The Strip Sense: The return of Tina Walsh

A long, perilous road back to stardom for the Strip veteran

Steve Friess

My first significant exposure to the Vegas entertainment scene came at opening night of Mamma Mia! at the Mandalay Bay back in the winter of 2003. I knew I had a lot to learn when a spontaneous standing ovation greeted the initial stage appearance of this one particular blond actress, to my utter bafflement. The audience, made up entirely of local media and Vegas insiders, cheered for this woman as though she were the Strip’s equivalent to Sarah Brightman.

I also was not terribly well-schooled in the fine art of ABBA at that point, but I had seen the show in New York a month earlier in advance of a Newsweek item I wrote on whether this Broadway-to-Vegas thing would work. It seemed like a fun, hardly memorable show.

In the hands of this woman who had been regaled, however, it was elevated to an astonishing experience. When she belted out “The Winner Takes It All,” I was smitten. Who, I asked after the show, was that woman?

That, I learned, was the legendary, the delightful Tina Walsh, and my analogy to Sarah Brightman was hardly a stretch. Walsh had one of those uniquely Vegas stories, having come to Nevada as a teenager from Dallas as a showgirl in Jubilee! more than 20 years ago and then having gone on to co-star with Michael Crawford, Tommy Tune and Rick Springfield in the MGM Grand spectacular EFX.

And now, the woman who came to Vegas to get to Broadway had found Broadway had come to her in Vegas. She was the go-to home-grown triple threat, a woman who could sing, dance and act.

What happened next, though, reflects an important unnoticed side of the Broadway tidal wave that crashed ashore here and is now receding. After Mamma Mia! proved itself a hit and other productions announced their Strip plans, the New York-based casting directors largely stopped taking Vegas performers seriously.

Tina Walsh couldn’t have known this when, after putting in two years as Donna, she left to attend to some health and personal problems. She had every reason to think that, when she was ready to work again, the town would be rife with exciting roles.

Except that’s not what happened. I happened upon Walsh at a café a few months after she departed the show, and she asked what I thought of her auditioning for a role in the horrid We Will Rock You, at Paris. I, too, believed better roles were out there for her and urged against it. It wouldn’t have mattered; the show closed shortly thereafter.

The next few years were utterly depressing for anyone who knew Walsh and her talents. She pursued the role of evil stage mom Velma in the Luxor’s Hairspray, but Susan Anton was hired because the producers wanted a “name.” She tried out for the Lady of the Lake in Wynn’s Spamalot, too, only to be ignored. She was called back for the role of Madame Giry in the Venetian’s Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, but director Hal Prince had a specific New York actress in mind to play the opera-house marm. Perhaps most offensively, Walsh was asked to audition for a role in her alma mater, Jubilee!, but then didn’t get it.

Walsh painfully watched and wondered if she’d ever get another break.

She kept busy. She did voice-over work, participated in an endless number of benefits and played Clint Holmes’ white, opera-singing mom last year in his autobiographical musical Just Another Man.

And then a funny thing happened to that Broadway-to-Vegas hysteria: It died down.

And some of the talent that came here decided they didn’t want to stay, particularly if the boom was ending.

The actress playing Madame Giry was one of them. Oddly, Walsh didn’t know that when she attended a Phantom chorus open casting call. Yes, the Sarah Brightman of Vegas just wanted to be on stage, even in the background.

And yet, in a twist similar to the way that chorus girl Christine is elevated to star in the show itself, the casting folks heard Walsh sing the aria “Willow” and realized their Madame Giry was here all along—with no relocation expenses!

Was there an anti-Vegas bias that kept her out of work all this time? Walsh prefers not to dwell. “I don’t even want to go there because I can’t,” she said. “I think there are other things that come into play. I’m not going to regret anything.”

Michael Gill, the show producer most responsible for several Broadway shows coming to Vegas, shrugs off the notion, too. Walsh’s Mamma Mia! star turn was a remarkable stroke of good fortune for her, he said, seeing how she was a perfect fit in age and style for the first major role to come here from New York. That such a break didn’t repeat itself for several years isn’t anybody’s fault. “Nobody comes here looking down their nose at Las Vegas talent,” Gill insisted. “Not one person I have worked with does that.”

Yet it’s no coincidence that Walsh got her role just as the trend was dissipating. And, true, it doesn’t much matter anymore. She’s back where she belongs, on a Vegas stage with challenging vocals and a meaty part in a show that promises to keep playing in its $40 million custom-built theater for the foreseeable future.

Go see her. She’s our royalty, and she’s had a tough decade.

Read Steve Friess’ daily blog at and catch his weekly celeb-interview podcast at He can be reached at [email protected].

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