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