Thursday, November 8, 2018

Give My Regards...Philip Fortenberry

Several years ago I was visiting the Liberace Museum along my sister and as we were approaching the end of our visit we were told that it would be closing soon, for good.  One of the last performances of a one man show at this location was about to begin.  As we entered the museum's cabaret theater I noticed one of Liberace's pianos onstage. A man then sat down at it and played some of Liberace's songs with amazing talent and grace. After that he did something I'll always remember. He said, "I'm going to look around the room at each and every one of you for a few moments and play what sound I feel when I do." He then proceeded to do just that, looking at each person for a few moments and one by one played a melody; some soft and slow, others strong and more up-tempo but all a bit different and incredibly beautiful.  That was the first time I ever met Philip Fortenberry.

Recently my sister and I repeated the experience of seeing Philip perform a one man show, this time at Myron's Cabaret Jazz. Philip's one night only show, "Give My Regards," was a salute to the music of Broadway and musical theatre. It was also a story about how that music played a part in his life and career. He shared some of those stories with the audience.

Philip Fortenberry "Give My Regards"...Photo Credit Myron Martin

"As a pianist in New York City for many years, and now Las Vegas since 2004, I've been playing the music of Broadway and musical theatre for much of my life. The music in this concert is reflective of my career, and because I have played many of the shows represented, this music is very personal to me. Indeed, I was the original pianist for several of these shows and the first musician to play some of this music. This is respectfully, my own salute to Broadway."  - Philip Fortenberry

After his opening song Philip told the audience he was born and raised in rural Mississippi. He said at the age of four he was outside by himself and suddenly felt this overwhelming urge to go inside and play the piano. He had never played before, and knew nothing about it. They had a piano but nobody ever played it. He sat down at it and performed two entire songs. The housekeeper immediately contacted his parents at work and said to come home quick, Philip was playing the piano! That discovery of his gift was the seed that planted his career. Following that experience he took lessons from his aunt, who happened to be one of only two piano teachers in town.

fter he graduated from college the first musical he worked on was in Mississippi with Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline. Philip followed that performing in the production "Forbidden Broadway," a spoof of Broadway shows which required constant updates to stay relevant and humorous.

His next show he was thrilled to be involved in because it was in New York City and a real Broadway show. It was called "Cleavage," but unfortunately as sometimes happens on The Great White Way, it had a very short run, to say the least. Following that he toured with a group that performed the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Michael Crawford, who was the original "Phantom of the Opera," was part of that tour. Philip then played some of Weber's music for the audience; Don't Cry for me Argentina, and I don't know how to love him, followed by The Phantom of the Opera and All I Ask of You, among others.

He shared his experience as a musician in "Ragtime" and played a song from that show. After that was a stint in "Seussical the Musical" where Philip worked with Stephen Flaherty and was the first to play the music for that show.  He then performed Solla Sallew for the audience. Building on that theme he followed with songs from animated musicals including the theme song from "Beauty and the Beast", A Whole New World, from "Aladdin," and Can you Feel the Love Tonight, from "The Lion King." 

Then, mentioning Ira Gershwin as another inspiration, Philip performed Gershwin's Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me, among other songs. He then talked about how he lived in New York City during the 9/11 attacks on our country and shared the impact that had on him and his fellow New York City artists and what they did to help cheer people up. He added that not surprisingly the first Broadway hit after 9/11 was the upbeat "Mamma Mia!"... He then played Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia,  plus a ballad from that show. 

Although he said he has not yet had the chance to play any of their songs as part of a full musical production, he featured some of the music of Rogers and Hammerstein in his show.

Philip in China...Photo Credit Shelley Mansholt Thomas

Philip talked about how he had just completed a 14 city tour of China introducing the songs of Broadway to a younger generation. About this trip he said, "As an American pianist with a career in theater, and much of it from the Broadway world specifically, the audiences in China seemed intrigued by every element of that," and "The music of Broadway always has some kind of story, a context in which it is to be shared. The repertoire I performed in China was precisely that, and as a pianist I could allow the power of music as the universal language to share those perspectives."

Philip said that although he has performed in amazing venues all over the world, one of his best performances and one of his favorite places to have ever played was the historic Union Station in Washington, D.C. It was specially decorated for a party that night for the late Margaret Thatcher.  He had performed Memory with Laurie Beechman who played Grizabella the Glamour Cat in "Cats." Laurie passed away not long after. He closed with Memory as the final song for "Give My Regards."  

