During his tenure as a cast member of “Jersey Boys” at the Palazzo, Erich Bergen was one of my favorite performers.
But not as a “Jersey Boy.”
Yes, he was fine in his portrayal of Bob Gaudio before parting with the production in September 2009, capping a three-year run in Las Vegas and on tour. But for Bergen, playing that role was comparatively restrictive in comparison to what he could achieve in his performances at the the Composers Showcase at the Liberace Museum.
In those appearances, Bergen’s fingers darted across the keys of Liberace’s mirror-plated Baldwin. He sang standards, variations of modern-day pop songs and even uncorked an old audiotape of himself, at age 4, singing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
Bergen returns this week as a cast member in another famous musical, “Anything Goes,” at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Reynolds Hall. Bergen plays Billy Crocker in the touring production, which opens tonight and runs through Sunday (for ticket prices and show information, hit the Smith Center website). On Wednesday, Bergen also is returning to the Composers Showcase, this time at Cabaret Jazz, with the 10:30 p.m. start time giving him just enough time to freshen up and be ... Erich Bergen.
I’ve always known Bergen to be a colorful and opinionated individual -- whether being interviewed or just engaging in casual chitchat. He hasn’t changed since leaving Las Vegas. A few highlights from our conversation last week:
On the value of The Smith Center to the Las Vegas entertainment culture: “I think that’s the most appealing part to coming back to Las Vegas, The Smith Center. … When I was there the first time around and we were doing all those shows at the Liberace Museum, with the ‘Jersey Boys’ people and before that, people from ‘Mamma Mia!,’ I felt people who lived in Las Vegas were desperate for some form of entertainment that was not just showgirls in sparkles and ‘Jubilee,’ and not, you know, Vince Neil and the next topless show. I get that ‘Jubilee’ has been running forever (at Bally’s) and ‘Avenue Q’ didn’t work (at Wynn Las Vegas), but I am thrilled that The Smith Center exists for people to kick off the next stage of arts and culture and entertainment in Las Vegas.”
On the possibility of returning to Las Vegas to headline in his own show: “I don’t know if I could put that much time and energy into making a name for myself before coming in with a show, and that’s what you need to do, I think, to succeed in Las Vegas. I would be scared to do it without a solid backbone of business behind me. … I would love to come back and live there and work there, but I’ve watched friends of mine who have had the chops and had the reviews and had everything and couldn’t make it work. The business side of it is scary.”
On how he’s adapted to the role he plays in “Anything Goes”: “I’m not the dancer you would think they’d want to cast in this role. It is a very hard show to do physically. ‘Jersey Boys’ was a lot of running around and a lot of energy, but it was more stylized movement. This is real, classical, Fred Astaire, MGM-style dance. That is not the world I come from. If anything, I come from the (laughs) 'N Sync world, the MTV style of dance. I think that, growing up, watching Michael Jackson and James Brown and Jackie Wilson and all of the people who I studied, just from a visual standpoint, at least gave me a leg up -- no pun intended -- in being able to stylize it, to make it look more like I know what I’m doing than I actually do.”
On how he could tell the difference between a locals’ crowd and a tourists’ crowd when he was in “Jersey Boys”: “The nights you could tell it was a locals’ crowd was when people were there to see a real piece of theater. Not when we’d get the crowd where the woman was so drunk she threw a drink on a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop. We had that crowd, as well, and that really happened, yes.
“They were in the fourth or fifth row. She was being sort of loud and obnoxious throughout the entire show, but right when we hit ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ she finally -- and I had sort of missed this part -- she’d thrown her drink on the guy at the end of the aisle, who had told her to quiet down. And it turned out that guy was an undercover cop, and they dragged her screaming out of the Palazzo Theater, right up the aisle, and we didn’t stop. It was just hilarious.”