Marathon 15 shows spotlight changes in Las Vegas

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Ready, set, go -- to 15 stage shows in 4-1/2 days plus an all-you-can-endure buffet of extra-added enticements.

But we start deep in the heart of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame Gambling Museum, where the old "Sin City" is resting comfortably.

Housed within the venerable Tropicana Hotel, it's aglow with yesteryear's chips, dice, costumes, posters, pictures and cans of showgirl-approved Aqua Net hairspray. There's even a suitably giant-size oil painting of Phil M. Tobin, "Father of Nevada Gaming."

All hail to him. But listen to what Frank Sinatra is saying in the museum's continuously running clip from his 1960 "Rat Pack" classic, "Ocean's Eleven."

"Mission: To liberate millions of dollars," Frank tells the boys. Targets: the casino cash registers of the Sands, Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn and Flamingo.

How quaint. After hearing this, a visitor can pivot left to confront the present: a "Blasted in Las Vegas" video exhibit. Ka-boom, there goes the Sands, leveled Nov. 26, 1996, and replaced three years later by the splendorous, canal-lined Venetian Hotel and Casino.

The Desert Inn still stands, but was closed last summer and lately is camouflaged as the mock "Red Dragon Casino" for the purposes of Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour II" film.

Danny Ocean's three other big "hits" are oldies but not necessarily goodies in a remarkably reconfigured Vegas Strip that has seen 11 super-size showplaces opened in just the past dozen years. Ergo, a new "Ocean's Eleven" movie with George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon knows enough to rob the nouveau rich. Scheduled for a Christmas release, the film's heists will be aimed at three of the city's latter-day glamour pusses: The Mirage (vintage 1989), Treasure Island (1993) and Bellagio (1998).

So viva lost Vegas, even if many artifacts are still hanging on, including Wayne Newton. The well-worn Westward Ho's intestine-testing 99-cent, " 3/4-pound mega-dog" assuredly is on the endangered species list, though. Meanwhile, Starbucks coffee shops are multiplying faster than gambling debts. And the new big-cheese hotels tend to be theme parks as well, with free, family-friendly outdoor attractions such as Treasure Island's "Buccaneer Bay" battleship fight and Bellagio's multicolored dancing fountains.

Be assured, however, that the big stage shows still go on, from the poor side of town's Sahara and Riviera hotels all the way to the spanking new Mandalay Bay at the opposite end of shimmering Las Vegas Boulevard, aka "The Strip."

On a mid-May visit to this heat-seeking dizzyland, yours truly packs in the aforementioned 15 shows plus three museums and four sports book bets. Add innumerable free attractions, a trip to refurbished downtown Vegas and even an irresistible jaunt to Terrible's Casino on Paradise Road., where the lunchtime buffet proved -- edible. It's enough to make one scream, "Entertain me no more!" But that was then.

Any trip down the Strip will convince motorists, passengers and pedestrians that Vegas is one big red-light district. Prepare to be stopped in traffic for seeming eternities in a land of bumper-to-bumper gridlock and hotels mammoth enough to be lots farther away than they look.

This is evident during our maiden 3-mile voyage from the Stardust to the Luxor, where Blue Man Group has been packing them in for the past year. Impatient drivers -- guilty as charged -- soon will learn to master alternative routes or go hoarse from primal screaming.

Parking is free, but most hotel parking lots are vast at best. Remember the "Seinfeld" episode where Jerry, George and Kramer spent the entire half-hour trying to find their car? That could be your fate unless you take specific notes on what ZIP code your auto is in. Then there's the long, winding road to and through the casino to the inevitably far-away showroom. Signs are posted, but it's easy to get crossed up and tempting to empty your pockets of any spare change. Are we having fun yet?

Oh, well, Blue Man Group is sensational and well worth any frustrations en route. It's not every show where audiences are given streams of white crepe paper and encouraged to "decorate yourselves" before the entertainment begins.

The Luxor's state-of-the-art theater typifies how times are changing in Vegas. All ticket-holders have assigned seats, meaning there's no need to slip a maitre d' a 10-spot for a prime vantage point. The nicely padded arena seats are banked and equipped with drink holders, but you'll have to buy your beverages outside the theater. No smoking, please. Don't expect any booths or tables, either.

It's essentially the same pristine environment at Treasure Island (Cirque du Soleil's eye-popping "Mystere"), Mandalay Bay (the not-so-perfect "Storm"), The Mirage (pricey impressionist Danny Gans) and ace magician Lance Burton's namesake theater within the Monte Carlo hotel. These are all swank, newly constructed temples without old-school amenities such as cheap jumbo shrimp cocktails drowning in thick, blood-red cocktail sauce. Patrons instead are enticed to dine finely at eateries such as Andre's French Restaurant, Aureole or Wolfgang Puck's Postrio.