Philip Fortenberry is a magnificent pianist. The night was sensational! 

"Give My Regards" was produced by PK Music.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Bronx Wanderers

While getting a drink at the casino bar at Bally's with one of my girlfriends I mentioned to Jimmy the bartender that we were there to see "The Bronx Wanderers." Jimmy said emphatically "Oh you're going to love the show!" I believed him because bartenders know. At least the ones in Las Vegas do. They've seen a lot of acts come and go. If he'd just said "That's a popular show," or "Yeah they're nice guys," I know what that means and it's usually not great. Then a few couples seated around me joined in that they were also there to see the show; all for the second or third time. One guy said he'd seen them in Florida awhile ago before they were a Vegas act and came to town just to see them again. 

Later we were seated at Bally's Windows Showroom, a cabaret style theater, watching "The Bronx Wanderers." The charismatic Vinny Adinolfi, otherwise know as Yo' Vinny declares to the audience "I'm living the dream!" Then he announces the band recently celebrated their two year anniversary as a Las Vegas act. I get the feeling this show is based on the premise that audiences like to feel connected to the performers on stage by hearing about their lives, because that's what they do throughout the night. Vinny shares his life right from the start. He talks about his journey, first as a teenager wanting to get into show business; then with a low level job at a major label which eventually led to a long career as a successful music producer. After years of that he decided to follow another dream, one that included performing. 

He first recruited friends and then later his two sons who now form the core of the band. They played and toured for several years before landing a permanent home in Las Vegas. The production has been a hit with fans since it first came here and I think that is partly due to Vinny's history as a music producer. He knew what songs to include in their set lists, and what kind of vocalists and musicians were needed to create the sound and feel of "The Bronx Wanderers," which by the way is the name of the show and the band. He also made a show out of it and not just a concert of cover songs, which it could have ended up being without the storytelling and multimedia mixed in with the music. 
L to R Joe Bari, David Braun, Nicky Stix, Yo' Vinny, Vin. A, and Fernando Tort
Their talent and skill is obvious early on in with a killer version of Walk Like A Man and a medley of Billy Joel songs. Then Vin A. owns as lead vocalist on Bohemian Rhapsody. I just saw Adam Lambert do that song with Queen last month and Vin A. is of the same caliber. He also crushes Brian Setzer's Rock This Town, (and I don't even like that song, but I loved his version). Oh and great touch with wardrobe on that one, white shoes and white and gold guitar. Other highlights include hits by artists John Fogerty and Bruno Mars.

The vocals are only half of it as the musicians are fantastic in this show and are the show, as much as the vocalists. Vinny is a great band lead and host and also plays acoustic guitar. His son Vin A. is the music director, and vocals and keyboard. His other son Nicky Stix (who also performed in Jersey Boys), is as sharp as they come on drums and back up vocals. Joe Bari plays sax, guitar, keyboard, and background vocals. His powerful sax always seemed to come in just at the right time to add something special to certain songs. David Braun on lead guitar and backing vocals has the sound and the swagger, and Fernando Tort is top notch on bass guitar & backing vocals. 

also pays tribute to his wife who has sacrificed a lot for her husband and sons to be on the road all the time pursuing their dream and making music. Classy move to mention that, as it is too often overlooked, the partners behind the performers. He also says the current band are all former high school classmates of his sons. Vinny talks about his first trip to Vegas at 12 years of age, seeing Elvis perform, and how the seed of his musical career was planted that day and has now come full circle.

This article only highlights some of the show, as there is so much more to it than I've mentioned here. This show runs nightly at Bally's Hotel & Casino, which means they work seven days a week, every week. Same guys, every day. Hope they don't burn themselves out. We're going to want them here for a very long time. "The Bronx Wanderers" explode with talent, style and heart!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Composers Showcase...A Variety of Originals

Last week I attended a recurring musical event that has great word of mouth around town. Run by composer Keith Thompson of PK Entertainment, "The Composer's Showcase" is the work of several composers, musicians and singers presenting their original work about once a month at Myron's Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center.

The show first began with a group of musical directors and composers working and living in Las Vegas who wanted to get together and showcase their own new music. That was 12 years ago and it's still going strong. Most are established composers and artists with an occasional up and comer in the mix. This is not an open mic style show but a planned and rehearsed production of a variety of original music.

