television

Larger than life, perfect for Vegas

Someone here needs to sign American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert right now

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Adam Lambert wowed the country on American Idol. Could he have the same effect on Las Vegas?
Photo: Frank Micelotta/Fox

Until last Thursday, I had never watched an entire episode of American Idol. Yes, I’m one of the six.

As any halfway-conscious consumer of celebrity news would, I generally keep up with the Fox mega-competition in a vague enough way such that by May each year I’m usually able to identify the two finalists the same way I know the teams in the Super Bowl every February. I don’t actually care in either case, but nor do I clamp my ears and squeeze shut my eyes and actively avoid what will inevitably climb into my brain via any available pore or passage anyway.

I wouldn’t have watched this finale, either, except that my 9-year-old nephew and 14-year-old niece, whom I was visiting in Pennsylvania, are nuts for the thing. It struck me as an opportunity to see how the folks who love this phenomenon interact with it.

Plus, I admit, I was curious this cycle because of all the lip about whether the nation was ready for its first probably gay American Idol in one flamboyant Adam Lambert. Lambert had been crowned the favorite months ago and already appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

So I subjected myself to two bloated hours and did my best to explain to the young’uns who cameo stars Cyndi Lauper, Lionel Richie, Queen Latifah, Santana, Kiss (“What’s with the makeup?” 9-year-old Daniel wondered) and Queen are. And for the first time, I watched Lambert and co-finalist Kris Allen perform and interact with host Ryan Seacrest.

Knowing nothing of any of the other performances to date, it nonetheless seemed fairly obvious to me who would win. When America was allegedly stunned that a handsome, sweet-natured balladeer from the Deep South bested the big-voiced, costuming-prone, guylinered reincarnation of Freddie Mercury, my sole surprise was that anyone expected a different outcome.

I mulled this with a gay AI–devoted friend in Chicago via Facebook later that night wondering what is typically next for these folks. Geoff recited the drill: summer concerts with the rest of the AI top 10-ish, a likely record deal with 19 Entertainment, a solo tour perhaps.

“He should get a show in Vegas,” I wrote.

“That is … brilliant,” Geoff responded.

Geoff seemed as pleasantly stunned by the idea as I was baffled that nobody had, to Geoff’s copious AI awareness, suggested it before. Within minutes, I had blogged the germ of this idea, how Lambert, known for his penchant for outlandish clothes and his proven vocal prowess, could be a revelation to Strip visitors. Adorn him with costumes by Joey Arias’ designer Thierry Mugler, pair him up with The Red Piano director David LaChapelle. Start him out with a mix of big-rock covers and his own new music. Voila, you have the newest Strip must-see.

But, says you, Lambert didn’t even win the competition.

Except he did. Lambert lost not because he doesn’t have star quality but because he already has too much. This is an unusual figure, a performer of great ambition and artistry and shtick. Unusual figures are by definition polarizing. Others who would never have won popularity contests: Madonna, Amy Winehouse and David Bowie.

The only surprise, then, is that someone this challenging amassed as big a following as he had to be a finalist. Kris may have won the election last week, but Adam netted far more devotees. While Vegas headliners typically must arrive already iconic, Lambert’s months on the era’s biggest TV show grants him brand awareness most acts spend years building.

All that’s needed, then, is some visionary Vegas producer to see the groundbreaking potential and throw so much money and creative toys at Lambert that he can’t refuse.

“No, it’s not a crazy idea,” said Michael Weaver, a Harrah’s senior vice president who fields entertainment prospects for Paris, Bally’s and Rio. “When Susan Boyle appeared, there were emails going across Las Vegas about her potential as a performer. So, yeah, these things get discussed. The challenge is going from having 20 minutes of material to doing 90 minutes, five days a week, 46 weeks a year.”

Weaver thinks Lambert ought to go the route of America’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator of a short run at the Hilton or Wynn to prove his viability.

That’s fine, except to me that misses the point of this particular star. Last week Lambert received, conservatively, 40 million votes. More than 15 million people saw him perform week after week on TV. His Internet following is already more intense than that of Criss Angel.

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So suppose Lambert had a 1,500-seat Strip showroom to fill twice a night, five nights a week for 46 weeks, per Weaver’s calculation. That comes to a grand total of 690,000 tickets to sell. Pull an Avenue Q or Celine-like deal to only play Vegas and you’ve got a one-man multiplier effect. Thousands would flock in to gamble, sleep, eat and shop.

MGM Grand Entertainment Director Barry Morgan doubts this could happen any time soon. He agreed with Weaver that “it’s not crazy” to give Lambert a show but, he said in a Facebook conversation, “I think Adam is reaching for something bigger than a Vegas showroom.”

“That’s interesting,” I wrote back. “Why isn’t a Vegas showroom a big deal?”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t a big deal, I just think that he is looking to make an album and sell out concert arenas,” Morgan answered. “He has a following but he’s not Celine yet!”

“It seems to me that if someone in Vegas had the vision to give him buckets of money to stay and grow in Vegas, he has a certain theatricality aesthetic that fits the city,” I argued. “But what I hear from some people is that if he did that, he’d always be seen as schlocky. And that’s sad for Vegas.”

“True, people come to Vegas to settle down,” Morgan said. “I don’t think Adam is ready to settle down, I think he wants to set the world on fire, not just Vegas.”

Morgan is probably right. I wasn’t thinking about it from Lambert’s perspective, that he’s young and will want to enjoy the thrill of seeing the world and touring and not be pigeonholed as a Vegas act, whatever that means. My focus is always on what outside-the-box ideas could rejuvenate a moribund tourist economy.

To that end, Lambert could create a new path. American Idol has produced Grammy winners, an Academy Award winner, a Tony nominee and a bunch of major country music stars. Two AI also-rans, Josh Strickland and Katie Webber, are on the Strip in Peepshow, but that’s not the same as a being a headliner.

Adam Lambert: The Las Vegas Spectacular would take lots of vision and lots and lots of money. And it also might take those in charge of Vegas entertainment not selling the town and its patrons short. Because a true original like Lambert has only one logical, natural performing home, and that is on that little alleyway we call the Strip.

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