But you can still swallow the Stardust's orange-glazed, oven-roasted chicken special, nicely presented with dollops of dressing and gravy, for a measly $3.95 with a coupon available in What's On and other easily obtained magazines. This is the Vegas of yore, still kicking and punching for your entertainment dollar while trying to keep up appearances. Economical buffets are still in the cards, too. So load up. Buses always welcome.

The dividing line between upper crust and Wonder Bread is Spring Mountain Road. Bisecting Las Vegas Boulevard, it separates the tony Treasure Island hotel from a collection of grizzled vets, beginning with the New Frontier, running through the Stardust and Circus Circus and ending with the Sahara and its fun "Rat Pack Is Back" attraction in the Congo Room. This is the throwback show where a mock "Dino" hoists a martini glass big enough to house a bluegill. And that "Frank" is really somethin', baby. He croons to beat the band while also finding time to crack, "The towels in my room are so big and fluffy I could barely shut my suitcase."

From the Sahara, it's just a five-minute drive to a refurbished downtown, where a two-block main drag is covered with a canopy of 2 million lights brightening nights with brief but impressive shows ranging from "Heartbeat of a Planet" to "Dancing in the Street."

The area is heavily patrolled by bicycle cops, making it safe for tourists to take a look at Vegas' poorest, unpretentious relatives. The only continuous "name" entertainment downtown is at the still sleek Golden Nugget, home of David Brenner's "real life" comedy act.

Tempting, but fabled meanie Don Rickles beckons from the Stardust's Wayne Newton Theater, where Wayne is returning from vacation on the following night. What a one-two punch.

Both troupers draw packed houses. Drinks are served to show-goers shoehorned around small, candlelighted tables. Full orchestras are tuxedo-clad, as, of course, are the stars of the shows. For better or worse, this is your grandpop's dressed-and-pressed Vegas. But with that territory comes performances that perhaps belong in mothballs.

Rickles comes off startlingly crude and demonstrably dated. His ethnic humor is without an ounce of nuance. A young Asian man essentially has to refight World War II before the comedian is finished with him. He ends the show by singing "I Am Who I Am" after sappily praising all mothers as goddesses.

Newton, 59, is none-too-subtly introduced as "Mr. Excitement. The Midnight Idol. The Legend!" It's soon apparent, however, that a lifetime of full-blown performances has left his voice rawer than a sushi bar. He tries to compensate by bantering constantly and kissing multitudes of grateful female audience members. Accompanying vocalists camouflage some of his inability to hit the high notes he once took to the bank.

The spirit is willing, and his showmanship is still in full bloom. It's barely enough to make the Wayne Newton experience worth a $49.95 ticket, one drink included. On the way out, a "Wayne Collectables" (sic) stand includes a mouse pad with his likeness. You don't want to go there.

Meanwhile, on the topless-showgirl front well, Vegas still has them. Not in abundance and certainly not at the posh palaces. But the "Cats" of Vegas, the Riviera's long-running "Splash" show, is still a go-go with gah-gah. And Harrah's slinky late-night attraction, "Skintight," offers a handful of male patrons the opportunity to go onstage for an up-close-and-personal viewing experience. Yours truly attended for the articles, er, for this article.

As summer dawns, Vegas hotel prices will be dipping while temperatures rise to triple digits. Consider the staggering air-conditioning bill at the MGM Grand while you ponder a first-time trip or a return visit.

In elemental ways, Vegas can still be the same old story. Gamble, lose, get slump-shouldered, go home. But the city's new and ever-changing terrain is ripe for expeditions that have nothing to do with dice, cards, chips or even a cut-rate steak-and-eggs breakfast that somehow always tastes like a million bucks at a suitably wee hour.

Enjoy whatever rides you take, even if they include slow-motioning down the Strip while signal lights keep landing on red. Vegas can be good for anger-management, too.


15 LAS VEGAS SHOWS RATED

Here's a whirlwind look at 15 large- and small-scale efforts to entertain you in Las Vegas. Ratings are based on value for time and money spent. A rating of 1 would signify a complete bust; 10 hits the jackpot.

BIRDMAN OF LAS VEGAS: At the Tropicana (702-739-2411). Tickets: Free. Comment: Affable trainer Joe Krathwohl wings it with cockatoos, macaws, parrots and a condor. Passable 15-minute presentation is light as a feather, falling short of "The Ultimate Avian Experience!" Then again, the price is right. Rating: 6.

BLUE MAN GROUP: At the Luxor (702-262-4400). Tickets: $59.60 and $69.60. Comment: Spectacularly visual and inventive, with the three royally blue silent partners performing amazing feats with marshmallows, white crepe paper and even Cap'n Crunch. Audience members are plucked at random; be ready to be red-faced. Rating: 10.