Keith Thompson, Photo by Ira Kuzma
Composer Keith Thompson  not only produces the event but is also the emcee. Keith opened last week's show with a lighthearted song that set the tone for a  night of congenial entertainment. The other half of PK Entertainment, Philip Fortenberry joined some of the acts on piano, appearing and disappearing from the stage (like a brilliant musical ghost).

After Keith was Dr. Mark Wherry who sang with some of his students from College of Southern Nevada. The song was called Financially Made and was a humorous reflection on the rigors of financial aid. His students sounded great and had fun attitude and character in their performance. Next up was Jordan Sanders who sang her original son Man in the Moon while playing guitar. Jordan is a student at Las Vegas Academy and her voice is enchanting. 

Jeff Leibow sat down at the piano and shared a meaningful song he wrote about the loss of a baby six years ago called Lost Soul. It was sorrowful and comforting at the same time because it had an uplifting message about lost souls ultimately finding their way home. It takes a lot for a performer to share something so personal and I think that means a lot to an audience. It did to me.

After him
one of my favorite composers Michelle Johnson sang a song she wrote on a bus while touring many years ago about a dead end relationship...I Don't Make Your Heart Sing. Spellbinding as always, I enjoy when Michelle shares some of her original music (like she did at her most recent show at Myron's this past summer). Michelle then had a surprise for us all and introduced Lousie Goffin who performed one of her songs, The Last Time I Saw my Sister, from her upcoming album "All These Hellos." 

Dennis Blair inspired chuckles with his comedic song It's Not A Good Idea, about a man who obviously does not think he should marry his girlfriend! This performance featured Joey Singer on piano. Although touted as a comedian, Dennis is also an excellent singer, as proven on his most recent album Hapless Romantic. 

A dynamic performance of his song Explode by Kyle Khou, was a hit with the crowd as well.  Kyle was an American Idol finalist and has an album out titled "No Boxes." Focusing on the Halloween month that is October, Rylan Leo Helmuth debuted what I'll refer to as a spooky horror opera style song that I don't recall the name of but involved powerfully talented singers and a string section which added a haunting depth. I get scared easily so I had to busy myself with my Bento Box and cocktail, (Myron's serves food and drinks during shows). 

Then Matt Dorman introduced Betsy Holms who sang Empty House, a beautifully done version of a classic country song reminiscent of Tammy Wynette. Following her was Halsey Harkins who sat down at the piano and shared her song Technicolor Shades; which she said came to her after seeing someone desperately intoxicated, and the melancholy surrounding that moment.

One of my favorites of the night was a song by Keith Thompson that he said he wrote years ago when going through an especially self reflective time. It's called I Am The Song, about meaning in life and spreading light. Philip Fortenberry was on piano and David Warner on what they referred to as a harp cello. I mentioned to Keith after the show how touching his song was and he said, "Thank you that was hard for me to do. I'm usually joking around and this song shows a more serious side of me."
Elijah Rock with Uli Geissendoerfer  Photo by PK Entertainment
Closing the show was Elijah Rock.  It was his first appearance at this event and he was rocking the white tux style jacket with black trim exceptionally well, not to mention his voice and vocal style! Accompanied by Uli Geissendoerfer he sang Matters of the Heart then New York in the Springtime.  Elijah's new album is "Gershwin for My Soul." Elijah's motto, "Keeping Thine Eyes to the Future and Thy Ears to the Past," fits him well. 

I absolutely loved this production. With it's eclectic style, congenial feel and high caliber performances, "The Composer's Showcase" makes its own kind of magic.

October 10 "The Composers Showcase", Dennis Blair, Matt Dorman, Uli Geissendoerfer, Louise Goffin, Halsey Harkins, Rylan Leo Helmuth, Marisa Johnson, Michelle Johnson, Kyle Khou, Jeff Leibow, Elijah Rock, Jordan Sanders, Ketih Thompson, Mark Wherry. The performers were Thomas Calvin, Sam Holder, Betsy Holms, Jenelle Magbutay, Gret Menzies, Karsten Pudwill, Coco Lane Rigbye, Jolana Sampson, Ashley Stone, Rachel Tyler. The show included some performers and musicians not mentioned here. 

