Friday, July 21, 2017

Strictly Taboo Saturday Night

Michelle Johnson's production of Strictly Taboo dazzled with seven notable female vocalists including Michelle, Mary O, Kellie Wright, Naomi Mauro, Avana Christie, Elyse Branch, and Genevieve Dew.

Along with a top notch 17 piece orchestra led by musical director Joe Escriba, this was to pen Michelle Johnson's term, "a salicious musical revue about the divas of jazz."
Elyse, Avana, Kellie, Michelle, Mary, Genevieve and Naomi

As the ladies took the stage for their opening number Lady is a Tramp, what stood out most to me were the elegant outfits.  I loved the gowns, the diamonds, the elbow length gloves and long strings of pearls. These divas celebrating other divas were dressed to the nines and there was not a slightly falling hem or missing sequin to be seen. In addition, the expertly coordinated costume changes throughout the show made this more than a performance, but a beautifully crafted revue.

Michelle, Genevieve, Naomi, and Musical Director Joe Escriba
Some highlights of the night were Michelle Johnson as Ella Fitzgerald, Avana Christie as Bessie Smith, Naomi Mauro as Anita O'Day, Genevieve Dew as Billie Holiday, Kellie Wright as Rosemary Clooney, Mary O as Nancy Wilson and Elyse Branch as Nina Simone.

The ladies took turns and sometimes sang together for tunes such as Witchcraft, Guess Who I Saw Today, Mambo Italiano, A Little Sugar in my Bowl, Someone to Watch Over Me, Bless the Child, Send In The Clowns, and Fever.

Adding to the show were stories interwoven between the songs about the colorful and sometimes scandalous lives of the divas of jazz being paid tribute to, which I appreciated because I didn't know a lot about them so it made their songs and music more meaningful to me. Although I am willing to bet the lives of the singers on stage that night would have made just as interesting stories! Perhaps next time we will hear more about them.

Another surprise were the dancers, who intermittently jumped into a couple of numbers filling the stage with movement and energy....(especially tap dancers Victoria and Victoria).

Michelle Johnson performed a few solo numbers that night, all had different tones, sound and feel. Michelle is one of the most diverse performers we have here in Las Vegas. Although she is often referred to as the First Lady of Jazz, I tend to think that term confines her to one genre in some people's minds.  She is so much more.

Michelle Johnson
The night before her show I caught Michelle as part an event called "The Set List" at House of Blues.  Her take on the Rolling Stones' classic Wild Horses was poignant and powerful! I've been hearing a lot about Michelle lately. She sang the national anthem at a Las Vegas 51's game, then the other day at an NBA event, a few days after this show she performed at a corporate event for Microsoft. All of that was in just a two week span! Her next performance will be September 15th for her show Tapestry Unraveled a Tribute to Carole King, (also at Cabaret Jazz).

Michelle recently posted an inspiring public message on FB and since it was public I decided to share it here... "I especially want to encourage performers to focus on their own journeys. You have a unique voice that is all yours. Run your own race and you will get to the finish line. I promise you that. Just run your own race! That is what has made all of the difference for me in the past two years. I stopped comparing myself to everyone else and I stopped trying to be someone I wasn't. As soon as you acknowledge who you are, and embrace and celebrate it, things just start happening for you. Please take that leap and add single mindedness and discipline, and watch your life soar. No one can play you better than you. Make your move and leave a mark. You matter"....Beautiful words from a talented artist who we here in Las Vegas are fortunate to call a local.

This particular show was my husband and my wedding anniversary and was a perfect way to spend it. Cabaret Jazz is a special separate theater venue that is part of  The Smith Center for the Performing Arts complex and is intimate at 240 seats, but large enough for a show with an orchestra and dancers.  They serve drinks and some food including bento boxes with cheese, fruit, meat and other varieties. It's a great place for a date night, or when you have friends in town and want to show them someplace local and off of the strip.

Photos courtesy of Ed Foster

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hot Rocks! The Set List 3.0 does the Rolling Stones

The Set List productions are about capturing the mood, music and energy of a specific artist or group by performing an album of theirs in its entirety for one performance only. Created by Andrew Wright, The Set List debuted in 2015. These kinds of  productions are my favorite. They're special, beautiful and original in their rawest form, like an uncut diamond. 

