BWW Reviews: Hail Caesars Entertainment! JERSEY BOYS, PEEPSHOW & More Bring Broadway's Best to Las Vegas Strip
Broadway is alive and well and living in Las Vegas. The influence of the Great White Way on the Las Vegas Strip is more evident than ever and the word of the day is "QUALITY!" For theatre goers visiting Las Vegas who have digested just about "one Cirque too many" – Caesars Entertainment offers the antidote, producing the finest theatrical experiences in town ranging from a first rate production of JERSEY BOYS to Jerry Mitchell's tantalizing PEEPSHOW to the always surprising PENN AND TELLER, and more. On a recent trip to Sin City I attended five of Caesar's great theatrical offerings and was treated to a feast for the senses at every turn.
Caesars Entertainment owns nine properties in Las Vegas – Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, Paris, Flamingo, Rio, Harrahs, Ballys, Imperial Palace and Bills Gambling Hall – and is home to over 24 production shows starring the likes of Celine Dion, Elton John and Donny and Marie. Las Vegas has truly become a show-lovers' mecca -- next to Broadway's theatre district there is no other comparable entertainment district in the world. And Caesar's Entertainment is leading the pack in offering the truly must-see offerings on and off the strip.
My "sampler platter" of Caesars' entertainment included JERSEY BOYS, PEEP SHOW, PENN AND TELLER, LEGENDS IN CONCERT and the longest running production show in Las Vegas, JUBILEE.
Let me start by saying – RUN, DON'T WALK to see the Vegas iteration of JERSEY BOYS playing at Paris Las Vegas which in my opinion – dare I say it – rivals the original in every way. The casting is right on the money with stellar performances by Graham Fenton as Frankie Valli, Deven May as Tommy DeVito, Jeff Liebow as Nick Massi and Rob Marnell as Bob Gaudio. Fenton was in great voice – pitch perfect -- and carried the show with his charisma, energy and multi-layered portrayal of Valli. Standby Merissa Haddad performed the role of Mary Delgado on this particular night and delivered one of the evening's strongest performances – it was riveting to watch her emotional arc and she added great dimension to a character I have seen played with "one note" in other New York and touring productions. The chemistry between the four leading men was to die for and every moment they shared the stage together, riveting. The entire ensemble is as finely tuned and highly polished as you might expect in any great long running show but hasn't lost the freshness and exuberance of an opening night. John Salvatore's Bobby Crewe was comic genius and he hit all the right notes, never overplaying his broad take on Crewe. The venue itself is spectacular – state of the art – and, though quite large, has the intimate feel of any great Broadway house. The production was technically flawless. I am a big fan of the New York Production, but I can't say I have enjoyed any production more, or even as much, as the one that has found its home in Vegas. The theatre was sold out all week at 100% capacity – I hope that translates into a long and happy run for this incredible production. It was great to see a book show done so well in a city more known for production and variety shows.
I have mixed feelings about my second show – Jerry Mitchell's PEEPSHOW, at Planet Hollywood, starring Holly Madison. (Madison plays her final performance on October 21 – having played Bo Peep for over 1,000 performances). PEEPSHOW is like the Vegas version of "Broadway Bares" and features some wonderful original music by Andrew Lippa – but like the leading character Bo Peep, the show seems to have lost its way somewhere along the journey. The show seems very confused as to its genre and, in fact, precisely what audience it is reaching for – which may be why the house was less than a quarter full. The audience was confused as well. It is not quite burlesque and not quite Broadway musical – lost somewhere in a sort of purgatory in-between --- and so it is not really very satisfying for any audience seeking either kind of show. Jerry Mitchell's pedigree assured high quality production numbers, and he delivered. Clever,clever,clever. The staging was impeccable and the entire production was technically flawless. Cotton candy for the eyes. But the quasi-storyline and the tug of war between Lippa's quite wonderful original songs and various other pop songs that didn't really serve the quasi-storyline (except to give reason for some more creative Jerry Mitchell ideas) made for a roller coaster of an evening – a clash of styles –that, frankly, left me cold. The performances were mixed as well. Josh Strickland's vocals were just annoying. It was difficult to understand any of the lyrics he sang and his over-stylized vocal quality was quite cloying and at times pretty unbearable. He comes off as neither sexy, seductive or a leading man. Rather, he generally just comes off silly. Cheaza's Peep Diva is the strongest vocal in the show but her performance is uneven, especially when she is tasked to lead the (too much) audience participation, which comes off quite forced and unappealing. Holly Madison is beautiful, no doubt. She makes it through the show with very little to do, except a doe-eyed smile and showing off her assets, and came off pretty much unscathed – with the exception of a Teddy Bear number which proves that singing is not her strongest suit. It was evident that her male fans came to see two things -- and they were not singing or dancing -- and they were not disappointed. The ensemble was extremely talented – first rate -- and deserve much praise. During the final bows, the Peep Diva asked, no demanded, the audience stand – no kidding, the first "forced" standing ovation I have ever witnessed – and, because it was not genuine, it was almost embarrassing. All in all, it was a frustrating evening because there was so much Jerry Mitchell creativity to love and yet he gave me no compelling reason to recommend it. It is a show that is directed brilliantly – and yet wanders aimlessly with no direction. I am hoping that with the ushering in of a new leading lady to replace Holly Madison, the creative team might take a hard look at re-tooling PEEPSHOW to insure it a long life on the strip. I do applaud Caesars Entertainment for giving Mitchell and Lippa the creative freedom to explore something new and hope it is just the beginning of such creative collaborations. But PEEPHOW, in its current state, is both a hit and a miss. Go see it? YES, if you have a spare evening. It is eye-candy done impeccably well.