"The Composer's Showcase" is now a Nevada nonprofit. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Comedy Cellar Continued

The Comedy Cellar Las Vegas opened about six months ago and has been finding its footing ever since.  I like CCLV because they capture the spirit, energy and spontaneous nature of the original Comedy Cellar New York with their intimate venue, constant action, diverse talent and occasional surprises.

Saturday night the audience was treated to one of those surprises. Before I get to that I want to compliment the nightly emcee, Mark Cohen who by now seems very much at home here. This was my third visit to the club and Mark opened the show with his usual audience riffing which includes banter with some of the Las Vegas locals who frequent the Comedy Cellar as well as tourists; who always provide ripe material for what they refer to in the comedy business as crowd work. Mark is funny and high energy without appearing to be trying too hard. 

Matteo, Leo, Traci, Rocky, Mark - Photo from @traciskene

Mark had a special surprise for us last night. Just a comedian stopping by for a short set who turned out to be comedy legend Ray Romano!  Sporting a mustache for his current role in the TV Series Get Shorty, he mentioned he enjoyed being at the Comedy Cellar Las Vegas since he had actually gotten his start at the Comedy Cellar in New York about 25 years ago. Ray wondered about the need for wake up calls in Vegas, (considering nobody ever goes to bed), bemoaned the effects of aging on the sex life with a particularly funny reference to current events, as well as some improvisation about needing more doctors as friends at his age, since he always seems to need one anyway. They don't allow recording at the Comedy Cellar so I have no photos of his set...I actually like that rule. Keeps things real time.

Ray Romano was actually the second comedian to perform that night. First up was Rocky Dale Davis, a funny southerner who claims he's 25, but looks much older, or so he says. He performed before Ray so was the only comic that didn't have to follow a legend in the line-up. That's probably why he seemed so relaxed. Or maybe it's just the Southern accent. 

Next up was Leo Flowers, who is really not that ambitious.  I'm not insulting him, just repeating his catchphrase and the basis of his act.  He also reminds women they don't want a man who is too ambitious, and his reasons are funny but also ring true. Leo also talks about how his mother came to the U.S. illegally from Belize. That was a brave statement, or joke, not sure which one, but still courageous material to present in today's political climate. I liked Leo, but he was not as relaxed as Rocky...probably because he had to follow Ray Romano!

Following Leo was Traci Skene, who talks about the ups and downs of being 53. Yes, it's true, she admitted her actual age. Another brave comic! There are quite a few hilarious "shares" here, as she explains the pitfalls but also the advantages, such as the fact that a woman over 50 is less likely to be abducted by a serial killer! She also talks about how nobody over 40 wants to "make love all night long" like in the love songs, (more like about 30 minutes).  Traci has great material and excellent segues from bit to bit, and although not as mainstream famous as Ray Romano, every bit a pro and has been for a long time.

Matteo Lane closed out the night. I saw him earlier this year at Comedy Cellar. He's a delight. Matteo is funny, snide but also upbeat, and super gay in the best possible way. He talks about the fact that his brother is also gay and how that is like a "second Vietnam" to their father. Aww, I felt kind of bad laughing about that one, but I did. He talks about how he watches Ghost Hunters but wonders why they have never in 16 seasons caught even one ghost! I like Matteo as a show closer because his high energy pumps up the crowd as we all spill out of the club and into the casino.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

What happens to the millions of fans who are left behind when a rock star suddenly dies? About one year ago on July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington, who was lead singer of the internationally renowned band Linkin Park, committed suicide. 

Matthew Vinaja was one of the fans affected by Chester's death. In the intro to his documentary, We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary, he talks about how after finding out about Chester's suicide he listened constantly to his music and drove himself crazy thinking about it. Matthew said what helped him most was talking to other fans. "An idea then came to me. I decided to make a documentary. Not about Linkin Park, or even about Chester Bennington, but about the fans." Matthew chose five of Chester's fans who were brave enough to share their stories of the effect his death has had on them. 

I have never followed Linkin Park, and could only ever name one or two of their songs, but after watching this documentary I understand their music so much better that I am now also a fan.