For Set List 3.0 last Friday night at House of Blues Las Vegas, tourists and locals were treated to a fantasy mix of performers from shows such as Mystere, Rock of Ages, Alice, Tenors of Rock and others, for a vocal tribute of The Rolling Stones' "Hot Rocks" album.

The Set List 3.0    Photo by Ira Kuzma

Lance Bryant's groovy and soulful opening of Time is on my Side set a high bar for the rest of the night. Then Stephanie Sanchez ripped through Satisfaction, grasping the song's pent up frustration and mirroring how we've all felt at one time or another about life, love, sex and even money. Enoch Augustus Scott (of Zombie Burlesque) surprised with his bitchy fabulous rendition of Get off my Cloud. According to Mick Jagger this song is a "stop bugging me post teenage alienation song."...that may still be true but I think it would also make a great anthem to internet trolls everywhere to shut up already!

Stephanie Sanchez
Singer Dina Emmerson (Mystere), began what started out as a beautiful Cirque De Soleil style aria then in a Vegas style song twist quickly segued into Mother's Little Helper.

19th Nervous Breakdown, performed by Ashley Fuller (Alice), relayed the song's feelings of hysteria, putting on it a rock opera spin of her own. Jaclyn McSpadden's version of Paint it Black, captured the pain and anger of sudden loss of love. Under My Thumb, by James Simpson, gave this rock tune a bit of a pop flavor. Then came Robert Torti's classic interpretation of Ruby Tuesday, a song written by Keith Richards about his young love Linda, who had just left him for Jimi Hendrix. 

Valita and her version of Let's Spend the Night Together was energetic while she hopped, danced and moved like Jagger. Anne Martinez (Alice) popped in for Jumpin' Jack Flash,  backed up by Jerry Jones on harmony, (as he did so very well for many of the songs that night). After that Franky Perez showed us his Street Fightin' Man and pulled an Adele at the Grammys by starting over and hitting the nail on the head the second time around.

One of the highlights of the night was Paul Johnson (World's Greatest Rock Show), and his version of Sympathy for the Devil. It was flawless and slightly spooky just like the original. Honky tonk woman was treated with attitude and grit by Kellie Wright.

Another killer highlight of the night, Gimme Shelter, by Robin Vincent and Philip Drennan, (Vegas! The Show), showcased Philip's strong vocals with the absolutely haunting voice of Robin who captured the angst and fear of the original song which was written during the Vietnam war. "That's kind of an end of the world song really" says Mick Jagger.

Midnight Rambler was interpreted by Jared Dalley, (Rock of Ages), and was a very bluesy House of Blues  take on the tune. Brown Sugar, by Kelly Anne Gower, in a bustier and leather pants, looked like a pussycat doll, but sounded like a wildcat.

Then Michelle Johnson broke our hearts with Wild Horses, owning it like she'd written it herself. The final duet of You Can't Always Get What you Want turned into a group song started by Tommy Sherlock with Stephanie Sanchez who were then joined by the rest of the cast.

After the music there was a vote of who sang 'em best, guys or girls and the girls won by audience vote! Honestly though this was an unnecessary distraction to me. No tricks, games or props are needed with these performers. "They" are all the show needs.

The Set List is a look at some of the best the Las Vegas entertainment scene has to offer. It's a chance for those who are lucky enough to be there on a night they do one of these shows to see some of the most promising, talented, energetic vocalists you can put together on stage, and only for the very best reason, purely because they want to be.

Next up for The Set List will be this fall at House of Blues for The Who's classic famous double album "Tommy."

Charles Garland, Guitar

The Set List 3.0
Lance Bryant, Stephanie Sanchez, Enoch Augustus Scott, Dina Emmerson, Ashley Fuller, Jaclyn McSpadden, James Simpson, Robert Torti, Valita, Anne Martinez, Frankie Perez, Paul Johnson, Kellie Wright, Robin Vinent, Philip Drennan, Jared Dalley, Kelly-Anne Gower, Michelle Johnson, Tommy Sherlock, Bob Torti and harmonies, Jerry Jones
Vince Verderame, Music Director/Drums
Charlie Dennard, Keys
Dave Ostrem, bass
Charles Garland, guitar

Photos by Ira Kuzma

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Introducing an Astronaut

Introducing an astronaut for most of us is a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity, and I wanted to do it well.  So I researched Eileen Collins and wrote her an introduction that her husband proofed for me the morning of the event. I'm happy to report it was a success!

