[The Strip Sense]

The Manilow Principle

Why some shows are better the second time - and why some are not

About 15 minutes into Barry Manilow’s Music & Passion show at the Las Vegas Hilton last week, I received a mocking text message from my partner. Miles had ducked out of having to go with me, my 16-year-old niece, Courtney, and my mother because he had to go to work at the last minute, but he hardly seemed unhappy about that twist of fate.

“So, does it suck yet?” the message taunted.

I missed the message. To my utter shock, I was having much too good a time.

Yes. At Manilow.

But, faithful and puzzled readers might be thinking, didn’t you just a few weeks ago mention how much you despised that very show in that commentary about all that was wrong with the new Cher production?

Indeed, that is why I was so bowled over. When your family visits, you tend to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily want to, and my mother was, is and probably always will be a Fanilow. So off I went, preparing both myself and poor young Courtney to suffer. I prepped the teen for the idea that this would fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category.

Except it wasn’t. It was so good it’s good. Really. In my guidebook, Gay Vegas, I had given this production a “C” and complained that it was a “rush job” with “dancers who seem confused about what they’re doing.” Yet on this night, a good 75 percent of the songs were not in the prior edition, Manilow was unstoppably exuberant and energetic, and even the closing “Copacabana” was less grating and, so it seemed, mercifully a little bit shorter. Also, unlike Bette, Celine or most notably Cher, Manilow remained on the stage for all but about three minutes of the concert. Of course, his “costume changes” involved changing his sportcoat. But still.

This revolution in my thinking led me to a spree of revisiting shows and attractions I hadn’t seen in a long while.

Following Manilow was Mamma Mia! In January 2003, I derided it in Newsweek as “a thinly veiled excuse for staging catchy tunes in that over-the-top, Sin City style.” I’d always been a fan of Vegas’ original Donna, Tina Walsh, who is now Madame Giry in Phantom, and the show had turned me into an ABBA fan, to be sure. I just never had much serious respect for the show as a piece of theater.

And yet there I was last week, tearing up a little when the current Donna, Carol Linnea Johnson, sang sweetly to her daughter about growing up in “Slipping Through My Fingers.” So I guess I need to upgrade my impression of this one, too. If it can provoke real emotion in its audience—and in someone who’s seen the thing several times—it’s some sort of art.

While at the Mandalay Bay, we also went through the Shark Reef. In March of 2004, I ranked it as the best animal exhibit or attraction in a piece for the Los Angeles Times. I called it “dazzling” and “impressive” and lauded the educational aspect of the facility.

Unfortunately, it didn’t hold my affection this time around. My chief complaint in that same LA Times piece—that there were only 14 exhibits—overtook my thinking on this time around. The prices had gone up, and yet one of the most remarkable parts of the original Shark Reef, the great hammerhead shark, is no longer there. (It died in December 2004.) At $16 a person plus tax, it did seem like a lot of money for what amounted to about 45 minutes of material.

The next night, I gave the long-troubled Le Rêve another go. This is the $90 million aquatic spectacle in a theater-in-the-round at Wynn Las Vegas from O and Mystère creator Franco Dragone that in 2005 I referred to in the Boston Globe as “a giant belly flop,” and in my guidebook I noted that “the acrobatics are redundant and the show itself relies too heavily on the impressiveness of the showroom.”

The newest rendition of this production failed to resolve any of those problems. The show is now only about 75 minutes long, which indicates they, too, know that there’s only so much diving and flying and dancing that can happen before it becomes dull. And I hate, hate, hate that I feel that way, because every bit of the show is expertly executed and features performers whose skills are nothing short of impressive.

I deliberately took my niece to Le Rêve because she’d never seen a Cirque or Cirque-style show before. And she certainly was more dazzled than I was and had no reference point for the various parts that seemed lifted straight out of Dragone’s other Vegas works. But even she said that by the hour mark, her mind was wandering. Interestingly, her least favorite part was the part that the Le Rêve folks have been pointing at to demonstrate they’ve dramatically changed up the show, the three sequences of three pairs of ballroom dancers. “They were really the most out-of-place part,” Courtney said.

Finally, my niece wanted badly to go see An Evening at La Cage, having seen the ads on the cabooses of so many cabs. Understand that this is a 16-year-old whose mother tried to persuade her to be a Jehovah’s Witness but who shook off all that and whose two best friends are a lesbian and a transvestite.

I’d seen this show numerous times, and it doesn’t really change too much, save for Frank Marino’s up-to-date stand-up routine as Joan Rivers and the occasional new pop star added to the mix. Yet I was amazed that the audience was so full, and had about as much fun watching this one older Midwest-looking woman going absolutely nuts over every bit of it as I did watching the stage. The audience gave this show a standing ovation, something matched this week only by Manilow, who forces you on your feet for “Copacabana” anyway.

All that seemed to back up my contention in my book that this is “the drag show that made drag safe for the mainstream.” I’d say that that’s still true. Courtney thought the fact that we saw La Cage last and Barry first was fitting. “This really was so bad it’s good,” she chirped.

It was certainly a worthwhile, though exhausting, week. It kind of makes me wonder if, a few years from now, I’ll find it in my heart to have a greater appreciation for the Cher show. I mean, if Manilow could win me over, anything’s possible.

Head to ReadVegas.com to read Steve Friess’ daily blog, Vegas Happens Here, or catch his weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. He can be reached at [email protected]

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