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

The five fans featured in We Do are Andy Cool, Mary Winning, Kristine Escobedo, Phil Donney, and Adrienne McQueen, (who is also Executive Producer). In it they talk about what it was like to find out about the tragic suicide of a musician that they loved, felt close to and whose lyrics got them through some of their life's darkest times. "I screamed like I've never heard myself scream," says Adrienne, "The first thing I thought was this has to be a hoax," said Phil. "I just kept thinking the real news will come out soon," added Andy.

About the days that followed and it sunk in that Chester was gone Phil had this to say, "There's a lot of different factors that go into not only mourning a celebrity but mourning someone whose committed suicide so there's that anger and resentment to it." Adrienne added, "I felt really sick. I couldn't really speak to a lot of people, especially people who didn't really understand me." Mary couldn't really work so she browsed the internet trying to figure out how and why he could do it. Andy pissed off friends because he was all over the place emotionally. "It felt like we were all sort of thrown into this macro grieving process together," added Phil.

In We Do, the fans also talk about how it felt to listen to Linkin Park's music after losing Chester.
Grieving fans from We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

A variety of memorials followed Chester's death. Each of the five fans in the documentary attended at least one of them, some of them two or three. "I attended one in Berlin, my hometown." Mary said. Andy helped organize and performed at the one in L.A. and in Las Vegas. Adrienne attended three, including the one in Las Vegas at Club Tattoo, where she also performed. (I also attended the one in Las Vegas. Adrienne is a long time friend of mine, and I had never before seen her this devastated by the loss of an artist, so I showed up to support her.)

To me, the most meaningful part of We Do is when the fans talk about how much the LP Family means to them.  What started out as random Linkin Park fans turning to each other for comfort became a source for meaningful friendships and an ad hoc support group for those mourning the loss of the band's front man. "I'm very happy they're out there and I've met them and they understand, says Adrienne.  Kristine adds "Without this community I think I'd be lost. When I was down they brought me right back up." 

In the documentary the fans also share their advice for others on how to handle the loss of a favorite musician or artist, and speak about what helped them get through theirs.

Near the end of We Do, Matthew sums it up with this message, "Chester told us the one thing that can't be defeated is love. We have to make him proud by continuing supporting each other, loving each other and inspiring each other. We're all in this together."

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary Link below We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

Copyright Anna Wendt 2018  

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Michelle Johnson's Salute to the Great Singer-Songwriters

Michelle Johnson performed her "Salute to the Great Singer-Songwriters" last Friday night at Myron's Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center.

I've known Michelle for a few years now. We met when I first wrote about her as part of an ensemble cast in "Divorce Party" at Bally's. She is multi-talented and always involved in a lot of different things, but I've noticed recently she seems to have zeroed in on singing as her main focus. 

After kicking off the show and opening song, This Is It by Kenny Loggins, Michelle dealt with a wardrobe malfunction by joking about it and moving on.

She then went on to talk about some of the singer-songwriters that inspired her from a young age like James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and Carole King. This was followed by her especially poignant version of Both Sides Now

Michelle shared that she also has written a lot of her own songs. Recently, after playing a few for Grammy Award Winning Producer Kamau Kenyatta he encouraged her to record them, and so they are now working on an album of her originals. She then sat down at the piano to play and sing one of these songs. It was a touching ballad about being "All In."

Michelle Johnson Myron's Cabaret Jazz photo by Ira Kuzma

During the show she also sang one of my favorite Joni Mitchell numbers Big Yellow Taxi, while weaving in a little scat here and there. I was pleased Michelle also included Tracy Chapman, who is someone I personally never hear enough of. The song was Fast Car, which we all know is not really a song about a car but about getting out of a rut and changing the direction of one's future.

One of the highlights of the show and most enjoyable renditions of a song I've ever heard was Serve Somebody by Bob Dylan. Michelle did this as a what I can only describe as a disco gospel style, and with the band and backup singers, it was the best blend of all of the onstage talent of the night!

Michelle has worked with many well known singer-songwriters over the years. Near the end of the show she talked about one time in particular when she sang Hey Jude at the Hollywood Bowl as part of an All Star fundraiser with none other than Paul McCartney. She told this story intermittently while singing the song. It all built up to a beautiful climax and the audience seemed to love it, as did I.  

