affecting other people. The things he does make sense to the time.

At what point do you tell someone they are not making sense? And why is it so hard to tell that person? cross that boundary and say, "you're not okay, my friend".

A real friend tells you the truth. Too often though we fear hurting someone's feelings so we let them get sicker emotionally or mentally because we are afraid or don't know what to do.

This happened to me a few years ago with a long time friend of mine. She is someone who always made sense, was logical, responsible. Then she wasn't, in a big way. It scared me. I wanted to call her husband and see what he thought but worried that was a betrayal to her. So I am ashamed to say I didn't do anything. About a year later she was taken in for psychiatric help. It should have happened sooner. At that time I promised myself I would never be silent again when it came to this issue. Especially because most conditions just get worse over time and not better, like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's Disease, for example.

When a similar situation arose with a family member not long ago I did speak up and try to help. I know that's what he would have wanted. Two family members stood by me. Unfortunately nobody else was comfortable doing so. I understand that, but I don't agree. For me, my previous mistake gave me courage. Of course things came to a head when his behavior landed him in the psychiatric hospital. This is an issue in probably every family at some point or another and in society in general.

If a friend or family member had a physical problem like a wound or growing tumor we'd say something, so why is this any different? I sincerely hope if it were ever to happen to me someone would love me enough to say something to me so I could get help sooner rather than later.

The actress Glenn Close is a founder of and Chairperson of the organization, BringChange2Mind, which is working to end the stigma of mental illness, and offer resources for those who suffer, and their families.


Glenn was motivated to do this because her sister, Jessie,  suffers from bipolar disorder.
Glenn and

Most mental health professionals agree there is a shortage of resources available, but they ARE out there. The more aware and educated we all are, the better chance our friends and family who suffer have of living a quality life.

Here are several films that shed some light on the issue of mental illness and disorders:

A Beautiful Mind, (schizophrenia)

Away From Her, (Alzheimer's disease)

Awakenings, (mental illness)

Rain Man, (autism)

What's Eating Gilbert Grape, (autism spectrum disorder and food addiction)

Snowcake, (autism spectrum disorder)

Grey Gardens, (agoraphobia)

As Good as it Gets, (obsessive compulsive disorder)

The Aviator, (obsessive compulsive disorder)

Silver Linings Playbook, (obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorder)

The Prince of Tides, (post traumatic stress disorder)

Born on the Fourth of July, (post traumatic stress disorder)

The Perks of being a Wallflower, (post traumatic stress disorder)

Sylvia, (bipolar disorder)

The Hours, (bipolar disorder)

A Single Man, (clinical depression)

 Change A Mind about Mental donated by John Mayer...1:10 length Close's Family on Coping with Mental Illness...2012 interview

Copyright Anna Wendt 2013

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tribute Artists Keep Michael Jackson's Memory Alive on Stage

You wake up and get ready to go to work. You definitely do not have a regular job. Because your job is to be one of the best dancers and singers the world has ever seen. Your moves have to be perfect. This is not for a music video, but a live show with no intermission. Every night. On top of this you also have to sing, and change costumes repeatedly, all while not turning into a sweaty mess on stage, losing your breath, or breaking any bones while emitting the talent and energy of nobody other than the late great Michael Jackson.

Earlier this month I was invited to the Two Year Anniversary of MJ Live, the Michael Jackson tribute show at the Crown Theater at the Rio Las Vegas. Jalles Franca was electrifying as Michael Jackson! He is one of the four MJ performers the show rotates regularly in order to be able to offer a show with no dark nights. I love this concept. One of the things I don't like about Vegas shows is after a couple of years some of them can become stale and formulaic. By using four different artists who each offer a slightly different but equally exciting version of Michael Jackson, the show has some variety which makes it interesting to see more than once while not burning out the lead performers.

The real Michael Jackson I saw only once on stage many years ago during my first ever trip to Vegas, at a one time concert called "Jackson Family Honors." While the rest of the Jacksons including Janet performed he sang only one line of a song on the MGM Grand Arena stage in 1994. But to me it was better than nothing! Fast forward to 2014, in that same arena, working at Billboard Awards as a rehearsal actor I watched the newest MJ hologram "perform." It was fun but did not to me feel like a "live" performance. For me, the essence of MJ has to pass through an actual soul, not a laser, for it to seem like one.