PENN AND TELLER are brilliant! The Broadway connection? Their first big show was an off-Broadway production called "Penn and Teller Go Public" in 1985 which was an instant hit and ran for over a year. They now have a long term contract at The Rio in one of the most beautiful theatres I have ever seem, Vegas or otherwise. From beginning to end, Penn Gilette and his partner (Raymond) Teller deliver their signature brand of comedy magic that is as cerebral as it is spectacular. Once the house opens, incredible pianist Mike Jones plays the audience to their seats on a grand piano and sets the tone for all the style and showmanship to come. This is one of the "must see" shows I described in my opening paragraph. I would be doing a disservice to give any of the tricks, or illusions or great lines away. I will just say that this show does not disappoint. The show is built on a lot of extremely clever audience interaction – some of it involving cell phones and fish – and Penn was proud to announce that unlike many magic shows on the strip, this show did not make use of any paid audience plants. "They are too expensive". The beauty of this show is that every night can be a totally unique experience because they rotate in and out all of their tried and true routines and try out new routines regularly, It is always a joy to see masters at their craft. Penn is truly a master at delivering his highly subtle and highly intellectual comedic monologues and Teller a master at physical comedy and his trademark facial expressions --- truly the Charlie Chaplin of our time. Penn and Teller consistently sell out their venue, so I would definitely recommend advance tickets.
LEGENDS IN CONCERT at Harrahs! was a delightfully unexpected surprise. I will admit, of the five shows on my itinerary, this was the one I was least excited about attending. I expected to be under-whelmed by what I presumed would be a slightly tired (it has been running for years), low-budget (false assumption), one-note evening of celebrity impersonations. SURPRISE! I was not only wrong but would highly endorse LEGENDS as a "must see" evening of entertainment for any Vegas trip. And I will likely go again. The show begins with the voiced-over declaration "Keep Your Eyes Wide Open". It's difficult to do anything but that. It is a non-stop, visual and sensorial feast. The production values were exceptional throughout – the use of video and multi-media was stellar -- the sound and lighting were rock-concert sensational. Even though it is a series of celebrity vignettes the show had the feel of a finely-crafted, through-line show. All of the vocals are performed live and all of the singers very capable. The impersonated entertainers ranged from Justin Timberlake (the opening entertainer, and mediocre in comparison of those to follow) to Whitney Houston to Elvis. JC Brando as Adele was spot on. Her "Rumor Has It" was as close as you could get to the real thing and her performance was honest, subtle and expertly nuanced. Eric Martin and Carmen Romano as The Blues Brothers couldn't have been more right on the mark if they had been reincarnated. They have crafted audience participation, which I often find uncomfortable, into an art form and they garnered genuine belly laughs from the entire audience. The weakest member of the cast was Jazmine as Whitney Houston who neither resembled nor sounded like the music legend. Since Houston recently passed away, the expectation of an exceptional tribute was high, but was not delivered. Jazmine is a strong singer but did not come close to matching Houston's style or range or passion or likeness. "I Will Always Love You" was lackluster and the lowest point in a generally high level production. The ensemble of back-up dancers were not extraordinary, and the choreography was nothing special, but they brought a lot of much needed energy and variety to enhance the solo performances and the overall production. There were a couple of misguided and unnecessary dance solos and duets that actually detracted from the moment rather than adding – the pas de deux in one of Timberlake's numbers was just plain silly. The Combined cast did a Rock and Roll Finale ("We Will Rock You" and more) and had the entire audience dancing along – if not in the aisles, at least in their seats.
Finally, I attended the longest running production show on the Las Vegas Strip, JUBILEE at Bally's. JUBILEE is like taking a peek into a time capsule – it is part Busby Berkeley, part Lawrence Welk with a little bit of The Rockettes and The Follies Bergere mixed in for good measure. Most of it holds the test of time, and some of it does not. Some of the "Lawrence Welk Show"-like moments just come off as corny and you could see audience members shifting in their seats and checking their I-Phones. At one time JUBILEE set the bar for production shows in Las Vegas and the sheer spectacle is awe inspiring. The "Samson And Delilah" sequence alone is worth the price of admission. The half naked cast appeared to number in the thousands. I stopped counting. The costumes were sumptuous, the stage props and scenic elements spectacular and I kept asking myself – where do all these sets keep coming from? It was seriously Busby Berkeley on steroids and something you wouldn't see anywhere else. (Except maybe in an Andrew Lloyd Webber show). The only problem was the placement of "Samson and Delilah" in the middle of the show because everything that followed, including the sinking of The Titanic, seemed anti-climatic. The cast looked as if they were on "cruise control" and their energy never really matched the show's technical prowess. Notable were the variety acts that were filtered throughout the show. Great acrobats never get tired. JUBILEE is an "old fashioned" Las Vegas Revue and one can only hope it runs forever.
Caesars Entertainment not only has a keen eye for producing quality entertainment but also is ever innovative in how they deliver their product. They recently introduced their "All Access Pass" where, for the one-time purchase of a $99. Pass, patrons can attend as many shows as they wish within a 48 hour period (from time of purchase) at any of the nine Caesars properties. For more information, a schedule of shows or to purchase tickets to any of Caesars Las Vegas offerings visit www.caesars.com.