Michelle Johnson's next show, "Tapestry Unraveled," which is a tribute to Carole King will be back at Myron's Cabaret Jazz on November 18, 2018

Michelle Johnson's Tribute to Singer-Songwriters
Musical Director Jeff Neiman
Singers Gret Menzies Gonzalez, 
Jassen Allen, Jolana Sampson-Adamson
Band Pablo Gadda, Walter Jones, Don Meoli


Monday, July 2, 2018

The Cocktail Cabaret Celebrates 100th Performance

I've been a fan of "The Cocktail Cabaret" since it opened last winter. The show is cabaret style with a touch of modern flair and has a start time of 6pm, which makes it the perfect kick off to an evening out in Las Vegas.

Before the 100th performance celebration of the show Friday night I was chatting with Derek and Hailey, a couple from Kansas seated at our table with us. Hailey said to me "I told Derek I wanted to do something tonight we've never done, and we've never been to a cabaret show, so I chose this."

For those like Hailey who are not familiar, a cabaret show is one usually performed by an ensemble that involves song, dance and banter in an intimate venue. When talking before the show with host and performer Eric Jordan Young I asked what he likes most about performing in "The Cocktail Cabaret" and he said, "Actually the whole show in its entirety because many people don't know what cabaret style is, that it's audience interactive, and we get to show them that."

L to R Philip Fortenberry, Daniel Emmet, Niki Scalera, Keith Thompson, Maren Wade, Eric Jordan Young  Photo credit: Ross Kyker Photo

The show starts with a rousing performance of the original song "Cocktail Cabaret." Written by Keith Thompson, the song sets the tone and brands this show as its own unique production and much more than a night of cabaret style compositions of popular hits. After that Maren Wade slinks onstage and into her slow tempo version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, followed by another original from Thompson, The Man at the Piano which is an interactive duet with Philip Fortenberry and Daniel Emmet (a current season contestant on "America's Got Talent").

The next highlight for me was the duet with Young and Emmet of Now or Never which becomes a bit competitive between the two, but don't worry it's all part of the act! By the time Niki Scalera lifts her bedazzled arm high to launch into her chilling version of Diamonds are Forever, the audience is fully engaged in this production for the remaining of the 19 songs and medleys; some even breaking into mid show spontaneous standing ovations. After one of Daniel Emmet's songs where he went back and forth between English and Italian lyrics, Hailey leaned over to me and said, "He just brought tears to my eyes."

By the time the show was nearing the end with a dynamic rendition of Raise Your Glass, our table of four was in high spirits. After exchanging contact information with our new friends, my husband and I headed out of the venue and on to the rest of the evening carrying with us the bubbly energy of "The Cocktail Cabaret."

"The Cocktail Cabaret" was created by the founders of PK Entertainment, Keith Thompson ("Jersey Boys," "The Composer's Showcase") and Philip Fortenberry, (award winning pianist with multiple Broadway credits). The band is Josh Jones, Don Meoli and Eric Tewalt. It runs about 70 minutes with no intermission in the 150 seat floating Cleopatra's Barge lounge at Caesars Palace. Wednesdays - Saturdays 6pm


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

NHL Awards and NHL Gaming World Championship 2018

The 2018 NHL Awards will air live on June 20 from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on NBCSN and Sportsnet at 5pm PT/8pm ET. Las Vegas has hosted the show several times.

I'm working as a Stand In again this year for some of the presenters and nominees. I can't believe it was only a year ago that Las Vegas created our new team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights by way of the NHL Expansion Draft, which was televised live during the 2017 NHL Awards. It made the show especially exciting to be a part of.

Little did we know then that our new team would go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals their first year and become the most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports!

Of the 12 NHL Awards being presented, four VGK Members are nominated. These include Players William Karlsson and Deryk Engelland, Coach Gerard Gallant and General Manager George McPhee. Let's hope all of them have an NHL Award to add to their accomplishments this past season!

Many of us here in Las Vegas will always appreciate the National Hockey League for allowing us to have our first Major League Sports Team. It's been a wonderful addition to our city and has bonded our community in ways we didn't imagine a year ago.

There's another element that's brand new to the NHL Awards this year. The Inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship which was held earlier tonight at the new 30,000 square foot Allied ESports Arena at the Luxor Hotel and Casino here in Las Vegas. 

The winner was Erik Tammenpaa from Finland who was awarded the $50,000 prize after defeating United States player David Roebuck in a best-of-3 final. For those who may not know what this event is about, it's an NHL ESports Championship where players compete against others from all over the world in hockey video gaming in front of an audience of international fans.