After the show the other night I got to thinking about the life of a tribute artist. One thing I know for sure is that Michael Jackson tribute artists do not wake up in the morning looking like this:

Jalles Franca as MJ....Photo
Not only does a tribute artist have to be spot on with the look, the sound and the moves of the King of Pop, but has to live up to every memory every person in the audience has of him and every hope they ever had to see him again "live". You are the one who can give them what they would otherwise never experience again.

If you are a top Michael Jackson tribute artist in the industry and one of the stars of MJ Live then you are not the only one. Because of the strenuous nature of the show and the demand to offer it nightly, there are four of you for this task. Jalles, Justin, Michael and Little Tony...all who embody the King of Pop and when it comes to tribute artists it does not get any more challenging in this genre than what these guys do..."becoming" Michael Jackson on a Las Vegas stage.

MJ Tribute Artists Michael Firestone & Little Tony Kouns at MJ Live Two Year Anniversary, 7/1/2014

No longer referred to only as "impersonators", but as "tribute artists," these performers have to at the very least, be actors. Just like an actor has to embody a character, whether it be one completely from a writer's imagination or a real legend like Kurt Russell's Elvis Presley or Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison, tribute artists must do this too, all while performing live, over and over again. No retakes, no editing.

A Michael Jackson tribute artist doesn't get to have an off day, or take it a little slow, and stick to mostly ballads, like a Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley impersonator. If you are performing as Michael Jackson your audience in Las Vegas every night is from all over the world. They are going to tell everyone how "MJ like" you were, which includes all the famous dance moves! Not only will they tell their friends but spread it all over social media too. You have to make them want to get up on their feet, sing along, laugh, cry, feel, and walk away feeling like they experienced...HIM.

Here are Jalles, Justin, Michael and Little Tony....the four artists of MJ Live.

"It's All for L.O.V.E."...Jalles Franca

Jalles Franca -A longtime fan of Michael Jackson, he began imitating his dance moves as a professional dancer at a venue in Las Vegas where he worked for several years. Not long after the "King of Pop" passed away, Jalles began improving and honing his skills more thoroughly in order to honor him as a tribute artist. Now, a few years later, considered one of the top Michael Jackson tribute artists in the industry, Jalles Franca shares his talent with fans at the top Michael Jackson tribute show in the United States, "MJ Live."

Justin Dean as MJ

During the past decade Justin Dean has performed numerous times in venues all over the country.
He was always a fan of Michael Jackson but his interest grew several years ago after accepting an invitation to and visiting Neverland Ranch.  Although he had always been a fan of MJ's and knew several of his dance moves, it was not long after this visit he moved to Las Vegas to perfect his tribute act.

"Jax to the Max"....Vegas Seven Magazine, 2013

Michael Firestone (below), has been imitating the moves and sound of Michael Jackson for most of his life, in one way or another. His musical background helped him perfect Jackson's sound and he has spent years perfecting the world famous dance moves. He has performed as Jackson in various shows and venues before MJ Live including "Legends in Concert" and "Moonwalker."

Michael Firestone as MJ

Little Tony Kouns as MJ

Little Tony Kouns is a well rounded artist. As an musician, singer and songwriter, he has performed for several years now as well as an MJ tribute artist. You may remember him from the show "Nashville Star" where he was a finalist.

The MJ Live Two Year Anniversary celebration I attended started with a party at the stylish El Dorado Cantina. We then headed over to the Rio Crown Theater. Dick Feeney, Darin Feinstein and Comedian Eddie Griffin (Eddie has a resident show at the King's Room at the Rio), kicked off MJ Live that night with a special introduction speech. This was an announcement that all of the net proceeds of the anniversary performance would be donated to the families of the victims of the shooting earlier this summer in Las Vegas that claimed the lives of two police officers and one civilian. 

Jalles Franca who performed that night as MJ & Producer Dick Feeney, El Dorado Cantina

Since that night I only had the privilege of seeing Jalles Franca perform as MJ, I decided to check out all four of them on YouTube and watched some live performances. Below is a link to a short performance of each. These are not all from the MJ Live Show, but various sources. I enjoyed each and every one and want to express my total respect for their talent, dedication and hard work.

Jalles Franca

Justin Dean

Michael Firestone

Little Tony Kouns:

Photos: and and some of the bios on the performers are an excerpt in part from the MJ Live website.

MJ Live is nightly at Rio Las Vegas, (9pm).

Producer Dick Feeney
Production Alicia Morse
Technical Director Donlee Cardejon
Funding, Black Star Investments LLC, Darin Feinstein 

Media Relations, Shelly Mansholt

Anna Wendt Copyright 2014