Monday, December 29, 2014

ShowStoppers...It's a Wynn!

Las Vegas has become the city we know today due in part to Steve Wynn. His contributions and innovation in the areas of hospitality and entertainment date as far back as the 1970’s.

His latest endeavor, Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers is a Broadway style spectacular with 18 numbers from 10 different hit musicals. 

The idea for this new production began with a special performance of Broadway selections arranged for his wife Andrea’s birthday earlier this year. It was during the rehearsals for this performance that Steve Wynn was inspired to bring Broadway to Las Vegas. The idea of the megawatt production, ShowStoppers was born. 

Steve Wynn's ShowStoppers..."Cell Block Tango"

“Las Vegas is a tough market. People come here expecting a lot, the bigger the better. 
It has to be something they can’t see somewhere else.”   - Steve Wynn

When I heard this production was in the works I expected two things. First, it being Steve Wynn’s baby, the budget would be grand enough to make it what it should be….larger than life, and preferably in true Vegas style, a touch glitzier than even Broadway. Secondly, I knew the best of the best talent would be recruited for it.

As an avid fan of Broadway musicals I have seen many, especially during my years living in Manhattan. Sitting in the 1,500 seat Encore Theater watching the show the other night so encompassed the Broadway experience for me I felt like I would push through the exit doors after and be hit with the sights and sounds of Times Square! 

ShowStoppers includes one to three of the most fabulous numbers from the best of Broadway musicals such as, Chicago, Hello Dolly, Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Gypsy, and more. Steve Wynn made it clear that he chose upbeat and celebratory numbers for this production. When asked at the press conference how the musical numbers were chosen, the director Philip Wm. MicKinley answered, “We want a joyful, happy evening.”

I also enjoyed the smaller vignettes within the show that tied the big numbers together. I only wished that this beautiful Broadway journey lasted a little longer. As they say in the show, “Razzle dazzle ‘em, and they’ll beg you for more.” I was pleased to hear Steve Wynn announce at the press conference on opening night that at least one number will be added. He made it clear that this show will evolve over time. “I hope I’ll never stop tinkering with this show,” he said.

Kerry O'Malley, Lindsay Roginski, Nicole Kaplan, Steve Wynn, David Burnham, Randal Keith, Andrew Ragone
This is an epic size production that was planned and executed over only six months. There were 600 auditions to cast 28 dancers, and 75 auditions for the 6 featured singers. If you ask me the casting process could have been a documentary or reality show in itself! Every performer at those auditions knew that to be cast as one of the players in a production of this size and magnitude would be career, if not life changing.

Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers has taken six experienced performers and given them a venue to show off their true star quality, and boy do they ever! The six amazing and ultra talented leads are David Burnham (Wicked, Light in the Piazza), Randal Keith (Les Miserables, Phantom), Lindsay Roginksi (Chicago, Damn Yankees), Kerry O’Malley (Into the Woods, Annie), Andrew Ragone (Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular), and Nicole Kaplan (Camelot, The Little Mermaid: The Musical). There is something enchanting about special performers who have dedicated their lives to their craft.  They bring characters to life on stage in a way that really pulls me in.

ShowStoppers is enriched by the powerful 30 piece orchestra who perform not in an orchestra pit, but onstage. David Loeb is the Musical Director.

The performers are led by an award winning team including Philip Wm. McKinley, Director, Marguerite Derricks, Choreographer, Suzy Benzinger, Costume Designer, and Luc Verschueren, Hair/Make Up Designer.

“Nothing has ever been as smooth or as fun as this one. 
We have become a family, all of us." -Steve Wynn on ShowStoppers

L to R: Philip Wm. McKinley, Andrea Wynn, Steve Wynn, Marguerite Derricks
At the opening night press conference, it was obvious all the people behind this extravaganza and its leads have limitless passion for this show. Standing out was their “quarterback” Steve Wynn, who filled the room with his love and excitement for all aspects of this production, leading me to conclude it really is Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers.

Photo credit: Denise Truscello/WireImage

Copyright 2014 Anna Wendt

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