Give My Regards to . . . Vegas?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The show is "Chicago," and it's here in Las Vegas to make people from Milwaukee feel like they're visiting New York.

This geographical mind-boggler came to life recently at the city's new $950-million, tropical-themed Mandalay Bay Resort--where the hit Broadway revival, starring Ben Vereen, opened this spring in a state-of-the-art theater with 1,800 plush seats.

People visiting Las Vegas tend to buy show tickets on the spur of the moment, and among those nosing around the ticket window one recent evening were members of the Construction Industry Manufacturers Assn. More than 124,000 members of the international group, based in Milwaukee, had descended here for ConExpo, their annual convention.

From their questions, it was easy to deduce that this group was not as familiar with "Chicago" as with, say, Siegfried & Roy, the famous illusionists who have been making white tigers disappear at the Mirage Resort since 1989.

Still, more than a few conventioneers must have made it into the theater, because the razzle-dazzle "Chicago" drew a polite but quietly bemused response. Even the cabdrivers here say that ConExpo just doesn't know how to party.

Just as the ersatz, half-scale Eiffel Tower being erected at the Paris-Las Vegas Casino Resort, which opens Sept. 2, isn't really Paris, the Mandalay Bay Resort is no Broadway.

It has a Broadway-style theater offering a Broadway show, but with an audience that appears to be dressed for a Dodger game. This is not the old-time Las Vegas show room, where mini-skirted waitresses flit through the dark to deliver the two-drink minimum to patrons crammed together at long tables in hard chairs. The Mandalay Bay Theater has comfy, tiered seating, and even though you can't order your margarita inside, you can buy one outside and park it in the cup holder attached to every seat.

And why is a new Vegas resort-casino even attempting to capture the flavor of Broadway? It's all part of the latest attempt to reinvent the city, acknowledges Glenn Schaeffer, president and chief executive officer of Circus Circus Enterprises, which owns the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, its adjacent Four Seasons Hotel, as well as the Circus Circus, Luxor and Excalibur hotel-casinos.

As Schaeffer is fond of pointing out, every eight seconds, someone in America turns 49. If you are one of those baby boomers--or fall anywhere in the adjacent range--Las Vegas wants to grab you by your demographic and not let go.

The new "superstores of entertainment," as Schaeffer calls them, make no secret that the push is on to find new ways to entice an increasingly international, sophisticated group of travelers to choose one monstrous 2,000-to-3,000-room hotel-casino over another.

What those consumers want, Schaeffer says, is "Woodstock without the mud," a chance to have all the creature comforts but still party like it's 1969. And each new resort is trying to top the last by providing an ever-higher peak experience.

Each resort's casino, Vegas insiders note, is virtually the same (although it's gaming, not gambling, in today's Las Vegas). Resort chiefs agree that it's the hotel's theme decor, restaurants, shops and other offerings that distinguish one resort from the next.

And essential to the package is more and more expensive, star-studded, eye-popping entertainment. "Everything is interrelated; the importance of entertainment as a centerpiece of an evening's excitement can't be overstated," says Mirage Resorts spokesman Alan Feldman.

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It's the reason Steve Wynn's $1.6-billion Bellagio spent $100 million to create Cirque du Soleil's first water show "O"; that the MGM Grand has brought in Broadway brand-name star Tommy Tune as the most recent host of its $45-million special-effects extravaganza "EFX"; that Mandalay Bay opened another new performance venue, its 1,800-seat House of Blues, with Bob Dylan, and in April brought pop-opera star Luciano Pavarotti in to christen its 12,000-seat Events Center.

It's also the reason that Sandy Gallin, former Hollywood manager and producer hired by Wynn last June as chief of Mirage Entertainment and Sports Inc., is talking about adding 1,500-seat theaters to Mirage's hotels here and nationwide, and producing approximately 90-minute book musicals and plays to put in them to create a Broadway of the West--an idea that meets with mixed reviews among Vegas watchers.

As one strolls through the extravagant, Italian-marble glitz of the Bellagio ("Fantasia" meets the Vatican) or the determinedly hip showrooms and eateries of Mandalay Bay never has one felt more . . . well, more marketed to than this.

For better and worse, says "Chicago" star Ben Vereen, it's a different city from the one he came to as a young performer. And he's someone who knows the town from a vantage point that spans more than 30 years.

Vereen knew Vegas before "demographic research" came to town, a time when those coveted baby boomers were still navigating high school, and the Rat Pack ruled the roost.

