Vegas will always have Elvis. Even as the Strip’s show and entertainment community adapts to a landscape that includes major league professional sports and headlining residencies from current chart-topping artists in theaters and nightclubs, there remains a space for the King—or more specifically, varied renditions of him.
“I’m not really very good at that. I’m not an Elvis impersonator per se, and that’s part of the uniqueness of our show, that I’m onstage as myself and I don’t have to wear that cap 100 percent,” says Eddie Clendening, a veteran Broadway performer who has played the role in The Million Dollar Quartet and opened Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel in Concert at Harrah’s Showroom this week. “The main thing is our band as a whole. All those guys are as passionate about the music as I am. A lot of times when you see an impersonator, it’s a guy with a karaoke track or the band is just hired guns going through the motions. This [show] gives you full unity, everybody invested in re-creating the experience 100 percent, and all those parts add up to something special.”
Heartbreak Hotel is a concert-style show, a tweaked-for-Vegas version of a stage musical from the producers of Rock of Ages. It tells the story of Presley’s rise to fame by focusing on his earliest music and ditching the drama that sometimes bogs down a traditional tribute show. There’s a similar approach with a new show that concludes its limited run in the Donny & Marie Showroom at the Flamingo on April 21, The Greatest Piano Men, which brings a group of talented singer-pianists to the stage to play the music of Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles and more. These guys might sound like the icons, and they’re wearing some minimal costumes, but they’re onstage as themselves, interacting with the audience and not staying in character, so to speak.
“I’ve seen plenty of these Elton John-Billy Joel tribute shows and they’re like a dime a dozen,” says Donnie Kehr, one of the show’s stars and its creative director. He also performed in Las Vegas in Jersey Boys. “There’s so much more to [this music] than that. Really, the whole point of this is bringing the essence of these artists together. For those three minutes of that song, we want people to feel the energy those artists gave them.”
These are far from the only Vegas shows that create these kinds of nostalgic musical connections without the expected celebrity impersonation: Tenors of Rock just moved from Harrah’s to Planet Hollywood, The Bronx Wanderers incorporate a multitude of genres and hits into their new show at the Linq and Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox Hideaway just opened at 1 OAK Nightclub at the Mirage.
With Donny and Marie ending their decade-long run at the Flamingo, Piano Men could return to that room, but even if that fast-paced crowd-pleaser doesn’t find a permanent Vegas home, it seems there’s an appetite for live music somewhere between those big residency shows and the kitschy-in-a-good-way classics.