Colonel Eileen Collins was the first female pilot and commander of a U.S. Space Shuttle (Space Transportation System) and was in 1990, only the second female to become a U.S. astronaut.

Eileen was in Las Vegas to do a Keynote Presentation, "Breaking Barriers to Become a Successful Pioneer in your Field," as part of the National Pawnbrokers Association's annual event.

Eileen Collins and I , Mirage Hotel,Las Vegas 7/11/17

Eileen piloted the Columbia in 1995 and commanded the Discovery Space Shuttle in 2005. So while raising her children she was also piloting space that's a REAL life Wonder Woman! She's been married for 30 years to her husband Pat Youngs, (an International Airline Pilot), and is the mother of two children.

I can write about how many missions Colonel Collins commanded or how many awards and commendations she's received but I'd rather talk about her, the person.

Eileen Collins, first female Space Shuttle Pilot

It's hard for any mother to leave her family and travel for work, but it takes an especially brave one to leave her husband and children on planet Earth and head into space, not once but four times, (logging a total of 38 days in space).

Colonel Collins last two missions were her most well known.  Her team delivered the Chandra X-Ray Telescope to space in 1999. The last mission she commanded was her crew's return to space on Discovery in 2005, (this was only two years after the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident that took the lives of the seven astronauts on board). During the 2005 mission she piloted an unprecedented 360 degree pitch maneuver so the International Space Station could identify any damage to the shuttle Discovery after it's launch into space. In other words she flipped the Space Shuttle!

Eileen Collins retired from her position as a NASA astronaut in 2006.

Watching Eileen speak and answer questions from the audience it was clear to me that her favorite subject to talk about is space flight and the future of humans in space. I asked her what she missed most about being an astronaut and she said seeing the planet Earth from space, the camaraderie of the crew, and the weightlessness of zero gravity. The only thing she doesn't miss is that she had to be away from her family, and that's the only thing she could think of, she said.  Eileen told me before her presentation that she hoped nobody would ask her about aliens during the Q & A because that is her least favorite subject to be questioned about.

When asked about what it feels like to launch into space Eileen said, "Imagine seat belting yourself into your car, turning it back on it's wheels at a 90 degree angle and applying 600 lbs of pressure," that's what it feels like to launch into space!

Eileen Collins was not born into a family of privilege, in fact the opposite. She spent her first two years in community college before graduating with a B.A. from Syracuse University in 1978 and later the Air Force Academy. To me that's one of the most important pieces of her history, that she started in community college as her route to becoming an astronaut. We need more examples like her to encourage others that the path to success can be non traditional.

The NASA space shuttle program born in 1972, ended in 2011.

Video Link:

Eileen Collins Final Mission: Space Shuttle Discovery Launch & Landing 2005

Special thanks to Eileen Collins, Sheree Wilson, Jaki Baskow, Dana Meinecke and Robbie Ellis.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Rehearsal Actress and Stand In

As a performer I've played victims, survivors, thieves, reporters, and many more roles as well as live hosting and Emcee work for conventions.

However I have a parallel career that I am often asked about, which mostly includes accepting awards! I have accepted and presented many awards over the past several years. This includes Billboard Music Awards, The Emmys, and many more. It’s my job to accept and also present awards because I am a professional rehearsal actress and stand in for Dick Clark Productions, ABC, NBC, Vh-1 and others.
Since I appreciate that people are curious about what we stand ins do, I thought I'd take a few minutes to explain it in my blog. Everything you see on an awards show has been rehearsed several times and for several days. This is to prevent mistakes like the one that happened at last year's Oscars from happening more often! Because most of them are live shows they’re timed not only to the minute but also to the second, to make sure everything flows smoothly including all of the commercials, sponsor bumps, social media plugs and teasers.
The celebrities performing and presenting the awards are touring or working on other projects and are only there for mostly just dress rehearsals (and not even always then) so their spots need to be covered and that’s where people like myself come in.