"I've played this town; I've played the Sahara, the Riviera, in the early days when Vegas was 'Vegas.' " Vereen reminisces. "Now it's 'Laaas Vegas!' "

In 1966-67, Vereen performed at Caesars Palace, in another Broadway show called "Sweet Charity," starring Juliet Prowse. It began its run late in the year Caesars Palace opened its doors and changed Las Vegas forever. Most agree that Caesars set the stage for the theme resorts of today.

Caesars resort chief Nate Jacobson imported celebrities, politicians and high-rollers from all over the country to hail the opening of the $25-million facility. Guests included Teamster President James Hoffa, Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer and entertainers Rhonda Fleming, Ann Baxter, Adam West and Ed Sullivan.

By mid-afternoon, the casino was jammed with gamblers, happily losing the rent money under the largest crystal chandelier in the world. And eight Roman soldiers stood by later in the evening as the dining room show curtain went up--more than an hour late--on singer Andy Williams, who crooned a medley of Henry Mancini hits to the star-studded crowd, then pulled Mancini himself onto the stage to conduct a few numbers.

In his Mandalay Bay dressing room between shows one recent night, Vereen, 52, said that same excitement was part of backstage life in the old Vegas, too. Now, he performs a sedate eight shows a week, versus the 14 he used to do when he first brought his act to Sin City.

"In the early days, it was two shows a night, three weeks, no night off," he says. "It was a grind, but a lot of people say this is a grind. This is wonderful--this is a piece of cake."

But doing Broadway in Vegas feels weird, Vereen concedes. "You can't break the fourth wall," he says. "If the audience isn't with you, you can't feel them out like I used to do with my act, and go to the conductor and say, 'OK, let's do No. 6, no let's do No. 7.' " Vereen snaps his fingers. "With a book show, it's not about interaction.

"Oh yes, I miss the old days," he continues wistfully. "I miss the days when we were able to go from show to show and see various performers, and hang around the coffee shops, and all the greats were there, like Shecky Greene, Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra--and listen to them tell stories about their old days. Those are my old days."

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"EFX" star Tune, 60, also goes way back--as a choreographer for Dean Martin's Golddiggers. But Tune is more enthusiastic about the new Vegas than the old one--and says he doesn't care if his Broadway colleagues turn their noses up at Las Vegas. He's having a ball.

When he got the call from the MGM Grand, "I was expecting one of the old-style Vegas shows, with a lot of gals in feathers," Tune says. "But this is a new kind of show, like nothing I've ever seen."

And, like the comfort-craving boomers in his audience, after years of cramped backstage digs in Manhattan, Tune loves his oversized dressing room suite, which allows for a little middle-aged spread. Its all-white decor and muted lighting soothe him into Zen-like calm after the special-effects onslaught of "EFX." When he greets his backstage visitors, his slender 6-foot-7 frame is also draped in flowing white terry cloth lounge-wear and white plastic clogs; a very tall New Age monk.

Joe Delaney, 77, Las Vegas Sun entertainment columnist for 35 years, is another veteran who has seen it all. His life continues to straddle the old world and the new. In the same week, Delaney covered the opening of "Chicago" and gave eulogies for departed Vegas entertainers: Buddy Trenier, of the seminal '50s R&B; group the Treniers, and Jack Kogan, a local Vegas radio personality, philanthropist and late-night TV movie host. "I'm the George Jessel of Las Vegas," Delaney quipped.

The old Vegas, he says, met its demise more slowly than these old friends.

"The original premise of Las Vegas, post World War II, was to give you the most and the best of everything for the least amount of money," Delaney reminisces, seated in a trendy cappuccino shop at the Bellagio, enjoying designer muffins, fresh orange juice and canned Italian opera piped in over the speakers.

"In the 1940s, I went to see Joe E. Lewis and Eydie Gorme at the original El Rancho Hotel and Casino [a Vegas conclave of small chalets that burned down in the 1960s]. The midnight show. The girl comes over to me and says: 'Would you like a sandwich?' I said no. She said: 'Would you like some coffee? It's 25 cents.' I said no, I just wanted to see the show. I saw the entire show for nothing.

"Then, I went out and they had a buffet--all you can eat for a dollar. This was '48, '49, all you could eat, the finest lobster, shrimp, crawfish, steak--it ran all night for a dollar. That was the basic operation, and it was run from the casino, by five or six guys.

"It started to change in the '60s. As they expanded the hotels, the center shifted away from the casino, the five or six guys, to the corporation."

