"Really?" Jamie asked. "I can do that?"
Indeed, he's 20 now. He's not old enough to legally gamble, drink or visit nightclubs here. In other words, he can't do much of anything fun on the Strip. But yes, he can do this; the minimum age for production shows with nudity in them is, surprisingly, only 18. (It's 21 for strip clubs, however.)
"I've never done that before," he said en route. "I don't know what to expect."
And therein birthed a story idea. As a gay man, I'd largely shied away from covering the topless shows on the Strip because they're really not built to entertain -- or at least not to titillate -- me. But here was Jamie, a red-blooded straight male who, as a topless show virgin, had no preconceived notions. What if we saw all eight of the shows that contain females who disrobe and I turned over the grading system to him, enhanced with my own more seasoned, non-hetero point of view?
After we saw them all, Jamie ranked them from best to worst. I added my perspective but I didn't alter his order. Take it all for what it's worth, but remember that you've got finite time and money in Vegas. Jamie and I are here to help.
At New York-New York Hotel-Casino
Tickets: From $69.
Show times: 7:30 and 10 p.m., Friday-Tuesday
Pros: Cirque du Soleil poured $50 million into its 2003 entry into the Vegas adult entertainment show business, and every dollar of it seems to have been spent to create a unique and credible sequence of scenes exhibiting both impressive sex appeal as well as the sort of eye-popping athleticism that the Montreal circus troupe is known for. The intimacy of the theater and the live music provided cues that this would be a high-quality endeavor, and even the scene that could have been crass and exploitative -- two topless women frolicking together in a gigantic fishbowl -- was executed with sensuous grace thanks to beautiful synchonized-swimming choreography.
Cons: Jamie's biggest objection was to the contortionist, a guy in boxers who inverted his body in impressive but thoroughly disgusting ways. I'm pretty sure that sequence has been shortened over the years; I always look away, too. Blech.
Steve's Side: Of all these shows, Zumanity offered by far the most eye candy for gays and straight women, although an explicit gay ballet that culminated in a male-on-male kiss is no longer in the production. There's a full-on male striptease and even one scene in which a male and female performer strip each other; such interactivity is unique to this genre anywhere on the Strip. There were so many stacked male torsos, in fact, that Jamie remarked that it was mildly distracting and made him feel inferior.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "It's more of an entertaining show than an arousing one, but everything was really awesomely executed."
At Planet Hollywood
Tickets: From $65
Show Times: 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Sunday-Tuesday; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays
Pros: From the opening when former Playboy centerfold and "Girls Next Door" star Holly Madison is lowered from the ceiling in a powder-blue robe and rhinestone-encrusted stilettos, it is clear that Peepshow stands out among the Strip's adult productions as an actual story that focuses on a specific star and character. "Peepshow," the brainchild of Tony-winning choreographer Jerry Mitchell, features an unlucky-in-love Bo Peep (Madison) as she is led by the Peep Diva through a series of X-rated versions of classic nursery rhymes.
Cons: Jamie wouldn't know this, but the show has been downsized quite a bit since its 2009 opening, with the live band replaced with recorded tracks and the promise of two "name" stars reduced to just Madison who, while delightful, is not a Broadway-caliber actor and admittedly can't sing. Also, as Jamie noted, the comedic parts of the show turn out to be derived from audience plants.
Steve's Side: As the Peep Diva promises early on, there's a fair amount of male beefcake as well. Also, openly gay lead singer Josh Strickland, who never disrobes, nonetheless brings a class to the act with his sultry crooning.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "The boobs were OK, mostly normal-sized, except for Holly's. Hers looked like balloons."
Donn Arden's Jubilee!
At Bally's Las Vegas
Tickets: From $52.50
Show Times: Saturday-Thursday 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.; early show Saturday does not contain toplessness
Pros: The longest-running production show on the Las Vegas Strip may be even more thrilling today than it was back when it had competitors in the dancing showgirls and over-the-top costuming niche. Now it's a living museum piece, but in a good way, an eye-popping spectacular that simply has no rival here or probably anywhere in the world. The show is everything synonymous with Vegas -- big, brassy, glittery, loud, beautiful, excessive. When such an event can affix a bemused grin on a 20-year-old's face from start to end -- even with a score of oldies like "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "No Business Like Show Business" -- it's a success. Other than in the "Samson & Delilah" reenactment, there's nothing overtly sexual in the nudity of the show and, in fact, this might have been the only one of these productions that had no gratuitous lesbianism.
Cons: Most of the singing is lip-synched, which makes it difficult to appreciate the two live singers when they do their thing. It's understandable that so many complex costumes would require three interceding specialty acts, but at least two of them are direct ripoffs of stuff that Cirque du Soleil actually brought to the Strip.
Steve's Side: Even if there weren't any well-built men cavorting shirtless from time to time -- and there are -- this would be an automatic must-see for gays and straight women, for both the camp factor and the magnificence of those hundreds of shimmery, outlandish Bob Mackie gowns and 35-pound headdresses.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "I wasn't thinking anything the whole time. I was just watching it."
At Flamingo Las Vegas
Tickets: From $44.95
Show Times: 10 p.m. nightly
Pros: The closest thing to an actual strip club among this octet of casino-based shows, X Burlesque is straightforward sexuality unimpeded by stories, sets or situations. Two minutes in, a ravishing brunette in collars, chains and knee-high leather boots is writhing on a pole on a podium detached from the stage in the middle of the showroom. The program is overloaded with girl-on-girl interactions, too. Scenes and music change very quickly, so if parts were less interesting, they were gone soon enough. The show was only 70 minutes, shorter than most of the others, but that's not a bad thing when the content is so redundant. Get in, get out, you know?
