One of my favorite local food writing colleagues said and/or wrote something years ago that still resonates with me as I search for accurate ways to describe the various Vegas experiences I encounter. He was talking or writing about a restaurant on the Strip and how it was “better than it has to be.”
To color that in a bit with context: It’s about the captive tourist audience at any given moment. You’re an Italian restaurant, you’ve got chicken parm and you’ve got nonstop traffic from the thousands of hotel guests sleeping above your restaurant. And yet your chicken parm is just outstanding. Better than it has to be.
Since I’ve been eating at Strip restaurants less and instead consuming all the shows on the Boulevard, this philosophy has proven to be almost universally true. I apply it to the big-name resident headliners whose popularity alone tends to sell expensive tickets. If you buy a ticket to see Celine or Cher or Gwen, you’re likely to enjoy the show, but those artists and the people who build their productions are going to exceed your expectations.
My favorite example of this indulgent excellence is at one of my favorite resorts, the Mirage. Now in their sixth year performing at the Terry Fator Theatre, Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman—Boyz II Men—have honed their minimal, infinitely entertaining show into a standard bearer for Strip musical productions.
I’ve been recommending this residency to strangers, friends, tourists and locals since I saw it for the first time last year, but I’m certain few people have taken my advice. That’s because Boyz II Men is such a familiar act with so many hits, the trio’s Vegas presence has been overlooked. As a summer episode of the excellent music-geek podcast Heat Rocks reminded me, B2M is similarly overlooked within its own genre; when fans ruminate nostalgically about ’90s R&B, they don’t talk about these guys. The band is too famous and was too successful during that era. It’s odd.
I was sure I wasn’t the only person who felt this away about the act’s show, but I tested it anyway: I took my wife and two of our closest friends to the Mirage to see it for their first time. They had the same expectations I did: incredibly talented singers performing their many hit ballads. And they were blown away just like I was. Of course the voices are sharp as ever.
But what’s this? Boyz II Men is a group of three charming comedians? Are they poking fun at their own legendary oversinging? Yes. And now they’re running through their favorite Motown hits, and my friends are realizing there’s no group better suited to do it. Next, they revisit their a capella origins with another humorous segment, doing the doo-wop thing with childhood Philly friend Marc Nelson. He was sort of an original member of Boyz II Men before it became the famous foursome, and he’s become a sort of replacement since bass singer Michael McCary left the group 15 years ago due to health problems.
They’ve already sung “On Bended Knee,” the most Boyz II Men song ever, but they’re not done—they’re just getting started. Shawn and Nate strap on guitars and Wanya becomes the frontman of a rock band covering Lenny Kravitz, Bruno Mars and The Beatles. My friend didn’t see that coming, and she’s shocked. She also didn’t think she’d be shedding a few tears, but that’s what happens when they sing “A Song for Mama.” She’s far from the only one.
My guests were incredulous at the sight of the women in the audience rushing the stage to collect a long-stemmed red rose during “I’ll Make Love to You,” but after the show, they regretted not joining in. I was vindicated.
There’s no debate. This is one of the best shows in Las Vegas. Any headliner must have undeniable talent, iconic music or all-around showmanship to find success on the Strip these days. Boyz II Men has all three.
BOYZ II MEN November 16-18, December 28-29, 7:30 p.m., $54-$163. Mirage, 702-792-7777.