It was the moment Ryan Kelsey vaulted onstage looking like a geek/nerd, wearing gray slacks, a white short-sleeved shirt, a bow tie and oversized specs, that I remembered the fragrance of wet paint.
Kelsey is a dancer — the lone male dancer — in “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere. But for the past three years he was a featured performer in “Vegas! The Show.” I thought of that wet paint because when “Vegas!” opened, that very first night back in the summer of 2010, the show was so raw that from the audience you could smell the paint not yet dried on that show’s set scenery. The pieces were actually being painted as the show began.
Dancers were still fine-tuning their steps on the day of the show. That first performance ran more than 30 minutes long, too, careening around the Saxe Theater stage for two hours.
No, “Vegas!” was not ready for the stage by any reasonable assessment that night, but it had its own self-imposed deadline to hit and, by God, producer David Saxe was going to hit it if he had to smear a coat of crimson across the show’s Sassy Sally sign himself. But over time, “Vegas! The Show” has proven to be one of the Strip’s gem productions, loaded with talent and performed at a precise clip.
The show that most reminds me of “Vegas!” in its infancy is “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere. Three vignettes of the production were unveiled Monday afternoon, and the show opens Saturday night. “Pin Up” stars Claire Sinclair, who is best known as the October 2010 Playboy cover model and 2011 Playmate of the Year. She appears in a dozen scenes evoking pinup images, each segment representing a month of the year.
Sinclair is joined onstage by ex-“Bite” and “American Superstars” singer Autumn Belanger (previously noted as Autumn Madill, though she has not legally changed yet to her married name). The star and vocalist are powered by a sextet of great musicians led by trumpet ace David Perrico, founder of the show band Pop Evolution. Three of those players are actually drawn from Pop Evo – bassist Jozef Bobula, sax player Andrew Friedlander, and trombonist Steve Meyer. The drummer, Brian Czach, is a highly regarded player around Vegas who is as versatile as any percussionist in the city, and the guitarist is another Vegas stage and studio vet, Rich Taylor.
Among the dancers are performers who left “Vegas!” to join “Pin Up,” Kelsey and Sarah Short, who survived her own audition and recommended Kelsey to choreographer Lacey Schwimmer and show co-producer Drew DiCostanzo.
Similar to “Vegas!,” the new Strat show follows a singular theme. The theme in “Vegas!” would be … Vegas. The plan for “Pin Up” is to stay true to its month-to-month calendar arc. Also similar to “Vegas,” a lineup of experienced dancers, live singing and music move the show from scene to scene, and a central narrator is used to navigate the storyline (though in “Vegas!,” Eric Jordan Young’s custodial character Ernie bookends the show, appearing only at the beginning and end).
Where “Pin Up” has found itself racing against its own calendar has been in the show’s evolving assemblage of creative voices. Asked last spring by hotel officials to present an idea for a show that would replace “Bite” at the Strat showroom, Frankie Moreno thought of the “Pin Up” concept. He later met Sinclair at his show on the night of her 21st birthday, and suggested the real-life pinup as the star of “Pin Up.” And, for a time in the show’s infancy, it seemed evident that Melody Sweets would bolt “Absinthe” to sing in the new show before she re-upped with what has become one of the more popular productions on the Strip.
Oh yes, there have been myriad changes.
Schwimmer was retained as choreographer, and is still listed as such in official “Pin Up” press material. But she has taken a more limited role in the show over the past few months, recently performing with Mark Ballas in a “Dancing With the Stars” live show on a Holland America cruise (Schwimmer is not in the “DWTS” lineup of dancers on the upcoming season of the ABC show, but still might be involved in the live show if/when it returns to Tropicana).
As Schwimmer’s involvement has ebbed, DiCostanzo (the Strat’s entertainment manager) has taken a more active responsibility in all facets of the production, such as working with the dancers and running rehearsals. A man who has amassed an extensive background in performing and staging magic, DiCostanzo is a three-slash threat: He’s listed as the show’s producer/director/co-creator/writer. The hotel’s entertainment director, Chris Townsend, is also in the mix in a day-to-day capacity as a co-producer.