First ever NHL Gaming World Champion Erik Tammenpaa

Friday, June 15, 2018

Little by Little...Catching up with Rich Little

Here in Las Vegas Rich Little performs his show at the Tropicana's Laugh Factory three days a week. I checked out Rich Little Live in Las Vegas the other night, and had a chance to chat with him a bit afterwards.

Because he's been performing for over 50 years most people know him best from specials like the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. This was the case for me and my siblings. We'd sit cross legged in our pajamas in front of the TV with our parents and watch him impersonate and mingle with celebrities and presidents while we giggled over his witty impressions, jokes and banter. The other night after his show my sister said to me "That's how I knew who so many American Presidents were, from Rich Little's impersonations. He was the only one who made politicians interesting to me as a kid!"

Rich Little, Las Vegas June 2018
When writing about a performer such as Rich Little it's tempting to share a lot of their life stories and accomplishments. But then the article can end up looking like a Wikipedia page. So I'll just concentrate on his current show. 

I like the Laugh Factory venue for him because it's a classic comedy club with an intimate stage and seating. There's no real separation between Little and the audience which makes the experience feel warm and personal.

The show starts promptly at 7pm as he is introduced by a distant voice. There's no pre-show video or warm up act. He just walks in the room like an uncle showing up for dinner with a gentle smile.

Then he proceeds to talk about his career interwoven with impressions of the comedy legends, presidents and entertainers he's worked with over the years. This includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dean Martin, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and so many more. This is augmented with video, audio and even his own sketches of his subjects; all of which add a rich dimension to his intimate production. He doesn't brag about his career but rather amuses, entertains and enlightens. I never sensed a big ego, or if he has one he doesn't bring it to the performance. Rich Little's show is the perfect blend of impressions, jokes and storytelling.

It's surreal to experience some of these celebrities that Little does because it's more than an impersonation; that he perfected long ago. It's how he captures the essence of his subjects, which is not easy because it's not a tangible factor that can be used in studying a person and how to emulate them. In this way he's really an actor first, impersonator second, and that's what I like the most about him. 

During the show he commented on how quiet we were at times as an audience and joked if we were even awake, but it was just that we were listening intently. After all it's when the audience is restless that one should worry!

Me, Rich Little, Karen Wendt
Afterwards I asked him which president he liked impersonating the most and he said "Oh Ronald Reagan. He had the best sense of humor of them all. Ronald Reagan told me my impersonations of him were so good that one day when he dies they'll probably bury me instead!

I bought his book Little by Little: People I've Known and Been, and asked him to sign it to give to my father but ended up reading it myself too. It's both parts funny and poignant. He shares insights into show business and some legendary people that only someone with his experience and perspective can.

Rich Little Live in Las Vegas at the Tropicana

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How Voting is Keeping Up with the Times

Did you know that now in some states you can vote while shopping or working out?

Today I voted in a state primary election and was pleased to see that my county, (Clark County, Nevada) has made it much easier to vote by installing Voting Centers everywhere!

I had over 172 choices on where to vote today and was not in any way limited to a precinct or even a section of town. Locations I could have voted included shopping malls and recreation centers in addition to the usual churches and schools.

Currently thirteen states allow jurisdiction to use these multiple voting center formats. I think this change will make a noticeable difference in the numbers who turn out to vote in ALL elections, whatever a person's political party or choices of candidates may be. 

Also, although I did not choose to vote early there were several choices for that option that were not limited to a precinct or one location. Of course you can still vote by mail if registered for that particular option, but this article is about voting in person.

I am pleased to have personally experienced this new voting process and look forward to seeing future evolution of voting procedures locally and nationwide.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Marilyn The New Musical

The late Marilyn Monroe is a legend to so many but it takes someone with both passion and courage to create a musical based on her life.  Although she died over fifty years ago she remains a Hollywood Icon and is still of interest to both men and women worldwide. Movies, books and songs have been written about her and merchandise with her likeness continues to sell in large numbers. Marilyn Monroe's style is timeless. You can't say that about many.

Tegan Summer who is the Writer, Producer, and Director of Marilyn The New Musical is a classic film and stage enthusiast who says he has always been fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. Not the star but who she was when the cameras were turned off, which fueled his desire to write this show.  Co-Producer Michael Donovan secured the fantastic cast and Gregory Nabours provided additional songs and lyrics. Choreography by Ferly Prado.