You never know what you’re going to be called on to do. So whether it be to present an award, accept an award, dance, play an instrument, (or pretend to), sometimes even sing for an artist, a rehearsal actor has to be able to jump in and just do it. A lot of money is being spent because most rehearsals are taped so the full crew is there, so we can't be shy or unable to do what is asked of us. Especially because we're working for the best directors and crew in the business who expect professional talent. 

My first show as a rehearsal actress/stand in was several years ago for the 2001 Billboard Music Awards. Back then I had recently graduated from the Stella Adler Academy of Acting.  For that job I accepted an award for Britney Spears and presented other awards as actress Jaime Pressley and Mandy Moore. By the way you don't have to look like someone to stand in for them. If it's a situation where they need a body double that's a different job altogether and you do need to be able to look like the person you are doubling for. After that more work followed on shows such as The Academy of Country Music Awards, (standing in for then host Reba McEntire), the Daytime Emmys, the NHL Awards, and concert specials like A Tribute to Lionel Richie, (standing in for Nicole Richie) and ACM Girls Night out, Superstar Women of Country where I stood in for Carrie Underwood.

Me, Carrie Underwood (2014)

Speaking of Carrie Underwood she is by far the person I've stood in for the most over the years. It started shortly after she won American Idol and performed for the first time on the Academy of Country Music Awards. Twelve years later I'm still standing in for her on various shows and have watched her star rise, (deservedly so)!

One of my favorite memories was of working Vh-1 Divas where that particular year there was a medley with Stevie Wonder and each of the "divas" on the special. Each singer sang a short version of one of his songs with him. I had to go on for Shania Twain during dress rehearsal because her helicopter had not yet landed. So someone handed me her mic and I sang "Superstition" with Stevie Wonder! Although as stand ins we don't have the chance to sing very often it's awesome (but nerve racking) when we do!

In 2015 I got the chance to sing "New York New York" for Lady Gaga when she was rehearsing her choreography for Sinatra 100: An All Star Grammy Concert. I was accompanied by the ShowStoppers Orchestra and dancers. Also I enjoyed singing "Beautiful" at rehearsal in place of Christina Aguilera for the 2009 CNN Heroes Awards show. That was an amazing experience as she had an even bigger orchestra and for three minutes it was all mine!

Being a rehearsal actress means we get to accept awards before the artists ever do. For example I accepted "Entertainer of the Year" for Taylor Swift the first time she won at the ACM Awards. When I accepted an award as Madonna for "Top Touring Artist" for the Billboard Music Awards it required the longest acceptance speech I've ever had to improvise. When it comes to acceptance speeches we are sometimes asked to be very specific and other times to be completely vague, it just depends on the show and who's watching. 

Sometimes I have to do really unusual things like lighting an award winner's card on fire during a magic trick rehearsal with David Copperfield. In the past I have also enjoyed several years of pageant work as Rehearsal Host for each of the big three several times...Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss America. I wrote about that in a blog article back in 2013, "What is a Rehearsal Host."

Karen, Anna, Billboards 2013

The last time I ever saw Prince was introducing him with my sister Karen Wendt at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards dress rehearsal. He was at the show to accept the Icon Award. Fortunately I have worked with my sister Karen many times over the past several years as she is in the same profession. There is a small group of us who do the shows together every year and we're like a stand in family. Most of us have known each other and the crew a long time. 

Stand ins are also used for TV and film. I've stood in for Jenny  McCarthy for a TV pilot (that wasn't picked up), Isla Fisher for Now You See Me, and Cheryl Ladd when she played James Caan's wife in the series Las Vegas.

Standing in for Lara Spencer, The Oscars 2017

The Red Carpet shows have become more popular than ever and some are now shown as pre-shows just before the big event. For the 2016 and 2017 Oscars I've been Lara Spencer's stand in as a red carpet rehearsal host for Oscars Opening Ceremony: Live from the Red Carpet

Being a rehearsal actress has helped me when I audition for other acting jobs because I'm used to jumping in and doing something without worrying about nerves. Working so many awards shows has also kept me current on music, TV and film. 

Here is a video the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently made about us rehearsal actors/stand ins where they interviewed the 2016 Oscar stand ins who did a great job explaining what it is we all do!

YouTube Link:

For This Rehearsal Only: The Life of a Stand In at the Oscars