Cons: Some of the dancing -- a bad pirouette and an atrocious split in particular -- had us laughing out loud, and the music was unnecessarily loud. The comedienne, Nancy Ryan, has an unfunny routine. Also, one of the key dancers looked disturbingly like right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham, probably a buzz kill for some politically conscious audience members. (Hey, there could be some!)
Steve's Side: Other than that, the only guy I recall on stage besides one or two lucky audience members was a schlub who moves some of the props. That said, most gay guys can appreciate, if not pine for, particularly beautiful women.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "That was very, very entertaining. There never really were any slow parts and the chicks are really hot."
At Stratosphere Hotel-Casino
Tickets: From $49.45
Show Times: 10:30 Friday-Wednesday
Pros: It is impossible not to admire -- and be somewhat freaked out by -- the gusto with which this show takes the burlesque, topless genre and merges it with a macabre vampire theme set to at least a few bars of just about every famous rock anthem. Even for those of us burned out by "Twilight" and "True Blood," there's something fascinating and enjoyable about sitting through what amounts to a rock concert featuring nearly naked blood-suckers and undead dancers. The theater is surprisingly spacious, modern and comfortable, given that this is an older, less affluent resort.
Cons: The soundtrack was oppressive, the storyline didn't make sense and some of the performers were either actually unattractive or made to do and wear things that made them seem that way. There was also no specialty act or comic relief, perhaps because the whole thing was such absurdist theater. In trying to be edgy and, perhaps, a bit of a sendup, there's a real likelihood this show will repulse instead of arouse.
Steve's Side: The guys in this show are icky. They had decent bodies, but they carried angry, nasty scowls on their faces that were in no way sexy.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "That was so ... weird. I don't know what just happened. Crazy."
At Riviera Hotel-Casino
Tickets: From $44.95
Show Times: 9:30 p.m. nightly
Pros: The intermission comic was OK.
Cons: Back in the 1980s, this show may have seemed fresh and exotic, as proved by the video clip reel in the beginning that shows countless movies, TV shows and news accounts attesting to its longevity and one-time place in the pop culture. Today, though, Crazy Girls feels cheap and rote, performed on a tiny stage and featuring bad lip-synching and worse wigs. There's one performer who so overacts and seems so spastic that we worried she might be having some sort of attack. The whole thing, from the dingy theater to the penis-shaped pillow prop, was cliche and low-rent.
Steve's Side: This probably fits into the hot-mess category that gays sometimes like to indulge. Also, straight women who take their husbands to see this can both earn points for seeming open-minded and also rest assured their men won't want to run off with any of these ladies.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "It seemed kind of short, which is a good thing."
Crazy Horse Paris
At MGM Grand
Tickets: From $50.50
Show Times: 8 and 10:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday.
Pros: The opening number, with a line of topless women in British toy soldier outfits, had a cool vibe to it. One of the specialty acts, the Quiddlers, are uproarious in an act that features a miniature Michael Jackson bopping around. The breast quality was high even though the show itself was limp.
Cons: There's something peculiarly detached about Crazy Horse that owes in large part to oddities in the theater, which features a narrow, horizontal rectangle of a raised stage and awkward table seating that is unnecessarily tight and uncomfortable. The set-up gives you the sensation that you're watching a movie or a TV show, neither of which is conducive to encouraging viewer fantasies or titillation. The performers almost don't even look at the audience, their lip-synching abilities are distractingly horrible and few of the sequences are particularly interesting or inventive. There isn't even much stripping going on in this show; it's just a routine of presenting scantily clad women who do some redundant calisthenics until the song ends.
Steve's Side: There's nothing here for gays or straight women, not even camp. Some of the women are lovely to look at, true, but for this kind of money it is baffling why audience members wouldn't just go to, say, "Peepshow" for similar eye candy.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "I expected a stripping show and all I got was dance. And not particularly good dance, either."
At Luxor Hotel-Casino
Tickets: Starting at $39
Show times: 10:30 p.m. nightly
Pros: Comic Sean Cooper, the specialty act who does a white-faced Michael Jackson, had Jamie in stitches. And Jamie was genuinely impressed by Sonya, an aerialist who does some death-defying stunts on a silk rope. Trouble with that is we would go on to see better versions of the same stunt at "Zumanity" and even "Bite," but for someone who'd never seen it before, it was thrilling nonetheless.
Cons: This was Jamie's first topless show ever and it was so limp and cheap that it actually made him question whether he wanted to participate in this effort. The women seemed to be trying too hard to seem sexy, the sets were uninspired and the supposed star of the show, ex-Playmate Angelica Bridges, didn't show her breasts. Since we went, it ought to be noted, Bridges has left the production, but the executive producer of the show seemed genuinely upset by the departure in such a way that their show-biz judgment must be questioned. Bridges' singing was meager and her inability to form a rapport with the audience was embarrassing. This is what they held up as quality? The choreography, by the way, is the work of one-time tabloid presence Cris Judd, who momentarily was wed to Jennifer Lopez.
Steve's Side: Sorry, Fantasy, but the so-bad-its-good prize belongs to Crazy Girls. This is so bad it's bad. Nothing to see here, especially not with all the better choices around.
Jamie's Bottom Line: "You know, for a topless show, these aren't really all that big."