BOTTOMS UP: At the Flamingo (702-733-3333). Tickets: $11.90 per couple with discount coupon. Comment: Forty-three years from its origins at Dallas' Adolphus Hotel, it's still slogging along as Vegas' "only topless afternoon show." Burlesque of X-rated jokes, pantomimes and bared essentials is 90 percent cobwebbed, sometimes funny and certainly cheap. Rating: 5.

DANNY GANS: At the Mirage (702-796-9999). Tickets: $74.25 to $99. Comment: "Man of many voices " is the reigning hottest ticket in town. Yes, he's an impressive impressionist. But don't expect much more than a highly structured presentation with scant time for improvisation or audience interaction. Rating: 8.

DON RICKLES: At theStardust (702-732-6325). Tickets: $49.95. Comment: Fabled "Merchant of Venom" just turned 75, meaning he's old enough to have insulted your grandmother -- no doubt with the same jokes. "Mr. Warmth" is an acquired taste who's getting harder to swallow than peanut butter in the Mojave. You can use that one, Don. Ya hockey puck. Rating: 4.

EFX ALIVE: At the MGM Grand (702-891-7777). Tickets: $55 and $75 ($40 ages 5-12). Comment: Sometimes creaky, but occasionally quite marvelous, this long-running extravaganza stars former teen heartthrob Rick Springfield. Pluses include a 3-D segment, an "Intergalactic Circus of Wonders" and the star's willingness to interact with the crowd. Rating: 7.

THE KING IN CONCERT At the New Frontier (702-794-8241). Tickets: $17.95. Comment: Bare-bones daytime show featuring Elvis Presley impersonator Johnny Edwards on a dingy stage in a depressingly appointed "nightclub." Tip: Save eight bucks and visit the nearby, very cool Elvis-A-Rama museum instead. Thank ya very much. Rating: 3.

LANCE BURTON: MASTER MAGICIAN: At the Monte Carlo (702-730-7160). Tickets: $54.95 and $59.95. Comment: Low-key Lance is still an intimate sleight-of-hand illusionist but has enough big production tricks to fill any gee-wow expectations. Interacts well with audiences and always brings kids onstage. Added attraction: comic juggler Michael Goudeau. Rating: 8.5.

THE MAC KING COMEDY MAGIC SHOW: At Harrah's (702-369-5111). Tickets: $14.95. Comment: Best bargain-priced daytime show. Mac's deft comic delivery and arsenal of eye-popping tricks are a perfect afternoon chaser. Includes his novel cure for hiccups and repeated use of Fig Newtons as stage props. Rating: 9.5.

MYSTERE: At Treasure Island (702-796-9999). Tickets: $88. Comment: Cirque du Soleil makes Barnum & Bailey look like a flea circus. Phenomenal in every way, it never stops astounding with comedy, music, costumes, lighting and acts that leave your jaw in a suspended state of "Wow." Worth every penny. Rating: 10.

THE RAT PACK IS BACK: At the Sahara (702-737-2515). Tickets: $34.95. Comment: Frank, Dino, Sammy and even Joey hold forth in the Congo Room, circa Dec. 12, 1961. The drinking, smoking, joking, sexism and singing are as they were then. Ring-a-ding-ding! Rating: 9.

SKINTIGHT: At Harrah's (702-369-5111). Tickets: $39.95. Two-for-one tickets available, with coupon, for Friday and Saturday midnight and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. shows. Comment: Stylish, upbeat erotica featuring former Playboy playmate Cynthia Brimhall and dancer Shannon O'Keefe. Several well-muscled male dancers are also on display. Show is what it is, and as such isn't bad. Rating: 7.5.

SPLASH: At the Riviera (702-794-9433). Tickets: $42.40 & $51.50. Comment: The Strip's seven-time "show of the year," but not lately. Title no longer applies; a mini ice skating rink has replaced the pool of H2O. Much is dated, but featured skaters are first-rate, and madcap jugglers and a contortionist are crowd-pleasers. Still, it seems a bit seedy. Rating: 6.5.

STORM: At Mandalay Bay (702-632-7580). Tickets: $55 & $65. Comment: Big-stage production strives to be a "force of nature" but is too forced. Built around "up-tempo" dance music, it assaults the senses. Some visuals dazzle, but "Storm" seldom rocks the house. It leads the league in sculpted bods, though. You could store the total body fat in a thimble. Rating: 6.

WAYNE NEWTON: At the Stardust (702-732-6325). Tickets: $49.95. Comment: He aims mightily to please, but Wayne's ravaged voice is barely a shadow of his iricandescent smile. Rises to the occasion on just one song, the low-key "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." A grand entrance and even grander exit make no apologies for his diminished powers. Rating: 6.5.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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