"All right, very quickly, before we go, Steve Friess,” KNPR’s Dave Berns intoned in his dulcet voice, “one entertainment tip you have right now. Something you’ve seen recently on the Strip or off the Strip that you think people should go to?”
On that particular day last week, I blurted out Jersey Boys, because at the moment, I’m a little obsessed with the show. But that was a quick-fire answer to a question that seems simple and is, in fact, quite complex.
I get this question a lot. I get it from Facebook friends when they’re about to visit, you readers ask about once a week by e-mail, and it comes up often among colleagues over drinks at media events.
Well, the next time someone asks, I can just forward them the link to this here article. Granted, the list below will change; three shows that would’ve been on the list a year ago—The Red Piano, Mamma Mia! and Stomp Out Loud—are gone. If Peepshow jells well and Terry Fator forsakes the unnecessary political snark that was present when the show opened, both are serious candidates down the line.
Every selection here has one thing in common: If a friend called asking me to go with them to see any of these, I’d go, assuming (a) I wasn’t busy or (b) no new episode of Lost or Mad Men was on.
No. 10: Donny and Marie (Flamingo). Don’t look at me like that. It’s really fun, breezy, nostalgic. Granted, Marie Osmond’s obvious lip-synching of an “opera” sequence that’s not actually opera is a rare moment of unintentional camp, but the two of them are so upbeat and self-effacing and earnest that it’s hard to leave grumpy.
No. 9: Mac King Comedy Magic Show (Harrah’s). At $25 a head, by far the best bargain on the Strip, but also one of the best experiences. King disarms with plaid suits and folksy charm, but also punctuates his magic tricks with surprisingly cutting humor.
No. 8: Rita Rudner (Harrah’s). Like Mac King, she candy-coats her biting zingers—her version of a plaid suit is her girly-girl voice—but her ruminations on marriage, family and shopping never fail to crack me up. You know a joke’s good when it’s still funny the fifth time you hear it.
No. 7: The Mentalist Live (Planet Hollywood). One weekend a while back, I was dragged to see star Gerry McCambridge when he was at Hooters. I’m usually right about what I’ll hate—the Scintas, Steve Wyrick, Elvolution and Criss Angel Believe are recent wastes of my time—but McCambridge turned out to be entertaining and original. There’s this sequence where he grabs numbers out of the audience and somehow they end up in a sealed box or some such, and, well, I just don’t understand how it’s possible. And that’s a good thing.
No. 6: Jersey Boys (Palazzo). Yes, it was the first thing on my mind when Berns quizzed me. And gosh, it’s terrific. The Four Seasons tunes have obvious appeal for older Vegas-goers while being presented anew for the rest of us in a beautiful, perfectly written story that keeps it from being a nostalgia act or jukebox musical. Still, there’s a “but.” See No. 2 for why it’s not higher on the list.
No. 5: The Showgirl Must Go On (Caesars Palace). Back when Cher was announced, Mike Weatherford of the Review-Journal wondered if the Colosseum was “splitting a pair of 10s” by offering up yet another gay icon. Yet there are many breeds of gay, and mine is the sort who prefers classy, brassy Bette Midler and her wide-ranging musical oeuvre to Cher’s aggressive bellowing and outlandish wardrobe. Bette’s career retrospective hits all the right notes, and, as a bonus, you won’t be surrounded in the audience by lunatics.
No. 4: Ultimate Manilow: The Hits (Las Vegas Hilton). It pains me to put this ahead of Bette, because I love her so, but I can’t escape the fact that Manilow puts on a better stage show that relies less on gimmicks and set pieces and more on giving everyone what they came for, himself. The music goes down like honey, he seems to have more freedom to mix it up because he’s not beset by a cast and much in the way of choreography, and he uses video very sparingly to babysit the audience. He also hasn’t rested on his laurels; this show is many times better than it was when it opened.
No. 3: Anything at the Onyx Theatre. I owe the guys at The Rack an apology. When they built this intimate theater behind their sex-toys shop in Commercial Center (953 E. Sahara), I assumed it would be a porn theater and made lots of jokes about how sticky the floor would be. Instead, the Onyx is a serious, diverse performance venue offering up everything from Henry V to The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode. Who knew the studded-collar biz was so key to supporting good local theater?
No. 2: Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular (Venetian). Proving that Broadway shows can be longer and more overwrought than necessary, this shorn version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic is by every measure better than the original. What’s puzzling is that in the years since Phantom arrived, nobody’s tried to follow its lead by tricking out a Vegas showroom with awesome effects that give tourists a real reason to revisit familiar material. It’s because of the Strip originality displayed here that it ranks higher than Jersey Boys which, while fantastic, is still the article you get in New York.
No. 1: Kà (MGM Grand). Yes, this is my only Cirque du Soleil entry. Mystère is great but nowadays not that different than what Cirque’s touring shows offer. I’ve always felt O was—gasp!—boring. Zumanity or Criss Angel Believe? Whatever. And as tough as it is to leave Love out, Kà is the best only-possible-in-Vegas Cirque experience. The tale of imperial twins separated and beset by danger-filled encounters makes brilliant use of its $100 million showroom and a stage that, in its twirls and swoops, redefines the very concept of a stage. Kà is simply something that does not exist anywhere else in live theater, and yet its triumph is also that technology enhances rather than overshadows the human performances and the emotion of the storytelling.
It’s worthwhile to remember that any of these shows could be the top recommendation under the right circumstances. I wouldn’t, for instance, send someone who loves magic to see Rita, for instance. And my Nos. 11-20, in case you wonder, would be, in this order: Lance Burton, Mystère, Love, Carrot Top, Peepshow, David Copperfield, Bobby Slayton, Terry Fator and Jubilee!
What? That’s only 19? Well, I’ve been staring out the window trying to come up with a 20th option I’d ever tell people to spend their money on, and I just can’t. Sorry.