Friday night was the official premier of Marilyn The New Musical in Las Vegas at the Paris Theater. This show is a fully authorized production by Authentic Brands Group, which owns the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Although it has been previously worked on in both Vegas and L.A., the show officially debuted on the Las Vegas Strip. 

I think love and work are the only things that really happen to us. - Marilyn Monroe

It is incredibly challenging to bring an original musical to the stage. Very few are willing to take a chance on a new show because they want guaranteed formulas for hits. I'm pleased that in this case Prospect House Entertainment and Caesars Entertainment did. There's no reason Las Vegas can't originate major Broadway style productions. Anyone who says otherwise has probably never seen or met any of the high caliber talent including writers, directors and producers who live here.

There is truth and honesty to this show that touched me. Set and stage adjustments could make it more powerful but the talent, the songs and the story are all there. So was an eight piece orchestra that helped create the feeling of going back to another time and place. It all gets to the heart of who Marilyn Monroe was and what it was like during her life to be a woman on her own in show business back when men ran everything. 

The story opens with Marilyn's driver Charlie, (the talented and melodic Frank Lawson) singing how he's got The Best Job in Town but also humorously bemoaning the fact that because Marilyn is always late he is always waiting. Charlie continues as narrator throughout. Many times the household staff of famous people know them better than anyone else and in such this character provides a unique perspective.

We are then introduced to Norma Jeane at age 16, before she was Marilyn (played by Brittney Bertier). We see she is being sent away from her foster home and told she has nowhere else to go so she should marry her neighbor Jim. I would have liked the story of Norma Jeane to be a little longer and show us more of the adolescence that shaped her.

Norma Jeane continues to appear throughout the show as a shadow following Marilyn as she goes through life. This scenario works. The Norma Jeane and Marilyn combo has been used before in other productions. It's a relatable theme, as many of us adults try to shed who we were as children, with varying levels of success. 

Ruby Lewis as Marilyn Monroe
We then meet Ruby Lewis, our Marilyn Monroe. A lot of actresses think they can portray her but that is only true if they understand Marilyn on a deep level, and also have that X factor that Marilyn possessed. A women who plays her has to internalize her history of having been sexually abused and neglected with lifetime problems of anxiety, insomnia, and addiction. Yet also being someone who continued to strive to succeed. Ruby embodies this. She's a real talent and although at times she sang like Marilyn and other times much better than Marilyn ever did, it worked and the audience was quick to applause even at times shouting out their enthusiasm after a number. Especially in songs such as The Time of My Life, Someone Else Ago, and Don't Wanna Be Me. Ruby is in better shape than Marilyn was and she'd be best served not to get any thinner in this role so as to not lose the Marilyn-esque curves that define her physical persona.

As I once wrote in an article about Marilyn she was not only sexy but was funny as hell. Anyone who has seen "Some Like It Hot" would not dispute that. Little of this side of her is shown in the production but is an element I would have liked to have seen more of because it truly helped set her apart.

This show highlights some of her dealings with men such as the tyrannical studio head Darryl Zanuck, (played by the ever potent Randal Keith), and her first shoot with photographer Milton Greene who would later become a partner in her production company, (portrayed by gifted vocalist Travis Cloer).

It also sheds light on some of her most meaningful relationships such as her first love Bill Pursel (Chris Fore), a man who wanted to save her, but also wanted her out of the spotlight, as many men after him would; and her ill fated marriages to Joe Di Maggio (Christopher Showerman), and Arthur Miller (Matthew Tyler). 

There was also a lovely performance of I Ain't Stoppin', by Chanel Edwards-Frederick as Ella Fitzgerald in a little known story about her and Marilyn performing at the same venue. 

Was Marilyn Monroe's life a success or a tragedy? It think it was both, like many people's.  Monroe has been quoted as saying Hollywood is a place that will pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. She was right. It's a beautiful and ugly business at the same time and you've got to have backbone to survive it intact. In Marilyn's case perhaps if she'd had lasting love and been able to have a child, which she very much wanted, she would have had the long life of some of her contemporaries like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. But that was not to be. 

I was pleased the show didn't end on the death scene. She was so much more than the moment she slipped away. "Legacy of A Bombshell"