Half In

New poker-based musical saves its best chips for another day

Jacob Coakley

Timed to make as big a splash with poker fans as possible, Tim Molyneux’s All In: The Poker Musical put on three performances earlier this month during the first days of the World Series of Poker’s main event. Presented in showcase format at the Masquerade Showroom at the Rio Hotel, the performances of All In were less about presenting a fully-staged, curtain-ready production of the musical and more about attracting investors, possible venues and fans.

This is not that uncommon a tactic. Even if you’re not going for Cirque-type opulence, putting up a show still requires a significant amount of scratch. Producers commonly put on what could be referred to as investment parties, where songs from the show are sung and stars mingle with possible investors. What was unique about this event was the sheer numbers of possible producers Molyneux was aiming to reach. Most producer parties are not open to the paying public—but maybe they should be.

“There are more people with disposable income out there than you think,” says Ken Davenport, a theatrical producer in town during the WSOP to interview Doyle Brunson for a documentary. “Most people in the middle class to upper middle class have some extra investment money that they’d rather not invest in a boring blue-chip. I often tell these people that investing in the entertainment industry is just an extension of the diversification of their portfolio.” I know. I’m as shocked as you are at the idea that maybe the 6,844 people who put up $10,000 to join the WSOP main event might actually have a little extra investment cash they’d like to just give away in the hopes of a big return.

While Molyneux went out of his way to create buzz in the press for this showcase, he also guarded the actual show—only certain songs were performed, and no book scenes were performed. Any impression a reviewer could get from the show would be incomplete. So I shall speak only about what I saw.

The show started with a rock number called “WSOP, All In” and introduced us to the main players of the show—along with the obligatory scantily clad dancers. After the number finished, poker legend Phil Hellmuth himself came out and told a little story about how he met Molyneux, a performance that on the whole I thought was a little pandering—I mean, come on, actually getting a legendary poker player to invest in a poker musical and appear at one of its showings? Very obvious. And his praise of Molyneux? Strictly unnecessary. Let’s show a little restraint, gentlemen; this is Vegas after all.

After Hellmuth’s intro, Molyneux explained the format of the show: It’s the final table at the World Series of Poker and through song, dance and as little dialogue as possible, All In unfurls the histories of the players and explores the dynamics of their interactions as they vie to win it all. Since, according to Molyneux, every poker table is a microcosm of society, full of Jungian archetypes, the story really is about every one of us. Then he turned the stage over to the music.

First off, we met the young rocker from Seattle, who defies his father when he sings, “I’m Not a Gambler, I’m a Poker Player.” Next we met a sweet country couple who regale us with how happy they are in a two-step titled “I’ve Got a Full House When I’m Paired Next To You.” But the country genre wouldn’t be complete without a heartfelt ballad of soured Americana, which led to “Sometimes Nuthin’s All You Need.” All this was followed with a fast-paced rockabilly song in the old Elvis style, “I Can Dodge Bullets Baby” sung by Brandon Albright performing as Phil Hellmuth.

All the performers were good—Reva Rice, who sang “Down to the Felt” and had a solo in the finale “We’re All In,” shined, and managed to sell every number she touched. The lighting for the show was dynamic, colorful and punchy. The band sounded great. While the dance moves were pretty basic, the costumes on the dancers were great, though not quite up to Jubilee!-like fabulousness.

Molyneux came onstage a couple more times and reiterated just how symbolic poker could be and how sexy it all was, but in practice this meant treating the line “My pair is bigger than yours” as if it were a heretofore unknown expression of suggestive wit. And when the talented Jimmy Lockett came onstage dressed in a tuxedo and sang “The River,” we were definitely through the looking glass. If “The River” card in Texas Hold ‘Em was so named to create a subtext that links that card to the long-established metaphor of a river as a vehicle for pain, suffering and hope, and you write lyrics that make this subtext glaringly obvious, then treat it as if poker were the source of this metaphor, then self-reflexively explain the metaphor by using the same metaphor—I can’t decide if you’ve just eliminated the poetry in the name, or if you have, in an over-the-top, post-structuralist way, created new meaning by positing the primacy of the simulacra. In any event, the obvious, repetitive lyrics get old fast—even when sung by someone as skilled as Lockett.

The show ended with Molyneux leading the crowd in a sing-along of the show’s finale, “We’re All In.” In my mind, he ended a little too soon, before everyone could truly throw off the awkwardness of being called on to participate and join in with full voices. But this was just a showcase—I’m sure he’ll figure out the best timing for his finale before it opens. If it opens.

The bottom line: **


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