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Kenny Rogers, who in the late '70s served as entrepreneur Wynn's entertainment director at Mirage Resorts' downtown property, the Golden Nugget, said that Las Vegas entertainment lost a little of its luster in the '80s, when headliners left Las Vegas because they could make phenomenal sums of money doing a few concerts at huge amphitheaters, more than in several weeks at an intimate Vegas lounge. (Big pop stars are returning to Vegas, but, with a few notable exceptions, are mostly playing in new amphitheaters, not the "rooms" of the past).

"In Las Vegas, they realized they could not afford to pay those people the kinds of prices and get the kind of people they needed to be on the cutting edge," Rogers said. "So they started making the facility the draw--each resort was a destination point."

Rogers notes with a laugh that he himself became a happy victim of this phenomenon. When he was doing double duty as entertainment director and also was the entertainment at the Golden Nugget, Rogers was forced to fire himself.

"I was performing at the Golden Nugget [in 1977] when 'Lucille' hit--in the lounge downtown," Rogers recalls. "I was making $11,000 a night working for Steve [Wynn], but could make $150,000 a night out on the road.

"He [Wynn] was really sweet, he came to me and he said that, since I was entertainment director, he needed my help getting rid of a contract that he had. I said, 'Whose?' He said, 'Yours! It's not fair that you keep performing here.' But I stayed an extra week. That's the kind of relationship he and I always had.' "

Added Rogers: "Every generation will talk about the good old days. I happen to have loved it when you had entertainers everywhere; I could get off work at 1:30 a.m. and go see Joey Bishop or Frank Sinatra at another theater, and Tony Bennett would come down and sing with our band; it was a wonderful era.

"But one day, they'll look back [at Bellagio's "O"] and say: 'God, remember when they used to have those shows with the swimming pool on the stage?'

"When there is change, you always lose warmth," Rogers says. "Change takes you toward technology."

Richard Sturm, senior vice president of worldwide entertainment for MGM Grand, has been with the hotel since 1973, and says Las Vegas shows have always tried to top one another when it comes to technological innovation.

"There were always big shows in Las Vegas that were really distinctive in the sense that I don't think a stand-alone theater could afford to produce, because of the risk factor, without a casino being attached," he says. "It's an enormous amount of money, but they are amortized over quite a few years, and yes, they do pay for themselves.

"You can go back to the old MGM--in 1974, we opened 'Hallelujah Hollywood,' and it was, technologically speaking, the show, where you had elevators moving, and all kinds of things that really hadn't been seen to that degree on a stage before," Sturm continues.

"What has happened over the years is not so much that the idea has changed, but that the technology has changed--it has allowed people to take these lavish productions to new levels. They have become computerized."

The low-tech "Chicago" at Mandalay Bay represents a different kind of innovation. The resort's Schaeffer is trumpeting its production, which opened in March, as "the first time Broadway has come West."

It's not.

In fact, "Chicago" producer Barry Weissler, recently brought "Grease" to Las Vegas, and "Phantom of the Opera," "Miss Saigon," "Cats" and others have all played in town.

And, in the 1970s, veteran producer Maynard Sloate pared Broadway productions down to 90 minutes--"Neil Simon and English bedroom farces and that sort of thing"--in order to be able to present two shows a night at theaters of 600 to 800 seats, at Las Vegas' Union Plaza and the Sahara and Hacienda resorts. What's different, offers Weissler, is Mandalay Bay's new 1,800-seat theater, in a town where entertainment once centered on smoke-filled rooms and lounges. "This is the first time a hotel has built a legitimate, proper theater on its premises. It's the first time a Broadway show and a hotel have joined together to make Broadway, and that's unique and different," Weissler says.

And, unlike simply being a tour stop for a "Chicago" road company, this "Chicago" is booked for an open-ended run that definitely extends into next year--and will probably stay on until it stops making money, with a changing cadre of stars. Marilu Henner, who recently replaced Chita Rivera in the show, departs Aug. 22.

According to producer Weissler, the Las Vegas production of "Chicago" is averaging 80% capacity in its 1,800-seat theater, and has an average weekly gross of $600,000 (including revenues from lower-priced tickets sold with hotel and convention packages). A Los Angeles production of the hit show, which opened at downtown's 2,071-seat Ahmanson Theatre in May 1998, played to 100% capacity, and grossed an average of $900,000 a week. Weissler says he is extremely happy with the Vegas box office.