Another mid-stream addition was Perrico, who was summoned in January to help herd the musicians and work with tracks supplied by Moreno and written by him and his brothers, Tony and Ricky. Originally, Moreno considered his own band for “Pin Up,” but that concept, too, was ditched. But that did open the opportunity for a half-dozen more musicians to find work in a Vegas show.
This Moreno/Perrico partnership, if it can be termed as such, is of particular interest. Both are among the best in Vegas, if not anywhere, at what they do — which is create and perform music. Moreno’s show is one of the best-received headlining productions to hit Vegas over the past decade. The show is mind-blowing, each time out. And Perrico’s Pop Evolution project brings together, as if by some force of scheduling wizardry, 18 of the best artists in Vegas. These guys have both been featured over the past several months on national television (Moreno with Schwimmer on “Dancing With the Stars” and Perrico on the PBS show “artScene”) and their popularity only continues to grow.
Thus, there is a lot of horsepower behind the music in the show, but this is not a Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lennon and McCartney, arrangement. As Perrico says, “The music is supplied by Frankie, in tracks, in a general form, and basically from there I’m writing horns on top of it, add, take away and make a completed product. Frankie’s giving me the template and saying, ‘Do what you do.’”
Is this sort of chain-of-possession common?
“Yeah. Sometimes people will give you some rhythm parts and say, ‘Can you add some horns to this?’ Then you just work off that,” Perrico says. “That’s what I do with Pop Evolution — take a Motley Crue tune that has no horns to it and add to it. A song like ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ (the Benny Goodman number featured in one of the three vignettes presented onstage Monday afternoon), it’s already arranged so we just work it out live.”
The show is leaning heavily on covers rather than original music, a reversal of the original idea. Perrico counts 19 songs in the show — 14 of which are covers.
Moreno, meantime, is always between albums and forever updating his own show. Suffice to say his creative input in “Pin Up” has crested.
At the top of this operation is the hotel’s CEO, Frank Riolo. His company is underwriting the entire production (and also Moreno’s), and an educated estimate is this show has to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Unveiled Monday was a painting of Sinclair mounted on big bomb (hearkening to vintage phallic imagery), a giant fighter-plane propeller, and a caldron used in a scene in which Sinclair plays a witch (using a scene that reminds so vividly of “Bite” was a curious decision). That discounts paying the musicians and singer and stagehands and, of course, Sinclair herself.
After authorizing all this expenditure, Riolo is obviously interested in what’s onstage and who is putting it there. Most important: To succeed, the show has to be an improvement over “Bite,” which did OK business over 8 1/2 years, but Riolo wanted something better, so he opened the checkbook and signed on “Pin Up.”
“This has been interesting, and when you do something like this you work with a lot of talented people. It’s like any other job, when you’re managing people. It’s like coaching a team,” he said. “I listen. Everybody’s got something valuable to say. They’re all talented people and have their own unique perspectives and you listen and evaluate, put out ideas and rephrase what they’re telling you in a broader perspective and put it back and see how they handle it.”
It was Riolo’s idea to give DiCostanzo and Townsend more authority in the production, as they are invested in the show as members of the Strat executive team and have been around the entertainment scene at the hotel for a long time.
But as the show approaches, a lot of questions remain. Sinclair is great at moving in front of a camera and, as she showed in her stints as a guest star in “Crazy Horse Paris” at MGM Grand, is comfortable among a lineup of dancers. Here, she is being called on to do something new and deceptively challenging: Speaking directly to an audience. When asked what her biggest challenge in the show has been, she said, “I’m acting in the show a little bit, which I didn’t get to do in Crazy Horse. There’s no talking in Crazy Horse, and now I’m actually engaging the audience.”
Belanger, too, is being tasked with singing more songs in a single performance than ever before. She’s singing all or parts of 11 numbers, a far greater load than when she played Lady Gaga in ”Superstars” or fronted “Bite.” She overcame a case of sinusitis to sing in Monday’s showcase, but she has no one — yet— to cover her role if she falls ill. No cast member in the show has a “swing” performance background. That pesky need will come later.
The end result is, there has been no end to the development of “Pin Up.” Saturday will be a start, not a finish. The show that opens this weekend will not be what it will be in April. But the pieces are there. Now it’s up to time, to the flipping of the calendar. For it to have a fair chance, those involved will need to remember to be patient. And remember that paint does set.