By John Katsilometes
Two summers ago, I overheard a bartender make an off-handed comment that has been swimming around in my head ever since.
This took place at a music venue on the Strip. The bartender was telling a customer how an emerging band from L.A. had been booked to play a gig in Las Vegas. Both of these guys were pretty firmly plugged into the music industry, at least at the grassroots level, and the bartender said this particular band was taking an important step in its career with this upcoming Vegas show.
“It’s great that they’re playing Vegas,” he said. “Vegas isn’t what it was five or six years ago, but it’s still a Vegas gig.”
Vegas isn’t what it was five or six years ago, he says.
It was just such a nonchalant comment, spoken and accepted as scripture. Vegas isn’t what it was five or six years ago, meaning the city’s luster had faded, somewhat. It was no longer such a grand entertainment Mecca. It’s still, you know, pretty good. But not what it was.
I thought of that comment Saturday night when the capacity crowd at the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts rose to give a standing ovation to violin great Joshua Bell’s spellbinding performance that helped punctuate the center’s gala opening. Bell performed two classical pieces with just a piano accompaniment. If you didn’t get those goose bumps so favored by Smith Center President Myron Martin, you must have been made of the same terrazzo as the floor at Reynolds Hall.
If you weren’t moved by Bell, maybe the unannounced appearance by John Fogerty rocked your boat. Fogerty’s four-song burst -- “Centerfield,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary” -- helped loosen the rebar at the new joint.
The artists came in waves, often paired unevenly but delightfully. Pat Monahan of Train performed “Marry Me” and “A Song for You” in duet with Martina McBride. Jennifer Hudson was ushered out to sing “Natural Woman” with McBride and Carole King. Other combinations were indeed natural: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (who cracked open “Pancho & Lefty,” from their 1983 breakthrough album) were joined by Emmylou Harris for “Ramblin’ Fever.” Mavis Staples teamed with King on “You’ve Got a Friend” just before Hudson took the stage.
Amid great anticipation, Neil Patrick Harris hosted the event. It was a terrific idea, hiring the multi-talented host of the 2011 Tony Awards telecast to navigate such a broad-ranging field. But the star of “How I Met Your Mother” and, long ago, “Doogie Howser,” didn’t do much but recite stale jokes from the teleprompter in the back of the theater. It would have been great to see Harris perform some magic, or sing and dance, or walk a tightrope, or enact something to match the quality of entertainment unfolding around him.
But the show forged on anyhow, for three hours, 33 acts and video presentations in all. The mass of this production will be edited to two hours by producers George Stevens Jr. and his son, Michael, and hopefully pitched to PBS, which will be impressed by the variety and quality of the performances. A 24-piece orchestra and a 15-piece band alternately supplied the music, both under the direction of renowned producer, arranger and songwriter Rob Mathes. One particularly noteworthy member of the 15-piece band was “Blue Lou” Marini, on alto sax. Marini was a member of the Blues Brother Band and featured in “The Blues Brothers” film. He also was the musician who burst from the crypt for a sax solo during Steve Martin’s famous performance of “King Tut” on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1970s.
So there you have your daily dose of Lou Marini trivia.
Broadway was represented by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, Cheyenne Jackson, Laura Osnes, Benjamin Walker and Montego Glover for a medley from “West Side Story,” “Rent,” “The Lion King” and “Guys and Dolls.” American Ballet Theater dancers Marcelo Gomes also leaped and spun in an apt tribute to Frank Sinatra, and the person you heard clapping a little longer than the rest of the house was Nevada Ballet Theatre Artistic Director James Canfield.
Dignitaries abounded. The hall was stuffed with the most powerful and influential figures in Las Vegas. It would be folly to try to name them all, but here’s a moment: A conversation I was enjoying afterward in the ebullient Reynolds Hall lobby with Top Rank Boxing founder Bob Arum was broken up when Siegfried & Roy (the latter in a motorized scooter) passed through. “It’s so great!” Siegfried said when asked what he thought of the place.
Another moment worth remembering: As Fogerty played to the wings of the hall, he pointed energetically at a couple seated in the lower box closest to stage left. It was Oscar and Carolyn Goodman.
The crowd rose, too, for the men primarily responsible for bringing the $470 million project to full fruition: Martin, Reynolds Foundation Chairman Fred Smith and Smith Center Chairman Don Snyder. You practically could see Martin’s face flushed with emotion even from the middle of the hall. Later, in a statement, he said, “Tonight, we celebrated more than the opening of the Smith Center. We celebrated this community’s commitment to the arts and to creating something important and lasting for the people who live here and for generations to come.”
Hudson closed the show, fittingly, with “Take Care of This House.” The selection from the short-lived Broadway musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” was backed by the 70 members of the Las Vegas All Star Choir, with Bruce Ewing, whom many Las Vegas will remember from the great a cappella production, “Forever Plaid” at Gold Coast.
Among those standing and applauding their approval were a couple seated across the row in the orchestra section: Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority chief Rossi Ralenkotter with his wife, Mary Jo.
In one of the great Las Vegas tales, on their first date as teenagers, Rossi and Mary Jo attended one of the two Beatles concerts at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1964. They still remember the shrieks from Las Vegas teenagers that doused the music during that frenzied show.
That was not the case Saturday. Every note and sound, even the deep inhales from King as she dashed across the stage, could be heard. The soaring notes from Bell’s Stradivarius transfixed the audience. Las Vegas, like its new arts center, was impressively well refined.
To those who suggest the city wasn’t what it was five or six years ago, take a spin through Symphony Park. You'll be pleasantly surprised.