"O," which has been selling out its $100 tickets weeks in advance, grosses an estimated $1.2 million per week.

"Los Angeles is a theater town," Weissler said. "A Las Vegas hotel uses the show for a totally different reason, so you really can't compare them."

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In a predictable spirit of competition, Mirage Resorts' Gallin says proudly that his company's intention to produce original shows, instead of importing Broadway productions, will create something unique to Las Vegas.

In fact, Gallin even foresees the Mirage eventually sending productions on the road from Las Vegas--though probably less elaborate and expensive versions than are offered at the resorts.

Wynn and Gallin have already hired composer Jerry Herman and director Frank Galati for the first home-grown musical, "Miss Spectacular," tentatively scheduled to open in May 2001 at a new 1,500-seat theater at the Mirage. Construction began July 5 on the addition to the Mirage that will house the theater, a convention hall, a "contemporary nightclub restaurant" and another 1,280-seat cabaret theater.

Instead of tapping a current Broadway star, Gallin plans to conduct a national search to discover a new talent to play Miss Spectacular herself. "We'll find a girl, and make her a superstar," he says.

Gallin is cagey about the budget of these shows, but confirmed it will lie somewhere between the going rate for producing a Broadway musical--$10 million to $12 million--and the astronomical budget of "O."

Meanwhile, the folks at Mandalay Bay believe that creating something completely new carries unwise financial risk. "Here, we are giving people the interesting things that are happening in American pop culture--we are not sure that we can invent all of those things," Schaeffer says. "So when someone has a hit, then we'll do that.

"I don't think any group of us here thinks of ourselves as Broadway producers, but we can certainly find partners who can."

Representatives of each of the dueling resorts, however, agree there may be limits to how "Broadway" Las Vegas can become. While Vegas audiences might accept a comedy or a musical, they would seem to be less likely to gamble away last week's paycheck after a performance of "Death of a Salesman."

"Las Vegas is a monument to pop culture," Schaeffer says. "You might not get the Bolshoi Ballet [which bombed miserably at the cavernous Aladdin Theatre in 1996], you might not get opera. Pavarotti is a crossover, a cult figure in popular culture--he's someone you have to see, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis. If you put Baryshnikov on a Las Vegas stage today, you could sell it."

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Columnist Delaney and producer Sloate are two enthusiastic Vegas veterans who see no reason why the Strip can't become a new Broadway. Delaney, however, is not so sure that imports from other entertainment centers, such as Hollywood or New York, are necessarily the best people to turn Las Vegas into a theatrical production center.

"I don't think the Sandy Gallins are the answer," he asserts. " I think we need blue-collar entertainment directors, who know Mr. and Mrs. America."

Wayne Newton, who began his Vegas career in 1959 at downtown's Fremont Hotel, complains the city will just never be the same. "It's too much of a convention town now," he says. "The second show, the midnight show is gone--that was when all of the swingers hit town and would party in the lounges until 6 a.m. Now, the conventioneers all have to get up early for a meeting."

Newton is watching the new Broadway theater frenzy with amusement. "The new thing is, we are going to have 'Broadway is Las Vegas'--be serious!" he says. "Broadway shows have always played Vegas, and always died."

As one might expect of a veteran of the old Vegas, Newton believes that the town will soon tire of Broadway musicals and high-tech productions, just as it became disenchanted with the '80s trend of making Vegas hotels into "family" theme parks ("people don't want to step over a stroller to get to a slot machine," Newton says).

The next trend, he believes, is for Vegas to come full circle with the rebirth of the triple-threat headliner: that guy who climbs off the stage, walks out in the audience and asks you where you're from--and cares.

Indeed, a number of Vegas watchers use as a case in point the soaring career of the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino's 38-year-old new "headliner" Danny Gans, an impressionist and all-around entertainer who says he was inspired by seeing Sammy Davis Jr. as a child.

"Vegas will next go back to what made it what it was," Newton says.

"It really is going to be very interesting to see where the young performers are coming from," Newton adds. "Now, when [casino theaters] look for star power, they go to television, or rock 'n' roll. Those people do not have the background of playing an intimate, 1,000-seat theater, where people are right on top of you and expect you to entertain them.

"The window of opportunity no longer exists here, where young performers could come into a lounge and there were people like me and Shecky Greene and Keely [Smith] and Dick Shawn and Buddy Hackett--I could just keep on naming them, they all came out of the lounges. You didn't even have to be good, you just had to show up a lot.

"We cut our teeth knowing what entertainment is all about." *

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